Friday, March 20, 2015

Happy Super Celestial Events Day

Today is a special day because three celestial events occur on the same day:
1. a solar eclipse
2. a supermoon which we would not normally be able to see because it's a new moon, but will be able to because of the eclipse. Oooh!
3. the equinox

Plus it's the first day of Spring (see here to read why it's no longer March 21). And, there are going to be super high tides around the Atlantic coast of France. There's not a room to be found in the key seaside towns as people gather to watch the phenomenon.

The next time this convergence of celestial events occurs will be when we're all dead.

Pity it's raining in Montpellier and we'll miss the main event.

Still, teachers will be happy. They won't have to worry about elfansafety, keeping their little charges intent on self-destruction by looking at the eclipse, as there'll be nothing to see.


Here is a video the Mont Saint Michel as an island again. It looks fantastic!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Walks in Hérault: Hermitage de Notre-Dame-de-Monnier

I think most of with gardens were out in them last weekend. I know I was. I was tidying up the patio with my youngest (responsible for most of the mess) and took two car loads of rubbish to the tip! Behind the house now looks less like a squatters' encampment and more like a garden. I even ate my lunch outside on Monday, in the sun, at the table which had been cleaned. It was a tiger mosquito-free event too; they obviously have not got themselves together yet.

On Sunday afternoon, my DB and I drove up towards St-Bauzille-de-Putois and turned off to drive to Montoulieu which is dominated by its own ruined castle, called the Castellas. In 1626, Cardinal Richelieu wanted to calm the local noblemen, and had the castle dismantled. Apparently it was still a place of shelter until it was burned down with its owner, de Montoulieu, looking on in 1703 by Montrevel who was in command of the royal troops in Languedoc. He was irritated with the family for supporting the Camisards. The Cevennes was a hotbed of religious revolt against the Catholic Church at that time which didn't go down well at all.

We didn't in fact stop in Montoulieu (more on its history here), but turned right towards the hamlet of La Vielle where you can park on the tiny central square and follow the directions on the signpost.
We ended up walking 6.8km, about 10,000 steps :)
Just outside the hamlet we came across a home-made catamaran. Not what we were expecting to see in the middle of the arid garrigue!
Seen along the way - home-made catamaran
The path is accessible to all, but anything with wheels (prams, wheelchairs, bikes) would have to be robustly built.
View towards the Cevennes
It's a steady climb through the bois de Monnier to the hermitage, with views that get wider and farther the higher you go.

Wild violets
We saw a fair number of little blue flowers. After consulting with my botanical advisor, MM, I've found out they're violets. Very pretty, but the only thing I took was a photo.

Chapel Notre-Dame-de-Monnier
We arrived at the chapel Notre-Dame-de-Monnier, protectrice du village de Pompignan (in the Gard) which has been restored, and where you can see the graves of the last Franciscan monks by the hermitage nestling in the wood. The chapel was dry-stone built in the sixteenth century. It's set in peaceful grounds which are shady enough for a picnic.

Peaceful, that is, until a small van lurches up the track in a haze of diesel fumes spilling out the five people and two dogs crammed inside with loud exclamations. Oh, how lovely, it's a group of the colourful and quaint people so beloved of bobos from afar - gitans. Why they couldn't park their car at the bottom and walk up the hill like the rest of us, I don't know. The track is of course forbidden to unauthorised vehicles, but I expect they thought such instructions didn't apply to them.

Inside the chapel Notre-Dame-de-Monnier
We followed them inside the chapel (just in case) and admired the charming interior where there were vases of fresh flowers. Were they there in celebration of International Women's Day? It felt rather crowed inside, so we went out and started on our way back down. We were, naturally, overtaken a bit later by the van with its three passengers and dogs illegally huddled in the seat-free boot, and tried to waft away the disgusting diesel exhaust fumes that they left behind.

Seen along the way - movable look-out post for hunters?
Seen along the way was a look-out post. When my DB tried to climb up it, he saw very quickly that it wasn't fixed to the earth as it nearly toppled him into the bushes behind. Deducting that it was there temporarily, we wondered who used it.

We also saw evidence of wild boars but no actual animals (thank goodness). When we set out, we expected to be practically the only ones on the path, but just because it was new to us, didn't mean it was unknown to others, and we saw a dozen or so walkers (not including the gitans who weren't walking) in total. It was a beautiful day to be outside and enjoying the sunshine and early Spring warmth.
View across to the Cevennes. You can zoom in on the Castellas in the middle.
We had enough water, but I was pleased to see that drinking water is available back down in the hamlet.

