Monday, 20 February 2012

Morocco, A Unexpected Shopping Tour of the Fez Medina

But this relief from the hard sell routine didn’t last long because as we walked through the dusty back alleys Hussein suddenly declared that he knew a shortcut and knocked on a wooden door with flaking blue paint and rusty red hinges and as it creaked open and we were invited inside it was obvious that this was not a sudden shortcut recollection at all and that we were inside another shop and I was beginning to detect a pattern here and for someone not generally very keen on shops it was not very pleasant discovery because the truth was that we had been duped into a shopping tour! I shared this suspicion with the others and the girls just smirked in a knowing sort of way.
This time it was an antique and jewelry shop and the owner, a Berber of course, offered us mint tea and said that he would be offended if we said no and invited us to look around the shop while the kettle boiled. I’d had enough tea already so wasn’t looking forward to any more but luckily Micky came to the rescue and after a bit of bartering bought some silver (well, perhaps it was silver) bracelets and after the deal was done we were allowed to leave and as the kettle whistled to an empty shop everyone seemed relieved to forget about the tea.

There was no attempt by Hussein to disguise the true purpose of our tour now as he rushed us past things that might have been interesting to see with indecent haste because there were no shops and presumably no commission to be earned straight into another shop selling embroidered table cloths and napkins which we escaped from quite quickly but only directly into another one selling bedspreads and brightly coloured scarves and handkerchiefs. Here the owner had a more effective sales technique where he corralled us all into a corner in the back of the shop with no easy escape route and kept banging on and showing samples in the hope that eventually one of us would lose the will to live and get a wallet out and it worked because after a few minutes we felt obliged to buy a couple of inexpensive scarves before elbowing our way towards the door.

Outside there was a saddle makers shop but we didn’t stop and I can only assume that this was because Hussein didn’t have a deal going there because of the fact that not many tourists are in the market for buying leather saddles in Fez on account of the difficulty in getting them home because of the Ryanair personal baggage allowance restrictions.

It was lunchtime now and Hussein led us straight into another trap – a Berber restaurant where before we knew it we were sat down and ordering off the menu of the day whether we wanted it or not. Actually it was rather nice and we enjoyed a selection of salad dishes for a shared starter and then a main course, most of us had some sort of traditional chicken pastry pie, and then fruit to finish. It was good but there was a shock to come because the bill came to about £150 which is about three times what we are usually prepared to pay for lunch and that presumably included a healthy percentage for our guide.

The first stop after lunch was a spice and argan oil shop. Argan oil is valued for its nutritive, cosmetic and numerous medicinal properties but is one of the rarest oils in the world due the small and very specific growing areas because it is produced from the kernels of the argan tree which are only found in Morocco. By this time we were becoming rather sceptical about whether this was authentic or simply a set-up for the tourists and when we saw the girl who was going to give the demonstration being rushed into position and bundled into traditional clothing we were certain that we were being had!

Naturally there was a shop attached and after the lesson on argan oil production we were invited to look around and try some samples. Actually it really was rather good but also terribly expensive so once again we apologised for not making a purchase and slipped out and away from the hard sell routine as quickly as we could. It’s a real nuisance and a shame because it rules out any sort of browsing in the shops of the souks. There seems to be a collective ethos which is determined to separate visitors from their cash as quickly as they can. There is no understanding that most tourists have a budget and no comprehension of or concessions made to the European or western style of shopping.

Next it was a tannery and the price to pay for a rooftop view of the famous limestone dye pits was another difficult twenty minutes in a leather shop selling coats, jackets, slippers and bags. I didn’t think we were going to get out of there very easily but again Micky was our saviour when he negotiated the purchase of a belt and we were able to get away. Abdul was waiting for us outside the tannery and he loaded us up into the taxi and we set off for the other end of the souk.

We could have walked the short distance but this was no use to Hussein who really needed to keep us altogether because there was one last shop to visit. Abdul dropped us off at Fez’s most picturesque entrance, the Blue Gate, Bab Boujloud, blue on one side, the colour of Fez and green on the other, the Muslim colour of peace. We walked a short way into the souk which on account of this being Friday was disappointingly quiet and closing up for the day and then we ended up in a silversmiths shop where there were more invitations to look and buy but I think they sensed that we were all shopped-out by now and not in purchasing mood and so they let us go quite quickly.

