Our little gîte was positioned on a high plain north of the city of Pézenas. The tiny village, Fouzilhon, in the Hérault département, is situated on a hill with a medieval church positioned on the summit. The old house formed part of an ancient terrace of houses, evidently built haphazardly over the centuries with that shabby-chic quality that is signally french.
Inside we found the usual: curiously uneven and uncarpeted floors, high ceilings, a strange agglomeration of mismatching furniture, a fairly new IKEA kitchen (of the type referred to in french property classifieds as cuisine américaine, but I have yet to see a kitchen in the USA quite like one of these), first class coffee-making equipment, dark unexpected cubbyholes, lumpy noisy beds, beautiful vistas from blue-shuttered windows, and flies, everywhere.
This would be our family home for the next week.
Despite the flies, which we never completely managed to get rid of, it proved to be an excellent base for the bulk of our family time together dans le Midi; there was a large above-ground pool, situated on a terraced slope facing the house, a sun deck above that, and an area for barbecuing and outdoor dining, all with spectacular views over the vine-clad plateau which surrounded us.
During our time there, apart from the inevitable and essential trips to Lidl, Carrefour, and various local markets, we paid several enjoyable visits to the beautiful & quaint town of Pézenas, once made famous by the playwright Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622-1673) better known as Molière (the nom-de-plume he used probably to save his family the embarrassment of a relative associated with the theatre).
He was based here in the 1650s and although Jean-Baptiste was born in Paris, Molière was effectively born in Pézenas, as Pagnol is famous for quipping.
We discovered this gem of a town whilst on holiday in this region with the Shilling family last year. We had gone there in search of moules-frites, and were very successful. But after dinner, and literally just around the corner from where we were sitting, we had also stumbled across a labyrinth of narrow winding lanes, overlooked by grand edifices, tall timeworn buildings containing a vast selection of tiny bazaars, boutiques, emporiums and galleries displaying local arts, crafts and cuisine.
From time to time a wander up one of these alleyways would lead you to an open plaza with street musicians, bars, bistros and cafés spilling out on to the cobbled road where old and young mingled together, all a joyful hubbub and hullabaloo. It was a totally un-British phenomenon. There were crowds of people but it was not crowded. Moreover it was around 11pm and the place was sill thronging with families, singles, youths, senior citizens, tourists and locals happily dining, shopping, civilly drinking, laughing, thoroughly enjoying the night and each other’s company.
Unfortunately last year we only discovered Pézenas on our very last night! We kicked ourselves that we had been so close – even shopped at the Lidl on the outskirts of the town several times during our stay – and yet had missed the magic of the centre.
Like St Guilhem-le-Désert and Carcassonne, the French have managed to retain in Pézenas that sense that nothing has really changed for centuries. You would not be surprised to turn a corner and find Molière and his acting troupe entertaining a crowd with L’Avare.
It is in fact an historic Roman market town so it’s been around for nearly two millenia. It was probably famous for its fish; the inhabitants to this day are known as piscenois (cf. French piscine – meaning ‘swimming pool’ orginally from the Latin piscis – a fish). Hey! Yes, I know. That’s enough etymology.
Well, we made up for it this year.
We went a several times by day and by night, enjoying the sights and sounds; some great jazz one evening as we sat and ate dinner, a brilliant young lady vocalist, some traditional accordion music another time down one street, which – despite the fact that the accordion is to hell what the harp is to heaven – seemed quite pleasant and appropriate after a pastis and a decent helping of cassoulet.
Like other towns nearby a popular, bustling market is held one certain days during the week, virtually taking over many of the streets and squares and selling about anything you care to imagine along with some useful and tasty things.
Nearer the centre of town there is a large pétanque area where you can witness all the generations demonstrating their skills with the metal boules, causing them to make what I used to think was a “p’tunk!” sound giving the game an onomatopœic name. However it actually comes from the old Langue d’Oc tongue mentioned earlier; a phrase [peds ancas] meaning ‘feet anchored’. [Profuse apologies! Inadvertantly dipped into etymology again.]
One of the Pézenas highlights for Lucy, Grace and Emily was an offbeat little ice-cream parlour selling its special glaces à pétales – ice-creams and sorbets deftly sculptured into the shape of flower petals – which became a regular dessert!