On Being Agnes in Uzès: The next best thing to being French!

6 May

One of the gifts travel gives us, if we open ourselves to the possibility, is to inhabit the lives of strangers in strange lands. We’ve done it before, in Paris, Pau, Rome, Buenos Aires, but this time we did it in style. Through http://www.homeaway.com Stuart found Agnes’ gorgeous apartment in the oldest continuously occupied house in Uzès, Languedoc-Rousillon, France.Yep, that’s me on my balcony. The photo below pinpoints the apartment in Uzès.

Agnes’ family owned grand Hôtel Baron de Castille which stands in an imposing position opposite the cathedral. Built as a family mansion in 1818 by the very wealthy Gabriel de Froment d’Argilliers, the Baron de Castille (born 1747), he included architectural features he’d seen on his extensive travels outside France. Agnes and her sister still own two of the three apartments in half the building, the other half is a luxury real estate office.

Sadly we never met Agnes. All correspondence was conducted by email and her friend Francine greeted us, however we feel we know her through her furniture, furnishings, her recipe books, library, and her high end kitchen equipment. Agnes is obviously a stylish gourmet with a love of literature, classical music and the finer things in life. It was a pleasure to slip into her urban Provencal lifestyle.

Situated at the source of the river Eure, Uzès was a Gallic-Roman administrative centre. In 1565AD it became the first Duchy in France as a reward for services rendered in war by Antoine de Crussol. Uzès has an active council spending big bucks on renovating the historic parts of the town centre with original materials, and, judging by the cultural calendar, a vibrant arts scene. Its Saturday market is one of the best we’ve seen for local produce. Certainly it is a shoppers’ paradise.

La Boca, just around the corner from our apartment is run extremely well by one chef and one waitress. My assiette de legumes was magnificent and Stuart was equally happy with his lunch.

For me it was a chance for self maintenance: visits to the laundrette and to a beauty salon where I was pampered by the lovely Patricia; plenty of space to do my yoga practice; sipping Ricard on the rocks on our balcony watching the golden evening light play on the cathedral spire; and lots of delicious home cooked meals with local wines.

My assiette de legumes at La Boca. That’s swede, not chips!

Our favourite cafe.

Stuart got the message that I needed some time on my own and, being the best of husbands, he went off on his own bicycle adventures. I explored the original Duchy House, owned today by the 17th Duke of Uzès and worked my way through some Uzès cafes.

The Bermond Tower is the oldest part of the building, it was constructed for the first Lord in 1144 AD.

This is a pilgrim’s lamp used in the Crusades.
The portrait above is the first Duke. The significence of being the first Duchy is that descendents rank immediately after crown princes, thereby occupying the supreme position in the non-royal aristocratic pecking order.

The first Duchess

Duchess Anne de Rochechouart de Mortemart (1847-1932) was heiress to the Veuve Cliquot fortune, with which she financed General Boulanger whose thwarted ambition it was to overthrow the French Republic in 1889. When her husband died young following a shooting accident she managed the extensive family estate. A prolific and popular writer and poet under the penname ‘Manuela’, she also sculpted with some critical success. The statue of St Hubert (Patron of the Hunt) in the Sacré Coeur Basilica in Paris is by her. She was a feminist who was interested in social welfare, and at the age of 42 she was the first woman to get a driver’s licence in France. In the 1914-18 war she trained as a nurse and set up a military hospital. A keen hunter she continued to ride until she was 84. Unfortunately she ran down the families’ fortunes and left the Duchy in difficult financial straits.

There was no such thing as a dining room in the 16th century, tables and food was set up wherever the Duke and Duchess chose to eat, hence the trestle table. The tapestry depicting Alexander the Great is Aubusson and dates from the 17th century.

Two day trips that will forever live in our memories were to the magnificent two thousand-year-old Roman Pont du Gard aqueduct (the first time I have seen this engineering wonder) and to the spectacular Ardeche River gorge.

The course of the Roman aqueduct running from Uzes to Nimes. The museum at Pont du Gard is brilliantly done.

The Ardeche River

Pont D’Arc, a natural arch formed by water erosion.

We had planned on a bit of kayaking but it was a cold, windy day so we thought better of it and a had a jolly good restaurant lunch instead!The Plane Tree avenues are lovely but can be a wee bit too narrow for comfort.

A third pleasant day out was the drive to Montpellier for lunch in the gardens and on to Sète for a sunset dinner. And then of course we had our afternoon at the Musee Siecle de Roulotte. Rather a busy week when I look back.

I’m reading a biography of Voltaire and wonder what he would think of this fashion label. Voltaire is a name he made up as he didn’t like his own, François-Marie Arouet. Given how fond Voltaire was of money he would have trademarked his name had he known how posterity would treat him. Despite his many love affairs he had no children of his own. His final mistress of over twenty years happened to also be his niece. She pre-deceased him.

Palavas marina with its chair lift over the canal.
The drive into Sete was notable for the caravan cemeteries (hundreds go there to die), the large high security prison and the sex worker on the outskirts of the Sete industrial estate we saw negotiating the deal with a man on a scooter.

Stuart had a thoroughly fishy dinner at Chez Francois, Sete, while I had the spaghetti with garlic and olive oil and a salad.

Fishermans’ chapel.

On the drive from Uzès to Arles, our next stop, we tasted and bought wines at L’Aqueduct (excellent reds) and had more wine and tapas for lunch in Vers at La Grange wine bar, owned and run by an energetic Zimbabwean woman. Stuart had found La Grange on his cycle ride and enjoyed it so much it warranted a return visit.

Altogether a very successful week. Far from stepping out of our comfort zone we stepped into Agnes’ world and enjoyed it enormously.

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