Abdul drove us back to the Riad and then it was time to settle up with Hussein. We asked how much and he said there was no set price and we should pay what we thought the tour was worth. This was difficult for us because we had no idea so we pressed him for some clues on what he might expect and we decided on €60 which he seemed to be happy with. We said goodbye and he hurried off presumably back to the shops and the restaurant to pick up his commission on the sales and I expect Abdul was getting a cut as well because surprisingly there was no charge for his services today.

Back at the Riad we captured the sunset from the rooftop terrace and then we rested and played cards in anticipation of walking out later to a restaurant recommended by Hussein but after an hour or so it started to rain, not just light rain that you can walk out in but heavy driving rain which turned the alleys into streams of mud and made it impossible to go out, the sort of rain where you could be sure that the sales assistant in the carpet shop wouldn’t be attempting the three hour walk home. Luckily we weren’t that hungry after the big lunch so we sat and wasted the evening away, drank our duty free wine and some mint tea and simply enjoyed the company of good friends until it was time to go to bed because, weather permitting, tomorrow we were going on a day trip out of the city.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Morocco, Fez Carpet Sales

Abdul drove us as far as he could towards the centre but was finally obliged to stop at a gate which marked the beginning of the pedestrianised area of the Medina. The Fez souk is claimed to be one of the largest contiguous vehicle free areas in the world but it is not completely without traffic because this pedestrianised restriction relates only to motorised transport and there were plenty of push carts, bicycles and donkeys to keep an eye out for once inside the congested narrow streets.

The Souk was busy with street traders setting up and attending their stalls and this was quite unlike anything we had ever seen or visited before and it was everything we had expected but more with a riot of colour and frenetic activity that was exciting and vibrant. We followed Hussein through the streets and the food markets in a northerly direction and here was a whole new experience with street after street of shops all overflowing with things for sale that we didn’t need and we had no intention of buying but each with an owner who didn’t understand this and was determined if he possibly could to part us from the cash in our wallets.

Some of the shops were no bigger than a broom cupboard and many of them sold exactly the same things and as we walked through we were under constant pressure from the owners all trying to entice us with a ‘special price’. What didn’t help in establishing whether this was a special price or not was that nothing was priced in the first place which meant this form of shopping was very difficult process for people like us who are not used to haggling.

Our guide led us into the centre of the oldest part of the city and invited us to gaze into the central Mosque through its several open doors but we couldn’t go in of course because as infidels this is forbidden. It was approaching midday and there was a call to the most important prayers of the day and also, because this was Friday, the most important of the week. Hussein was getting edgy because he needed to get to prayers himself but he took the time to show us around an inner courtyard of the ancient university but time was running short for him so he anxiously hurried us through and then took us to a carpet shop next door where he left us with a replacement guide, who clearly wasn’t so concerned about getting to prayers, and disappeared quickly to the Mosque.

The new guide gave a brief introduction to carpet making in Morocco and then handed us over to a young assistant who led us through the maze of rooms to a staircase at the back of the building and invited us to join him on the roof. There was a good view and the young man poked a finger in the direction of the mountains to the south and told us that his village was over the top and in the next valley and that he walked to work every day and this took two hours – no wonder he looked fit. I asked him about going home at night and he said that this took three hours because it was uphill most of the way but if it was raining he might stay in Fez and kip down on one of the carpets.

The viewing session over we were then led back downstairs and provided with a cup of mint tea and then the sales pitch began. The first guide (who, surprise, surprise turned out to be a Berber) spoke excellent English, was intelligent and knowledgeable and a bit of an amateur philosopher who talked for awhile about the Berbers and life in Morocco in general whilst we sipped our tea and then the carpets started to come out as they were theatrically thrown down onto the floor accompanied by a bit of explanation about history, designs and methods of manufacture.

Soon there was a carpet barricade blocking our exit and I began to worry about how we might get away from here without buying a floor covering that we didn’t want and still the pile just kept getting higher and higher. Eventually it only seemed fair to be honest with him and tell him quite firmly that we didn’t need a new carpet, Kim told him that we had bought a new one from John Lewis only a couple of months previously but being unfamiliar with UK department stores this information was meaningless to him, we had no intention of buying one today here in Fez and we didn’t really want the sales demonstration in the first place.

