Marigold Says...

Random thoughts on travelling and life in general.

The Blue Mediterranean, at last. We’ve been deprived of this for far too long

Marigold Says...

We were talking about dustbin collecting as G drove through France. Not all the time and I have no idea why. I well remember when dustbin men dragged or carried the metal dustbins usually stinking to the front of the houses. There were no plastic bags or that recycling malarkey, just dump what you like in the bin and they would take it away. I also remember as a child being fascinated by the assortment of usually dirty toys that lined the front of the bin men’s’ cab. It always seemed like a happy job.

Anything stinky like fish used to get wrapped in newspaper to dispose of it. There was absolutely no health and safety and am sure they went into old age with back and knee problems. I also can’t remember them wearing gloves or a uniform. They were very noisy and you could hear them shouting streets away. I bet they carried the stench of the job home with them. If you passed them you had to cover your nose and mouth. Today’s masks would have helped.

Along with the milkman and postmen these hard working men, I never saw a woman doing it, were the frontline of getting police involved if anything was amis. Bet they saved many lives.

I was thinking about G’s dickie heart the other day when I heard a woman telling her husband he had to cut down on his grub as he had had a heart attack. He was quite fat, but she wasn’t exactly Twiggy either.

‘Can I still have my chocolate raisins?’ He asked.
‘No, but you can have just raisins if you only have a few.’

‘Not the same though. Can’t I have chocolate at all?’

‘I suppose you can have a few of my Roses, but only two or three not the big, fat handful you normally take.’

Her husband looked very sad. They were eating Eccles cakes at the time so I think there was a lot to be done before he became slim and fit. I didn’t have to nag G about his weight as he has something called willpower. I don’t know what that is.

G Says...

We’re only a few days into this trip after being denied the opportunity to go travelling for so long, but already the realities of successive long distance car journeys have made themselves known. Marigold stipulated as we set off this morning, ‘no photos of me today. I look like a refugee.’ Tactfully, I didn’t say anything. Marigold then added, ‘I don’t think you should appear on any photos yet either, not looking like that.’

I looked at myself in the car rear view mirror and thought she was being a little harsh, but Marigold sees me as I am, not what I imagine I look like. I agreed, no photos today.

In my working days there were the odd days I didn’t fancy doing very much. Of course, options are few and far between when going out and earning a crust is a prerequisite of normal life, but in what others refer to as ‘retirement’ (a description I refuse to acknowledge) there are far more opportunities to settle back and put aside whatever plans you had made for the day.

Interestingly, I rarely take advantage of these opportunities for lethargy. Advancing years and health uncertainties have seemingly imbued in me a sense of dormant purpose.

Is this a good thing? Seize the day and all that malarkey? I’ve no idea, but even that newly discovered sense of ‘let’s do it’ hits the buffers when faced with too much choice.

My chief concern lately, which makes a change from heart health, is a painful index finger on my write hand. Too much typing, I reasoned. I am envious of Marigold’s ability to type using all ten digits, but I am a confirmed, albeit speedy, one finger ‘pecker.’ Looking on the bright side, if I lost two thumbs and seven fingers in some freak accident my typing skills would not suffer in the slightest.

With regard to the excessive availability of choice, the other day was a case in point. We had broadly decided to head for the warmth of a Spanish November, taking in a few sights along the way.

Yes, but what sights and where? Oh, how can this ‘doing what we want, going where fancy takes us and being our own bosses’ trip be so complicated?

We decided we would go and spend a day looking around the Étang de Thau, by some distance the largest of the many shallow lagoons that stretch from the Rhône in the east almost to the Spanish border. The lagoons, or sea lakes, are fairly shallow, but have a high salt concentration which makes them valuable sources of salt and seafood, in particular oysters.

Separated almost entirely from the Mediterranean by a narrow band of hard packed sand the Étang de Thau is 13 miles long and about five miles wide, making it the second largest lake in France.*

*I don’t usually get involved in squabbles over size, whether it’s lakes or anything else, but I did have a heated argument many years ago with a French university lecturer who insisted Lake Geneva was the largest lake in France. I agreed, but pointed out this massive and exceptionally scenic body of water could equally be claimed by Switzerland upon whose shores the ‘other side’ of the lake are found. I have been told, many times, that Lake Bourget, in the Jura, is the largest lake entirely within France, but even that claim appears to be in dispute nowadays as the Lac de Grand-Lieu is now said to be larger ‘in winter’ but not in summer. Having visited all of them at different times, I will only say Lake Geneva is the most attractive, Lake Bourget in the gorgeous Jura region has an undisputed claim to be the deepest and the Lac de Grand-Lieu is top of the pile as a nature reserve.

