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.

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