Monday, September 8, 2014


The house I was taking care of in France in July is out in the middle of a very lovely nowhere, but the owner kindly left me a car to get around in. I appreciated it very much, though I didn't take the opportunity to do as much exploring as I could. It was a right-hand drive UK model, which when combined with the right-hand drive French roads meant that I couldn't see around the cars in front of me, and so I never passed anyone. Once I got stuck behind a tractor hauling a load of hay, and puttered along slowly behind him for several kilometers, watching the line of honking cars and RVs behind me first pile up and then zoom past, their drivers making rude gestures and comments that I'm glad I couldn't hear clearly. When possible I stuck to the smaller roads where there was almost no traffic, so when I went to the town of Talmont-sur-Gironde I chose the D145 running through the marshy fields along the banks of the estuary at the mouth of the Gironde.

Two thousand years ago, there wouldn't have been a road, or if there had been it would have been washed by the tides that once came up to the low cliffs along the edge of the land; they're called falaises mortes now, dead cliffs no longer in contact with the living sea. The monks who lived here once are long dead as well, their third-century bones now indistinguishable from the white chalk they're buried in. The seaside caves were, according to legend, discovered by Saint Martial, who founded a hermitage there (possibly before going 120 miles to the east, where he was the first bishop of Limoges). Sailors sought shelter there once, anchoring their boats to the rocks at the water's edge.

As the waves receded, pilgrims arrived on foot instead, making their way south to Compostela, and the monks ferried them across the Gironde to the Médoc side of the river and the northern edge of the long sandy beach that runs south to Bayonne and the Spanish border. Today the river runs a mile west of the rocky cells, but if you climb the steps carved into the cliff up to the tower, you can see the river and the sea beyond. The hermitage was closed that morning, so I couldn't see the sea for myself, and had to keep driving north.

Two thousand years ago, the waves filling what is now a tidal estuary brought ships carrying tin from Ictis Insula to the city-port of Novioregum, or possibly Tamnum; archaeologists are still trying to decide which ancient Roman city was uncovered and rediscovered in the 18th century. The buildings are long gone, most of them; after the port finally silted in and the Romans left, the locals saw no reason not to take the well-shaped blocks of stone and use them in their own homes and granges and churches over the years. The archaeological site and museum called Le Fâ, between Barzan and Talmont-sur-Gironde, is open to visitors, but I didn't go in. I wish I'd had time later that afternoon to stop by, though, because I got a free entry ticket when I paid for my parking spot at Talmont-sur-Gironde, but I had to get the car back so Nikki could return her rental, the family van having died on their way back home. There are Roman ruins here in Salisbury, of course, and possibly even ones that can be linked to the French coastline to the south of me. I can imagine tools and mosaic tiles being shipped back and forth, soldiers and sailors playing dice on the decks during the week-long journeys, passing around pewter goblets from Londinium filled with wine from Burdigala.

A thousand years later, the ships were sailing between London and Bordeaux, connecting the two halves of the Plantagenet realm that had been cemented by the marriage of Henri I (or Henry II if you're following the English line) and Aliénor d'Aquitaine, Eleanor of Aquitaine, in 1152. Their great-grandson Edward I fortified the area around the 6th-century chapel turned 12th-century church, the Église Sainte-Radegonde, built by monks from the nearby abbey of Saint-Jean-d'Angély. The English king added ramparts and the town grew up around the church and behind the walls; the walls are still being built and rebuilt to keep this little rocky peninsula from sliding down into the sands around it.

The church is a mixture of Gothic and Roman styles, with a newer round tower said to have been built to recall the Tower of London, when the Angevin ramparts were built around the Aquitaine church. High tides send spray over the walls to wear away the carvings on the north and west faces, and the sheltered eastern side protects the old gravestones in the small churchyard. Some of the graves date back to the 18th century. Sometimes there's only a cenotaph, marking the place waiting for a sailor lost at sea. Inside the church a ship is raised to heaven, a prayer for safe travels and abundant catches, from the boats headed offshore or the small huts bordering the tidal flats, waiting for the water to bring in the sole and the sturgeon and the flounder, and the eel caught twice a year, once when they migrate landward in squirming swarms from their deep-sea nurseries in late fall to early spring, and then again as they travel back to salt water in the summer, a dozen years later. The civelle, or baby eel, is called pibale in Aquitaine; to cook baby eels, soak them in water with vinegar for ten minutes, blanch them in simmering water for a minute, and then quickly sauté them with garlic and parsley.

