It was only a short fifteen-minute walk to the Estació De Franca, the station where our train to Montpellier would depart, early for us, at 8:45 am. It was a Saturday morning and the streets were exceptionally quiet. The rains that had fallen during the nights we were in Barcelona, had washed the streets clean and reduced the pollution in the air. It was fresh, we were comparatively fresh, and we were ready to take on a new country, a new language, and new food.
I had been more than pleasantly surprised that I was able to tolerate Spanish wine, but I didn’t hold out much hope for French wines. I had experienced some of my worst migraines after having even just a little French wine in a sauce on some meat I had ordered in the past. I don’t want to sound like wine is the be all and end all of my existence, but just try to imagine for a minute, touring Spain, France, and Italy without having the opportunity to enjoy a glass (or two) of a hearty red wine with you meal. The trip would be unforgettable for many reasons, but for me, unforgettable because every one around me would be enjoying the wine, and I would be drinking sparkling water.
We struggled to come up with ideas for a hostess gift to take for Wynne Blades, our host for a few days in the small town of Montagnac, about an hour’s drive outside of Montpellier. Wynne taught at Tempo along with Anil, starting several years after he did in 1974. She taught our children Raj and Adia in primary school and has been a close friend. She just retired from Tempo and decided to start the school year off with a trip to Paris and three weeks in the south of France. When she learned we would be traveling from Spain along the coast of France, she kindly invited us to join her and Brian at their rented home in Montagnac.
I knew Wynne would be shopping in Paris and we didn’t want to load her down with ‘stuff’, so we picked up some typical Spanish cheese from the market and when we spied some wine from Argentina and Chile in a shop, we chose a Malbec and a Camenere, wines typical to each of the countries we visited in South America. There was an alternate motive in our madness. If I was going to hesitate trying French wines, I could drink the two we brought, ones I know wouldn’t trouble me, and buy some French wine that Wynne liked as a gift for the house.
We boarded what looked like an old rattletrap of a train, quite a surprise after the posh trains we had been enjoying on our travels around Spain. Perhaps both Spain and France were only too happy to pass off their oldest coaches on people moving from one country to the other. The seats were comfortable enough, but the toilets reminded me of the trains in India and I became determined to use them as little as possible during our journey. Our coach was a small one and most of the other passengers were German students, most likely returning home after a school trip to Spain. For the first part of the trip, they were very quiet, we thought it was early for us; it was clearly even earlier for them.
The countryside was beautiful as we headed along the coastal plain, but I was lulled by the motion of the train, and fell asleep too. I did wake up in time to see the Pyrenees rising to our left. I thought of Jane Christmas, the author of ‘What The Psychic Told The Pilgrim’ and hoped that the mountains weren’t as high at the other side of the peninsula, where she crossed over on foot from France into Spain on the Camino de Compostela. Our passports were checked as we crossed into France and once the students were awake, they started to chatter nonstop. I was glad they were speaking in German because I find when you don’t understand the language, it becomes just background noise and it isn’t as irritating.
The train continued along the coast and we enjoyed the beautiful views of the Mediterranean. Before long, we found that we were traveling on a narrow strip of land with water on both sides of the train track. We didn’t realize that there is a huge lagoon along the coast here and that the train takes the shortest route between two points and rumbles along seemingly floating on water. We were delighted to see hundreds of birds and huge areas where salt is evaporated from the seawater. The scenery held our attention for some time and we were surprised to find ourselves approaching Montpellier and the end of our journey.
Wynne and Brian were waiting at the station as planned and it was a grand reunion. We never dreamed we would ever be together in France, perhaps this will be the start of other such meetings as we continue to travel during our retirement years, and Wynne just gets going. It’s clear that she is enjoying the freedom from the restrictions the school year puts on teachers. The inability to travel during some of the best times of the year, spring and fall, has been very restrictive for the past thirty or more years.
Wynne had packed a basket with cheese, olives, cold cuts, wine, glasses and the requisite baguette. Her plan was to stop along the way from Montpellier to Montagnac for a picnic lunch. The weather was lovely, much warmer than northern Spain and we were only too happy to indulge our fantasy of an al fresco meal. Brian and Wynne had discovered an alternate route that pass through fields of grapes growing on either side of the road. The road was lined with tall trees, that locals said date back to the time of Napoleon. We weren’t too sure about that, his troops were probably too busy raping and pillaging to plant trees for shade, but it sounded like a good legend.
