The Historic Estivales Fair
This town on the mighty Rhone has always been a trading hub. It was a crossroads between river trade, land routes like oh-so important Via Domitia and then later serving as the terminus of the Canal du Rhône à Sète in 1811. So it’s not surprising that the Counts of Toulouse picked the town to host an annual trade fair in 1217. Beaucaire was again honored by the King of France with the Fair de la Madeleine in 1453. For nearly 800 years, these annual commercial markets gathered merchants from throughout the Mediterranean on the modern location of the city’s wonderfully quaint bullring, north of the city and adjacent to the Rhone. The Fair quickly grew to be the largest commercial gathering on the Mediterranean and was so profitable that it expanded from a week to a month by the 18th century. Although the Fair looks much different today, the Estivales starts each July 21 and continues a celebration of the area’s rich heritage with exciting carnivals, bullfights, and the headlining bull run.
The Epitome of Medieval Citadels
Where to start with Carcassonne? The old medieval walled Cité of Carcassonne remains the largest fortress in Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as a result. But the visitor’s experience is mind-blowing. The stronghold developed over time but the earliest portion of the outter wall dates to the 3rd century while the inner wall was constructed in the 12th century. From Gauls to Romans to Visigoths to the French, Carcassonne was a strategic citadel on the frontier for over a millennium. Even the Crusaders took part in the action, beseiging the town to expel the heretic Cathars in 1209. Today, the Cité exhibits the life and defenses of the middle ages. Its double-curtain wall has no fewer than fourteen towers on the outter and twenty-four on the inner ramparts. Features like a water-less moat, drawbridges, towers, and a fortified path all protected the small town inside, complete with cathedral, and small shops not to be outdone by the inner Chateau de Comtal, which is a fortress in and of itself that displays the first use of hoardings, or wooden ramparts. No doubt, the old Cité is a marvel, but one that we must remember was largely the image of the iconic 19th century architect Viollet-le-Duc. Like Baron Haussmann in Paris, Le Duc drove the Second Republic’s love of the ideal and was entrusted to restore the landmark from 1853-1879.
Four of my favorite things are wine, food, relaxing, and sun. Fortunately the region from Trèbes to Ginestas offer the perfect blend of each. This is the home of the Minervois AOC, part of the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region. It is known for its arid climate and breathtaking landscapes. In the town of La Livinière sees some of the best production with wineries such as Domaine Piccinini, Chateau de Gourgezard, and Chateau Faiteau. The reds dominate the AOC’s production, focusing on Mourvèdre and going well with a nice veal ragout. In the heat of summer, however, a local white or rosé will be especially refreshing. Whether you are cruising on the Canal du Midi or watching the peloton go by, grab some local meats and wines and be sure to take in life.
A UNESCO WHS for the Sheep
The last 130 kilometers or so of the 2018 Stage 14 Tour takes place in the unique wilderness of the Cévennes National Park. Amazingly, the last 80 are within the Causses and Cévennes Mediterranean Agro-Pastoral Cultural Landscape, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2011. From almost the start, the terrain goes up, first slowly and then with increasing steepness towards Mont Lozere. This final climb could see some exhilarating action, as well as put spectators in an ideal location to visit Le-Pont-de-Montvert. This tiny village of only a few hundred residents perfectly represents the region’s historic and cultural landscapes and is also one of the Cévennes’s most beautiful towns. Use Le-Pont-de-Montevert as a door to discover this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town’s architecture is steeped in history, a place where travelers like author Robert Lewis Stevenson have ventured throughout time. But any town in this storied region is just a window into the historical significance of the larger area, for the Causses and Cévennes has developed over the past 1,000 years thanks to a notable ago-pastoralism – a landscape defined by the nature of grazing and herding. Strong transhumance, or seasonal migration patterns developed in the 12th century and continue to this day. For this reason, the villages of the Causses and Cévennes are beautiful to behold, but the true magic lies in witnessing the on-going manners in which humans interact with the land and their livestock to recreate strong traditions.
