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As you can probably tell from the details in my last fee posts, my week in Agel really flew by. So I’m on to the next leg of my adventure where I will be studying French for 4 weeks in Aix-en-Provence.

However, before I move on to sharing that adventure, I want to share some photos of the wonderful little house that I have been staying in this week.

When you enter from the street you are greeted with this view.

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And you can proceed into the living area from there.

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Since I had access to the castle next door, and was tagging along on adventures with the group staying there, I didn’t spend much time in these areas. I pretty much made some espresso every morning before getting ready for the day, and then headed next door.

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This very short journey took me

  • out the back door, which I never had to lock since it opened into the private castle grounds

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  • across my private terrace that also didn’t really get used

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  • past some wonderful gardens

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  • up a stone stair way

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  • and through a door that needed a very large key.

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Of course, after my wonderful stay in Zambia, I would be remiss to not include photos of the sleeping loft (yes there were stairs to get there, but not a ladder) and of the bathroom that never ran out of hot water.

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A cool quick of the place was that from the window you see in the bathroom, you could, if you wanted, step out onto the street.

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It was a great stay, and a very much needed break between teaching and studying, in a very charming place. But now it was time to head off for that studying, the first step of which was to navigate back to Montpellier without the GPS – no, I didn’t give up on it, I just had to return it. And the second step was to lug my bags from the rental car drop off to the train station. Both went fairly well, thought not without any hitches. I took the wrong exit from a roundabout and wound up back on the autoroute, but it a good spot to exit again right away and be back at that same round about shortly thereafter. After lugging my bags to the station, I had to navigate both a lunch counter and the bathroom with them before boarding the train, and when I boarded, my seat was at the other end of the car.

But I made it to Aix, and the woman I was renting a studio apartment from was there to beet me as planned. And I had a day to settle in and remember where things were in that city before starting classes Monday morning.

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For my last solo car excursion, I picked a place not quite as far away so thank could have a relaxing afternoon back at the château and headed to Gruissan to get a better look at some salt flats and to hopefully be able to eat some amazing seafood.

And I think I was finally getting at least a little proficient with this GPS thing as until I got into the actual little village itself, I didn’t have any difficulties. And the challenge of getting through thentown to the salt flats on the other side wasn’t bad since I could see where I needed to go.

My first stop was where you can buy fresh seafood, not that I was buying, but it was pretty cool to see the operation.

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There were also numerous flamingos in the area that were fun to watch.

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As it was getting close to noon, I then headed off to find the recommended restaurant La Cambuse du Saunier.

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Here again I was able to test my French in and figure out that since I didn’t have a reservation I could sit in one of the bar areas and order from a menu limited to the fruits de mer. While a salt encased fish would have been nice, it is hard to complain about being limited to fresh seafood. And I even got to try some new things.

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I must admit , I had not idea what bulots were when I ordered, but I figured there was enough other stuff on the plate if I didn’t like them. And it turned out that I liked them more than some of the other things.

I also had a great view as I was sitting right next to the salt flats.

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It was actually pretty amazing seeing such large piles of salt and the work going on to produce what we actually consume.

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Of course there was also a shop with said products for sale, but as always on a trip like this, you want to buy this amazing stuff that is often hard to find, but are limited by what you can fit in your suitcase.

Thursday’s journey was one that I had been looking forward to ever since I realized I was close enough to make the drive from Agel.

According to my research, it was just under 2 hours to get to Roquefort, yes the place of a famous cheese, if I took the autoroute. So off I went.

Of course, since the moas on my GPS were slightly our if date, it didn’t know that A1 came as far south as I was and decided to take me a different route. It was a lovely route, but it was hard to enjoy due to the hairpin turns needed to get me up and over the mountains. The phot below is the view for the top of one of the plateaus that I navigated that day.

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So, as I alluded to in my last post, it really felt as I kept adding time to my journey all the way there. Of course since I eventually made it, this trend did stop, or I would still be during there now, but it was frustrating and the driving was quite technical and tiring especially since I was by myself.

Going this back way, I did stumble on a few places I never torn wise would have seen, so that was a perk.

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Finally I arrived and just needed to find parking and figure out my plan for the day.

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And it turned out , that even just trying to find something like the tourism office was challenging, so my navigation difficulties were not just due to GPS woes. But I did find it, and got a good test of my French. I was following the woman’s advice fairly well until she used a word I just couldn’t figure out. But that gave me a chance to ask, and to learn a new word, reconstitution, which means reconstruction, and here was used to designate that for one of the tours you didn’t get to see a real cave, instead you walked through something set up to look like one.