After filling ourselves and consuming the bottle of wine, we set off again and Wynne pointed out some of the places that they had visited during the three weeks that they had spent in the region. We were headed back in the direction from which we had come, and I was surprised to see large platforms in the bay, towards the end of the lagoon we had seen earlier. The platforms were used for farming mussels and oysters, and they made a lovely pattern with the dark wood against the brilliant blue water. Wynne has been following my travel journals, and she was only too willing to stop for me to take a photo for my entry about Montagnac.
Wynne was doing all the driving, and Brian sat very quietly in the passenger seat. We learned that Brian had suffered a bad fall just before leaving for France, and had bruised his tailbone. He was still in a lot of pain, and found it impossible to sit comfortably in the car and drive. I’m not sure that he was entirely comfortable with Wynne’s driving, especially as she gave us a running commentary on the merits of the region as she drove.
We arrived in the petit town and Wynne dropped us off at the end of a lane with our luggage. The car was large by European standards, and it was difficult to maneuver it into the garage below the apartment. Wynne parked it along the edge of the town square, but a short walk away. She told us of how she had tried to pay the parking charges when they first arrived, and how the locals had just waved her away when she asked how the ticket machine worked. No one paid for parking, no one ever checked to see if tickets were ever purchased.
We climbed the tall set of stairs to the small terrace above the cavernous garage and found ourselves in a little bit of French heaven. There was a small table covered with the quintessential French tablecloth and the doors into the two adjoining apartments were painted bright blue. We learned that the smaller of the two apartments was now vacant, but that a newly married couple from Edmonton had been there earlier. The four Canadians had enjoyed sharing the terrace, several meals and many more bottles of wine together.
Wynne showed us around the two-storey apartment and we climbed the incredibly steep stairs to the bedrooms above. The two bedrooms were bright and airy, with high ceilings and whitewashed walls. I loved the huge wooden beams protruding from the ceiling above the bed and the lace curtains hanging in the window. What a great little home for the next few days. While I settled in, Anil and Wynne went out to the nearby shops and picked up some simple items for supper. We decided we wanted to have a light meal on the terrace and just enjoy catching up on each other’s stories about travel in Paris and Madrid.
The sun set quickly and Wynne lit a number of candles on the table and on the walls of the terrace; it was an enchanting setting. When we added the Spanish cheese and the wines from Chile and Argentina, to the mushroom pies, French cheeses, pickles, breads and French wine, we were all set for a great evening of pleasant chatter. It was then I realized that I had quite happily consumed the French wine on our picnic that afternoon, without giving a moment’s thought to a possible migraine. Rats, I hoped that my slip wouldn’t mean that I would spend a full day in bed suffering with a headache, instead of being able to enjoy our visit with our friends. We were staying for three nights instead of two, as it made sense to leave at the same time as Brian and Wynne were planning to take the train back to Paris. Three nights would mean that we would have two full days to relax and perhaps see a little of the region.
We had a great evening and it was especially good getting the chance to know Brian a little better. He is a quiet man, in the manner of Anil, and that makes sense because Wynne is quite a talker, in the manner of yours truly. There’s really only room for one compulsive talker in any relationship, wouldn’t you agree?
Editor’s Note: The women talk and the men listen with great attention!!!
After dinner, I was surprised to find Brian asking us how we met. He hasn’t known us nearly as long as Wynne has, and it seemed he was curious as to how Anil came to Canada and the two of us ended up happily together after 35 years. Well, if you know me, and you must if you are reading this, you will know that Brian opened himself up for a long, long story.
Anil didn’t say too much, I don’t usually give him a chance, but he put his points forward now and then, to agree or disagree with aspects of my tale. Every time I digressed, and I digress easily, Brian would have another sip of his white wine, and say, “But back to the story of how you met Anil, please”. It was late when I finally got to the point of the story, and we were all worn out, me with talking and the other three with listening. We mounted the steep staircase and slept like babes while the bells from the nearby church chimed the hours.
I should tell you a little about the bells. Another of my digressions, please indulge me. Wynne warned me that the bells chime each hour, with one chime each and every half-hour in between. She also pointed out, that the bells ring twice each time, with a small interval in between. She said the first series of chimes alerts you to the fact that it is the top of the hour once again, the second series of chimes allows you to count out the hour. This was a delight and the only time I found it a little confusing was at one o’clock in the morning. I awoke sometime after midnight, to hear one bell ring. Well it was half past something, for sure.