That should please everyone.

We lived in and around this area of South West France for a fair few years in the last gasps of the twentieth century and have visited often since then, but it has been many years since we last went to Sete, the point at which the lagoon meets the sea.

We called in at Cap D’Agde along the way. Until the 1960s this place didn’t exist. Designed by a famous French architect, Jean Le Couteur, it was ‘designed for fun’ as one of my French friends who remembers the old town of Agde before the transformation of the surrounding area always says. It’s basically a purpose built resort town built around fine sandy beaches and, as such, not the sort of place we’re likely to visit.

Of course, we wouldn’t go near a ‘fun resort’ like this in the height of summer, but out of season it’s quiet and always interesting. A bit like Benidorm which still has plenty of sunshine and glorious beaches in the winter months but none of the crowds.

We could clearly see Fort Brescou Lighthouse, built on an island just under a kilometre off the coast of Cap d'Agde, France. The fort was formerly a state prison. Marseilles has an island prison just offshore as well.

It reminded us of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. We’ve passed a few ‘penitentiaries’ and they’re usually harsh, modern blockhouses with high walls, fences and guard towers. Having the sea as the chief deterrent to escape makes a pleasant change. I’m not sure the accommodation is up to modern standards, but if the prisoners had a sea view that may have been some slight consolation.

Cap D’Agde’s main point of difference from other seaside resorts is the vast naturist area where nudity on beaches and in shops, restaurants, even in the bank is the norm. Of course, the wearing of ‘textiles’ as they normally reference clothing is still possible, but there’s a huge beach, at least three miles long, where nudity is the order of the day.

Marigold explained that due to our pale skin after being deprived of sunshine for long, it wouldn’t be seemly for us to cavort on the nudist beach. Maybe next time. I must confess to a sense of relief.

We saw many signs advising unwary visitors that proceeding beyond a certain point required the absence of clothing. As well as French signs we saw many with the simple demarcation, FKK. We have seen this at different places all over Europe and it’s simply a shortened form of the German word ‘Frei-körper-kultur,’ meaning ‘culture of the free body,’ or something very similar .

Shallow Salt Water often means Flamingos. The more shrimps they eat, the pinker they get. Yes, really

The fort that used to be a prison. Much better views than Parkhurst

Nudist beach.

Cap D'Agde to Sete with water on both sides of the road

We could have travelled directly to Sete along one of our favourite beach roads, but detoured slightly to visit the old town of Marseillan, just inland from the fabulous beach of Marseillan Plage. There were plenty of people swimming off Mosquito Beach. An odd name for a delightful beach, we thought. Mosquitoes? Well, we didn’t see any and Marigold claims to be Europe’s chief attractor of mosquitoes.

The town of Marseillan, hardly that even, more like a large village, was first settled by Greeks or Phoenician traders, the Massaliotes, way back in ancient times. Marseilles, that vast, lively, teeming, cosmopolitan city to the east is a hundred times larger and bears no resemblance to its humble (almost) namesake, but as Marseille was founded around 600 BC and Agde very soon afterwards, it’s a fair assumption that Marseillan was established at that time as well, making it one of the oldest settlements in France.

Surrounded by vines there’s a rich heritage of wine production here, but not any old grape based products as Marseillan has been the headquarters for the production of Noilly Prat vermouth for at least two hundred years.

The sheer size of Maison Noilly-Prat was staggering. We’re no strangers to vineyards after so many years living in France and Spain and have visited many of the sherry producers of Jerez, but vermouth production was a new one to us.

I can’t with any certainty claim to have ever drunk Noilly-Prat vermouth. Obviously, plenty of people like the stuff though judging by the size and number of the barrels.

We tagged on to a tour guide – we do this quite often and nobody ever says ‘who are you and where did you come from’ – but apart from learning there are at least twenty different plants/herbs/spices added to the mixture neither of us can say what they are. We’re pretty sure about coriander, gentian root and camomile, but as for the other seventeen…

The clever bloke who came up with the idea was Joseph Noilly, a grocer, basically, but more importantly a spice trader and herbalist, way back in 1813. Noilly only became Noilly-Prat in 1855 when Joseph teamed up with his son-in-law, Claude Prat.