Not far from Montpellier is one of France’s many spectacular illustrations of Roman civilization. If it seems as though this part of France is strewn with Roman antiquities, you are not far off for it has been said that France has the best preserved Roman ruins anywhere in Europe. Unlike other loactions, like Nîmes, this place called Ambrussum was a staging point along the 500 kilometer Via Domitia between now Italy and Spain. First built around 120 BC, was built to facilitate the conquest of southern Gaul (France) by general Domitius Ahenobarbus. Every 30 kilometres, staging points offered stables, accommodations, repair facilities, and baths. The road alignment through here was adjacent to a much older settlement that was reinforced and defended in the late 4th century BC. The settlement enjoyed a four hundred year span and the pronounced use of the Via here is shown by the well-worn tracks embedded in the stone. The nearby Pont de Ambroix is also a national monument that, although reduced to one arc in the Vidourle River, completes the scene with what must have been an impressive structure for the time and place.
The remote town of Mende sits at the edge of the Grand Causses, an area historically known as Gévaudan. In fact, Mende sits at the foot of Mount Mimat, which enjoys a commanding view of the town, some 300 meters (1,000 feet) below. The stage finishes up Mount Mimat and it will not only be a spectacular place to see the race, but a great vantage point to see this medieval city with its cathedral in the center. With narrow streets, an original city layout, and some wonderful architecture, Mende is a great place to explore some of the lesser known pre-Revolutionary history of France. As historian William Beik has explained in his article titled “Urban Factions and the Social Order During the Minority of Louis XIV,” he illustrates that Mende was an exemplary study of popular uprisings in the mid-17th century that initiated chinks in the armor of royal absolutism, a central aspect of French governance throughout its history. In particular, Beik looks at the Languedoc region between 1635 and 1660, a period during which Mende witnessed seven public disturbances. For a town of 5,000, this was on notable par with places lie Montpelier and Toulouse. Certainly, this had to do with a rise in prices and taxes, but Beik explains that such events give rise to lower class spontaneous uprisings. What was occurring in towns like Mende, however, were pre-meditated riots and demonstrations by the middle class and even more interesting, by women, united against an inconsistent royal system that seemed to back the corruption of local, immoral, leaders. This was only reversed by the genius that became the reign of Louis XIV as he became more entrenched in his control sovereignty. As you visit Mende, however, picture these different factions coming together in the streets of this small town to come to terms with the rule of absolutism. Walk its streets, visit its squares, cross the Pont Notre-Dame, and gaze at its cathedral – imagine this place a place in turmoil.
A Roman Kaleidoscope
There are few historical developments that leave more of an imprint on the landscape than the enormous remnants of the Étang de Montady. Looking at the ground from above, it’s like a kaleidoscope of beige and green. But what is it? Literally, this was the pond of Montady. Perhaps more like a swamp, monks created an elaborate drainage system to reclaim the land for agricultural use in 1270. The radial channels, which number more than 65 and are 1200 meters in length in some location, drained the water in an organized network towards the center. There, a drain was installed that carried the water underground south through the imposing Malpas hill which would also later prove to be a difficulty when building the Canal du Midi. On a hill overlooking the “pond” is also the longtime Roman settlement, or oppidium, of Ensérune that was continuously occupied for 800 years. Today, the fields of the étang continue to be planted with various kinds of crops, including grapes.
A Triumphant Montpellier
Montpellier is an underappreciated yet subdued city. The highlight is right downtown where old meets new. Begin at La Promenade de Peyrou, where the 17th century Saint Clement aqueduct runs for 800 meters above ground, gradually gaining in elevation and grandeur until it ends at the Pavilion de Peyrou and the pool it guards over. From this position, the Pavilion stands tall above a mirage of city streets below. This is the “modern” city center, where water ran downhill to feed the public fountains. The Promenade is also the main civic square, lined with trees around a wide pedestrian boulevard that meets at the 17th century Arc de Triomphe, built to commemorate the victories, civil, religious, and military, of King Louis XIV. Through the large arc, the smaller old city awaits with the early 17th century citadel guarding the city to the north and the modern Antigone District to the south. Here Montpellier shows its complexity, for the city came to prominence under Aragon (Spanish) rule for several hundred years before coming under French rule in 1349. The citadel was built by Louis XIII after reclaiming the port from Protestants in 1622. As a bookend to this royal development, the City hired Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill to design the new Antigone District to bring the city’s history full circle.
