Letter from the Languedoc

by Edith Cody-Rice 

Several hundred hot, dusty, ochre tinted kilometers west of Peter Mayle’s Provence lies the heart of the Languedoc, an old province of France, which is now contained in the region of the Occitanie. This is the land of Jean de Floret and Manon des Sources, with lowlands bordering the Mediterranean coast and rugged stony mountains in the upper part. It is here that I traveled with my friend Keith Spicer to establish ourselves for 10 days in the town of Pezenas in the Bas Languedoc, an hour by car west of the city of Montpellier. We caught the TGV from the legendary Gare de Lyon and rented a car to reach our hotel, Le Grand Hotel Molière, a grandiose moniker for a relatively modest, but comfortable establishment.

The Legendary Gare de Lyon
Le Grand Hotel Molière, our home for the duration

Pezenas is a charming, golden town, about the size of Almonte, with a gently sloping old quarter which is protected under French law. It does attract its share of tourists – a number of prominent Canadians own homes there, but it is not overwhelmed even during the high season when we were there (last week of August and first of September).

An entrance to the old quarter of Pezenas

The old province of Languedoc was ruled from Pezenas. In fact the Duc de Montmorency was so powerful he was able to challenge the authority of the king of France, a rebellion for which he was beheaded. His successor, the Prince de Condi, was a protector of the playwright Molière and in the mid seventeenth century Molière brought his acting troupe to Pezenas to play several times before the nobles in a local courtyard. Molière is now Pezenas’ key claim to fame and the location of the barber shop in front of which he used to sit to listen to the accents of local passersby, is proudly marked by a placard.

Molière’s barber shop

The connection is a tourist attraction and we attended a mediocre but fun outdoor performance of Les Précieuses ridicules which is offered to tourists, both French and foreign. A lively discussion among patrons ensued about what happened when Molière died while playing the invalid in Le malade imaginaire. A consensus emerged that of course the curtain was lowered out of respect. In fact, a little post performance research confirmed that Molière did not die onstage but succumbed some hours after the end of the performance.

Local actors bow at the end of their play

A second pride of Pezenas is the local delicacy Paté de Pezenas, a sweet/savoury concoction of lamb and spices enclosed in a tiny pastry case. Legend has it that Clive of India came to Montpellier, to this day a famous medical centre, for treatment about 1770. His Indian cook concocted this dish copying the Scottish custom of the day. It was so delicious that local families begged for the recipe which Clive graciously allowed his cook to award  to some favoured few. A descendant of one of  these families subsequently commercialized the recipe and today it is ubiquitous in Pezenas. It tastes oddly like plum pudding.

A local boulangerie advertising the Paté de Pezenas

Pezenas is a wonderful locale for visiting Languedoc. The Languedoc is Provence without the lavender but with many many vineyards. It is warm, temperature over 40 degrees centigrade this summer, but in the last week of August, it had cooled to a more comfortable 28-30 degrees. The Bas Languedoc roughly borders the Mediterranean and is modern, full of beaches and resorts and super highways. The Haut Languedoc is mountainous, with winding two lane roads and rocky outcrops. Either way, the scenery is stunning.

From Pezenas we drove along the excellent super toll highway to Narbonne,  a city of some 52,000, bordering the Canal du Midi. Narbonne was established by the Gauls but the Romans made it the administrative centre of Gaul. Julius Caesar settled veterans from his 10th Legion there and attempted to develop its port while Marseille was supporting Pompey.  Narbonne’s rosemary flavoured honey was popular among the Romans. The key Roman activity from a modern point of view was the planting of acres and acres of vineyards which exist to this day and are the basis for much of the wine production in this region.We particularly admired the wines of Lézignan- Corbieres,an area between Narbonne and Carcassone. Some are available from the LCBO.

Narbonne, golden like the rest of Languedoc, boasts a spectacular cathedral and bishop’s palace as the city was It was the seat of the Archbishop of Narbonne until 1801. 

The nave of Narbonne Cathedral
Ornate lighting in Narbonne Cathedral

From Narbonne, it is a relatively short hop to Carcasonne, a magical walled town on a high hill (the main modern town is at the bottom of the hill, the ancient  la Cité at the top). Established in neolithic times, its strategic importance was quickly recognized by the Romans, who occupied its hilltop until the demise of the Western Roman Empire. In the fifth century, it was taken over by the Visigoths, who founded the city.

