Today was a big day in Salleles d’Aude…..it was the 7th Festival of Water, Land and Wine (Eau, Terre et Vin)…..a day long celebration of all things dear to the Salléloise. We had been looking forward to this day for weeks so, after breakfast, we eagerly and enthusiastically left the cottage and drove into town.
It was still early when we arrived….we easily found a parking space and walked through town to the canal. Booths lining the street next to the canal were being readied for an onslaught of visitors….we could tell there would be artisanal (craft) items (jewelry, purses, stone sculptures), food (oysters, tapas, pastries), drink (beer, wine) and interesting displays (old motors, Vespas, photographs). We stopped Chez Hervé for coffee and watched the activity unfold before us…..and behind us. A special paella menu would be served today and, as the servers briskly prepared for the anticipated lunch crowd, people would walk past us to briefly talk to one of the servers….who would point out a table, then scribble something on it’s paper tablecloth. After watching this a few times, it dawned on us that if we didn’t reserve a table, we wouldn’t be eating house-made paella today!
We made our way over to a cadre of restaurant staff and, in our very best French, asked if a reservation was necessary for lunch. “Oui,” we were told. We asked for a table for two…..but they were all taken. “Pas de problem (no problem)”, the robust (in both size and personality) owner said as he pointed to a tall, barrel table and asked if it would be alright. “Oui,” we said. “Nom (name)?” he asked? “Vanderkamp,” Craig replied. This was much too much for Hervé to deal with on such a busy day. He looked up, saw Craig’s Sun-Maid baseball cap, smiled and said, “Le tableau est pour l’homme à la casquette rouge (the table is for the man with the red cap).” We smiled as he laughed and said, “Ne prenez pas votre casquette ou vous perdrez votre table (don’t take off your hat or you’ll lose your table)!”
We walked across the street, under a big banner announcing “Vide Grenier” and into one of the largest flea markets we’ve seen in Languedoc. A seemingly never-ending row of tables lined both sides of the canal’s towpath for what seemed miles. Not in the market for anything ourselves, we played a game as we strolled along looking at these cast-off treasures…..choosing which intrinsically French items we’d buy to stock a vintage shop back home…..cafe tables, iron filigree garden sculptures, posters, earthenware pitchers, Ricard aperitif glasses, lace curtains…..hmm, an idea for our next career?
After our stroll, it was time for lunch. Our table, as promised, was waiting for us. As a drum band marched by, we ordered the special menu for the day….melon, paella and fruit tart with a bottle of white wine. The melon was quickly brought to our table. It’s presentation wasn’t anything special….just a half cantalope on a plate…..but a sweet muscat filled it’s hollowed out center. The melon with the honey-like wine was delicious….so simple, so sublime, so very perfect on this warm day.
After taking our time to savor the cool, crisp melon, our paella was served. This paella…. full of fresh fish, mussels and sausage….was created with saffron-infused noodles, not the customary rice. It was a pleasant substitution that took the “heaviness” out of the dish. We lingered over the paella while finishing a chilled bottle of chardonnay. A lemon tart was a refreshing, palette-cleansing end to a great meal. Total cost? 35 euros…..not too bad for two 3-course meals and a bottle of wine.
We strolled past the artisanal booths (now open for business) and the myriad food booths (my favorite was the Pompiers’ booth….beer served by hunky, young firemen – what could be better?). We strolled past the Vespa motorscooters, past a display of old motors, past a cheerful, flag-bedecked boat, past intricate models of sailboats, past old photographs of Salleles d’Aude and the Canal du Midi….past all the booths to the wide basin near the town’s bridge…..a graceful iron structure designed by Gustav Eiffel. The area was slowly filling with people but we found an empty spot on the bank and sat down to wait for the main event….Combat de Joutes…..Water Jousting!
We had seen the water jousting boats docked in Sete, but this would be the first time we’d see them in action. Two brightly colored boats….one red, one blue….were resting here in the Canal du Robine. Wooden platforms protruded from their sterns. As the rowers boarded their boats, the jousters paraded through town….each team accompanied by an oboist and a drummer. We saw their checkerboard flags and heard their lively tunes before we saw the white-clad jousters. They crossed the bridge and boarded their boats amid cheering and applause.
With all aboard….one captain, ten oarsmen, two musicians and six jousters….the boats started on their courses.
As one boat moved under the bridge, the other moved down the canal. Soon, they turned and faced each other. The strong oarsmen began to power their boats toward each other to the beat of the drum and the lilt of the oboe. As the boats neared, the two jousters on the platforms readied themselves…..they covered their chests with wooden shields and armed themselves with long wooden lances. The boats slid by each other while the jousters took careful aim at each other’s shield. Bang! Clack! Thud! One jouster was thrust into the water.
The boats circled again as a small motorboat returned the lance and shield to the boat that had lost its jouster…..along with these, a replacement jouster climbed aboard. Again, the rowers powered their boats toward each other. This time, both jousters held their own. Again and again, the rowers rowed while the jousters fought…..sometimes winning, sometimes losing….but always being replenished by dry jousters waiting in the motorboat.
It was an amazing spectacle but, after almost two hours of sitting on the hard ground and not seeing an end in sight to the tournament, we decided to call it a day….a very long day….and return to the cottage.
“Yes, the danger must be growing, For the rowers keep on rowing, And they’re certainly not showing, Any signs that they are slowing!”…….Gene Wilder in “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory”