Big bonjours, festive greetings and a joyeux Noël from Pézenas, our heavenly home away-from-home for the next three months. Oui, “heavenly”! Compliments of a house exchange, we are living in a convent constructed in 1679.
I recognize I’m the least likely person to live in such sanctified surroundings. But before you joke about me banishing curse words from my vocabulary (pas possible!) or begin addressing me as Sister Laura, you should know this Gothic edifice has been artfully restored and renovated into four lovely, residential homes with all the modern conveniences - and nary a cloister in sight. Although, we do have a backyard and garden that would rival Eden - with pomegranates, grapefruit and mandarin oranges ripe for the picking.
Most importantly though (drumroll… s'il vous plait), we have a fireplace! It’s one that won’t turn on with a switch and actually throws heat. That’s important here – in fact, mandatory. As I write this blog, Don is outside chopping kindling for tonight’s blaze. In general, the heating systems in this country are not to the same standard as in Canada and the night air can be damp and chilling. I spend drafty evenings hanging out as close to the fire as possible, swathed in Merino wool, blankets and fleece. Thank God for layering!
For the geographically challenged, the town of Pézenas is in the South of France, situated about an hours drive west of Montpellier and twenty kilometers from the Mediterranean. Nestled between the ocean and the beautiful Haute Languedoc, this area shares many of the same attributes of neighbouring Provence – a mild climate, wonderful wines, the sea….oh, and winds ("la tramontane" are Languedoc’s version of Provence’s mistrals… and just as nasty on a bike).
For some reason though, the region doesn’t garner the same attention as Provence. The adorable villages, landscapes of undulating vines, sunshine and winter temperatures of 16 degrees and quiet country roads just waiting to be explored on a bike are so far unspoiled by the hordes. So shush, don’t tell anyone! Let’s keep this place our little secret, shall we?
From the bit of research I did, the origins of Pézenas are murky. It was likely founded by the Celts in 600 BC. A plaque on the site where the former Pézenas Château was situated in Old Town indicates even Julius Caesar made his way here. In the 1600’s the Château was demolished by Cardinal Richelieu, who wasn’t a fan of Languedoc because he feared the region was a threat to the French crown. The stones from that structure were used to construct other religious buildings in the area, including the convent where we are living.
After the religious wars in Languedoc, this town became the capital of the region. All the royal governors resided here, together with their rich entourage of nobles, clerics, jurists and merchants. With their prodigious wealth and power, they bestowed Pézenas with elegant mansions of honey-coloured stone called hôtels particuliers, many with twirling wrought-iron balconies, ornate doorways and arcaded courtyards.
The first time I wandered the car-defying maze of narrow, cobbled streets, with the stone walls of the medieval village of Pézenas towering above and gargoyles peering down on me, I felt like I’d stepped back in time. This place is so rich with ancient ambiance and the architecture is so distinctive, many French films have been set here. There are 116 historical buildings and more than thirty of those are protected. In fact, the entire tangle of Old Town has been declared a historical monument.
Everything is stone. The grand homes of the 17th and 18th Centuries and a warren of older Medieval residences and shops, spectacular churches, and even a modest 14th century Jewish Quarter are densely packed within ancient ramparts and accessed by a massive archway.
Some of mes amis (new ones, of the ex-pat variety), have purchased “town houses” in the rocky heart of Old Town as their retirement pads. These ancient places are fascinating – only about sixteen feet wide and from four to six floors high. In essence, there is one room on each storey plus a staircase to the next.
Renovating these structures is not for the feint of heart, as one never knows what stone surprises lie behind the old plaster. Once finished though, they are remarkably cozy and contain a natural Stairmaster, perfect for wearing off all those buttery croissants.
Interestingly, the population of Pézenas in 1793 was recorded as 7,149 and in 2013 as 8,244 - a whopping total growth of about 15% in 220 years. To be truthful, before arriving we were concerned about spending the winter in such a small community.
Our fears have proven to be unfounded so far and, while some businesses and restaurants have closed for the season, there are still plenty open. No worries…we will not perish from lack of sustenance or die of thirst over the winter!
I can’t figure out if Don’s daily trips to Pauline’s, our favourite boulangerie, is for their crusty loaves of heavenly pain or to try to talk French with the lovely shopkeeper! And olives – I am addicted to Lucques, the locally grown variety, tiny, green footballs of flavor! There is a lovely market in Old Town every Saturday and the area is steeped in wine - it overfloweth in every colour! You can even buy it in bulk from a hose if you bring you own container to the plentiful Caves Coopératives (French agricultural cooperatives for winemakers).
Neither will we be bereft of culture throughout the winter. The village is rightfully proud of its support of the arts: music, dance and theatre. Molière, a celebrated French playwright, reputedly stayed here and the local tourist bureau has marketed that brief relationship enthusiastically. There are also many craftsmen and artists that live and work here year-round, peddling their creations at the local shops and markets.
While Pézenas does not have a language school, we have been able to track down a couple of great tutors, so our quest to improve our French continues with daily lessons. Both our teachers live in villages outside Pézenas, so we’ve been riding our bikes to and from our classes.
That brings me to my next topic - cycling. Mon Dieu, c'est incroyable! Virtually traffic-free, the web of back roads and rural laneways provide endless possibilities for routes. The scores of atmospheric villages punctuating the countryside are surrounded by oceans of vineyards (still a riot of red and gold even now in December) and are perfect for une petite pause pour le café during a ride. It seems every French hamlet has an active Club de Vélo (cycling club) and Pézenas is no different. We hope to join in some Club rides in the new year, but I suspect these will exercise our language skills as much as our legs - most of the members are French.
We’ve been taking in some of the local joyeuses fêtes of the season - carol singing, street entertainment, parades, etc., all fun, family-oriented celebrations. The lack of commercialization of Christmas here has been a refreshing change. There are no malls, no hectic rush to buy piles of gifts, in fact there is no such thing as Boxing Day. Christmas for the French is much more about people than it is about things. It is a time to come together with family and friends and share good food and great wine (bien sûr, after all they’re French)!
In this region, seafood is prevalent and the local festive meal includes beaucoup shellfish. I think I’m going to try to roast a duck though, as I haven’t wrapped my mind around having raw oysters for Christmas dinner.
On that note, I wish you all a very, merry, fa, la, la, la, la lovely Christmas and a beautiful, blessed New Year!
Joyeux Noël and bonne année everyone…