Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Gruissan by the sea

Trip to Aude: Day 1(Evening)/Day 2/ Day 3 (Morning)

If you look at Gruissan in Google maps, which I did when I was researching the place, it seems more water than land. The evening of the first day of our grand trip to Aude. After checking out the city of Narbonne, my plan called for us to drive over to the fishing village of Gruissan to spend the night there. It's just 40 km from Narbonne, and I reckoned it would be a much nicer place to spend the night than the big bad city. In the event, we loved it so much we ended up staying two and a half days, and my plan went haywire.

Water plays a big role in the life and times of Gruissan. Water in all its forms. There's the sea, then there are open ports, in-land ports, canals, salt flats, marshes, small ponds, big ponds, lagoons... Oh yes, and rain. Lots of rain. But you don't mind the rain so much in a fishing village. It's part of the atmosphere.

The village itself is an almost perfectly circular peninsula jutting out into a lagoon, which itself borders the Mediterranean Sea, separated from the sea by a shallow strip of land scarred with ports and salt flats. This is what it looks like in Google maps.

Gruissan is that little blip you see in the middle. This is your first heart-stopping look at Gruissan, as you drive down D32 from Narbonne, circumnavigating the lagoon...

It was drizzling and there was a fresh sea breeze and the faint fishy smell of a genteel French fishing village. The first job on the agenda was to locate a B&B, lickety-split, before it turned dark. After a couple of anxious moments, we found one that was still open, and had rooms. It was the rather tweely named 'Au Doux Dodo', which is French for 'Time for sweet beddy-byes'. It was owned by an Englishman and his French wife, Peter and Valérie Pugh. Incredible, the number of B&Bs we ran into on our trip run by Englishmen or women, with or without a French spouse. The English seem to have made rather a hobby of it. It was on top of a shop selling scented soap and incense sticks and whatnot, also owned by the Pughs. They have four rooms to let out. Clean, but nothing exceptional. But they do give a very generous breakfast, and it's reasonably priced.

(All images of Au Doux Dodo taken from odyssea.eu and the hotel's website)

Our suitcases dragged into the rooms, we trotted out to take a look at the premier attraction of Gruissan, the watchtower, by the light of the setting sun.

This medieval watchtower was built by the villagers to watch out for invading pirates. It is now in ruins, since the only invasions the gentlefolk of Gruissan have now to fear are of the touristic sort. But it is a great place to view the tiled rooftops of Gruissan at sunset. It is also the most prominent landmark of the place, visible from miles around (you can see it in the above pics). Here are some shots from the top of the tower:-

And then it was 'time for sweet beddy-byes'. The following morning, with Blandine still firmly in dodo-land, I sneaked down to the breakfast room with my writing pad. The breakfast room at Au Doux Dodo, as I had noted the night before, is a rather cozy place and opens out into a small open courtyard where you can have your breakfast in the open. It also has a sturdy unpolished wooden table, which I thought would be an excellent spot for my writing. I was right. John had come in early and left a copious breakfast on the kitchen table (they don't live there). I grabbed a crisp piece of baguette and a large cup of coffee -- I can't write on a full stomach -- and let fly. By the time Blandine stumbled down, rubbing sleep from her eyes, I had already scribbled four foolscap's worth of my new novel.

(All images of Au Doux Dodo taken from odyssea.eu and the hotel's website)

Generous breakfast still sloshing in our stomachs, Blandine and I took a digestive walk down the canal leading out to the sea...

There's my first look at the Mediterranean, after an hours worth of trudging -- the narrow strip of blue beneath the sky...

Along the way we came across this poor little seabird that seemed to have broken its wings. A bit of internet research leads me to believe it's a Balearic Shearwater, an endangered species. I could be wrong.

The canal, by the way, has an inland port attached to it, for a yacht club (the fishing boats are further up). The boats use the canal to access the sea.

Later, we checked out the salt pans of Gruissan, and had an oyster lunch there -- but that deserves a separate post of its own. I'm saving that up for tomorrow.

Gruissan does not just have fish and salt -- it is also has a wine appellation all of it's own. It has vineyards growing fine Muscat and Cartagène grapes. Muscat is a sweeeeet liqueur wine. It is one of the few wines that even wine ignoramuses like me go crazy about. After lunch, we drove down a coarse country road weaving through a sea of Muscat vines. The sun was shining down hard. Ancient ceders drooped about the landscape, making a faint buzzing sound as the crickets in the trees sang their noonday song. The air was drowsy with the scent of grapes. A sharp nip wafted in from the Mediterranean, always on the horizon, not letting you dose off.

The afternoon was still young. We drove down to the Abby Fontfroide, not far from Gruissan. More on that in a later post. We took the scenic route to the Abby, not the straightforward route via the highway. It took us past vast ponds and canals and weirs. In the process we got lost, but it was worth it...

It was evening by the time we got back. There was a festival of sorts hotting up on the banks of the Gruissan lagoon with music, fruit punch, spicy sausages and bonfire. It promised to be fun. While waiting for the festival to get into the groove, we took a walk along the lagoon...

... and later we checked out the port on the other side of Gruissan. This is not actually part of the historic village of Gruissan. It is part of a much larger modern habitation -- you can't really call it a town -- that is also, confusingly, called Gruissan. It is separated from the village by a natural causeway. This is a much bigger port, unlike the smaller one in village Gruissan that we had seen earlier in the day, alongside the canal. In fact, it is a whole series of interconnected ports, with modern apartment housing coming right down to the piers. The buildings are all identical, possibly by the same builder. I suppose some bright builder had the bright idea of setting up an apartment complex by the piers. Luckily, it is a fastidious distance from the historic village, and does not intrude upon it. Nevertheless, it is a pleasant place to spend the evening. The piers are lined with bars and restaurants, and you can have a beer or a glass of wine watching the boats bob up and down on the water.

It was dusk, we headed back to the village. The bonfire was lit, a marching band was going through the paces, the gentlefolk of Gruissan were tipsy on fruit punch and vinegary spiced sausage. We joined them...

I was stuffed from the generous breakfast and oyster lunch and festival fruit punch. Blandine still had a bit of space. In the upper-left corner of the estomac. We had a haute cusine dinner at a fancy restaurant in the village. This being a fishing village, we had seafood. It couldn't be otherwise. I remember I ordered a poached salmon on a bed of flat noodles tossed in pesto. It was about the only thing on the card that seemed safe. I picked at my salmon. I'm not much of a lad for seafood, and deeply suspicious of French haute cusine. But I must admit, they gave me a huge slab of salmon -- not the tinsy portions you usually get at such establishments. I forget what Blandine had, but it was suitably fishy and she loved it. Like a true Frenchwoman, she worships anything labelled haute cuisine.

Then it was time for doux dodo once more. The next day, after breakfast, we headed out for the next stage of our trip. I realized I hadn't taken a single shot of the inside of the village. I took a quick shot at random while Blandine revved the engine, and then it was au revior to Gruison. And I do mean au revoir -- till we meet again. I have every intention of going back some day...

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