As I lie upon the cool water, the sun beating down, my eyelids closing, I feel the force pushing up from beneath my back. I struggle to regain control, but it is already too late. In nano-seconds, I have toppled sideways, rolling into the splashy deep.
I emerge to find two goggle-faced daughters, giggling in triumph as my lilo drifts off towards the shallow end.
Grrrrrrr, says I, and the girls about-turn in frantic haste. [i]
Is it possible to get bored of playing in a swimming pool with your own children?
The pool was essential, of course. When contemplating a family holiday in Europe, the best advice we ever got was to get a decent pool and everything else falls into place.
As for the lilos … well, I know it’s an indulgence in these days of reduced baggage, but we bring lilos with us, one each. They’re not much thicker than a few slices of bread. We’ve never regretted it.
Our pool came with a private house, a three-bedroom beauty with uber-comfortable beds, sprawling balconies and a fully stocked fridge. We’re surrounded by vineyards on all sides, a pale blue sky above, mountains left and right. It’s precisely the sort of quirky, creative place we’ve come to expect since we first started holidaying with HomeExchange (formerly Love Home Swap) in 2016.
HomeExchange.com is different to other house swap arrangements where you swap your house with someone else. The swappers don’t have to stay at your place at all. This boils down to a system whereby you actually swap your house for points, and you can then exchange those points to stay at any of the 10,000+ places on their books. The more points you rack up, the better the options.
And the options are very good. Their standard of places to stay is definitely upper end, as with our vineyard hideaway. The owners have asked if we might water their potted plants when opportunity knocks, and feed their cats, a pair of timid creatures who live outdoors and keep their distance. It seems a fair trade off.
We, in turn, have left our home in County Carlow in the hands of an Argentinian couple who are entrusted with looking after our dog, our guinea pigs, our hamster, watering our garden. We communicated multiple times before they arrived. We trust them.
Meanwhile, here we are in the heart of the Minervois region of Languedoc in south-west France. It’s an old-style rural world. Small villages, stone farms and rubble towers, the occasional aqueduct, the landscape scorched in various shades of brown apart from the shimmering olive trees and dark green grapevines. Cicadas chatter in the treetops.
The Minervois has been well known for its wine since the Romans were in the neighbourhood. Our front door is a four-minute walk across a field from the cellars of Les Vignerons de Pouzols Mailhac where we find Crazy Rose rosé and Megalith sauvignon. The latter, a hearty red, 14.5%, is named in honour of all the dolmens and menhirs that abound in these parts.
The village of Pouzols is also close. We follow the sound of church bells, slalom between vines and plane trees, and return with a box stuffed with strawberries, melons, croissants and pain au chocolat. Why is that we automatically hunt for a baker the moment we arrive in France? Nobody ever comes to Carlow looking for bakers.
We eat in on some nights, either cooking in our borrowed kitchen, or munching grade A pizza from the village pizzeria.
We dine out on the other nights.
Gazpacho and sea bass, seated beneath the fairy-tale turrets of La Bastide Cabezac on the banks of the River Cesse. Its run by a charming former rugby No. 9 who tell us tales of local rivalry in centuries past and of the monks who lived in the now ruined 10th century monastery.
Another night, a short journey east brings us to Bize (Population: 1,225) where we inhale the incense of its 18th century church and dine at the Cafe du Midi on the Place aux Herbes. Our table beholds the fabulous Porte Saint Michel, the gateway to the village square since 1236. There are perhaps a dozen tables around us, all packed. House-martins swish through the sky above us. And yet the ambience is tranquil save for a brace of boy racers who crackle by on their souped up motos. Dinner is a triumph. My eldest daughter takes a punt on escargots d’Argelier, snails in a garlic sauce; she eats all nine. As we exit the arch, we see people splashing in the Cesse and the silhouettes of others gyrating to music on the far side of the river.
