Planning Ahead

Written Friday, 28 May 2014

David planning-001.jpg In spring, the Thistles' fancy turns to thoughts of France. Time to plan the trip! As usual, David set out to choose our region and outline the itinerary, taking us through some interesting region from notable restaurant to notable restaurant, but he got tired of working with those little bitty maps in the Gault-Millau guide, where the place you're trying to plan for is invariably in the crease between pages and everything is written so small. So he pulled out our big, thick road atlas of France, photocopied the relevant pages, taped them together into a nice big collage, and set to work. Here he is, poring over the atlas's index and his legal pad of notes (under which you can just make out the bright green Michelin guide to the area, called Languedoc-Roussillon. Harder to see are the little Post-It notes he has pasted all over the map, drawn from the flat box in the foreground of French-themed Post-It notes he got for Christmas from the Sinnetts, CJ's parents.

CJ won't be with us this year. As I mentioned back in 2012, she was, at that time, no longer entirely unattached, and I am pleased to announce that she is now, in fact, firmly attached, to Jeff Greenspon, who appears with her in the photos from our 2013 trip. She'll be planning her wedding, getting married, and honeymooning in Greece during our entire summer travel window.

So, once David got the itinerary outlined and the restaurants chosen, I made up my checklist and started making reservations—as usual, it's never as simple as it looks.

Here's the overall map of this year's it route, which we'll follow clockwise, beginning and ending in Montpellier. It looks like a simple polygon here, because I've only marked the points at which we'll actually spend the night; in practice, of course, it will bristle with detours, day trips, and excursions. At the right-hand side, you can see part of our 2013 route, and at the left part of our 2004 route (we still get regular e-mail from a nice restaurant outside Toulouse that we visited on that trip), so we'll be filling in a gap.

We have friends in Montpellier, ornithologist/ecologist Jean-Louis Martin and his wife ecotourism expert Sylvie Blangy, whom we hope to see for dinner one night, if they're not at their field sites in the Western Hemisphere while we're there. Even if they're gone, maybe we can see their daughter Soline, in grad school in Montpellier. Back before Soline was born, Jean-Louis visited Dan Simberloff's Tallahassee lab for year, which is where we got to know them. The very first friendship quilt we were ever involved with was the one the ecology and evolution group made when Soline was born in 1993. David and I visited Montpellier when Soline was 4 (her photo from that visit is still on our refrigerator). On our way back from the market, I commented on her mylar balloon in the shape of a parrot; she firmly corrected me, pointing out that it was not a "perroquet" as I had referred to it, but an "arras," a macaw, i.e., a particular kind of South American parrot. Definitely her parents' daughter. We also saw them briefly in 2005, during David's sabbatical.

But first, we'll fly into Montpellier, pick up a rental car, and head straight for Béziers. Why Béziers? Well, why not? It's partway to Narbonne, and Pézenas, the intermediate town we had originally chosen because of the good restaurant located there, seemed pointless once I learned that the restaurant had changed its schedule and would be closed the night we arrived. The one in Béziers should be open.

Next is Narbonne, called "La Belle Romane" because it was the Roman capital of the province and governed Marseille, Aix, Nîmes, and all those other towns we visited last year.

After that comes Perpignan. We spent a week there in 1993, at the triennial meiofauna congress, but we don't really count that—we spent the whole time in the meetings, except for the mid-week congress excursion to Carcassonne and the Cathar castles by bus. We never really had a chance to explore the place. We'll surely do a day trip down to Banyuls, down near the Spanish border, to visit the source of its famous sweet wine (ideal with foie gras, I'm told). Time was, we would have visited its oceanography lab as well, but all the people we knew there have either retired or left.

Then Carcassonne, famous walled medieval town, now a hotbed of highly rated restaurants, and (via a night in Castres for the Goya Museum) Albi, home town of Toulouse-Lautrec and the center of Cathar activity in the region (the Cathars, an early Christian sect, are gone, exterminated by the mainstream church, but they left behind the ruins of some truly spectacular fortified hilltop castles). Then a night in Millau, mainly the jumping-off point for tours of Roquefort country, before returning to Montpellier for a couple of days at the end.

The majority of the hotels were a breeze to book because they're either Ibises or Ibis Budgets, and Accor (their parent company) provides very slick on-line reservation services. The rest, I could reserve either on line or with a simple phone call, except for one, in Narbonne. No response to two attempts to reserve through their website, no response to two attempts to e-mail them directly, and no response, not even an answering machine, to two attempts to phone. Finally, I e-mailed the Office de Tourisme to ask what was up with them—had the place burned down? Sadly, they're closed indefinitely on account of illness, so I sent them a sympathy note, told them to disregard my messages, and reserved elsewhere.

The restaurants, though, led me the usual merry chase. This year, none had closed down, but a couple had changed their closing days, and one, although open 7/7, closes every day at 2 p.m. (as the guide actually says, in very tiny print); we'll have to go there some day for lunch. That left us with a Sunday in Narbonne, where everything is closed for Sunday dinner except the restaurant we'd already booked for Saturday, so I've asked them just to book us for another night. That's the last one awaiting confirmation—they haven't gotten back to me yet. A pleasant change this year was that some (but not all) of the restaurants that don't accept reservations by e-mail actually said so on their websites, saving me the trouble of sending a request, waiting a week, then calling. Also, not one restaurant asked for a credit card number to guarantee the reservation (although one non-Accor hotel did), and the ones that wanted phone numbers were happy with hotel contacts.

Another wonderful new discovery this year is the "Entreprise et Découverte" (Business and Discovery) website: You will have noticed, if you've read my stuff, that I love touring factories (for lack of a better term), particularly food factories, but anywhere I can learn how things are made, done, processed . . . I guess David does, too; he's willing to go along, anyway. Apparently, we're not the only ones, because an outfit called the "Agence de Développement de la Visite d'Entreprise" (i.e., the Agency for the Development of Business Tours) has developed and mounted (in December 2012) this fabulous on-line resource that you can use to find such tours. From their main page, you can specify the region, département, or (from "advanced search") individual city of your choice, as well as the business sector you're interested in (from a list of 12, ranging from "food related" and "wines and spirits" to "technology" to "quarries and construction materials" and, of course, "other") and pull up a list of all the relevant businesses that offer tours. The information provided includes an interactive, Google-style map to the business and all the relevant information about its tours, in a handy standard format—contact info, whether tours are available for individuals and/or groups, opening hours, cost of admission, duration of tour, whether a tasting is included (wineries and candy factories, usually yes; foundries and soap factories, usually no), whether or not the tour is guided, whether there's parking for cars or buses, etc. Wonderful! My conclusion, after searches of the cities we'll be in or near, is that the region is a hotbed of candy-making, unusual wines (Byrrh, Muscat, Banyuls), olive oil presses (alas, out of season), and, surprisingly, beer. It would be pretty far out of our way, so we probably won't tour the dairy that produces ass's milk for use in cosmetics.

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