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Travelogue: France - Narbonne Winter 2009

Living the Dream in Narbonne  - Winter 2009

One of the advantages of living in the south of France is the proximity to exotic locations that are completely different from home. So, after all the festivities of summer and the gentle fall we decide to take a quick road trip before settling in for the winter. We want to see old friends in Austria and Switzerland as well as visit the French Alpine city of Annecy , located on the Swiss border and finally the village of Tulette in the valley of the Rhone , with all their wonderful wines. The whole trip is doable in just four days as the border of Switzerland is only a four-hour drive from Narbonne . A mini-trip puts living here in great perspective as few people realize how short the distances are between countries.

So we take advantage of our last chance to drive abroad without weather delays and thus go about planning the next adventure. Half a day later we find ourselves in Lausanne , Switzerland enjoying the view of the beautiful lake from our hotel balcony. It is also our first experience with the local cuisine and the famous Swiss fondue or melted cheese-with-wine dinner. The city is still full of tourists and there is a festival on the lake. The next day we take a morning drive to Wels , Austria to meet with friends for a nice dinner of dumplings, schnitzel and strudel at a local guesthouse. Returning to France the third day we stop in Annecy , a picture postcard traditional French city on a huge lake with mountain backdrop. We walk around the medieval town center; it is complete with beautifully decorated shop windows full of crusty breads, jars of delicious jams and charcuterie or delicatessen. An outdoor fruit and vegetable market is open and the people are milling about in full force.

During the return trip on the fourth and last day we stop in the foggy Cotes du Rhone village of Tulette , in the valley of the Rhone , and visit the Domaine Mazurd whose wine we discovered in a Salon des Vins in Toulouse in 2002 whilst living aboard our boat. For several years we dreamed of visiting this particular domaine, the wine was so special it made jaded French wine lovers open their eyes in surprise as they sipped this magic elixir. Alas! Monsieur Mazurd, the original proprietaire, has since passed away. We met his son at the Salon des Vins and spoke with Mr. Mazurd Sr. on the telephone to tell him how much we loved his 1994 Cotes du Rhone Mazurd. It has since sold out but we were able to get the 2000 Cuvee Mazurka, Vieilli en fut de chene, which is very good, just not the magical 1994 vintage we craved. Certain wines affect us the same as some people, such can be their force of character that they indelibly stain us with the encounter.

And, poof!! Two hours later we find ourselves back in Narbonne , having made a presto trip through three different countries and cultures in the space of four days. And most happy we are to be back in southern France and enjoying the warm sunshine after the chilly early winters of the alpine climates. It is now late October and we must prepare for our first real Narbonnais winter. But Narbonne is still sunny and warm and we wear short sleeves while dining outdoors until mid-November.

However, winter does come. Our fireplace is huge - and so we try to light the driftwood gathered during the summer inside of it. Quickly the apartment fills with thick, opaque, gray smoke; we open the windows and pray the neighbors don't call the fire department, it is so voluminous and alarming in appearance. To make matters worse, the beach wood we burned in the fireplace smells terrible - like cigarettes. Driftwood doesn't make for a fragrant fireplace, the fireplace is too open and there is no containment of the smoke. A few hours later we can breathe without coughing and realize that we need a wood-burning stove to contain the fire and warm the people without extinguishing them and the cat (who has taken semi-permanent refuge in the closet). In the United States , wood burning stoves are not as common as gas 'fires' that are pretty but give little warmth or purpose besides being attractive. So, off we go, and we get ourselves a nice, heavy iron wood burning stove. Since we live on the deuxieme etage (or the third floor) we must dismantle the 300-pound cast iron creation outside, on the ground level, and carry it up piece by piece. We reassemble the stove in the apartment. Finally, it is put together and we are ready to move it into place.

Wood burning stoves to heat the home are very normal in France , and most French people install them just outside of their fireplace so that the full benefit of the hot stove can be utilized on all sides. However, to the American eye, that looks just weird - the fireplace is empty and the stove sits just outside of it. So we plunk it neatly inside the cheminee. The brick chimneystack is wide and tall so it easily holds the stoves smoke stack that exits out the top with a neat grill to keep out birds and bugs but let out the smoke. Our first try brings out a nice crackling fire, the pesky smoke is drawn beautifully outside and the interior temperature comes up appreciably within an hour. Oo-la-la!! Life with a real fire is delicious indeed. We revel in its beauty and function as well.

Meanwhile, the city of Narbonne has been just as busy as we are and a small neighborhood of log cabins has assembled itself around the Canal de la Robine and the Place Contemporaire. Perhaps fifty stocky log houses surround a small, colorful train car that transports ecstatic children around and around an oval track. The cabins are full of magical things: candies, warm spiced red wine, cakes, sparkly crystal presents of jewelry and decor, warm soft knitwear and so on. Parents and their children walk about and exclaim at all the extraordinary things. And this is just the beginning.