Drinking water on tap in La Vielle
As we drove back the few hundred metres to Montoulieu, we stopped to take a photo of this dramatic wild boar activity. This is where they must have slept. They obviously like digging a cosy hole for the night. Lucky they decided not to sleep in the vineyard behind!

Wild boars slept here
Instead of turning left towards Montpellier, we turned right at the junction of Montoulieu to take a detour home up into the Cevennes via Sumène. We crossed the main D999 road and were surprised to find a tiny road which went through a tiny but dramatic little gorge, like a mini version of the one near St-Guilhem-le-Desert. I couldn't stop and take pictures because the road wasn't wide enough but we'll have to go back on the motorbike, and I'll take some then.

The narrow road continued on upwards with hairpin bend after hairpin bend. We didn't stop at the Prieuré de St Martin de Cézas although it looked very interesting, and at the top, 700m altitude, we found the dinky hamlet of Cézas, absolutely miles from anywhere. As we slowly passed a bloke on a tiny tractor chatting to another man and his dog, I spied a signpost indicating some public footpaths which looked promising.
Hamlet of Cézas
There were some fantastic views from up there, and we'll have to go back to walk through the forest of oak, pine, chestnut and cedar trees. Can't wait!

Extra Information
The pdf of the hermitage walk in its different versions is here.
Walks in the Cevennes here.
Someone else has been there too (with pics) here.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Not-so-PBV: Mosset-du-Merde

Our weekend in the PO ended with a visit to Plus Beau Village Mosset. We left Thuir, and the Byrrh factory in a happy state thanks to the generous dégustation, signed out of the hotel, and went in search of a sandwich for lunch. There was nothing in Thuir that looked appetising, so we got in the car and hoped to find something along the way.

Thankfully, we did, in an award-winning boulangerie no less, located on a roundabout at Ille-sur-Têt next to an old convent, and called Le Couvent, that was also a chambre d'hote. They had no sandwiches this early in the year, but did have some mini quiches, so we got four and some bread.

The weather was cold and menacing and not ideal for a picnic, but we got to Mosset, found a spot with a view and sat in the car eating our lunch with spots of rain dotting the windscreen. Nothing new there for a Brit, obviously... The quiches were very good and the bread lived up to our expectations.
PBV Mosset - good thing it was winter so the tree was leafless!
Mosset looked okay from a distance, but it didn't look quite so charming close up. Maybe it looks better in the sun, but it just looked a bit miserable and down at heel in the gloomy winter light.

There was also a lot of dog poo about. Tons of it. No one had been clearing it up for some time, so one had to keep one's eyes down in order to avoid a nasty surprise.

Mosset's museum la Tour des Parfums
This probably meant that we couldn't properly appreciate the cultural heritage of the Catalan village, with its 'rich architectural patrimony' (so says the PBV site).

House of no particular interest except for the very low front door. Compare with neighbour's.
It was too cold to hang about and poo-hop, so we called it a day and took to the road. The way back to the main road takes you through a spa village called Les Thermes in the commune of Moltig-les-Bains. It's set dramatically in a gorge with some stunning views. This building is Le Grand Hotel, a three star establishment with rooms starting at 95Eur (quand même!).

Le Grand Hotel
There's nothing to do else for 15km in either direction (of mountain route), so when you go there, I reckon you'd have to be serious about using all the spa facilities! Still, for a few days of peace, it must be lovely.

It was pretty windy on the autoroute. We stopped to use the facilities in one place and I was quite taken with these poor trees:

Wonder which way the wind blows here... Sea on the right.
It was a weekend plein les yeux of beautiful (or so) villages, industrial splendour, and stunning scenery. The PO is a region that is definitely worth visiting.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

A Cerfa for Medicinal Side Effects

You live in France. You take medicine. You suffer from side effects and your doctor isn't listening. You can do something about it. Yes, you can! There is a form, but not an app, for that.

Oh happy France that loves its administration so much that there are 710 forms to declare just about anything:
  • asking for a medal of honour for work (11796*01 Demande de médaille d'honneur du travail); 
  • a declaration about your spouse (11355*08 Declaration concernant le conjoint) - "She can make a proper cup of coffee made in a proper copper coffee pot", "He sells sea shells on the sea shore"; 
  • a request for spa treatment (14415*03 Demande de cure thermale);
  • an individual statement of activity time (13704*03 Relevé individuel de temps d'activité) - "Got up, went to the loo, had breakfast, had a shower, fed the cat...".

