I had an inkling something was up as we crept through the Friday afternoon rush on the northern outskirts of Montpellier. But it wasn’t until we were stuck in the narrow Roman streets of Béziers that my suspicions were confirmed. I had fallen victim to a fat-finger error when programming my SatNav.
So it goes that what should have been a one-hour drive to Narbonne from Montpellier–Méditerranée Airport became a two-and-a-half-hour mission through the Languedoc’s most frustrating and congested roads. There are surprisingly few alternative routes available when you’re stuck in a traffic jam in the French countryside. Credit to my passenger, who, despite having to endure my complaints about a suspiciously faulty SatNav, maintained optimism that we would reach our destination prior to our grandchildren graduating from university.
The destination, Chateau l’Hospitalet in La Clape, is the seat of Gerard Bertrand’s wine business and we were headed there for its annual vine pruning celebration. Most of us approach the task of pruning anything in the garden with a degree of reluctance, keen to avoid it in the hope that someone else will do the job for them. But for the vignerons of France, especially those in the Languedoc, vine pruning is just as important as making the wine itself, so it is important to honour the labour that goes into it. It is also a great excuse for a party.
As the website for Gerard Bertrand says:
Vine pruning is without a doubt the most difficult task of winegrowers. This meticulous work represents the beginning of the vine life cycle and every winter the wine growers are working to give birth to what will be the fruit of a whole year’s work. It is with these excessive temperatures that on our vines, the wine growers accomplish 15 million pruning movements with infinite precision influencing the next harvest as much as the vine for the rest of its life.
It was for this reason that we were headed to Gerard Bertrand’s vineyard for a celebration that included outdoor activities, a wine tasting and a gala dinner. All we had to do was get there. But first we had to endure a drive fraught with calamity. First the wrong route on the SatNav. Then an attempt to deviate from the ill-fated route to find the toll highway only to second-guess my judgement and turn back. And finally when presented with the last opportunity to pull onto the autoroute à péage we found ourselves whizzing by in a blur of confusion and ineptitude.
It’s amazing what crosses the mind when you’re stuck in a line of traffic in the centre of Béziers. None of it will do anything to get you to your destination any faster. Even when the only option is to keep pressing on, the mind wills you to give up. To pull to the side of the road and throw the SatNav into the River Orb. To get out of the car and lob obscenities at the traffic that is impeding your journey.
It’s not as though I have no sense of direction. Some would say I can read a map and remember a route better than most. And it’s not as though I haven’t driven this route in the past. In fact, I’m well-acquainted with the roads between Montpellier and Narbonne. But I’m also a man of a certain age and, therefore, I’m predisposed to errors not only of the navigational variety but also of the male brain. Get in rental car. Turn key. Pull out of parking lot. Immediately and with blind confidence turn the wrong direction or willingly follow the wrong route on a SatNav.
In the end, we made it. But only with enough time to check in at reception and race up to our room for a wardrobe change before heading straight to the restaurant for drinks and dinner. The real work would take place the following morning in the form of a masterclass tasting of Gerard Bertrand’s latest vintages. That will have to wait for next time.