It was while staying in the village of Bize in southern France, that I came across the Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Fontfroide, a former Cistercian monastery that sits in the foothills of the Corbières, 15 kilometres south-west of Narbonne. There are many abbeys in France, but the Abbaye de Fontfroide at Bize is special, located as it is in the heart of the unspoiled Fontfroide Massif and nestled in the heart of a typically Mediterranean landscape.
This sumptuous 12th and 13th century Cistercian complex consists of large terraced gardens, a rose garden, a good restaurant and rooms to let. It also holds an annual orchid festival, and produces its own wine. What’s not to like about that?
Founded in 1093 by a few Benedictine monks, Fontfroide was linked in 1145 to the Cistercian order and quickly became one of the most powerful abbeys in Christianity, growing in status and power, due in no small part to having been gifted land by the Viscountess Ermengard of Narbonne. During the Crusade against the Albigensians, it asserted itself as a bastion of Catholic orthodoxy in the face of Catharism.
It seems it had a rocky history from then on under the ownership of three different families in the 14th and 15th centuries, with further depredations taking place in the 15th and 16th centuries when the commendatory abbots (ecclesiastics/laymen) took more and more of the income from the abbey to the point where it became increasingly poor. By the time of the French Revolution, it had to be abandoned.
Things seemed to be looking up when, in 1858, the monks from the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque in Gordes formed a new community at Fontfroide, but sadly, they were sent into exile in Spain in 1901 due to legal changes, and the monastery was once again abandoned.
But in 1908, fate stepped in again when French painter Gustave Fayet and his wife Madeleine Fayet purchased the abbey and began its restoration which is an on-going project. It is still privately owned and throughout each year there are festivals and artistic presentations, including the orchid festival already mentioned. The Abbey produces AOC Corbières wines and one can have lunch at their “La Table de Fonfroide” restaurant or café where the wines can be sampled and bought.
Truly, a place worth visiting.
Address: Route Départementale 613, 11100 Narbonne (in the Aude department)
I wondered whether to write about Bize or not because it is such a small village and not one that seems to attract many visitors. When I mention Bize, people usually say, ‘Do you mean Beziers’ (a town not very far away from Bize)?
With a population of approximately 1,000 it is well served by two bakers, two general stores, a post office, a hairdresser, a pharmacy, a wine cave, several restaurants and a couple of bars and a general market every Wednesday morning throughout the year. About a quarter of the houses are second homes, a fact I think that stands as a testament to its charms.
So why do I like it so much. I think it’s because despite being a village housing many second home owners, Bize-Minervois, to give it its full title, located on the banks of the Cesse in the middle of a mountain gorge surrounded by vineyards and olive trees, has retained its old world charm.
The old stone houses, some covered in ivy, their shutters brightly coloured and their decorative iron balconies draped with red and pink geraniums, green ferns and leafy plants, the old fashioned little shops and narrow cobbled alleys lends Bize a sleepy air. It should all feel a tad overdone, rusticity applied with a trowel, but somehow it doesn’t. It is also eerily quiet in the afternoon, which I love, and the street cats aren’t feral!
It doesn’t take long to walk through Bize but along the way you will be intrigued with the little jokes that the inhabitants have placed here and there. Sculptures of animals and some peculiar faces will peek out of walls and on corners but you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled to see them.
Apart from the hidden sculptures, things to look out for are Bize-Minervois’ ancient main gate, Porte Saint-Michel which dates from around the 8th century and which leads in turn to a small square where gardeners once sold their produce – the Place aux Herbes,
Two kilometres from Bize you will find L’Oubilo, my main reason for visiting when I’m in the area. For me this is olive heaven, a co-operative that sells the Rolls-Royce of table olives cultivated only in the Languedoc – the lucques. Lucques are not your usual olives, they are buttery, creamy, totally smooth and very moreish. I’ve never managed to find them in the UK.
L’Oubilo also does a good line in wines from their own vineyard. Tastings are always available and it will be hard to resist driving away without a couple of boxes of really great wines – and some olives of course and the by-products of the olive, tapenades and oils. If you are hiking or cycling you will just have to sample on the spot and maybe pack a bottle or two?
