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A Working Holiday
Chapter 1: We Leave for France
Chapter 10: Looking for Mr. Goodstone
Chapter 11: A mission to la Clape
Chapter 12: Dinner at Château de Lignan
Chapter 13: Antiques and plunder
Chapter 14: The vintner next door
Chapter 15: The rooftops of Nézignan-l'Évêque
Chapter 2: Comes the crusade
Chapter 3: The 13 colonies
Chapter 4: Our curtains are dreadful
Chapter 5: Naked beaches
Chapter 6: A visit to Château des Estanilles
Chapter 7: A pilgrimage to Toulouse
Chapter 8: Remembering Collioure
Chapter 9: The priest and the mayor
Languedoc Roussillon
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A Working Holiday
Chapter 3: The 13 colonies
Our front yard: the rue du Portail in Valros...
"The Albigensian Crusades slash through the history of France and of the Church like a gaping wound," wrote the late Joseph R. Strayer. I'm reading his preface. "From 1208 to 1226 the papacy sent army after army to the South of France to crush the Albigensian heretics and to punish their supporters," the author opens his classic study, The Albigensian Crusades, published in 1971. The book remarks, "Successful wars, however, usually have unexpected consequences, and the Albigensian Crusades were no exception to this rule. [The annexation of the South by the North] made France [for the first time] a Mediterranean power and...for the next five centuries the most powerful, the wealthiest, and the most populous state in Europe."   Simone and I are sitting in the living room, resting from a mildly busy day, flying in from the US, then grocery shopping. We've gone to the Champion supermarket in Pézenas; it's smaller but closer. It has little palm trees in the parking lot. There's a wine aisle, arranged by regions in France. Nothing I recognize. I buy one of the more expensive bottles: Chateau Roquebrun St. Chinian 1996. Eight bucks. It's a food wine, I discover in the evening. No finesse for sipping. The French taste in wines is too hard for my California-cozened palate.    I've come up with an itinerary for tomorrow. Day trip #1. Two destinations, both wineries, one on the road to St-Guilhem-le-Désert, one on the shore of Lac du Salagou.
A room with a view...of undershirts. A neighbor's laundry dries near the church in Valros.


Next morning, we're awakened by a fly that wants to get out. I ignore it. It circles and bounces off things. Heads off down the hallway, still dark, though the sun's up. The bread baker next door is doing business. Townsfolk pass in the street below. Whistling. Talking. Greetings exchanged, loud and clear as a cup rattling on a saucer.    The fly lands on my nose. I brush it off. It returns. Like a demanding pet. Fine, okay. I unlatch the tall, arched windows, and glide them open. Opening like angel's wings. I stand there undressed, checking the weather; no one can see me from the street. Off the fly goes. It sketches an S into a gray sky with shreds of blue. Petulant. There's rain coming. Maybe not today.   Simone and I relax in bed. Then we get up for our first walk-run. Since we're never more than half in shape, we walk most of the way to the neighboring town, Mont Blanc, and jog occasionally. That's the walk-run. The town is maybe a mile away, downslope. In the basin of the Thongue, a disreputable trickle hugged by flood plains.

We take a stroll up Mont Blanc's steep streets and around the town center, noting the services: a small grocer, a florist, a couple of bigger bakeries, a good pastry shop, even a pharmacy, and a newsstand. It's good to know what else is around. Valros has very little in the way of services. A bar with no fixed schedule. One semi-patisserie. And a butcher/convenience store. We do have a good restaurant, closed Wednesdays.
There's a road crew working on the bridge over the Thongue. We greet them coming and going. The river bed is almost dry. The Thongue's not much most of the year. It drains a few low mountain valleys then wanders across the Bas Languedoc plain, planted edge to edge with vineyards and towns like Valros and Mont Blanc. The towns appear every few miles. Even the Michelin guide admits the plain is a "slightly monotonous landscape."    But it's October, and surprising beauty spreads across the crumbly, bleached buckskin soil: the vineyards are turning color. Different varieties of grape are gold or red; still green, green black; or shriveled brown. On the lower branches, bunches of unplucked grapes deflate. It's hunting season for game birds. Men with shotguns roam the fields. When you want a snack, you step off the road and snap off some unharvested grapes. The upper bunches go for wine. But a lot of low-hanging fruit is left. I polish the field-dust off, against my shirt. The grapes are delicious: sweet, a little thick, with seeds.
Bless this vineyard: field crosses abound.


Simone is driving. I'm the navigator.    A role reversal. Ordinarily I drive, and she follows the map. Today's experiment is a bid for fresh harmony in our travels.   When I drive we argue. I'm not naming names. I will say, merely as an observation, that if making mistakes upsets you, if that is your nature, if you cannot face being wrong, if it embarrasses you so much that you turn on your friends and loved ones, then directing people through a foreign landscape has pitfalls. Again: I am not naming names.   Today, though, I've got the map, she's got the wheel.    And Simone drives like she was born here, which her father was. She's doing very French things with this overwide Fiat we've rented. Including one breathtaking moment as she makes a U-turn when the wheels on my side are hanging an inch over the edge of a three-foot-deep concrete storm ditch. You can breathe now.   We're headed for Montpeyroux, with a side trip up to St-Guilhem-le-Désert, and a swing back through the Lac du Salagou region. We're looking first for the Domaine d'Auphilhac, then for the Mas des Chimères. Both make red Coteaux du Languedoc recommended by Fodor's Wines and Vineyards of Character and Charm in France. Subtitled "The guide the French use."

