Thursday, October 23, 2008

An Unexpected Turn of Events

Today we set out for our semi-regular Wednesday adventure. Since the children do not have school in France on Wednesdays, this is un bon jour pour la grande aventure! Our destination was Bize-Minervois, which was described on the Internet as follows:

“Bize-Minervois is arguably the prettiest village in the renowned Minervois wine growing area. It is situated on the River Cesse where a natural swimming pool has been created within the bed of the river.”

Ha. Not so entertaining. Of course, it was bitterly cold and windy, so the swim bag stayed in the Kangoo. Here is a look at their beach in fall.

We took our picnic lunch to the banks of the River Cesse and ate a quick lunch. That was followed by an even quicker walk through the village. The kids were pleased with the quick walk because it led us right to a candy store. They loaded up on “reward treats”. These are the treats they get when they win Dado’s French game: The child who earns the most points by hearing, speaking, and repeating the most French words on school days gets a treat! Bribery is always a good thing.

Our trip to Bize-Minervois was finished in under an hour. Considering it took us an hour to get there, we simply had to do more exploring. So, we turned off the GPS, took a right turn outside of the village, and headed to the mountains.

Our first stop was a winery, bien sur. Look at how beautiful it was.

The woman providing the tasting was very friendly and described why they did not have white wine. Of course, this translation is based on my very limited understanding of quickly-spoken French: The vineyard in which they grow the grapes for their vin blac (white wine) is on a hill where it is difficult to grow grapes due to the heat. Thus, they did not have a harvest last year and do not have a white wine this year. Dado did like the red from French oak barrels (known as fut de chene), so he bought several bottles.

Factoid: When doing a wine tasting at a small vineyard, it is customary and expected that you purchase at least a few bottles of win. Thus, every stop at a winery results in a few more bottles added to the growing collection at home. Dado is planning to bring home select wines from each region we visit. Cool!

This region is called the Minervois wine region in France, and this was our first tasting of Minervois wine.

When we left the winery, we took another right turn. Let me describe the country side for you . . . We were in a low mountain area, so there were rolling hills all around. In every dip and fold of the hills is a tapestry of vineyards where the grape vines are in different fall colors. The small road we were traveling is a two-lane highway that weaves deep into the center of France. As we drove deeper into the hills, there were fewer and fewer villages sprinkled along the road.

But, as happens magically in France, as you round a turn, there is suddenly an amazing village springing up from the side of a mountain . . . often with a castle or a ruin, and always with an old church somewhere in the center of the village.

Today was no exception to this beautiful phenomenon.

This is how we discovered Minerve. As the road climbed through the vineyards, there was suddenly a very deep gorge to our right. A beautiful gorge, the likes of which I’ve never seen in the US. We kept climbing, hoping to see a river at the bottom. Instead what we found was the village of Minerve.

Minerve is on the other side of the gorge, so we crossed a gorgeous bridge to enter the village. We wandered
through the village, where there is a Cathar ruin, and we attempted to get down to the gorge.

That was our true goal. We had seen what looked like caves from the road, and we wanted to explore. But we couldn’t find the way! There was even a trail map posted at the bridge, but we have great difficulty reading French maps.

Dado to the rescue! We walked back to the Kangoo, and Mike drove back down the hill until he found a fire road. The fire road led us straight to the riverbed. From there, it was a short walk to the first “cave” that we had spotted from the road.

The cave turned out to be a tunnel! We were stunned. The opening was seriously huge and completely dark. This picture doesn't do it justice. This opening is really at least 50 feet wide and 20 feet tall. Hopefully that gives you a sense of how tall the gorge wall is, too.

From outside, you couldn’t tell that it was a tunnel at all. Of course the crazy Billat Family walked right in to explore, and – shock – there was dim sunlight around the corner. Too cool! We walked straight through, and when we broke on through to the other side, there was a great trail to the next “cave”. Aha – that was a tunnel, too.

Mike and I kept commenting on how odd it was that there wasn’t a river of some sort. The gorge was obviously carved by a river, and the rocks looked like river rocks . . . yet everything was dry. In fact, there was even some construction in the bottom of the gorge, and vineyards of course.

Later in the day, we found out that these tunnels are full of running water in the winter – the River Cesse. During the summer, the river goes underground. Wild! So, we are definitely planning a return trip sometime in early 2009 to see the tunnels filled with river.

Of course the remaining mystery is – why on Earth is there construction going on if it fills with water? We’ll let you know in 2009.

Check out the history on interesting history of Minerve at the URL below.

Our adventure wasn’t over yet! Naturally we wanted to stop at another winery on the way home. Wineries are really entertaining places, usually, with all the conversation that occurs with the vintners.

Today was the coolest winery visit yet. We once again crossed the gorge along a one-lane road, following the direction of the tiny sign for Domain Vordy. When we pulled up to the Domain several minutes later, it looked like a French home – not a winery. Of course there were vineyards all around, but there were none of the other vats, hoppers, etc. indicative of a winery.

We curiously poked our heads into the open garage door and asked if the cave was open for tastings. The man led us to the front door of the house! This has never happened to us before. Usually, there is a “tasting room” area, with bottles displayed, glasses ready, etc. Today we were warmly welcomed into a home! The man invited us to sit at his dining room table, and he proceeded to give us a tasting of his wines. Meanwhile, Josey and Max were playing with a Tonka fire truck that was sitting in front of the fireplace. The house was charming and completely spotless!

We had just finished tasting our first wine when another couple showed up. We happily tasted wine for about 45 minutes, listening to the three French people chatting happily. It is always a great French lesson at a winery. We learned that the vintner is also the “protégé” – the person in charge of maintaining the area in its natural state, ensuring the development does not occur. Cool!

Guess what else we learned?! He is the MAYOR of Minerve! Just imagine our surprise! Welcomed into his home to taste his wines, and . . . as soon as we were leaving, he announced that he had to drive into the village for a meeting since he is the Mayor. Surreal.

As it turned out, Mike loved his wine. We ended up with 12 more bottles for the ever-growing collection.

The ride home was almost uneventful; however, I have to add one thing – don’t always blindly trust your GPS. As the Haughty Travel Boy instructed us to merge onto A9 (the main auto route here, which is a toll road), he put us on in the wrong direction! We knew, in that split second when you can no longer merge to the left, that it was a mistake. Sure enough, “Route recalculation. Drive 21 kilometers.” No way! The next exit off the A9 to turn around was 21 kilometers away. Darn – if only we had trusted our guts instead of the Haughty Travel Boy.

Love to all!


Mags said...

Glad you enjoyed the visit to our village of Bize, hope to see you again sometime. Its better when its warm!!! Like today

Mags said...

More about Bize and things