No one was serving or eating baby eels when I was wandering around Talmont-sur-Gironde, but a lot of the children running around had ice cream or gaufres from the stands at the edge of town, near the carousel. Talmont-sur-Gironde is one of "les plus beaux villages de France" and gets many, many visitors throughout the year. There's a huge parking area outside town, just off the road in. You can't drive in to the town, partly because there's no room, and partly because the streets are so narrow. People do live there, but I saw many signs for holiday rooms for rent, and most if not all of the shops are geared towards the tourist trade. I arrived fairly early in the morning, before it got too crowded; by the time I left mid-afternoon, the parking lot had filled up, and the streets were packed. The town is famous for its houses with their white walls and blue shutters, and for the roses trémières, the hollyhocks, that grow everywhere. There's a night market on Tuesdays in the summer, when the shops stay open and the streets are lit with candles, that I didn't make it to while I was there, partly due to the bad weather every Tuesday, and partly because I didn't trust that I could find my way back home in the dark to the house in the middle of the vineyards.

On either side of the marshy inlet, a line of carrelets stand empty until the tide comes in. There used to be an entire row of them curving around the base of the ramparts, a fringe of wood under the stony walls, but all of those traditional fishing huts were destroyed in a huge storm that devastated the area in December 1999. The newly-rebuilt huts are back, but fewer in number. Since the tide was well out when I arrived, I didn't see anyone actually fishing from them.

I walked into town and went to the church and the cemetery, got lost briefly in the narrow winding streets (believe me, I can get lost in any French town, no matter the size), admired the hollyhocks, peeked into gardens where people were chatting over glasses of wine or cups of coffee, bought a few postcards in one of the dozen or so souvenir shops, walked along the ramparts, and then realized that there wasn't anything else to see or do in town. It's a very small town, but quite charming. More and more people had arrived, with their dogs and children, so I went back out of town and across to the other side of the marshy inlet, and up onto the top of the low cliffs there.

There are vineyards at the top of that cliff, where Les Hauts de Talmont was started in 2001. There's a walking path along the cliff as well, and there were couples and families out jogging or strolling along, or getting ready for a picnic lunch at the grassy area that looks out over the inlet to the walled town on the other side. I walked by an abandoned building that used to be an auberge that might once have rented rooms to pilgrims heading to Spain, or English tourists, or weekend trippers from Paris. Perhaps the owners had a fishing hut set up below, and would walk down steep wooden stairs from the edge of the lawn to the hut to catch fish and eels to feed the hungry travelers. I wondered if someone would buy the place and open up a business again - it seemed there were plenty of people coming to the area to provide the clientele - and toyed briefly with the idea, as I always do when I find yet another neat place to live, of winning the lottery and settling down to be a chef and aubergiste. But I had a reservation at a hotel and restaurant that is still in business, the Hôtel-Restaurant L'Estuaire, located along the flat eastern edge of the marshy inlet between the two cliff edges.

I'd made a reservation for 12:30pm but arrived at noon, and the owner let me spend a half an hour seated at my windowside table with a borrowed pen, as I sipped an apéritif of chilled Pineau des Charentes rosé and gazed out the window towards (more or less) the country I was headed for two days later. As I finished my postcards and wine, other guests started arriving, and I picked up the menu to choose my meal, though I'd already decided that it was going to be seafood and nothing but. I ended up choosing sea snails and also land snails, instead of the eel dish I was also considering, since it wasn't really eel season and their recipe included lots of butter. I hesitated between the regular seafood platter and the "oyster-seller's" seafood platter, remembering the last time I'd had raw oysters before starting on a day-long international journey.

I decided to be brave, especially since I had the next day to recover if necessary before getting on a train. The oysters didn't twitch when I dripped lemon juice on them, but they were fresh-tasting and briny. The mussels in vinaigrette were amazing and I could have eaten those alone for lunch, and I thought of Mom as I pried the sea snails out of their shells and bit off the tough foot plates before dipping them in mayonnaise. The land snails, cooked with ground veal and bacon and tomatoes, were a dark meaty contrast to the sweet saltiness of the sea snails.

I had a glass of wine from the vineyard at the top of the cliffs, and savored the final drops just as the sun got low enough to shine into my eyes. It was time to go back inland and return the car, and finish packing for the train trip to England. I'm so grateful to Nikki for letting me use the car so I could see more of the region, and I hope to go back to do all of the things I didn't get around to doing this time: seeing the snail farmers in action (very very slow action), visiting Domaine Elisabeth (of course!) to taste the cognac, and exploring the town of Cognac itself, and the other medieval towns of Pons and Saintes and Angoulême.

There are so many reasons why two years was not enough time to live in France. I'll go back, one day.

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