His young accomplice gathered and rolled up all the carpets spread out before us and I think we all just wanted to leave but we couldn’t go straight away because our guide had not returned so we sat in uneasy silence in the demonstration room having all wasted each other’s time.

Eventually Hussein came back and I for one was pleased to leave and get back out into the streets to continue the tour.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Morocco, A Guided Tour of the Fez Medina

I was continuously restless after the five o’clock Adhan and didn’t really sleep properly again so eventually I got up early because to be truthful I was rather anxious to check the weather. At the top of the Riad there was a sun terrace and as I climbed the internal steps I could feel the warmth and brightness spilling through the open door and cascading down the staircase like a waterfall of sunshine and once on top I was rewarded with a perfect blue sky and a view over the whole of the city across rooftops decorated with thousands of satellite dishes all the way to the Atlas Mountains and I was satisfied that it was going to be a fine day.

Hotel breakfasts are always a bit of a lottery I find and they can range from thoroughly disappointing to exceptionally good and I am glad to say that this one was right at the upper end of the scale. There were pancakes and cakes, fresh juice and plenty of tea and coffee and some delicious fresh baked bread and a range of fruity preserves all served with an excellent and satisfying attention to detail.

We were planning a sightseeing tour of the souks today and the previous evening the owner of the Riad suggested that with over nine and a half thousand streets and unmarked alleyways creating a labyrinthine maze where we would be sure to get lost or pestered by local boys offering to show us around that it would probably be a good idea to employ the services of a proper guide who would show us around and look after us. This seemed sensible so we agreed and after breakfast we were introduced to our chaperone, Hussein who, before we left, explained our itinerary for the day that would begin with Abdul driving us out of the Medina to see some places on the outskirts of the city.

Abdul negotiated the narrow streets with impressive precision and through a gate punched into the eleventh century city wall which Hussein explained was fifteen kilometres long and currently under renovation and reconstruction. Fez is one of the four Royal cities of Morocco, the other three are Rabat (the capital), Marrakech and nearby Meknes, it is a UNESCO World Heritage city and claims to have the oldest Medina in the World (although I seem to remember that they told us this in Marrakech last year, so I cannot be certain if this is so).

Abdul drove the taxi along a road with city walls on one side and the gardens and the ochre coloured walls of the Royal Palace on the other. The King lives mostly in Rabat but will visit his other palaces every now and again so there was a heavy presence of military guards at strategic points around the walls. Our first stop was at the ornamental bronze main gates of the palace with carved cedar wood panels and blue tiled arches with elaborate wood and plaster decoration.

It was only a short stop and soon we were driving away from the city towards the Borj Sud or south tower which was once a strategic military fortress built to protect the city but is now no more than a tourist destination because of the fine views all across the city and beyond. We stayed here for a while and then returned to main road through intermittent olive groves where local people were harvesting the fruit in the traditional way by thrashing at the branches with a stout stick and knocking the fruit down onto plastic sheets which covered the ground below the trees.

Hussein explained that Fez is the religious and spiritual capital of Morocco and the theological centre of the country with the oldest Muslim university in the World. He also mentioned that it was the handicraft capital of the country where manufacture was strictly controlled by the government to ensure authenticity and tradition and that he would now take us to a place where Berber people made tiles and pots in a workshop that was run as a cooperative.

The Berbers are a unique ethnic group who live in North Africa, the oldest settlers in the region and quite different from the Arabs of Fez and the rest of Morocco. Squeezed in between the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Sahara Desert to the south the Berber communities have developed and thrived in the Atlas Mountains and it now turned out that Hussein himself was a Berber and it seemed likely that we were now being taken to see some of his pals.

The workshop was interesting but it didn’t look to us as though the kilns had been fired up for some time – they don’t fire on Fridays the guide told us but I suspect there would have been the same explanation whichever day of the week we had visited because there was no real evidence of any recent activity. He escorted us through the potters shop and a room with half a dozen men chipping away at tiles to make mosaic pieces and then a man making a traditional table which looked like a million piece jigsaw puzzle.