Cycling or driving, the most important sight-seeing spot in the area is the beautiful Abbaye Sainte-Marie de Fontfroidede which you can read about here. It is also a good spot for a midday snack, or a more substantial meal if needed, plus a glass or two of the wine produced by the Abbey.
For a day’s total relaxing, head for the wide, wide beach at Guissans, where the sand is soft, the swimming is good and there is a wonderful fresh seafood restaurant right on the beach.
And if it’s history you’re after then a visit to the Cathar village of Minerve, perched on a column of rock in the gorges of the river Cesse and one of the most beautiful villages in France, will deliver food for the mind and scenery to delight the eye.
Before you leave the area, be sure to drive or cycle down to La Somail on the Canal du Midi, relax by the waters while you watch the boats go by, nurse an aperitif while you peruse the menu before dining in the lovely L’O de la Bouche, a restaurant invariably full of locals.
One thing’s for sure, you won’t be short of options for spending time in this lovely area of France.
Intrigued by the recent email from WP I thought I’d have a look at the new themes they are offering. I shouldn’t have!
I seem to remember that in earlier days I could activate a theme to see how it would look on my current site but this didn’t happen. Instead clicking ‘Activate’ meant that I accepted the site – and of course, I didn’t like it – but I couldn’t remember the name of my old site, nor could I find it again.
Many changes of site and I’m still befuddled, left with a site that has caused me to swear and shout at the screen. It actually transported a page from the site I’d tried earlier (but with that page’s wording etc. not fitting with my content) and I had to delete the pictures and text block by block and then save the blank page!
For tonight I’ll leave it and I maybe able to get back to it tomorrow but if not, you’ll know why my site looks odder than usual.
It’s probably all my fault. I should leave well alone, but it’s like touching the surface when it says Wet Paint – Do Not Touch, I just can’t resist clicking to see what is hiding behind the italics!
I started trawling through my archives sure I would find heaps of oddities but somehow when I came across oddities I found myself thinking, hold on there, you could use that in something else one day. I did have some though, and here they are.
This is a ruby on a banknote, or so the seller tried to convince me, when we stepped into a jewellry shop in Bangkok to have a watch strap repaired. Never do that! If you walk into a jewellry shop in Bangkok you have only one reason for doing so – according to the seller – you want to buy something.
Two very odd tree trunks I found in a village in the Pyranees.
No, neither do I! Nor do I know where it was taken: it was probably somewhere near Malaga, going by the surrounding images.
Something a bit unusual I think, for Mama Cormier’s Thursday Trios.
These are total immersion suits that will keep you alive for at least 6 hours in freezing water. I photographed these some years ago when I visited the workshop of Survitec in Sweden. Survitec is the worldwide group that manufactures and maintains rescue craft for ships, planes, oil rigs and container ships, as well as the above survival suits. Chances are that whatever cruise line or airline you are travelling on, its life rafts will be serviced and supplied by Survitec.
It’s something we take for granted, but I saw at first hand how important it is for this safety equipment to be in perfect order and how thorough the inspection is – right down to the medicines for pain, the batteries for the torches, and the bottled water, carried on board. So, a big clap for SURVITEC for keeping us safe, in the air and on the sea, and for the engineers and mechanics who test everything in freezing waters.
Excitement is high among fans of The Godfather trilogy, with the release of the newly re-mastered films, three movies that are Shakespearean in drama, operatic, and complex. As one of those fans I delved into my archives to search for photographs I took in Savoca, location of a few major scenes of The Godfather, and a reminder of one of those serendipitous moments that occur from time to time in one’s travels.
A shady spot at the Bar Vitelli
It was in Sicily, about 30 years ago, when we came across Savoca, a medieval village perched on a hill overlooking the Ionian coast. We had driven through the mountains from Taormina, stopping here and there to admire villages clinging to the sides of the mountains and blue seas far below on which floated toy boats. We pulled into Piazza Fossia, saw a parking place opposite a pleasant looking bar with terrace which meant we could sit outside rather than in the inky black interiors preferred by the Sicilians, and entered Bar Vitelli.
The Bar Vitelli
We ordered drinks, and the owner graciously waved me inside to see what else was available. What she really wanted me to see was her wall of photographs of the stars of The Godfather and various artifacts to do with the film. Most were of Marlon Brando – although he was never in Savoca for filming – Al Pacino, Simonetta Stefanelli, who played Apollonia in the film, and James Caan.
