I am discovering that the broad waterfront facing onto the River Herault defines the nature of this city of Agde.
Sailing down the mouth of this river came Phoenicians with their bands of rowers, Greeks with their full bellied sail, the Romans with their revolutionary lateen sails, the bellicose Spanish, and various other adventurers and pirates all leaping ashore to trade, to conquer, to plunder, to fish, to find wives, to settle, to farm, to build a city. It’s said that there are five cities layered here if one digs deep enough. And in the evolution of such a city the craft of the sea and the courage and skill of the sailors has been paramount.
Through history the River Herault has been a crucial conduit for importing and exporting goods – and people for the whole of France, linking as it does to the great Canal de Midi in one direction and the great outside world in the other. At times this has contributed to periods of great affluence and wealth in the city and the region – witnessed by the great Mansions – now split into smaller houses – in these narrow streets. (See next blog ‘The Loves and The Fishes…)
The docks on both sides of the river, once lined with ships waiting to unload, are, alas, no more. In their place are houses and restaurants stretching out on pontoons doing a different kind of trade with travellers and tourists, who come to Agde in the summer to share its very special appeal.
To be honest, although I love the water, I have always imagined sailing as a rich man’s hobby. But here and on the canal I sometimes see some travellers who take their pleasures in a way with which I can identify. Picnics on the shore, washing on the line….
It is all very tempting. I did spot this one little boat A VENDRE (for sale) which, had I been a year or so younger, I would have thought twice about…
(Let me declare an interest: I am researching all this about boats coming up the river in 100AD for some early parts of my novel…)
But really this post is an excuse to talk about the unique , adventurous Alan and Nira, the owners of the house where we are staying. They live just by the river in an exquisite house where the terrace is like a ship’s prow. Alan is English, and a painter by profession, a seafarer by preference. Nira is Israeli, the daughter of silversmith and a restorer of ceramics. These two met in London in the 1980s when they were both living on boats on the Thames. Alan was painting, into buying boats and sailing. He went to Amsterdam, bought a a decommissioned barge, rebuilt it entirely as a sailing barge, and with Nira, sailed it across the channel and down the rivers and canals of France right down here to the Mediterranean at Agde, this home of boats of all kinds,.
They loved this ancient city when they got here, settled, and eventually applied their amazing boat-restoring skills to restoring these lovely old houses where we have stayed. They brought up two children (now grownup) in the first house I stayed in. (The inspiration for my new novel.) This house is at least four hundred years old and looking at the papers I feel there has been accommodation on this spot since the Greeks were here.
I remember reading that Elizabeth David - the writer who transformed attitudes to food in Britain after the second world war - made this same journey as Alan and Nira , travelling with a lover right down by sailing boat to the Mediterranean in 1939, only to be arrested and held for a while by the Italians. Beautiful woman, that.
The sailing barge (now retired) that Alan and Nira restored
and sailed from England through France to Agde.
Work In Progress from
‘At The Villa d’Estella’;
I stumble on the uneven lava blocks that pave the quayside and he takes my arm. I can hear the jingling of boat tackle and the shout of voices but there are no boats drawn up on the quay these days, just waiters and waitresses setting out cutlery and napkins in the smart pontoon cafes huddling by the boat-less quay, in the place where ships once docked snugly, side by side, ready to unload.
‘You know Madame Patrice? You said you knew her?’ I try to make some conversation.
If you call by,
just leave a post to say hi
so I know you’re there!