Our third outing is to the pretty hamlet of La Somail on the Canal du Midi. It’s an especially surreal location. The épicerie (grocery) occupies a jolly green barge that floats on the water; a live goose stands by its entrance hissing at potential customers. I have no idea if the goose is regularly employed but I’d recommend a business etiquette course. Instead, we strolled into what looked like a small book shop. It was, in fact, possibly the biggest book shop I have ever been in. A corridor lined with books turns into a two storey-cavern lined with books. Over 50,000 tomes, mostly second-hand, frequently rare, from the 17th century to the present day. It is called Le Trouve Tout Du Livre, meaning ‘Find All Books,’ and it is a sensational spot, gob-smackingly magnifique.
I do not buy a book as they all seem to be in French and my French is lousy. Besides, I am reading ‘Dissolution’ by CJ Sansom although a pool-side spillage means my copy of ‘Dissolution’ is itself dissolving as I read it, page by page. I am earnestly hoping that the final pages will not flutter away before I discover who killed Commissioner Singleton.
In any case, the bookshop sets us up perfectly for dinner at L’Escale du Somail. I much enjoy cabillaud rôti au citron (cod) and tarte Tatin. My wife fares less successfully. Her French is fair, but she is unable to continue when we stumble upon an English language version what she has ordered: hot goat, poultry gizzards, dried breast, croutons and nuts.
We actually made two trips to La Somail. The second was in order to board a barge, La Capitane (capausud.eu), skippered by an old man with a face as lined as the Louvre. He brought us on a mellow ninety-minute tour up the Canal du Midi, its banks shaded by plane trees, all sadly destined to be felled on account of a fungal blight that arrived with US troops back in World War Two. Elsewhere, it abounds with acacia, yellow iris, wild gladioli, convolvulus trumpets, beautiful grasses and bulrushes.
Constructed in the 17th century, the canal was the brainchild of Pierre Paul Riquet, who is almost certainly the nicest tax collector you are going to read about today. His dream was to build a canal that would connect the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, providing a ticket to prosperity for all the farming folk and winegrowers who lived either side of it. He got the blessing, and a certain amount of money, from his monarch, Louis XVI, the famous Sun King, and kick-started the project in 1666. [ii]
Over the next fourteen years, upwards of 12,000 men scooped out 700 hectares of earth, or 7 square kilometres, or a zillion zillion shovelfuls if you prefer. They also dug out a massive 67-hectare reservoir, the Bassin de Saint-Ferréol, to supply the canal with much of its water. And more power to Riquet, a native of Béziers. Not only did he pay his navvies five times the wage of a farm labourer, but he also ensured they were looked after when they couldn’t work because of injury or illness or lousy weather. Alas that meant the poor guy blew all of his cash, including his daughters’ dowries, only to die after a horse fall in 1680, just six months before his vision was completed. But still, what a legacy!
Today, the 240 km Canal du Midi runs south from the River Garonne at Toulouse via Castelnaudary, Carcassonne and Beziers to meet the Mediterranean at Cap d’Agde. It passes through 63 locks, 126 bridges, 55 aqueducts (like the Jouarres Aqueduct, visible from the road near Pouzols), six dams and the Épanchoir des Patiasses spillway. We viewed the latter shortly after a Vogue-worthy pirate – the skipper’s daughter, we think – poled us through the Cesse Lock, affording us a glimpse of the chalky white waters of the 5 km Junction Canal, built in 1787, which connects the Canal du Midi to the Canal de La Robine.
The canal peaked in 1856, after which the railways began its rapid takeover. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. There are actually eight WHS sites in Languedoc. I say Languedoc but others call it Occitanie or L’Occitania (like the beauty product brand) or, rather dryly, the Department of Aude.
The area is known as Cathar Country, a nod to a whacky religion that supposedly dominated this region between the 12th and early 14th centuries although the jury seems to be out as to whether they existed or not. There’s no record of the Cathars by that name in the archives but it sure makes for a sensational story. The idea is that the ‘Cathars’ were pacifists who tolerated most religions. Their abhorrence of killing meant they avoided eating meat. Their women were on as close to an equal footing as men as you would find in medieval Europe. On a more radical scale, they opposed fun-loving bonks (sex was strictly for reproductive purposes), passionately believed in reincarnation and maintained that there were two Gods, the evil one of the Old Testament and the kindly one of the New Testament. [iii]
Alas, the kindly god was nowhere to be seen in 1209 when the French king, in league with the pope, dispatched a massive crusader army to stamp out the ‘heretics’. Perhaps as many as 20,000 people died in what became known as the Albigensian Crusade. When the crusaders had surrounded the ‘Cathar’ city of Béziers, their commander was asked how to distinguish between ‘heretics’ and Catholics. “Kill them all,” he replied. “The Lord will recognise his own”.