Michelin map #240: your trusted companion for this piece of France.
St-Guilhem is extremely cute and pleasant, on a good day, with artisans selling leather, handmade soaps, and wood carvings, hidden in the narrow, stone, unmodernized lanes around the 11th-century abbey church, a superb example of Romanesque architecture. Some of its cloisters remain; the rest found their way to New York's Cloisters Museum.    The square outside the church is ringed by shops. Under a truly giant tree, flocks of cafe tables await, with rapid-fire service and a selection of crepes. A plane tree, or a sycamore (acer pseudoplantanus). Its trunk is as bulky as an elephant. It has mottled peeling bark. The tree is taller than the apartment buildings around it, and throws a tarp of deep shade across them.   Guilhem - a conquering warrior turned hermit, and close friend of Charlemagne - chose this spot to found a monastery around 805. Packed tightly into a mountain ravine, St-Guilhem-le-Désert has 200 residents.

What is really remarkable is the gorge on which St-Guilhem perches. Here the Hérault piles down through deep, sculpted pistachio limestone, bearing bright distant kayakers on its transparent turquoise flood. The road runs high along the sheer walls. A staggeringly dramatic little ride, that begins by climbing out of the valley and crossing a soaring steel bridge, like an aircraft carrier's flight deck poised in space; the old bridge is still there, too, the Pont du Diable, built by Benedictine monks in the 11th century. Just after the bridge you pass the Grotte de Clamouse, a cavern that Michelin rates a two-star ("worth a detour") attraction. Bring a sweater: the galleries run a cool 62.5°F.
Today, though, St-Guilhem is a bridge too far. We run into trouble in Gignac. The road we want is blocked by construction. Actually, the road's gone. Completely dug up, down to the dirt. We reluctantly take the detour. It darts through alleys and people's back yards.   Eventually we find our way out of town. We cross the Hérault on a serenely handsome one-lane concrete bridge. The Hérault is blessed by beautiful bridges. Coming into Gignac, the N109 crosses the river on what Michelin calls "the finest 18C bridge in France because of its daring design and the beauty of its architectural lines." Maybe certain rivers inspire good bridges. The Hérault is magnificent for much of its length. It begins in a sheep pass and serves as a gutter for the Aigoual massif, an immense 5,093-foot peak where cold Atlantic clouds get a warm Mediterranean welcome, and more than 7 feet of rain falls in a typical year.

The crenellated walls of le chateau du Castelles brighten the
storage tanks at the wine cooperative in Montpeyroux.


The vendange - the grape harvest - has a week or two left. Around the cave cooperative - the community winery - tractors pulling loaded wagons take precedence. We wait, staring across a valley toward a massive fortification, unnoted on the map. The town square is torn up, again to the dirt, so we detour. We have a street address for Domaine d'Auphilhac. But you can't get there from here. Route barreé. We decide on a little hike and drive the short distance to le Barry, a small quarter on a dead-end street behind Montpeyroux. There is parking for the castle.   The crenellated curtain wall is huge. It looks like something out of storybook on the crusades. We walk up and up, out of the village onto a dirt cart track and up the stone hill. A sign on the ruin provides a name, le chateau du Castelles. We enter through the main gate, climb over scrubby stone. The sun is hot. The wind blows hard, sweeping through a grove of dark umbrella pines. Lizards flick across boulders. Garrigues country: dry, sun-blasted, herb-scented.   We make another attempt to find Domaine d'Auphilhac. We pull up next to a man leaving the boules court. He doesn't know the street we're looking for, but he goes into a shop and asks. We get directions. Another detour. Finally, we find it. Locked up tight. The street deserted. Leaves tumbling down it, on their way to the coast.

Looking north from Valros, autumn vineyards stretch toward the gentle foothills of the Faugères.
On our way out, we stop at the Cave de Montpeyroux, a wineshop selling the local product. To the young woman behind the counter, Simone explains that I don't speak French, and which wine I am interested in, the red with the medal. "D'accord." The woman pours herself a splash. Sniffs it, sips it. Fires the shot back and forth, flooding her tongue; first one flawless cheek inflates, then the other. And spits the mouthful into the steel sink. Satisfied, she pours me a glass.    Simone adds that we are fixing a house near Pézenas, that we come from Etats-Unis. Simone strikes up as many conversations as she can, keeping her French in good working order. When I hear Etats-Unis, I know she's gotten to the part about our country of origin. "We live in Rhode Island," Simone says in French. "Between Boston and New York." Usually the listener nods pleasantly at this point: two easily recognizable cities.   "Rhode Island," the saleswoman glares at me and states in English. "One of the thirteen original colonies, and the tenth to ratify the Constitution."    She knows quite a bit about America. She's been there, to California; she was shocked by the high price of brie in Napa Valley. Next she's saving for a trip to Argentina, if the Euro ever strengthens. The Euro's in the basement, and it's dragging other continental currencies down. The French franc is trading for an outrageous 7.5 to the dollar; we've never done better than 6 to the dollar in the past 10 years. With this exchange rate, Americans get an immediate 20% discount on everything they buy.   In English, I congratulate her knowledge of US history. I tell her that very few students in the US can name the thirteen original colonies. She tosses the compliment away smugly. "You know, Americans don't think the French like them," she barks suddenly. "Not true!" I paste a smile on. We buy a case. (When we get back to the States, we check her facts. Rhode Island is actually the thirteenth colony to ratify the Constitution; it held out longest, hoping to become an independent nation.)

It's past 4 pm. Simone and I decide to call it quits. Forget St-Guilhem and Lac du Salagou. Travel is a series of course corrections. You want to go somewhere, but then you go somewhere else.
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