What a day! We started by boating from 10-2 on the Canal du Midi, then visited an olive oil cooperative nearby and finished by visiting a medieval town decimated in the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars. But we didn't get home till 7:30, so had to go directly (do not pass GO!) to our planned raclette dinner.
For those who don't know, raclette is an alpine cheese that is melted and served with small fingerling potatoes and gherkins. We've had it mostly in the Alps of France and Switzerland, but I've also had it in Paris. The cheese is mild and smooth like butter when melted. (I just melt it under the broiler for a short time.) We also had olives (more later) and a French saucisson (cured sausage) along with our usual French bread. Yumm! We started with a carafe of the bag-in-box rosé from Mas Blanchard and then opened a bottle of the Syrah rosé from Beauvignac (the wine cooperative we visited yesterday). We all agreed that the Beauvignac rosé was superb and paired well with food. As Ron says in his sommelier pose, "It's more complex." (whatever that means)
Our first adventure of the day was to take the little day cruiser out from the bike rental place (Belle du Midi) at Le Somail (where we rented bikes a couple weeks ago).
The boat is easy to drive and has a max speed of 8 km/hour (which is the speed limit on the Canal du Midi). We have the boat for 4 hours and head west toward the first lock, which will be our turn-around point (we're not allowed to use the locks).
There are no words to describe the peacefulness of the trip. While we pass other boats and barges along the way, the banks on either side of the canal and the sycamore trees (called plantane trees here) that shade and hide the canal from the rest of the world all conspire to make you feel like there are no others around you. Unlike other boating, there are no decisions, you have a 30 foot wide canal and you can only go in two directions - east or west. The scenery passes by slowly, quietly, and lulls you to complete relaxation. We decided that health insurance should pay for this as therapy for stress relief. We aso agree that a longer trip with a houseboat that included bikes on its decks should be planned for two years from now. With such a boat, you tie up at towns like Narbonne or Béziers or Bordeaux and bicycle or walk around, doing your shopping for food, winetasting and sightseeing as you go. You can just tie up anywhere on the side of the canal so you can stop wherever you like - a restaurant, port like Somail, or a picnic table on the side of the canal.
There is a towpath all along the side that is used for recreation now - endless bicyclers, day hikers and town strollers use the towpath.
We stop for lunch of bread, cheeses, wine and fruit before turning around to head back. Once back, we stop for ice cream at the little "café-glacier" on the corner, take some photos around the bridge at Somail (one of the original 17th century canal structures) and then head out for Bize-Minervois in search of olives and olive oil.
Only 6 km away, Bize-Minervois is a center for olive production. The butcher has told us that this is where she gets the olives from that we buy at her store. We visit an oil "cave cooperative" where we can taste olive oils, tapenades, and olives as well as purchase locally produced products. Dave can't resist the olives and we bring home a large supply along with a few tapenades, some honey, and some olive wood serving tools.
It's 4:45 now but Dave has in mind one more stop "in the neighborhood", the town of Minverve. It is only 18 km away, but 20 minutes in time. We find out soon why this road is so slow. As we are back in the Hérault region of the lower Causses, we find that the road between Bize-Minervois and Minerve clings to the side of rather steep limestone cliffs as it winds its way along a river valley that has long ago carved a valley below us. Not as wild or narrow as other cliff roads, but beautiful in the waning afternoon sun with areas of rocky outcroppings dotted with vinyards and fields open below us. We see Minerve in the near distance, clinging to the side of the cliff.
This medieval city was one of the last Cathar hold outs and was beseiged by Simon de Montfort in 1210. At the time it was impregnable and had a well with good water reserves, so the seige went on for 6 weeks until Montfort managed to destroy the town's well with his catapult. With no water, the town had to surrender. Given the option of renouncing their Cathar beliefs or dying, something like 180 citizens refused conversion and were burned alive in front of the church.
We find parking by circling above the town to a pay lot. We feel like we're going away from the town, but the road eventually crosses over to the side of the gorge where the town is located and leads us to a lovely parking spot with tourist office (now closed, of course) and public bathrooms with toilet seats and paper (my standard for quality rest stops). From the lot, you walk down to the city, entering by the Candela, the only remaining medieval tower from the original fortress. There are some remains of double curtain walls as well, but most of the medieval ramparts are no longer in existence.
Once inside, you can see why the city doesn't allow tourist cars into it. There are only a couple of roads and they are narrow and steep with no places to park. As I walk up a steep, but relatively wide cobbled path, I see two garages at the top and marvel that anyone would be able to make the hairpin turn required at a precipitously steep slope to fit a car into the garage. I watch two cars back down another narrow one lane street presumably to a parking spot or house. They've obviously done this before as they drive as fast in reverse as you'd dare to go in drive, and I'm impressed that they manage to miss the stone wall and buildings that define the narrow roadway.
There is a charming narrow cobblestone street called Rue des Martyrs which leads through the "center" of town. We stop at the small square that is the center of town with the "mairie" (mayor's office) on one side and 11th century church on the other. It's one of the few flat spaces in town. The church clings precipitously to the edge of the cliff here making you wonder how they managed to build the thing in the first place. There's an ancient-looking but recent (2010) column with a dove sculpted in the center that remembers the 180 Cathars burned for their faith in 1210.
The shops are closed or closing and there are few tourists left in town which lends to the feeling that you are experiencing the city as the 13th century citizens would (just ignore the Suzuki motorcycle parked in the narrow alley). We split up, Dave in search of the infamous well, Ron and Chris to walk down to the river floor and me to wander a couple of streets and make my way back up the streets and the switchback path up to the car park.
Minerve sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Cesse and Brian, which have carved enormous tunnels under the rock, called natural bridges. It's hard to believe that the small amount of water we see flowing across the scree at the bottom of the ravine could have carved such enourmous caves and cliff faces.
As it's now 6:45 when we meet up at the car park, we know that we have to miss aperos and go straight to dinner. But first we have to get out of the car park. Dave misunderstood the directions on the pay machine and had paid his 3 Euros when we arrived. A French couple tries to help us but ends by throwing up their hands as they can't figure it out. Ron notices that we are getting a message about paying for parking so goes back to pay again. So the dumb American tourists once again pay twice for their parking. (Sigh)
We're able to sit out for long into the evening as the evening is very gentle. We hear this mechanical sounding bird call and after investigating, decide it's likely a Scops Owl. So that's a new bird species for us. Katie, add this to your list.