None of this was authentic of course - it was just a way of decieving gullible tourists and getting us through as quickly as possible to the pottery shop at the end of the tour where there was an overstocked room with far more items for sale than could ever have been produced by the handful of people allegedly working here. We bought a couple of pieces anyway and after they had been wrapped and paid for we were back in the taxi and returning to the Medina and the historical centre while Hussein calculated the commission that he would return and collect later.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Morocco, Riad Layali Fez

We travelled to Fez with Ryanair on a late afternoon flight and I am certain that they have crammed in even more seats onto the aircraft because there was barely enough room to turn the pages of an A5 book let alone a broadsheet newspaper that they sold me so I tried to sleep and managed this for about an hour of the three and a half hour flight and after that had to try and amuse myself as best as possible for the rest of the cramped ordeal.

The landing at Fez airport was delayed but there was no explanation for this but at least Ryanair couldn't play their 'arrived on time' fanfair'. When we stepped from the plane at about half past seven we were greeted with an unexpected chill blast which cut through our clothing into our flesh and meant that we had to turn our jacket collars up and button up our coats against the wind because the temperature was dangerously close to zero and even though it was December this surprised us.

There was a lot of congestion at passport control and an entry form to fill in which was probably the worst designed official form that I have ever been faced with. Despite dealing with all this bureaucratic nonsense however the queues actually went down very quickly and when it was our turn to be processed we were given our unique identity number which was theatrically stamped into our passports and waved through to where a supervisor checked them for a second time presumably to make sure it had been done properly by the first official.

Before travelling I had read some advice that said watch out for taxi drivers in Morocco who will gladly overcharge unsuspecting tourists. That is no different from anywhere else in the world of course but I was mindful of that and took the second piece of advice which said when arriving for the first time it was advisable to take a pre-booked shuttle service because finding places for the first time and in the dark can be difficult. At €30 it was a bit expensive but our driver, Abdul, was waiting for us as promised in the arrivals hall and he quickly loaded our bags and set off for the city just twenty kilometres away.

The traffic was mad and so was Abdul as he carved his way through the rush hour traffic coping brilliantly at roundabouts with the ludicrous French driving rule of priorité à droite where vehicles from the right always have priority at junctions and roundabouts and which was evidently still the norm here even though the French themselves have seen the sense of virtually abandoning it in their own country. There was no real lane discipline that I could make out with drivers simply filling any available space that opened up in front of them and the thirty minute journey was one extended game of ‘chance’ where drivers simply waited to see whose nerve would fold and who would yield first. We flashed past motorbikes and donkeys pulling wooden carts, pushbikes and pedestrians and at one point even encountered a camel train.

As he drove he pointed out the tourist must-see sites along the way and then took us through a narrow gate into a busy road with small shops on one side and a high wall on the other that turned out to be a school building that would be overrun with children the next day. He parked the car and unloaded our bags and suddenly darted into a side road, no more than an alley really with an uneven surface with houses and shops along one side, then through a dog-leg turn and into a narrower lane and by now we were glad that we had taken the shuttle bus option because we would never have found this place by ourselves that’s for sure.

Another turn and then a dead end with a wooden door in the wall but nothing to indicate that this might be our destination. He rang the bell and someone inside approached and let us in. Here was a complete contrast to the medley of noise and confusion outside with an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity in a tiny eight room guest house with an inner courtyard and a swimming pool and tables set out for dinner. This was the Riad Layali and it was immediately charming and delightful. We had chosen well and we were introduced to the staff, served mint tea and allocated our rooms.

We filled in another official form which seemed to serve no purpose other than to confirm what we had said on the entry form but the staff insisted that it was important because they had to register us at the police station tomorrow.

We had selected a Riad for our accommodation because we wanted to stay inside the walls of the old towns rather than in the modern corporate hotels of the new city on the other side of the walls. The Layali looked perfect and had good guest reviews and we were not disappointed. We had excellent rooms on the first floor with internal balconies overlooking the pool, nicely furnished bedrooms and big bathrooms.

As it was our first night we had chosen to eat at the Riad this evening and in the courtyard a table had been prepared for us so after we had moved in we made our way to the table and settled down for evening meal. Being in an Arab Muslim country we had been concerned about the availability of beer and wine and had brought some with us just in case but, and I don’t want to sound like an alcoholic here, we were relieved to find that the Layali had a licence to serve drink so we ordered the local varieties and then had a first meal of Moroccan salad, chicken tagine and fruit desert. To be honest it was a bit disappointing and not nearly as good as we had had in Marrakech a year previously but we ate it anyway and washed it down with the beer and wine which tasted almost illicit being here in a Muslim country.