By this time, it was nearing noon and the tour of the real cave was shutting for lunch, so it made sense to grab lunch as well. So I decided to eat at the site that had this tour.

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Since I had been eating a lot the last few days, whole I was hungry, I didn’t want a multiple course meal. But I did want something with Roquefort, so I went for the burger – and was quite pleased. I wish I could get a blue cheese burger like this back home.

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By the time I finished, the tours had started back up so I headed off to join the Société tour. And my timing was great as one had just started, so I didn’t have to wait and only missed a little bit of an animated display that did didn’t look like it would have been very good anyway.

During the tour, we learned about the how the different types of penicillin distinguish the cheeses from the different houses and how important both the cool temperature (8-12 C) and the high humidity (95%) are to obtaining the right product.

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Thee was a film that explained a lot of the process and we got to see the actual cave with cheese waiting for its day to be revealed.

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Of course at the end we got to taste (and buy) the product.

After the tour, I checked out the one where you see the model cave. It was nice that it was free, but the real cave was much better, just as the woman at the tourist office had said. There were also a couple of other places to taste the cheese from different houses, but not all of them were open, and in the end I liked what I tasted at the firs place the best.

I did wander around the town a bit as well, thought it is pretty small so that didn’t take much time.

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If I’d had more time, ad if I hadn’t been by myself, it would have been nice to take some of the trails that lead out from this little village into top he surrounding countryside, as the write ups for them sounded quite nice.

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But, it was time to make friends again with the GPS and head back to Agel. But only after I ignored the initial directions and followed the signs to the autoroute. Even this was pretty technical at times as you had to slow down to 50 kph during he descent from the mountains. And once I exited, I had a challenge once again finding the best route to Agel. At least this time I avoided the roads that seemed like sidewalks and made it back in time for a lovely catered dinner of fois gras torchon the best fois gras I have ever had (it was prepared from the raw products by the chef) as well as blanquette de veau.

As my third morning in France arrived, it was the day for me to pick up a rental car so that I could explore some new places. The plan was for me to drive with the group to Montpellier, stay with them for the walking tour, and then head to Avis to pick up my car.

Since Montpellier is about an hour and a half from Agel, we got a reasonably early start so that we would be able to start our walking tour at 10:30. Thankfully we made a quick pot stop as we got close to the city where I could buy an additional coffee to give me a bit of extra fuel.

I had done the same walking tour 3 years ago, but it was a good tour and my reservation wasn’t until noon, so it made sense to tag along. Montpellier is quite an interesting city and as such it is impossible to see all of it in a two hour tour. However, this tour does a good job of highlighting the main things and showing off some things that you can only see during such a tour.

After having been in remote locations for more than a month, seeing large bindings was a bit of a shock, yet none the less, impressive.

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Other than the grand buildings you are met with as you enter the town, one of the first things that you can notice is how the interior of the shops in the old district all have vaulted ceilings. This is because the current buildings incorporated, rather than replacing, the ancient structures. Unfortunately, it is quite hard to get a good photo of these from the outside due to the variations in light. But I found the one below on the internet to give you an idea.

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This theme is repeated throughout the city as the old and the new are commonly seen side by side and on top of each other.

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And there are just some pretty cool looking structures as well.

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The first of the special places we got to see was one of the Hôtel Particuliers. Don’t let the name or the appearance fool you, these are not hotels.

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In an age gone by, these wrench homes of the wealthiest folks in town. And many of them have been preserved in French cities where they now serve as apartments, office buildings, etc. I’ll hold off on saying more about these until a later post.

The other special place was a Mikwé. This site is extra special given how well preserved that it is(there is still water in the bath). And it will probably get even better, as there is process going on now to excavate a near by synagogue and create a combined historic site. It also is special given the large contributions made during the 12th century by the Jewish population of Montpellier to both the commercial and medical communicate no doubt playing a large role in Montpellier’s Medical School being the oldest one still operating in Europe.

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Of course there were also just some good views of a working city with some awesome old passages through which one can wander.

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After the tour, it was time to head to Avis to start the next part of my adventure. Getting there wasn’t too hard thanks to a good pointing in the right direction fro Ihla. And getting the keys wasn’t too bad either. Then it came to finding the car, the lot was no where near the counter, and the directions weren’t exactly clear. So after wandering for a while I went back to the counter for clarification. This time I found the lot, but was thinking the whole way there how hard it was going to be after I dropped the car off in 3 days to get all of my luggage from the lot to the train. Not only was the lot far away, the pavement wasn’t great, and in some cases didn’t even exist.

