Skip to content

Onward and Upward

January 28, 2013

carroux  et st martin de l'arcon   Midi Libre
I had enjoyed the holiday in Eymet, hiring a house, doing my own shopping and cooking…..though the house itself left left something to be desired.

We were four people, had arranged to pay for a four bedroom house and on arrival found one of those bedrooms locked, the door adorned with a paper upon which, in a child’s hand, was written
‘Our things are in here. You can’t go in.’

Not the best of starts…but we got round it, using one of the sitting rooms as a bedroom, and there was that to amuse us as using the loo needed a good sense of balance.
A lurch to the side to reach the loo roll…placed at gorilla arm’s length….and the whole throne would tip alarmingly, not having been securely attached to the floor.
Incompetence…or a device to encourage sobriety?

Made cautious by experience, when I returned to the Bergerac area I made a commercial booking of a rental house and all went well….we had arranged a ‘mother and daughter’ break for a few of us and despite disparity of age and background the mothers had a hoot, especially once introduced to wine tasting.
To see a group of ladies of a certain age waving tea towels toreador fashion while one of their number pawed and lunged in the manner of the bull, chorusing their intention of raising a bunion on Senor Spigoni’s onion should they catch him bending that night is a privilege vouchsafed to the few….

Wine tasting went well…..sanitary facilities outwith the house not so.
We had stopped for coffee in Bergerac when the urge overtook mother to overcome the habits of a lifetime and use the loo in the caff.
Her absence was of no long duration.
She returned at the speed of an Exocet, giving us to understand that the condition of the facilities resembled that of Tangier in time of plague….and, in a telling finale, announced that she wouldn’t be too sure of the cups….
The maternal element of the party rose as one and departed for the portaloo outside the church….

Still, even the charms of the wine of Pecharmant could not conceal from me that the area was uber-touristy…..the increasing range of English newspapers available being a telling sign…so when friends offered me the use of the house they had just bought in the south of France I was keen to see a new area.

Well, it was the south of France…but not as we know it.
It was Languedoc….in the Herault….in the backwoods behind Beziers.
It could not have been better.

I drove down via Clermont Ferrand and Millau….no Norman Foster viaduct in those days….and onto the Causse de Larzac where, if you stopped the car all you would hear would be the wind whipping through the short grasses.
Famed in my time for the local opposition to the expropriation of the Causse to extend a military camp, it has been an inhabited site since prehistoric times….unrestricted tree felling and sheep grazing have reduced it to the barren waste it appears to be at first sight….the old Templar stronghold at La Couvertoirade guarding the route by which salt came up from the lagoons of the Languedoc was then just beginning to attract the hippies and artists who now infest the place and the restaurant was already expensive.
The causses surrounding Millau form a wonderful world apart…..and there is no better introduction than a collection of photographs by Owen Phillips.
If you follow the link you will find a mention of the photographs on the right hand side of the page, with links to follow. These now form a book…but I cannot find an easier reference than that given in the link.

Down off the causses between Lodeve and Bedarieux following the River Orb, into the world of vines and thermal springs, shopping in a tired looking Intermarche in Herepian, having been warned of lack of shops at my destination, then travelling the road under great trees with white painted trunks, leaving Lamalou-les-Bains for a later visit, pressing on to the house at St. Martin de l’Arcon, tucked under the heights of Mont Caroux.

photograph of the village from

Over a picnic of sausage cheese and bread that night I wondered where exactly I was….on the edge of the Cevennes as notorious for the religious persecution of the Huguenots and the suppression of their Camisard uprising as celebrated for the exploits of Stevenson and Modestine.
In the other direction the Cathars and their bloody suppression in the Albigension Crusade…

I resolved to let history alone and enjoy the gifts of nature and thus, on the following day, set out to explore the lanes and tracks of the hamlets between the mountain and the river.

There was a ‘motorway’ to the square below my house, but otherwise the lanes were just wide enough to allow a laden donkey to pass and I could walk for miles between the vines to La Pomarede in one direction and towards La Coste in the other.
No sign of a shop….no vignerons offering ‘degustations’…
I met a man checking his vines. He laughed at the idea of direct sale to the public.
There was no public. Yes, things might change the way foreigners were buying up the old houses…had I seen all the new bungalows on the ‘motorway’, where villagers were finally able to afford comfortable easily maintained houses?
But if the foreigners were Dutch then there would be no point.
They brought everything with them.