A week later there is a full carnival next door, with bungee trampolines, twirly rides, a huge toboggan and a giant giraffe. Just to name a few attractions. The ticket booths are doing a thriving business and every child has huge eyes and big smiles. It is truly a 'winter-wonderland' with no snow in sight. In the Place de la Mairie they refuse to be outdone and an enormous ice skating rink is erected on top of the Via Domitia or the official crossroads of southern Europe . Normally this is a place of intense tourist interest, rocky and hot. Tourists tend to blanket the square in the summer and take photos of the sun-drenched stones smoothed by Roman foot soldiers. Now it is completely covered by a hi-tech, 2010 plastic 'ice' skating rink. The plastic doesn't melt in Nabonne's warm climate and has almost the same gliding capacity as ice. As soon as it is complete an enormous booth with skate rentals welcomes the hundreds of patrons who are soon gliding around in the colorful lights. A small forest of 15-foot high Christmas trees flocked with white surround the rink. The Roman soldiers who marched through here so many hundreds of years ago would never recognize the place. What would they think of this winter festival?

The show goes on for about a month. Musical acts come and go in the log cabin village and tired parents treat themselves to a glass of warm spiced wine or muscat (a sweet white wine) with freshly opened raw oysters as they watch their children gleefully ride the choo-choo train. Couples cruise the beautiful gifts in the cabins, and teenagers eye each other over the Barbe Papa (cotton candy). Tall, fantastical creatures perched on stilts, gorgeously dressed in white-on-white costumes dare even the most Scrooge of us all to look away. Their élan and mysterious spirit capture adults and children alike as they fan through the crowd. Everyone is in anticipation of Christmas and New Year's Eve.

And so we celebrate, with friends in neighboring villages. We welcome the coming year and greet our neighbors and acquaintances with 'Meilleurs Voeux et Bonne Annee' - in fact we are still saying that and it is almost the end of January. The superstition is that you do not say Bonne Annee or Happy New Year before the end of the year because that brings bad luck. But you do say it after the first of the year and probably for the whole month of January.

Narbonne is exceedingly cold during Christmas and New Year's (below freezing one or two days) and the cold brings the snow. We have lovely big fluffy snowflakes that float down on the terra cotta roofs and blanket the city for all of an hour, perhaps. The photos are beautiful and the memories more so. But soon it all goes away and the temperature comes back up and we are now mostly living in about 48 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. One early day January the fog rolls in and I am quite startled to look out the window - the Cathedral has disappeared!! Just look at the photos to compare the views. It was very thick fog indeed.

Our stove has given us a little unexpected side benefit of fitness. Every two weeks we drive to the local wood yard to haul away a pallet of oak and maple pieces cut to size for our little heater. Two or three hours of lugging 50-pound bags of logs up two flights of stairs beat the gym any day. But one day it seems to have had enough and the smoke refuses to draw up the chimneystack. A quick poke of our heads out through the skylight and we can just see the top of the stack - the screen to keep out bugs and birds but let out smoke is completely glued up with tar residue and not letting any smoke out. In fact, it looks alarmingly distorted and ready to fall off. So, we go to the yellow pages and look up our local ramoneur (chimney sweep).

The next day he arrives. We expected a wiry, youth but instead greet a fifty-something fellow, of substantial stature and size with a very affable air. He is complete with the odd reassuring streak of coal dust in his hair and on his hands. During our chat we discover he has been doing this for over 35 years. He states matter-of-factly that his fee is 54 euros to clean the chimney and replace the clogged grill. Maybe he spoke too soon because he obviously doesn't care for the look of the steep roof gliding down to the chimneystack. But, he said, as long as it is not raining, no problem. Without another word he hoists himself through the skylight, without a rope, and gingerly walks down to the chimney stack, a good steep ten yards on curved terra cotta tiles - with his arms spread out ready to hang onto the chimney for dear life if he should stumble. I can't look and just wish I had made him tie a rope around his waist for safety. We are on the third floor, after all. Happily, within 20 minutes, he is back inside and chastising us not to burn any more pinecones in the chimney, for this is what creates the goudron or tar that clogged the grill. He is a kind fellow, he resembles Dr. Watson from Sherlock Holmes with his handlebar mustache and so we give him a grateful tip or pourboire. He is appreciative. But as he leaves he turns to ask us a question: Why did you put the wood stove inside the fireplace - don't you know you get more heat if it is outside? Yes, we say, but it looks strange that way. Ah, oui, he replies, I thought that was the case!

Our little wood-burning stove is going every day since and gives us almost 100% of the heat we need during the day. During the night we need little as it rarely goes below freezing outside. Our place inside is generally around 62 F in the morning and creeps up to 68 in the day with a little help from the fireplace. We are keeping in great shape wood hauling about twice a month!