But with that behind me, it was time to figure out how to navigate the roads in France. This meant that it was time to tackle the dreaded roundabouts. And, they didn’t turn out to be that bad, for the most part. The only ones that drove met nuts the whole time were the ones with multiple lanes. And, thanks to Ihla, I had a GPS to help me find my destinations.

The first of these was the town of Aigues-Mortes. The town is unique in that it is situated right next to the sea, yet still has a fully preserved wall. Getting there wasn’t too hard and I also got very lucky and found a parking spot it a lot close to the tick of things.

But then came the trouble, I had a very new fangled car, with a remote ignition switch, I couldn’t figure out how to make sure the dang car was locked. Eventually I just figured out that I would take a risk and hope that the car was still there when I was ready to leave.

The next challenge was lunch. And a challenge it was, since most restaurants in France chug down between lunch and dinner and it was already the bewitching hour. Thankfully, I found a place that was still serving and had a nice meal of moules-frites.

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With the hunger pangs gone, I could now be a tourist. Having had luck with the petit train two days back I started with that. This time it was once that could have been missed. I did get a few good looks at the walls from the backside of the city, but not much more.

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After the train, I kept seeing people on top of the wall, but couldn’t figure out how to get up there. Eventually I found the entrance and was able to walk around the entire perimeter. Well, almost run, as it was getting pretty late and I wanted to get back the the chateau in time for the line dancing and pot luck that evening, not to mention before dark.

So I moved quite quickly, stooping to get photos along the way, but not having time to read the information available.

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There were also some good views of the neighboring salt flats.

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At the end of the tour, I was able to climb one of the towers to see it as well as to get some new cool views.

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With the whirlwind tour behind me, it was time to get back in the car, yes – it was still l there, and head back to the chateau. This time, the GPS wasn’t quite as kind to me. Yes, it eventually got me to where I needed to be, but some of the roads it had me take looked more like sidewalks. And at one time I was high up in some hills, heading down some switchbacks on said sidewalks.

And, even though I had left at a reasonable time, I was worried that I wasn’t going to get back before dark. It seemed that every time checked the expected arrival time, it was later than before. And this type of thing would continue to plague me the next day, when it seemed as if I would drive 2 minutes, and have 3 minutes added to my remaining driving time.

Needless to say, I made it back. A bit shaken from the experience, and sadly not in time for the line dancing. But safe, and in time for some wine and the potluck.

After another good sleep, the plan was to spend the day close to Agel, checking out one of the biggest markets in the area in the morning and spending a lazy afternoon on the canal.

If you have every spent any more time in France than a quick trip to Paris, you most likely have come across, and probably come to love, the markets. They put the farmers markets in the US to shame because 1) they are much bigger, 2) they happen more often, and 3) the prices aren’t something that only rich people can afford. In other words, they are the way of life.

If you are planning a tip to France, this site seems to be a good one to find out which markets you can visit during your trip.

The market for this day was the one in Olonzac. With a street full of clothiers and household items and another street full of food it is easy to wander around and just take things in for an hour or so, and also very easy to be tempted (and cave) into buying something.

After the market, it was time for another lunch. This time I started with pâté and moved on to cassoulet.

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The pâté was quite good, but unfortunately the cassoulet was quite dry and not as good as what I have had in the past. This was a bit of a bummer as this is one of my favorite French dishes.

After lunch, we headed off to catch the boat for our cruise of the Canal du Midi. I was looking forward to this based on it having been quite beautiful and relaxing the last time that I did it. Sadly, due to a fungal infection that has decimated the plane trees (sycamores) that once bordered the canal.

The ceratocystis platani fungus has infected the trees along our route making the view along most of the waterway look like the last two pictures below, whereas 3 years ago most of the canal appeared as in the first photo.

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There is a massive effort underway to remove the infected trees and replant the banks with a species that will grow more quickly.

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However, there will still only be one species, so the same type of devastation could occur again. Have we not learned from this type of thing happening in many places in the world?

  • Dutch elm disease
  • emerald ash borer
  • Even sadder, is that I learned later, once arriving in Aix-en-Provence, that the disease is not only affecting trees next to the water as I had heard during that day, but is much more widespread as this article discusses.

    And it’s all because of a parasite that tagged along in the wooden crates used to ship weapons from the US to France during WWII.

    At least the trip though the locks was just as interesting as the time before.

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    And we did some get some good views of the bridges as we turned around for the trip back to our starting point.

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