It was a fascinating glimpse of large scale production of a product I’d only previously imagined to be distinctly ‘niche,’ but time was short and we had much to do and see so we left the toiling vermouth makers to their art and set out along the narrow strip of land that leads to Sete.

We travelled along a similar route a couple of years or so ago in Spain when visiting the Mar Menor, a huge inland lagoon where the chief resort of the area, La Manga, is situated on an incredibly narrow strip of land with the lagoon on one side and the Mediterranean Sea on the other.

Today the road has the Etang de Thau on the left side and the sea on the right. If global warming really does bring a rise in sea levels this stretch of road won’t be here for much longer, but today with the sun gleaming on vast expanses of water either side of the road it was a delightful drive.

If you like big stretches of beach with hardly anyone else in sight, which we do, then the beaches of Sete are perfect. Of course, we’re here in November and this air of solitude won’t be anything like the situation in high summer, but we stopped and walked, paddled but didn’t attempt swimming on several stretches of beach and scarcely saw another soul.

On our previous visits to Sete, we’ve only ever visited the town and the busy harbour. Last time we stayed in a (fairly seedy as I recall) hotel right inside the port. Fishermen arrive and depart in what we regard as the middle of the night and they’re a noisy bunch. I’ve never complained about noisy binmen ever since. They have a job to do and emptying rubbish bins in the early morning is like living in a Trappist monastery compared with the fishing fleet of Sete going about their business.

Sete has been described, although not by us, as the Venice of Languedoc. It’s the largest fishing port on the Mediterranean coast of France, but any similarity to Venice is a bit of a stretch. Yes, it has a lot of canals, but so does Birmingham and that’s nothing like Venice either. I suspect the people making these claims have never visited Venice, but Sete has enough charm to stand on its own feet anyway.

As does Birmingham, obviously.

Finding that amazing beachfront area was a revelation as we’d never even considered a working port like Sete to have beaches just over the way. In the same vein, we’ve been all over Barcelona, a fantastic city, yet only on our very last trip did we think to take a look at the beaches. Which were superb.

There were a few joggers on the beach. Mostly Lycra clad with red faces and grim expressions. Jogging has never held an attraction for me, it’s neither strolling nor running, both of which I can relate to and Marigold is hugely jogging averse.

‘If I ever see anyone looking like they’re enjoying it, I’ll consider going jogging,’ she once said. It’s a fair comment as those pounding along the shore appeared utterly joyless.

Marigold slept through the fishermen’s nocturnal comings and goings last time, but showed no interest today in the hotels inside the port. We needed a place to stay though and with that in mind returned to the beach area to find a hotel for the night.

Of course we had to detour slightly as the aroma of grilled fish and shellfish, fresh off the boats, emanating from the many restaurants was irresistible. Taking a photograph was forbidden today by dint of a previous binding agreement, but I have since discovered a photo taken many years ago of Marigold enjoying a seafood platter at Sete. Probably on our first ever visit. It’s one of my all time favourite photos too. Trust me, she looked just as happy this time around.

Marigold looked up local hotels online, which is pretty rare as we usually wander into (should that be blunder into?) hotels and ask if they have a spare room for the night. She came up with a boutique hotel in the beach district of Sete. It sounded promising. Or too good to be true?

Ah well, nothing ventured, nothing gained, we found the hotel, booked ourselves in and carted our essential items* for a one night stay up to the room.

*You may imagine one small bag would suffice for one night. It doesn’t. The power of imagination is such that we cart around in our ‘essential’ bags enough stuff to last a month. ‘Just in case.’ In fairness, if we were staying for a month we’d still take the same items.

The hotel claimed to date from the 50s, not the 1850s as we thought on first sight but the twentieth century era, and had supposedly been completely remodelled recently. We found scant evidence of this, but as I’ve mentioned before, we can cope with anything for one night. Compared to some of the places in which we’ve spent the night this was a palace.

A very old dog, actually a very, very old dog was asleep in the lobby. We tiptoed past, but he was still there when we left the next morning. We were so concerned Marigold insisted on hanging around until we saw his chest move slightly in confirmation of life. It appears old dogs no longer dream of chasing rabbits quite so often.

I read an article recently, written by a scientist of some repute, claiming to have proved the incidence in germs carried by dogs was far less than the contents of an average beard. It didn’t have to be of ZZ Top standard, just bog standard face fungus. As an occasionally hirsute man, the beard comes and goes on a whim, I rather resent the inference.