After Beziers fell, the other ‘Cathar’ cities quickly submitted. The most remarkable was the Carcassonne, a magical warren set between two huge outer walls, boasting 53 towers and barbicans. One’s first sight of this hilltop citadel cannot fail to cause an intake of breath. It’s refreshingly unkempt, in that the grassy verges grow wild. The health and safety team have also clearly turned a blind eye to the alternative paths that run across the moat, dry but for a straggling stream waning in the hot sun. We strolled its maze of small streets, momentarily carried along by a large crowd gathering to watch a John Legend concert in the fabulous amphitheatre. We dine on cassoulet with duck confit in one of the city’s innumerable restaurants and cafes, and process the magnificent panoramic views from the ramparts.
Viollet-le-Duc, the engineer who restored Carcassonne on Napoleon III’s watch, got almost everything wrong – the turrets, the tiles, the stone, the arrow shaped windows, the pointy Gothic roofs. He just did what he felt like. And yet those fanciful alterations would do much to shape how the French came to view their mediaeval past, in the same way that the 19th century English fell for the faux chivalric world depicted by Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe.’ Moreover, the guy did such an ingenious job that UNESCO felt compelled to overlook his failings and granted the city World Heritage Status in 1997. Incidentally, Viollet-le-Duc’s other achievements include the restoration of both Notre-Dame de Paris and Mont St-Michel, as well as designing parts of the Statue of Liberty.
My guidebook tells me that nothing of note happened in Carcassonne after 1659, as they “abandoned the fortifications” and its military importance was “reduced.” In other words, it probably became a lovely place to live, not least during the 18th century when it became the manufacturing hub of Languedoc. There is scant record of war, plague or famine, which makes it rather boring for historians who love juicy turmoil almost as much as the press. I am reminded of a weatherman I know who cannot bear the tedium of lengthy heat waves and longs for the hurricane season.
On the subject of weather, it is chaud, chaud, chaud in Languedoc but the dry Mistral wind eliminates the mugginess so that it’s kind of like putting one’s face to a hair dryer, manageable even at 40°. The hottest we get is when we take the girls to Aqualand at Cap d’Agde, the Mediterranean port of the Canal du Midi. [iv] Everyone there is hot stepping on the cream tarmac, soles seeking cool wet spots, bodies shaded by the palm trees. We have to race up the hot metal steps to reach the entrance to the Boomerang and Tornado slides. The queues are fine; we chatter quietly and silently admire the palette of skin colours and curious tattoos of those in front of us before was receive our 90 second long terror hit.
The week comes to an end. ‘Dissolution’ holds firm. A final swim, finish off the croissants, pack up the lilos, and a hassle-free flight to Dublin from the small and friendly airport at Carcassonne. Languedoc. We’ll be back. [v]
This article was published in the Irish Daily Mail, 3 September 2022.
[i] It is an unwritten rule that anyone lying peacefully on a lilo in a pool must be tipped up.
[ii] Damned dictators. Just when you are loathing everything they stood for, you stumble upon something like Versailles or the Canal du Midi, both of which were built on the Sun King’s watch.The Canal du Midi was originally called the Canal Royale du Languedoc but changed its name after the revolution.
[iii] The Cathars are said to have originated from a mission to the Bogomils of Bosnia who converted to Islam; hence the Bosnian Muslims ‘unusual’ form of the Faith. The guys from ‘The Rest is History’ made a podcast about this called The Mystery of the Cathars.
[iv] On the journey south, I think we must have crossed the Via Domitia, a 600-kilometre-long route running through the south of France, linking the Pyrenees to the Alps, built by the Romans some 2,000 years ago. At one stage we saw the giant church of Beziers, which dominates the skyline like Carcassonne’s citadel.
[v] That said, getting across the motorway from the hire car depot does require taking your life in your hands.