It had been a long day and there was a lot to do tomorrow so we didn’t stay up late but went to bed looking forward to a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately no one told us about the Adhan which is the Islamic call to prayer, recited by a man called the Muezzin at various times of the day and starting it seems in the middle of the night. In total the Adhan is called out in every mosque five times a day, traditionally from a minaret, summoning Muslims for mandatory prayers and the main purpose behind the multiple loud pronouncements of every mosque is to make available to everyone an easily understood summary of Islamic belief. In the old days this would have been done by shouting from the highest window by the man with the loudest voice (like Brian Blessed perhaps) but now it is done with the help of loudspeakers and although Kim was oblivious to it all there was no way that I could sleep through this.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

France, Return to Carcassonne

On the way down to breakfast the next morning, knowing how precious the French can be about their language, I attempted some simple communication with the receptionist about the arrangements for petit dejeuner. I am fairly certain that I selected the right words but graciously concede that I may not have had them in the correct order and this is an annoying thing about the French because they like you to try and speak their language, which is fair, but then ridicule you if you don’t get everything absolutely grammatically correct, which isn’t very encouraging. It’s a good job we don’t humiliate them when they mangle the English language with zis and zat and their inability to understand when and when not to use the letter H, but anyway, this woman looked at me as though I was from the very bottom of the evolutionary chain and asked with a large dollop of sarcasm if I would prefer it if she spoke English? Most Europeans are really pleased if you attempt a few words but the French really don’t like anything that they perceive as a corruption of their ‘beautiful language’ and I nodded meekly and said yes please.

It was overcast and much cooler this morning as we walked through the streets of Castres to the car park and we were glad to get in the car, turn the heater on and set off back to Carcassonne for our early afternoon flight as yesterday’s blistering afternoon temperature was fading away into a recent memory. I was fairly sure of the way to go but the Satnav lady decided that I would like to take the difficult scenic journey instead of the direct route and before we reached the main road at Mazamet she took me onto a minor road and into the Forêt de Montaud and soon we were climbing again along winding roads through a deciduous beech forest back into the Black Mountains.

I could have asked Kim to plot a more sensible alternative route using the paper map but the truth is that she isn’t too good with maps and this responsibility generally brings on a panic attack as he stares blankly at the multi coloured squiggles hopelessly looking for a clue and before she has even pinpointed our position it is generally too late because we will have missed the turning anyway. I shouldn’t really be critical because her inability with maps would be rather like me being asked to interpret a knitting pattern and she is very good at that.

I suppose this was going to save us a kilometre or two and it was quite picturesque but it was at the expense of our timetable and as we planned to drive into Carcassonne and to La Cité for a final coffee before going to the airport at a convenient junction I eventually overruled the Satnav and instead of driving deeper into the forest made for the direct route and the main highway.

We arrived in Carcassonne at ten o’clock which gave us an hour in the old fortress so we walked through the main gate and the narrow streets and made our way to the main square where it was too chilly to sit on the pavement so we were forced inside instead. While we sat with our final drink we reviewed our holiday and made a comparison between France and Spain to see if we could reach consensus on which we like best. We had enjoyed visiting this region of France but I have to say that we both agreed that we have a preference for Spain.

It isn’t fair to make that statement without some explanation so here are our reasons: First of all the centrepiece of every town and city in Spain, the Plaza Mayor, which is the first place we visit when we arrive somewhere new but there isn’t the equivalent in France; secondly, Tapas and the complimentary bowls of food in the bars and bodegas which the French don’t do and thirdly, staying with bars for a moment, the prices are much better in Spain because I can never understand the sky-high price of drinks in French bars and restaurants; fourthly I’m afraid it is back to the unpleasant subject of dog excrement because this really is a most disagreeable aspect of France.

Leaving the city we drove to the airport and returned the car and when I enquired everyone seemed to have forgotten about the refund that I was due on the rental overcharge and I had to remind the staff at the car hire office. I didn’t get the refund of course just a sort of vague promise that it would be sorted out and that was the best that I could hope for without making a scene or trashing the place.

