Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Driving to the Languedoc and a Speeding Ticket

That Sunday dawned sunny and clear, perfect for a long 3-4 hour drive to the ancient walled city of Carcassonne. This destination stirred up many memories and emotions, as my grandfather used to take me there as a child. He used to live in Toulouse, which is an hour away, and he knew that I’d love it. I mean, let's face it, I was a young boy fascinated by knights, fairytale castles and medieval history. And wow, was he right! This fortified city was like a Lego castle on a grand scale. I spent many summers playing on the parapets, defending the fortress from imagined barbarians and the occasional alien (I had an active imagination). So after picking up some dry-cured ham and more of the fabulous chorizo from Patrice’s winebar, I headed out of town to catch the autoroute leading to Carcassonne.

My next appointments would be in the Languedoc region of France, to the northeast of Saint Jean Pied de Port. This area used to be known more for producing vast amounts of plonk than for doing anything interesting. However, between recent advances in winemaking and the passionate devotion of a few select producers, there were some islands of quality poking their way up through the ocean of crap. Granted, it would be difficult to find the good ones, as this is a huge expanse after all.

The Languedoc in relation to France
The Languedoc is France’s (and one of the world’s) largest wine-growing region with over 700,000 acres under vine (yes, you read that right), stretching eastward from just outside the city of Toulouse to the Mediterranean Coast, and from the border with Spain to the mouth of the Rhône in the north. The climate is very warm and somewhat dry (unsurprisingly and uninspiringly referred to as a Mediterranean climate), and the landscape is varied. The soils are composed of limestone, chalk, gravel, and in the better sites the vines push up between riverbed stones, just like in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

There are so many different types of grapes being grown here that it can be mind-boggling (as well as teeth-staining and palate-deadening). One can find all the usual suspects (Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne) as well as some weirdly-named strangers (Bourbolenc, Cinsault, Carignan, Vermentino, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, Macabéo, Rolle to name a few – well, most, actually).

Between all those grapes and the various appellations, keeping things straight was going to be tough.

About midway between Saint Jean Pied de Port and Carcassonne I discovered how the French highway patrol pulls people over. And no, for all you cynical readers, I wasn’t the one being stopped. Surprised, eh? Well, so was I!

As I rounded an uphill bend, the abused little chipmunk in my engine began to get tired, slowing me down to the legal 130 kph, just as some German nut in a minivan blew by me in the left lane doing around 170 kph at least. We rounded the bend and lo and behold, a police car sat there, one officer holding a radar gun and the other sitting in the driver’s seat. I’d been going pretty fast (shocking, I know), so despite having slowed somewhat I got a bit nervous. The policeman holding the radar gun shook his head and got in the car, its lights flashing blue and white as it roared onto the autoroute.

They zoomed up behind me and I thought I was done. How would I explain things if I got stopped? It’s not as if I could claim that I thought the speed limit was in miles per hour… Or could I…? The little Devil sitting on my left shoulder began hatching plans, the Macchiavelian part of my reptilian brain shooting out quickfire ideas. Just as they got right behind me, they swerved into the left lane and flew by me, pulling alongside the German minivan several hundred meters up the road. One officer made a sign, and then the car pulled in front of the minivan, lights still flashing.

And so we all rode this way for a while, the cop leading the way, the minivan, then me, and behind me a veritable flotilla of petrified drivers keeping true to the posted speed limits. You could smell the frustration wafting upwind from the other vehicles. But we were all saved the moment the next exit appeared, and this is where I learned how they pull people over in France: the emergency lanes are very narrow (like the cars), so they make you follow them to the next exit, at which point you get a speeding ticket and (presumably) have to pay the toll. Double punch!
Carcassonne, fairytale castle incarnate
Before I knew it, I was in Carcassonne, home to some fond memories, and checked in at my hotel at the foot of the fortress. My first meetings would take place the next day, after I’d returned my little abused car.

Next, the first tastes of the Languedoc…


1 comment:

Sharon said...

Can't wait to hear about the wines. (Pinot noir, too?! Woah...) Great description.