There's no end to the fun you can have with a Cerfa.

Cerfa 15301 to declare side effects from medicine
As no one knows about this form, only 8000 people a year declare they've had side effects. There's another form for doctors to use (10011*04) but they don't seem to know about it either as only 13% of declarations come from them despite the fact that they are responsible for most prescriptions. Most come from hospitals, with 84%, as 128,000 people are hospitalised each year after taking their medicine! Funny how the pharmaceutical companies don't add a little remark in the notice about ways to declare side effects...

So, if you've had the flu vaccine and felt funny afterwards, if you've been taking pills and have come out in a nasty itchy rash, or something worse, don't suffer in silence thinking it'll pass. Get onto your computer, download the form, fill it in and send it off. You'll be doing us all a big favour!

Monday, March 02, 2015

An Inspiring Day of Yoga and Medicinal Plants

I have an image of your typical yogi in a perfect state of yoginess - an old bearded geezer sitting cross-legged, wearing a few bits of material, with his eyes shut. Like this in fact (although this one's not so old):

Yogi Bhajan
What possible yoga relationship could he have to someone like me? Or anyone in the real world? Can you imagine your next door neighbour sitting in his front garden doing this all day? How would he eat, work, deal with the tax man, social security, power cuts, the washing, kids being sick etc. etc.?

So it was with interest that I went along to St Martin de Londres, to their little cinema (with very comfy seats) to listen to a talk given by one of the founders of the Institut Français de Yoga, François Lorin (b. 1941).
François Lorin
Big difference!

He talked for an hour about yoga, and why doing it is such a good idea. If I remember rightly (but don't quote me), the essence of yoga is that it unites the physical body with the mental. We have a tendency to think that our hands, for example, have nothing to do with our psyche. In yoga, you accept that your whole being is in close association - a oneness of mind and body.

The ultimate aim of yoga is to banish perturbing thoughts which have such a negative effect on our mental well-being. Both of these aims can be achieved by doing the postures, meditating, and learning how to breathe. When you concentrate on a movement, you are not letting those nasty, destructive little thoughts perturb you. There's a description of Ashtanga Yoga here.

I forgot to ask if François has got to the stage where he has an absence of perturbing thoughts, but I did ask if being a yogi is compatible with everyday life, and he said it was. Not that I have such lofty aspirations, but I've always wondered how they cope with the stuff the rest of us have to suffer. François told me the story of Patanjali (300BC) (who compiled the yoga sutras, one of the classical yoga philosophy texts), who would run around after his son in order to get him to study. So he obviously didn't spend all day looking like this:
It was a fascinating morning, and my enthusiasm for yoga went up considerably. I even have a mat now, and try to do some postures every day.

My yoga group was at the conference too, and whilst speaking to another of the women, I learned that she was going to a talk on medicinal plants that afternoon. Oooh! As my DB was sick in bed, I had all the free time in the world, so decided it was just the thing for me and to go along too.

The talk took place in Clapiers' mediatèque and was given by Montpellier's Dr Laurent Chevallier who is a nutritionist, herbalist, botanist, and fervent believer in the healing power of plants. It was another absolutely fascinating talk from a man who is often on the radio, and thus totally at home before an audience.

Dr Laurent Chevallier - doesn't he look a sweetie?
I took notes, but I think he's bringing out a book soon on the subject. Here are the essentials:
1. To help sleep: take Elusanes Passiflore, available in pharmacies. Also aubépine (hawthorn) which relieves stress and is good for the heart.
2. If you're on statins, you'll need chardon marie (thistle) to help boost your liver.
3. Depression: if you've got the blues, take capsules of valériane, and/or millepertuis (St John's Wort).
4. Cellulite: take reine des près (meadowsweet); also for squeaky joints (I'll remember this one).
5. Immunity: to ward off colds and flu, take échinacée (echinacea), cassis (blackcurrant), and églantier (eglantine). I took propolis this year and have not gone down with the flu 'epidemic' that's swept across the whole country this winter. Fingers crossed...

Someone asked why there is no herbalist diploma in France because there is increasing interest in herbal medicine. Dr Chevallier told us that he was part of a group that wrote the material for a herbalist diploma, but that the whole thing has been shelved indefinitely. Why? Because the government doesn't want to open up a 'new' branch of medicine. After all the trouble they've had with osteopathes, they have decided not to provoke any more by developing an official herbalist medicine. This means that practitioners can tell you what to take, but they are not supposed to write it down, and, of course, the items won't be reimbursed.