I dozed off and heard another single strike of the bell. Was it another half past another something, or was it one o’clock? I waited a few minutes and when the second chime sounded again, I knew the correct time. I heard the bells off and on during the night, but never minded hearing them. It’s a peaceful sound, especially when you don’t have to rise early to face a long day of work or other obligations. When I woke much later with the sun streaming in the windows and I heard the bell chime nine times, I knew it was time to make a move. Wynne must have risen earlier because I could smell the delightful aroma of coffee brewing. It was heavenly not to have to dress and go out to a café for my first latté of the day.
Wynne had not only made coffee, she had already been out to the patisserie for fresh croissants. Does it get any better than this? We made a pact with Wynne, she wasn’t to wait on us hand and foot while we visited, we would make the coffee in the morning, pick up the croissants and do the dishes. We wanted their last few days in Montagnac to be as relaxing as possible. We surely didn’t want them to regret inviting us to join them. After breakfast, Anil and I went for a long walk to explore the town and give our hosts a break till it was time for lunch.
It was a lovely Sunday morning in a lovely French provincial town. At one point, as we walked by a small stone fence by a little home, I could smell the distinct aroma of goat’s cheese. It seemed strange. I took a couple of steps further and the smell of lavender was unmistakable. I mentioned it to Anil because lavender has been a favorite fragrance since I was a child. Two steps further on, by the same little house, the smell of a delicious meal being prepared reminded us that it was time to have our own mid-day meal with Wynne and Brian, and that they were waiting for us to return so that we could drive to the coast for a meal by the sea.
We walked back to the house and then out to the car park and sped off as I think we were a little later than we had planned to be. Brian was dreaming of another meal of oysters and mussels, from a restaurant near where we had seen the oyster beds lined up in the bay. Before we knew it, we left the highway and entered a little town, with a long row of restaurants facing the bay. There were tables everywhere, but there were also cars parked in every available space. Wynne regretted not making a reservation.
We searched for a free table, but to no avail. When we did spot one here and there, we were told it was already reserved. At last we found a table that didn’t have a reserved sign on it, but when we made an attempt to sit down, the waiter waived us away. It seemed like they weren’t interested in taking any new diners, even though it wasn’t yet 2:30 pm. This seemed a little early to Anil and me as we were very used to eating hours in Spain and there, the restaurants didn’t even want to see your face before 2:30 in the afternoon. Different country, different cultures.
We headed back to our terrace for a tapas meal and a nap; with the thought in mind that we would go out for a nice meal in the evening to make up for the disappointment in the afternoon. In the end, Brian didn’t get his oysters, but be had a great meal in a neighbouring town and got to listen to a woman sing some lovely French songs. I had every intention of pressing Brian to tell us about how he and Wynne got together late in life, after their high-school romance fizzled. Brian’s back was bothering him, so he headed off to bed early and Wynne was left to tell us the tale.
On our last day in Montagnac, we carried on with our morning routine of coffee and pastries and took some time to chat with Wynne about her plans for retirement and about the changes that she has seen at Tempo School since Anil retired. We had a very relaxing day after that with everyone resting in the afternoon, reading books or napping, whatever caught their fancy. We enjoyed the ‘down’ time immensely after the hectic pace we had set for ourselves in Spain. In the afternoon, we chose to eat on the main street of Montagnac, at a place that Wynne and Brian had been meaning to visit, but had never got around to in their three weeks there.
Anil and Brian ate the lamb, but I was more adventurous, and ate rabbit for the first time. The meat reminded me a little of chicken, but was a tad tough. I had a hard time not thinking about my sister’s pet rabbit all through the meal. I don’t think I’ll eat bunny again. In the afternoon, we all busied ourselves packing and preparing to close up the apartment. It had been a great visit, extremely relaxing, a fine introduction to France, especially the south.
The next morning we set off for Montpellier’s train station. Wynne and Brian were booked on the Eurostar for Paris and we were planning on heading to the French Riviera. When Wynne asked where we were planning to go, we told her Avignon, Marseilles or Nice. We hadn’t quite decided yet. She laughed, imagine going to a train station not knowing your exact destination. We told her we like it this way, not being locked into a strict itinerary. We like to wander and see what’s over the next hill, even though we don’t always know which hill in advance. C’est la vie!