I’ve hiked and driven these quiet lanes so many times over the years that I sometimes take it for granted how much this part of Northern Ireland is soaked in history and mythology. Slieve Gullion – literally, mountain of the steep slope in Irish – is the eroded remains of a Paleocene volcano. It lies at the heart of the Ring of Gullion, which is itself a topographical curiosity only recently understood: an ancient ring dyke. (With the collapse of an active volcano’s caldera, a concentric ring of fault lines radiate outwards. Magma is extruded through these fractures to create mountains which are a geologically helter-skelter composite at their surface. Here the mix is molten granite with igneous rock from the Silurian period some 400 million years ago.) It’s the highest point in County Armagh, and on that rare clear day offers views as far away as Dublin Bay and Wicklow. At the top of the mountain are two cairns on either side of a small lake. The southern one is the highest surviving passage grave in Ireland – radiocarbon dating suggests it was built circa 3000 BC – and its entrance is aligned to the setting sun of the winter solstice. According to legend, however, Slieve Gullion is named after Culann, the metalsmith. And it is here that the legendary warrior Sétanta spent his childhood and received the name Cúchulainn. Culann invited Conchobhar mac Neasa, King of Ulster, to a feast at his house on the slopes of Slieve Gullion. On his way, Conchobhar stopped at the hurling field and was so impressed by Sétanta’s playing that he asked him to later join him at the feast. Conchobhar went ahead, but he forgot about Sétanta, and Culann let loose his ferocious hound to guard the house. When Sétanta arrived the hound attacked him, but he killed it by driving a hurling ball down its throat with his hurley. Culann was devastated by the loss, so Sétanta promised to rear him a replacement, and until it was old enough to do the job, he would guard Culann’s house. Henceforth he was known as Cúchulainn, or Culann’s Hound. But that’s just the beginning for young Cúchulainn, who will later single-handedly defend Ulster against the invading Connacht armies of Queen Medh at the nearby Gap of the North and take his place as Irish literature’s greatest mythic hero. All in a day’s hike, as they say.
Unassuming at first glance, Creggan Parish Churchyard is one of the more important and historic properties in Northern Ireland. The church was likely founded as far back as 1450 by the O’Neills, who built a castle at Glassdrummond, near the Irish Sea. While all traces of the pre-Reformation church have disappeared, it’s thought that the O’Neill family vault was situated underneath the original church. (Remains of a subterranean doorway were recently found during repairs to the existing modern structure.) The adjoining graveyard is also the burial-place of three eighteenth century Gaelic poets, who give this picturesque area of trails and sculpted gardens its evocative name: Art Mac Cooey, Pádraig Mac Aliondain and Séamus Mór Mac Murphy – poet, outlaw, and self-described handsomest man in Ireland.
The daily menu at Côté Mas is short, seasonal and mostly locally sourced. San Miguel cured ham is sliced to order on an antique slicing machine; Aveyron beef and lamb are cooked Mediterranean-style and served with garden vegetables; desserts, such as Ile Flottante, are all contemporary takes on French classics. The surprise comes in the subtle use of Asian ingredients, such as in tuna tataki, marinated with garden herbs and served with black radish, wasabi spaghetti, soy jelly and yuzu. The reasoning becomes clear as soon as you notice Taïchi Megurikami leading the kitchen. A Japanese chef at the helm has long been part of proprietor Jean-Claude Mas’ plan. “They will take something as inspiration and make it better,” he says. “They will create something sublime.” Like spheres of duck foie gras with very three distinct flavors: soy sauce, honey, and red mulled wine. Then again such an unorthodox approach to French cooking is in keeping with Mas’ attitude towards making wine, full of the spicy, new world aromas and flavors of the Languedoc.
Tête de veau is one of those delicacies you don’t find outside of France too often. (and when you do it’s more often than not something best skipped.) As the name implies it’s the head of a veal calf: boiled, braised, and roasted until the meltingly tender flesh literally falls from the skull. Often the meat is then moulded into a terrine and sliced before frying, so you get that idyllic interplay of a crispy exterior enrobing a layer of buttery soft veal. At Restaurant l’Entre Pots in Pezenas they take it further, pairing the tête with grilled squid, which mirrors the texture of the terrine and manages to create a complex dish that tastes of both land and sea.
The magnificent Abbaye de Valmagne in Montagnac, founded in 1139, is one of the most well-preserved in France. Unusual in that though it was home to just a small handful of monks, the church and accompanying cloister are massive, having been inspired by the great cathedrals of Northern France. As with all good ruins it went from prominence to obscurity in just a few short centuries. Eventually it was confiscated by the government and sold into private hands. Having been looted and abandoned the empty church made the perfect 18th century wine cellar for a Mr. Granier-Joyeuse. Ironically it was the wine that ultimately saved the structure, providing support to the interior walls until proper buttresses could be added to the exterior. To this day the abbey remains in private hands, focusing its efforts on organic gardening and in a nod to monks, brewing small batch beer.
Architect Norman Foster’s Viaduc de Millau is the tallest bridge in the world, with the summit of its highest mast towering 1,125 ft above the base – making it the tallest structure in all of France. A cable-stayed bridge – meaning cables attached to pylons support the roadway – it spans the valley of the River Tam for one and a half miles along a road deck 900 ft above the ground. Ranked as one of the great engineering achievements of all time, it’s exhilarating to drive across. And yet the true magnitude of the achievement only becomes clear at a distance: joining two massive geological plateaus together.