Monday, February 28, 2011

TGO - le Minervois

Last week, a bunch of members of the Languedoc-Roussillon group of Survive France Network met in a bar in Montpellier. Judging by the level of noise, it was a highly successful and jolly evening. From it, I heard about What's on Where in Hérault from Robin Hicks and was able to discover, thanks to the site, the Festival de la Bigarade at La Caunette.

What is a bigarade? I hear you cry, and where the hell is La Caunette? The bigarade is a bitter (Seville) orange (Citrus aurantium), the one used to make marmalade, and La Caunette is a bit east of Minerve with no other known claim to fame (as far as I can see). The weather forecast was promising - sunny and slightly overcast, quite mild with a bit of wind. With a rare boy-free weekend in view, it was the ideal opportunity to pack the bike and head off into the Minervois.

We went via Clermont l'Hérault and yukky Bedarieux where we had a quick MacDo to warm up - it wasn't quite as mild as that... at which point the sky got less sunny and distinctly wetter. Donning our wet gear, we continued on to St Pons de Thomières and then went south towards Minerve. Headed for La Caumette, we passed Minerve and came to the little village perched on the hillside off the main road.

The fête was going on in a field at the other end of the village, so we drove through, noting people staggering back laden with bags and plants, and parked right opposite the entrance (it's handy being on a bike!). The village was not distinctive in any way, but the bitter orange fair was in its 9th year and people come from far and wide to attend. For some reason it's impossible to get hold of bitter oranges in shops so people have make an annual pilgrimage to bland little La Caumette to stock up. We paid €3 each to get in, wandered round taking in the various plants, and then joined the short queue to buy a pound of oranges. The woman in front was getting 4kg (€12) but she was obviously not on a motorbike.

Outside the grounds, we took stock of the map to decide where to go next. A weather-beaten group of fellow bikers were wandering around and, like with dogs, if you're a bike person you talk to anyone with a bike, so they came and expressed their admiration and asked us if we needed help. We discussed itineraries and they advised we try the Gorges de la Clamoux. This seemed a good idea, but it was now 4.30pm and we needed to find somewhere to stay.

As we drove around the area, we kept coming across this group who must have been bar-hopping as they were always off their bikes and with a glass in hand. Eventually we got lucky and found a nice place outside Ornaison, the Relais du Val d'Orbieu. They had only reopened for the season a couple of days before so knocked a chunk off the price because the water in the bathroom was a tad tepid. We were able to have dinner there and then merely stagger back to our room having tried a number of good local wines, the best one being Château La Voulte Gasparet. Monsieur was highly entertaining and a pleasure to talk to about the hotel trade. The bed was a delight even if the shower needed a robust approach.

Next morning, having stuffed ourselves with a copious and pricey breakfast, we headed off into gloomy weather, this on the 'sunny' day. Very soon I was putting on my wet weather kit and gave thanks for my full stomach and three layers of warm clothes. We had decided to follow the grizzly bikers' advice, and set the GPS for Caunes Minervois (famous for marble) and the D620 through Lespinassière along the Gorges de la Clamoux.

It's a stunning ride - the gorge is spectacular and, at this time of year, the river an enthusiastic show of rapids. The views became ever more difficult to perceive through the gloom, however, and after a while the temperature dropped to 2°C and it started to hail, then light snow, then freezing rain. Bizarrely, we were the only bikers enjoying an adventurous ride through the elements, no sign of the grizzlies at all. Wimps...

The weather improved marginally as we left the heights for lower levels but we didn't see much sun until we got further in Hérault. At St Pons we saw a group of bikers in a car park assessing, perhaps, the chance of navigating hairpin bends and narrow lanes in a freezing mist. Or perhaps not...

By this time, my internal combustion mechanism had run out of steam but it was too late to buy lunch. You can't hope of being served after 2pm out in the sticks. I had been imagining steak frites at the top of the gorge, or roast lamb with lots of crunchy fat. I was in need of animal fat sustenance, obviously! I was also imagining the worst - missing the road, flying off over the gorge and landing on a tree, its spiky branches piercing through my chest.

Chilled to the bone, we decided to head home and eat in front of the tele with some heat-inducing wine. It took me a couple of hours before I reheated to normal levels. I didn't get round to making the marmalade either.

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