Then I made the connection. This was the small, cliff-side café where Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) sat with his two bodyguards (one of whom would later betray him) and drank wine. In fact, this small patio with the dappled sunlight playing on the tables, was the location of several scenes filmed over a six-week period during the shooting of the first Godfather movie.
Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) had fled New York City to escape both police and the Mafia and came to Sicily to take refuge. Out hunting one day, he saw a beautiful Sicilian girl and immediately fell in love with her.
Back room of Bar Vitelli with photographs and connections to The Godfather
The Bar Vitelli, as it is now, was actually the home of the beautiful young girl he’d seen, and it is here he asks the café owner for permission to court his daughter, the lovely Apollonia (Simonetta Stefanelli). A later scene, depicting a traditional Italian family Sunday dinner and a still later scene of the eventual outdoor wedding reception, was also staged on the terrace of the Bar Vitelli and in the tiny piazza in front.
La Signora watched me carefully and when she could see that I was suitably impressed with the display she sat me down and told me tales of what it was like when she had Pacino and Brando in her café. Of course, I knew that Brando had never been there but everyone’s allowed a little bit of licence and in that small village of less than 100 inhabitants, The Godfather had sprinkled a little bit of its magic on both the village and the Bar Vitelli.
La Signora sits outside Bar Vitelli.
Savoca owes it’s connection to Hollywood to the fact that Francis Ford Coppola thought that Corleone, a town near Palermo and the book’s setting for The Godfather, looked too modern for his vision of the Sicilian village from which the family came. After much searching throughout the island, he found two small villages untouched by modernisation for his locations, – Savoca and Forza d’Agro.
At the time we were there, few tourists visited this remote village so La Signora was happy to spend time talking to us and showing us some more pictures of the stars of The Godfather, plus some newspaper cuttings she’d collected.
Back room of Bar Vitelli
I never got back to Bar Vitelli but I saw a short film a while back that showed it looking exactly as it had been when I visited, and as it was in the film – right down to the bead curtain in the doorway. La Signora is no longer alive and the bar/restaurant is now successfully run by her descendants: Godfather tours (along with Montelbano tours) are now big business in Sicily, and Savoca is a port of call on the trail.
It was nice to know that it hadn’t been commercialised at all and that the stone-flagged walls covered in greenery and the terrace with vine covered pergolas, still offer shade to travellers, along with coffee granita, supposedly the favourite drink of both Pacino and Coppola when they were there.
When I watch the 3-hour long film again on March 26th, I will be carried back 30 years to when I sat on Al Pacino’s chair in Bar Vitelli and heard first-hand from la Signora that, although Pacino may have come from New York, he was molto Siciliano.
This was the prettiest house we saw in Savoca, and we were told it belonged to someone very important. I wonder who it belongs to today?
In Savoca, apart from Bar Vitelli, the nearby Church of San Nicola was used as a location for the wedding of Michael Corleone and Apollonia. The church is only a short walk from Bar Vitelli.
Bar Vitelli is housed in the 18th century Palazzo Trimarchi, located in the Piazza Fossia, the town’s main square, near the Town Hall.
The Godfatherrevolutionized film-making, saved Paramount Pictures from Bankruptcy, minted a new generation of movie stars, and made the author of the book, Mario Puzo, rich and famous. It is compelling, dramatic, and complex and it started a war between Hollywood and the high echelons of the Mob as the makers had to contend with the real-life members of the Mafia. Location permits were withdrawn without notice at inconvenient times, Al Ruddy’s car was found riddled with bullets, and ‘connected’ men insisted on being in the cast (some were given film roles, whether due to threats or talent nobody knows)!
I took this photograph late this afternoon. I only had my little pocket camera with me and although the zoom is pretty good on this particular Sony, it wasn’t quite good enough to give me the result I needed. However, if you enlarge the photo you will see up to 13 Container ships on the horizon, all waiting to enter the waters for Southampton or Portsmouth harbour to unload their cargo. I was told by a fellow onlooker that there were 17 out there, his younger eyes gave him the advantage.
We are continually reading and hearing that due to Brexit/Covid, a mixture of both but at least one of them could have been foreseen, goods will be in short supply in the coming months.
Well, here they are, sitting in the Bay area of Sandown/Shanklin.