Other than that, Narbonnais life goes on much the same. The restaurants are all open and music continues to thrive. The Centauree ( has become one of our regular social scenes and we enjoy live music there at least once a week. We are even looking forward to a private champagne tasting (invitation only, we are honored) in mid-February. Several restaurants and bars in Narbonne have renovated over the winter and enjoying a booming business. The summer must have been good. We didn't expect to hear so much live music this season but we are nicely surprised to find ourselves in thick crowds that are enthusiastically responding to the local entertainment.

January, February and March should be quiet, now shouldn't it? I keep thinking I'll be able to hibernate a little, meditate, and write that next book...sometime.... soon. I'll let you know next time as the quiet season descends upon us.


Definitions of words in italics:

Salon des Vins - An event held at the convention center that usually involves a couple of hundred or more vintners who assemble to present their wines to the public. There is normally a small entrance fee of a few euros that includes a souvenir wine glass that is also used for tasting the wines. Salon des Vins can also be held for Champagne tastings, cognacs and port or French fortified wines such as pineau or charente. There are always plenty of spittoons available to enable one to keep standing after several tastings.

Vieilli en fut de chene - aged in oak barrels.

 deuxieme etage- French for the second floor which is actually the third floor in America because the first or ground floor is always called the rez chausee in France (or RC for short).

 cheminee- fireplace, not the smokestack or chimney.

 Canal de la Robine and the Place Contemporaire-Both are landmarks in the city center of Narbonne . The Canal de la Robine is part of the Canal du Midi that is considered a world heritage by UNESCO. The Place Contemporaire borders the Canal de la Robine and is a very large circular stage used for musical events and holidays.

Place de la Mairie -The heart of any city or village in France is the Place de la Mairie where one finds the town hall and Mayor's office. It is usually centered in a large square in a prestigious building. In Narbonne it is actually located within the 1500-year-old Cathedral, next to the ancient dungeon, which tourists visit for a couple euros.

 'Meilleurs Voeux et Bonne Annee' - Best wishes and Happy New Year.

Wine Notes

Some wines are very easily obtained right in the aisles of the grocery store, no need to trek out to the vineyard or Domaine. There is always a dizzying selection of wines to choose from and the large grocery stores have the advantage of constant cooling which keeps the wine fresh. The local wines are heavily featured, thus there is a good opportunity to sample some of the varieties available in the region. One of our favorites for the holidays is Roche Mazet Cabernet Sauvignon (red) with its silky texture and vanilla finish. The Chardonnay is oaked with a lovely burnt wood flavor, highly unusual for a French white wine, more like the California Chards. The 2008 vintage for both the cabernet and the chardonnay is labeled Cuvee Speciale 2008. The term 'cuvee speciale' indicates a wine that is higher quality to the producer's norm. Their Syrah and Cinsault Roses are also labeled Cuvee Speciale and more robust than the average rose. Roche Mazet is located in Beziers , a city about a 20-minute drive east of Narbonne .

If you can get them on sale the cost is so ridiculously low that we are embarrassed to tell you. But good enough to pleasantly surprise your most sophisticated wine snob. The truth about wine in France is that price often has little to do with the quality. We specialize in finding the gems that put a smile on our faces and those of our friends while allowing us to share them easily. Well, someone has to do it!

To help sort through the myriad of wines in a French grocery store, I have compiled a guide that helps anyone find a bottle of good wine that will be drinkable and maybe even delightful.

Marlane's Guide to French Wine

1. The deeper the dimple on the bottom and the heavier the bottle, the better.

2. AOC - Appellation Origine Controlee on the label is a good sign. This means the wine was produced and the grapes blended within the regulations of the regional authority.

3. Mis en Bouteille au Chateau or Proprietaire shows the producer bottled the wine himself, not a cooperative or factory.

4. Fut en Chene - This is a personal taste those who enjoy woody wines should look for this phrase that means aged in oak.

5. Numbered bottles show just an extra mark of care.

6. Vintage - Two or more years old is always better than 'aged on the truck'.

7. Medals - There are annual wine contests in France where gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded. The bottle boasts a shiny replica of the medal, usually added on the neck of the bottle, with the location and year of the concours or contest. Be aware that many wine makers put a round sticker there that appears to be a medal but is not, just another label on the bottle.

This guide is just something to navigate by. Few wines have all these traits, but the good ones will have at least a couple.

Last, but not least, I actually try to keep the cost of the bottle of wine under six euros simply because, if we really like it, we want to be able to have it often and share it. Some of our very best finds have been under three euros! The truth is that there are wonderful wines in France that are not well-advertised or well known. Why not give the winemaker a chance? They are the Bordeaux and Burgundies of the future, so we seek them out now.

.....on to 2010


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