Although the airport was tiny it had a high quality restaurant overlooking the runway and bearing in mind that the last place anyone would choose to go out to lunch in England would be Stansted or East Midlands Airports this seemed to be a popular place with local people who were arriving here by the tableful just for their lunch. As we sat by the window waiting for the plane to arrive the weather continued to deteriorate as grey sky muscled in from the west and brought some spots of rain and by the time we had passed through security and immigration control and were boarding the plane there was a downpour which gave everyone a thorough soaking as they queued to climb the aircraft steps.

Like the terminal building that struggled to accommodate all of the passengers the runway looked barely long enough to cope with a Boeing 737-800 and I noticed that the end of it curled up into an incline like you see on aircraft carriers presumably to give the plane a bit of last minute assistance in getting off the ground but the pilot got us up without incident and we quickly flew into the clouds and below us France was completely obscured from view.

Back home I contacted and their customer services department told me that it would take at least twenty days to deal with the overcharging mix up but they would deal with it as soon as they could.

post script: It took nearly thirty days, several emails and a critical blog post to get it sorted but I did eventually receive my refund but I’ll think twice about using ever again.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

France, Castres and Holiday Reflections

It was a lovely day now and the sun was shining as we left the hotel and first of all tranferred the car to an underground car park and then emerged from below ground into les Jardins do ‘’Evéché which were designed and laid out in the seventeenth century by the same landscape gardener who worked as part of the team on the gardens at the Palace of Versailles. The walk took us past the Hôtel de Ville and the Cathedral and down to the banks of the River Agout where we discovered the real gem of Castres.

Lining the river on the right bank were les Maisons sur l’Agout which is the old medieval riverside quarter where the old tanners’ and weavers’ half timbered houses with running balconies overhang the water and their colourful shutters and windows cast reflections on the gentle water of the river. It reminded me of Girona in Catalonia although this was much smaller in scale and rather more attractive. After we had taken more pictures than we really needed we walked over the river and along the front of these riverside houses where we could see that most of them were now restaurants and cafés with prices to match their enviable position. We did a second circuit of this old quarter and then walked into the heart of the city and the Place Jean Jaurès where there were cafés spilling out into the square adjacent to a statue of the famous French socialist politician at one end and an elaborate water fountain at the other.

We stopped for a drink here and as we sat in the hot sunshine we could see that this was a city in complete contrast to Béziers. It is the largest city in France without a motorway link which means that it is something of a relative backwater and where Béziers was in some parts grimy and uncared for Castres was smart, upmarket and busy. I also have to contradict myself here about the French and dog excrement because here the streets were immaculately clean and there was no doggy poop on the pavements at all.

After the short refreshment break we resumed our walking tour of the city and arrived at the Goya Museum at the Hôtel de Ville which has the largest collection of Spanish paintings in France except for the Louvre in Paris. Kim wasn’t keen on visiting a museum so she sat in the sunshine and I took a tour of the rooms which culminated in a special temporary exhibition of Goya’s prints titled ‘The Disasters of War’ which were sketched as a protest against the violence of the 1808 Dos de Mayo Uprising, the subsequent Peninsular War of 1808–14 and the setbacks to the liberal cause following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814. I found this rather surprising because the prints essentially set out scenes of atrocities, starvation, degradation and humiliation carried out by the invading French army against the Spanish people.

Our next task was to select a restaurant for later so we walked through the main square again and through some more medieval streets with authentic buildings and examined the menus of the three recommendations made by the hotel. We quickly made our decision before going back to the square for a second drink before returning again to the riverside where we anticipated that the position of the sun would now be perfect for more reflection pictures – and we were right!

The Hotel Europe turned out to be an excellent choice, a quirky place with an eclectic mix of furnishings and rooms. Ours was on the fourth floor up a creaky wooden staircase and through the heart of an old medieval building. We spent some time in the room and then prepared to return to our chosen restaurant. I really wanted an authentic meal so despite my squeamishness about the way it is produced and knowing that my vegetarian daughter would never approve or understand, I started with Fois Gras and for main course selected a Cassoulet.

The last time I had a Cassoulet was in a French restaurant in Baden-Baden in Germany and the beans resulted in an explosive and unfortunate intestinal reaction but I thought I would take a chance and try this regional dish in the region where it originates from. It was rather nice but a bit expensive and I cannot really understand why a few beans, a duck leg and a Toulouse sausage should cost nearly €20!