Carcassonne is the largest walled city in Europe and indeed an impressive, one might say impregnable, fortress.  It features thick double walls and a wide moat to counter medieval siege engines. It fell into ruin until it was restored, in 1859, by Viollet- le-duc, the great restorer of French medieval structures under Napoleon III. The restoration included the famous “witches’ hats” on the towers which give pictures of the fortress their fairy tale quality. Carcassonne became the best example of medieval military architecture in France, and is now an important tourist attraction.

Carcasonne with an artistic and modern addition of yellow stripes (why, who knows?)

Medieval Carcasonne and its surroundings was the home of the Cathars, a Christian religious sect which was opposed by Pope Innocent III as being unChristian. In 1209, the Pope declared the Albigensian Crusade, a 20 year effort to destroty the Cathars which it effectively did. The Pope’s troops were efficient and brutal. In 1209 they laid siege to the Languedoc city of Beziers. Realizing that there were Catholics among the inhabitants, Papal soldiers asked the local bishop how they should distinguish the Cathars for execution. “Kill them all”, replied the cleric, ” for the Lord knoweth them that are His”. 23,000 inhabitants were murdered that day.

We sampled the signature dish of Carcassone, the cassoulet, a stew of white beans, goose, duck and sausage, (the recipe varies and there is much competition between towns and regions as to which is the best) which is known throughout the world today. Tradition has it that during the Hundred Years War the citizens of the nearby community  of Castelnaudary, which was under siege by the British, gathered up all the ingredients they could find to make a large stew to nourish and bolster their defenders. The meal was so hearty and fortifying that the soldiers handily dispelled the invaders, saving the city from occupation.

Keith and Edith toast La Cité of Carcasonne from the posh Hotel de la Cité within the walls of the old fortress.

The Languedoc holds many other treasures – mountain villages with winding approaches, abbeys and sites of pilgrimage. It was influenced by Spain, rather than by Italy, as is the case in Provence and the region, known as Languedoc-Rousillon, includes the former Spanish town of Perpignan. We could not visit all but did manage two religious sites: St-Guilhem-le-Désert and Valmagne Abbey.

Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert rests high in the Haut Languedoc and is a site to which tourists now flock. It has been declared one of the “plus beaux villages de France” and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritages site  but, we discovered, most of its  truly valuable artifacts have come to rest far away in the Cloisters Museum in New York, spirited away by collectors who donated their acquisitions to that institution.

The  Abbey of  Valmagne in the Bas Languedoc was founded in 1198 by the Benedictines. Largely deserted after it was struck by the plague in 1348,  its decline was compounded during the Hundred Years’ War when Valmagne suffered attacks and looting by passing mercenaries By the eighteenth century, only a tiny community remained and during the French Revolution the abbey was sacked again and furniture, paintings and archives were burned. In 1790, the last three monks left Valmagne taking the few remaining valuable items and the abbey was confiscated. It was sold in 1791 to Monsieur Granier-Joyeuse who converted the church into a wine cave, installing large barrels in the apse and side chapels of the church.  The abbey today is privately owned and is open to visits. We were lucky to be given a private tour by a vivacious young woman, who, on hearing that Keith is a writer, offered to usher us about (it was a slow day).

Valmagne Abbey with the wine casks to the left and right of the main church. Each cask holds 1,000 bottles of wine. The nave is in the distance. The abbey is now hosts  conferences and concerts.
Edith and Keith relax in a hearth in Valmagne Abbey.

But the real gem of the visit was Pezenas itself. Each morning I would venture out to buy the newspapers at the local Maison de Presse. And each day I passed a tight little group of regulars who gathered about 8 am for morning coffee to exchange local news. They were amused when I asked to take their picture. They were absolutely typique and reminded me of our local worthies who gather at the Superior restaurant.

And the Saturday market was a joyous explosion of colour – local produce, clothing, artisanat, all crowded the streets of the old town. That will be my lasting memory of Pezenas, that and the local wine Picpoul de Pinet and the Paté de Pezenas.

Local tomatoes at the Pezenas market
Saturday market on the streets of the old town of Pezenas
Picpoul de Pinet and Paté de Pezenas