The Camino Well Travelled
Everyone knows and dreams of the legendary Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route to the final resting place of St. James in Compostela, Spain. While the most famous of these routes starts in the Pyrenean village of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port along the Spanish border, most people don’t know that dozens of routes exist. There was no one way to Compostela and pilgrims came from all over Europe to receive penance for their sins. In France, the main routes started in Paris, Arles, Vezelay, and Le Puy. The route from Le Puy to Conques, comprised the first leg of the Via Podiensis. From Le Puy to St-Jean, the Via covers some 632 kilometers before picking up the main route to Compostela. In Nasbinal, the Eglise Saint-Victor is one of the holy stops along the way. Just beyond Nasbinals is the former monastery and hospital of Aubrac. Founded in the 12th century, the monastery’s monks provided a welcome resting place for weary pilgrims and one more place to give thanks.
Nîmes Arena: Where History Meets Modernity
There are few places like Nîmes, where the ancient meets the contemporary so well. This Roman center, once home to even 60,000 residents and situated on the same Via Domitia we explored earlier in the week at Ambrussum, Nîmes features numerous Roman relics to explore. Primary among these is the Arena. Centrally located in the town, the arena was built in from 90-120 AD. While smaller than the mighty arena at Arles, Nîmes’ structure was built some 80 years before and is still an impressive monument to the past. More impressive, the huge blocks of stone were quarried locally, making its construction a marvel in engineering. Today, bloodless bullfights are still held in the arena which gives modern spectators a surreal impression of life and entertainment two thousand years ago. There is also a wonderful museum on site that begins on the bottom floor and treats visitors to an understanding of the social and political undertones of the gladiator fights once held here and even the bullfights still popular today.
Peeling Back the Mask of Molière
On the outskirts of this old town is a place that continues one of its most renowned traditions. It was here that Molière came emerged. Sure, he was born and died in Paris, but Pézenas is where Jean-Baptiste Poquelin truly became “Molière.” At the age of 21, Molière and a few friends formed L’Illustre Theatre. Within two years, this “illustrious theatre” took to the road and wound up in the south of France, mainly in Languedoc. Several times the troupe passes through Pézenas, but 1650, L’Illustre theatre was called on to perform for the Etats Généraux du Languedoc, which was then held in Pézenas. As the troupe’s director, Molière was named the court’s Comedian, a high-ranking position. When the political situation dissipated, Molière and the troupe vacated. Nevertheless, the Languedoc’s inspiration, and particularly Pézenas, can be seen in his works and remain a proud local tradition. Today, the acclaimed L’Illustre Theatre is a great place to take in nightly entertainment in the summer and the town’s historic theatre, from 1803-1947, is a showcase for Molière and the theatre’s impact on Pézenas.
Launching into a New Tour Climb
The Tour de France is full of annual surprises, not only in the peloton, but on the road as well. That is what I have learned after exploring every kilometer of the Tour’s route for the past four years. Just when you thought there wasn’t another climb to conquer, the Tour finds another unknown or forgotten summit to ascend. In 2018, this surprise was the Pic de Nore, a peak in the Massif Central’s Montagne Noire rising 1,211 meters and looking quite a bit like Mont Ventoux. On Stage 15, the Pic de Nore climb comes at the tail end of the day, a 19-kilometer climb of 1,002 meters with an average gradient of 5.4% and max of 12.2%. This blip on the elevation profile could be the perfect sling shot for a daring break-away to achieve victory during the last 38-kilometer descent into the medieval town of Carcassonne. While the top is exposed to the elements like its bigger sister Ventoux, Nore is perhaps more beautiful thanks to the prolific coniferous forest that protects most of the mountain. At the peak, a 102-meter tv transmitter tower (one-third the height of the Eiffel Tower) sits like a red and white stripped rocket ready to launch off its pad. Making its Tour de France debut, spectators should get to know this climb for it surely won’t be the last.