Saturday, April 21, 2012

Eau de Chien

After leaving Pineda de Mar, we wound our way over the mountainous roads at the Mediterranean edge of the Pyrénées and  across the border into France. La France!

We stopped for some McDos (and to use their free WiFi) and were nearly blown away in some gale-force winds. With full tummies and having made contact with the outside world by checking Facebook and emails, we continued our journey, leisurely skirting our way around the city of Perpignan and the town of Narbonne.

In the early afternoon we made our way through the countryside to our little Chambre d'hôte (B&B) just north of Narbonne where we made our acquaintance with the host, Serge.

We quickly worked out that we were all on a relatively equal footing - Serge couldn't understand our Kiwi-accented English, and we needed him to speak very slowly for us to understand his French. He was very patient and kind, and we appreciated his taking the time to tell us about Narbonne or about historical attractions we could visit on our next leg of the journey.

After depositing our bags in our chambre (bedroom), we drove to Narbonne to explore this historic town. The first thing we noticed was the pervading Eau de Chien (dog) that assaulted one's nostrils. The amount of dog crap on the ground was astounding, and we spent so much time watching our feet as we walked around that we felt it really detracted from what could have been a beautiful town.

The unfinished Cathedral
I am not kidding - the dog poop in France really is that bad... every few steps there was another pile. Such a disappointment and we felt it almost showed a lack of pride in one's towns to have them so filthy with animal poo. (We were amazed that the whole time in France we both managed to avoid standing in any.... A miracle!)

So as you look at these pictures of the beautiful Narbonne, be pleased that you can appreciate them without a certain cloying odour in the air.

I digress.

A 2000 year old Roman bath. Yeah, just walk on in.
2000 years is nothing to us French!

Narbonne was established in 118 BC by the Gauls and became a very important transport connection both between Italy and Spain, and between the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts of France (via Toulouse and Bordeaux). The city was prosperous for many years, and became an important centre for Jewish Culture in the 11th and 12th centuries.

By the 14th century, Narbonne's fortunes began to change, partly due to the shifting in course of the river Aude, which moved sediment and made access to the sea increasingly difficult for the former port city. These days, Narbonne sits around 15kms from the sea.

Serge's house is 160 years old and the lands around it used to be a large vineyard. While we ate petit-déjeuner (brekkie) the next morning in a big salle (room - about 3m tall) on the ground story of the house, Serge told us that the large alcoves around us used to be where le vin (wine) was stored in vats. Apparently the vineyard specialised in producing large quantities of average-quality wine, and when the trend to drinking smaller quantities of good-quality wine took precedent, this vineyard went out of business.

Much of the south-west of France is wine country, and much like Serge's house, the history of Narbonne is interlinked with its wine-growing past.
Viticulture became popular during the 18th Century, and in some areas of Languedoc (the region in which Narbonne is situated) some 50% of land was used for growing grapes. By the 1880s, numerous drinking establishments were springing up across the country, particularly in the South, where many  vineyard workers enjoyed drinking in the local bars. Because wine was in such demand, growers often turned to "unconventional methods" (such as adding currants or water) to produce the quantities of wine their greedy wallets demanded. Large wine-growing estates grew very rich, and the area became known as the (self-proclaimed) Capitale mondiale du vin (World Capital of Wine). Soon there was an outcry as "authentic" winegrowers complained about the inferior products being sold.

By 1905, "genuine" winegrowers had had enough with the producers of inferior wine, and with the authorities who had failed to regulate the viticulture industry. Two years later, the crisis had only intensified after state regulations made it easier for cheap Algerian wine to flood into Languedoc. This caused an economic crisis in the region, and wine prices dropped sharply.

To add insult to injury, The French Society of Winegrowers released a report calling for a new tax for "authentic" winegrowers who used sugar in their manufacturing process. As a result, many small winegrowers went under, there was large-scale unemployment, and other trades suffered too.

Never get between a man and his wine.

Michelle loves the pretty tiles on this house
Over the next few months, meetings, rallies, and protests took place, and over 250,000 people joined the cause.This period was known as La révolte des vignerons du Languedoc (The revolt of Languedoc winegrowers).

Eventually both the police and the military got involved, and it became quite a Big Ordeal. It wasn't until later in 1907 that Clemenceau's government finally passed legislation that would help to protect the "genuine" winegrowers. Even though the authorities tried to lessen the crisis by finding a use for the excess wine (by giving wine rations to soldiers...), Languedoc continued to suffer well into the 1960s due to overproduction and poor sales. Things only began to improve once the canal du Bas-Rhône Languedoc was constructed, which brought new irrigation to the area, and things now seem to be fully recovered, with the region providing 18% of all French wine exports in 2009.

So that is some of the history of Narbonne, and of the Languedoc region.

Staying at Serge's place was delightful: it was a beautiful old house with shutters on every window; we could hear the wind in the large trees outside our window throughout the night; we saw stars in the dark sky outside (Stars! Don't get many of those in London); I woke to a chorus of birdsong that accompanied the dawn; and we were treated to a breakfast of baguette with home-made jam, pastries, and a large bowl of coffee.


Serge informed us that squirrels often sit in the trees bordering his property and throw small pinecones at his guests. Unfortunately,  it might have been a bit cold for them as we didn't see any, and we certainly didn't get hit by any pinecones!

Nevertheless, we enjoyed hearing about the history of the area and staying in Serge's lovely maison (house) in the beautiful campagne (countryside) at the Domaine du Petit-Fidèle.

A Bientôt! (See you soon!)

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