We enjoyed our meal, it was the best of the holiday and when we had paid up and left we wandered along the river for the final time before returning to the hotel for our final night in France for this time.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

France, French Icons – Madame Liberty and McDonalds

After breakfast at the Hotel des Poetes we walked into Béziers on a rather chilly morning to visit the market hall which had been closed the day before. It was a typical French town market hall next to the Hôtel de Ville in the centre of the city and this early hour it was not yet particularly busy. Our last market visit had been to the Varvakios Agorain Athens which had been a delightfully chaotic affair but this was much more orderly and the stalls were laid out to perfection much like the one in La Rochelle which we had visited a couple of years before. We couldn’t realistically buy anything of course and take it back in our hand luggage so we stayed just long enough to get our ‘market fix’ and then we returned to check out of the hotel.

I wasn’t looking forward particularly to my next challenge but I surprised myself and today I managed to make a much better job of getting the hire car out of the garage and was relieved to get out onto the street without ripping off a bumper or putting a crease down the side and we waved goodbye to the patron and set off on our sixty kilometre journey to Castres.

For the first twenty-five kilometres there was nothing very special about the journey as we motored across unremarkable landscape puntuated with a few untidy villages under a disappointing leaden grey sky but then the situation began to improve as we started to approach the Languedoc National Park and we drove through vineyards with leaves curling and turning to brown, their job completed for this year and then we started to climb and the road swooped through forests of deciduous trees which at this altitude were adorned with golden and russet leaves and we climbed still further to over a thousand metres and left the deciduous trees behind and entered the conifer forests of the higher elevations, the cloud gave way to brilliant sunshine and blue sky and it all became very picturesque.

At the top of the climb we went through the charming town of St Pons-de-Thomieres and as we sat in the mid morning traffic we drove past the Hôtel de Ville and in the courtyard there was a magnificent statue of Madame Liberty, the traditional female embodiment of the French Republic with her ample thrusting bosom unashamedly thrusting out and exposed to all. Madame Liberty represents the spirit of the French Revolution (various revolutions actually, 1789, 1830, 1848, 1968) and I have always thought how magnificent it would be if England could have a big breasted busty national symbol instead of the frumpy Britannia! It’s an interesting fact however that when the French built the Statue of Liberty for the USA they made sure that she was more discreetly attired! The French are proud of Madame Liberty who can be found in most French towns alongside the inevitable Place de la Revolution and the Place de la Republique an interesting contrast to the UK where I am yet to find a ‘Constitutional Monarchy Square’!

We didn’t stop in St Pons-de-Thomieres but carried on towards Mazamet where a by-pass took us around the centre and through the ubiquitous edge of town shopping malls which are a disagreeable feature of most French urbanisations as everywhere it is almost certain that the approach to any historic town or city must now pass through a collection of supermarkets and fast food restaurants. And this is another curious feature of France because every town we drove through had countdown signposts and specific directions to the nearest McDonalds restaurant as though the French need the constant reassurance that somewhere nearby is a set of Golden Arches.  The poor French. There they were, with their low-rent bistros serving brie-filled crepes, soupe a l’oignon and coq au vin when all the populace really wanted was rectangular food-like objects that taste vaguely of chicken, and a side of dipping sauce

Well, actually it turns out to be not so curious because even though they maintain that they despise the concept of the fast food chain an awful lot of French people do eat there. Across France there are nearly twelve hundred restaurants (restaurants?)and in Paris alone there are almost seventy, with even more dotted around the outer suburbs. That’s much the same as London, but with only a third of the population. McDonald’s, or “macdoh” as it is known, is France’s guilty secret. In 2007 the chain’s French revenues increased by eleven per cent to €3 billion. That’s more than it generates in Britain and in terms of profit, France is second only to the United States itself. It is now so firmly a part of French culture that the menu includes McBaguette and Croque McDo and in 2009 McDonald’s reached a deal with the French museum, the Louvre, to open a McDonald’s restaurant and McCafé on its premises by their underground entrance.

It didn’t take long to drive the last few kilometres into Castres and we found the Hotel de L’Europe without any difficulty at all and after we had checked in and deposited our bags we set out to walk around and discover the city.