Yet another potential job creating sector is squashed, something this government excels at!

NB Of course, if you're already on medication, you should always check with your doctor before taking herbal remedies.

Yoga can help work miraculous results:

NEVER ,EVER GIVE UP! Arthur's Boorman inspirational Transformation!! A must see story everyone should watch!Video credit to DDP Yoga
Posted by Frank Medrano on Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Sunday, March 01, 2015

One-Hundred Word Challenge - The Stone Settee

Every week in term time, I write reviews for the kids who participate in the 100 Word Challenge. 100WC is a weekly challenge for schoolchildren under 16. I've read some excellent stories as well as many good tries, and a few half-hearted efforts. There have been lots of zombies, dreams, and video-game-inspired action as well as truly original creative gems of writing.

Sometimes, I'm inspired to write something myself. Of course, I can't join in the 100WC, but I do have a blog, so here is my effort for last week's prompt.

Week #23 prompt for 100WC
No one in the park sat on the stone settee with a cat. There was something eerie about it. Only the sculptor knew why. His wife had disappeared just before the commissioned settee had been installed in its spot. A curious policeman was told it was solid stonework. It was, almost. She was put on the Missing Person’s list. The wife’s not-so-secret lover never got over her disappearance. The sculptor feigned distress, but went on to marry again, and have the children his first wife never wanted. He got rid of the wife’s mean old cat too. Happy at last...
* * *

We always need new reviewers for the kids, so if you'd like to join in, let me know and I'll pass on your details to the organiser.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Byrrh ou ordinaire*

Have you ever driven along the nationale roads of France profonde and seen faded adverts painted on the sides of buildings? They represent a France seemingly long gone although they date only as far back as the twentieth century, and trace the development of both motor vehicles and the French economy. A part of French patrimony, they are frequently at peril from the destructive improvements of the twenty-first century.

One of the most iconic of French wall-painted adverts is for Byrrh.

Stéphane Schweig
Have you ever tried this aperitif? Do you know that it's still being made? In the same place? In Thuir? We decided to devote Sunday morning to a visit of the Byrrh factory.

It was absolutely fascinating. The tour takes you round the old parts of the factory which are no longer in use, except for some of the large old casks which are rented out by the Tourist Office to companies such as Dubonnet.

The drink was originally created in 1873 by the Violet brothers who took advantage of the growth in wine production to set up shop in Thuir. They were drapers, but developed a tonic that contained quinine and tried to sell it as medicine. The pharmacists of Montpellier took a very dim view of these upstarts trying to get a foothold in their lucrative tonic business, and threatened them with lawsuits galore.

They decided it was a battle they couldn't win, so reduced the amount of quinine in the tonic and made it into an aperitif instead. What marks them out from the competition at the time is the way they developed the business until Byrrh was being sold all over the world. One of the ways they marketed the drink was to hold a competition to paint an advert for Byrrh in 1903. Over nineteen hundred artists took part! There was an exhibition of some of the designs, in that lovely Art Deco style of the time.

One of the entries that didn't win. Love the louche sensuality.
We also saw how avant garde the brothers were regarding their employees. They had women in the workforce, including one in management, and set up a pension scheme, and paid leave.

The almost highlight of the visit was seeing the largest oak cask in the world - 12 metres in diameter, 10 metres high, weighing 17 tonnes, and holding over a million litres. It was designed to better the previous record winner which was a German cask that only held 900K or so litres.

There was even a little railway station for deliveries designed and built by no less than Eiffel himself. I could just imagine the little trains rattling in carrying the precious spices used to give the drink its distinctive flavour (orange peel, cocoa beans, elderflower, coffee beans, camomile, etc.), and out again with cases of the finished product to be sent all over the world.

Unfortunately, the drink fell out of fashion after WWII, and in 1977, the company was bought by Cusenier, and later became part of groupe Pernod-Ricard.

I had never tried it before, but at the end of the visit was a tasting - the highlight - and I got my chance. We tried the original aperitif

as well as the less powerful version (17°)

and the version 'rares assemblages' which was similar to port.
Our favourite was the Grand Quinquina, the original tonic, and very lively it is too, so my DB bought a bottle. I'm hoping that Byrrh will make a come-back, as have done sherry and cider.

Visiting the factory was definitely worth it. The tour was well done, with lively presentations, and an interesting guide; the story was worth telling, and the dégustation a delicious way to end. If you get the chance, do go along and take the tour.

*the title is a play on words from the advert for butter (as opposed to margarine) "Beurre ou ordinaire":