There’s a word for this type of character assassination: it’s called pogonophobia, the somewhat irrational fear of beards. Scientists should be tested for this condition before being allowed anywhere near a research laboratory. Anyway, aren’t most male scientific researchers bearded?

Our evening in the hotel was interesting. We went down to the communal lounge area as the wifi in our room was non existent and we wanted to catch up on our emails. Ten minutes after we arrived, the previously empty room was full to capacity as at least 50 people arrived en masse.

Even worse, they were all Brits! Mostly unmasked and seemingly happy to sit in close proximity to each other and hence to us as well. Swiftly affixing our face masks we decided the safest Covid risk avoidance measure was to head for the outdoor terrace.

A member of the hotel staff told us, with many a Gallic shrug of resignation, that two coach loads of ‘English bird people’ had made a late booking. The bird people, ‘twitchers’ as we call them in Britain, had arrived to photograph wading birds in some marshland nearby and were said by our ‘whistle blower’ to be notoriously badly behaved.

Two years ago, they had been banned from the hotel, but new management meant the lure of a fully booked hotel out of season was too great an attraction. Badly behaved bird watchers? Surely some mistake, we thought, but our morose informant set out a cogent case for the prosecution.

We went off for a walk along the shore as he showed every indication of wishing to spend the rest of the evening complaining about Les Rosbifs. During the ten years we lived in France we heard this description many times. Do they imagine roast beef is such a staple of the English diet they eat it at every meal? I can’t actually remember the last time we tucked into a roast beef and all the trimmings meal, but it certainly wasn’t recently.

Back at the hotel the lounge area was still a no go area. Fifty or so people all talking at once, beers being gulped down, it was bedlam. We turned into classic grumpy moaners within seconds.

We’re often wary of our fellow Brits when we’re ‘abroad.’ It’s far too much of a generalisation to say we avoid them at all costs, of course we don’t, but if the people here were a fair representation of the UK birdwatching fraternity Bill Oddie has a lot to answer for.

Long distance coach travel is thirsty work, I get that, and a drop of what you fancy does you good at the end of a journey. Even so, the volume of sound in the lounge had doubled in our brief absence and our fellow guests were now decidedly raucous.

Overseas travel affects many British people in ways that don’t seem common to other nationalities. I suspect this group have been on an intensive fat reduction diet during their absence from the U.K. The fattest organ in the body, with over 60% of it being composed of fat, is the brain. The human brain largely consists of a fatty substance known as myelin, a sort of electrical insulator that encases the axons of some nerve cells and protects them from coming into contact with each other, in much the same way as the plastic casing of electrical wiring keeps them from touching each other and causing a ‘short.’ This anorak wearing group were ‘shorting out’ all over the place.

We spoke to one couple, married ‘twitchers,’ (fancy that) who were delightful and bitterly resentful of the company they were in.

‘It’s not like this in Dunstable,’ one said. ‘We make do with a flask of tea and a biscuit, that’s about as rock ‘n roll as it ever gets in our club.’

We chatted about the weather, obviously, we’re British, touched on Brexit, an inevitable topic in the last few years when in the EU, but soon realised we had little in common. We know next to nothing about bird habits and the Dunstable couple were evidently obsessives. Lovely people, but obsessives.

An example of our ‘chat.’ ‘I used to favour entomology,’ the man said, ‘but now I’ve discovered our feathered friends, insects mean little to me.’

See what I mean?

We went off to our room, but it was almost as noisy up there. Tutting like censorious animal rights activists mistakenly arrived at a bull fight, we grumbled away the evening. It all went quiet, eventually. I checked the time on my watch. Twelve minutes past two. Irritated and annoyed, sleep remained a distant hope.

Marigold repeated one of her most frequent sayings as we staggered wearily from our bed in the morning. ‘I shouldn’t pick hotels’ she said, ‘I make bad decisions.’

Shamefully, I failed to disagree.

Maison Noilly Prat

Just a few of the barrels

Vats of Noilly Prat

Lots of empty beaches

Some very smart beaches too. But still empty

Wonder where this is, oh yes, Sete

The harbour. A hotel we once stayed in is on the left. It's not an oasis of tranquility

We're unlikely to starve around here

Mussels rival oysters as the favourite local delicacy

I may have been forbidden from taking photographs today, but this is one of my favourite pictures of Marigold, taken many years ago in Sete. It's not a very good photo as it was taken on a Kodak Thingie or whatever the popular successor to the Box Brownie was called. Eating fish, in a harbour, in the sunshine, that's Marigold heaven