I was to hear this over and over…in the one shop at Colombieres, at the car park at the Gorges d’Heric, in the shops at Olargues.
The Dutch arrived in vast camper vans…sometimes laagered up in whole deserted hamlets which they had bought….and passed their time walking and botanising. They spent not a franc.

It all sounded rather chicken and egg, given the shortage of commercial activity….but it was the locally held view.

Me? He let me come round later with my cubi and drove me back up the ‘motorway’.

I didn’t go far….I took the car down to Roquebrune on the Orb, with a micro climate so mild as to make it a haven for exotic plants…to Olargues to enjoy the old streets clustered over the river…to Herepian to do the serious shopping…and to Lamalou les Bains, with its air of somewhat faded dissipation….but apart from that I spent my days enjoying the peace of the upper village, until the arrival of a mad axeman – apparently intent on tearing apart the neighbouring house – drove me out.

The Gorges d’Heric are, in their lower parts, sneered at somewhat by the dedicated rambler for being too easy. There was a car park and the first section of the path was concreted. It suited me just fine, to wander up to the hamlet of Heric and a little beyond, dabbling my feet in the icy water of the pools.

There were plenty of walkers, plenty of families with excited children making death defying leaps into the water while the hamlet was deserted, all but for a few holidaymakers in high summer…and there was no buvette as there is, it appears, today. If you wanted something to eat or drink…you had to be Dutch about it!

In the other direction were the Gorges de la Colombiere…less tamed, more of a scramble, but also quieter….I walked up through the shade of the chestnuts and found a safe bathing spot, then made my way down again, seeing no one the whole time. However, as Genevoix said, in the French countryside you are always at risk of being observed from under the visor of a cap, so perhaps somewhere in the haut cantons of the Herault there is a blind man to whom I should make my apologies….

Present in all my ramblings was Mont Caroux, and there was a footpath to the summit from just outside the house…a steep lane of flat stones and short steps leading up through the trees.
I set out at first light, unwilling to brave the heat of the day on the open ground above, walking up through the stunted oaks and then the chestnut trees, passing the stone building once used to dry them for winter use….

Then out into the open, slipping on the flat stones, pulling myself along on the sharp uprights, until finally reaching the viewpoint….1059 metres above sea level…

I was not sure whether the blue I could see before me was one of the great lagoons lining the Languedoc coast, or the sea itself…but I was sure that the white capped mountains far away were the Pyrenees.
The summit was still above me…but if there was one thing I had learned from hill walking with my father in Scotland it was that nomatter how common it is to regard mountains as female…their summits are certainly male…and men were deceivers ever.
This lady was certainly going to expend no sighs on finding that having clambered up one hump there was another grinning behind. I contented myself by walking about, discovering that the plants differed from those below and finding the most enormous cricket I had or have seen and limbered up the knees for the descent…or slide downhill.

I enjoyed my time at St. Martin de l’Arcon….and have, as so often, regretted not returning…but work called and I had time only for one criminal act before leaving.
I took four flat stones from the sides of the path high above the house to set into my path at home….where they gave me much pleasure and many happy memories… then packed up and set off for the north, pausing in Villefranche de Rouerge to change money and being greeted for the first time in my life by a bank manager in shorts…..

  1. ystewart permalink

    This is absolutely fascinating, immensely readable stuff. The Mothers! Ah! I can see them now! And the places, their names, the landscape! So much experienced – such a rich life lived so far. I love this. Yx

  2. Marvelous. You always take me places where I feel and experience a different world with each entry into your blog. Thank you these lush histories into places I’ll never see otherwise!

  3. So gorgeous. Well, all except the wobbly toilet. I hate to think of the mess my boys would make with that one…

    • Clearly adults only…we all speculated that the kids would have to have been potty trained into their teens…

  4. Do you know that the French have the reputation in North Africa that they give to the Dutch here? French holiday makers arrive in Morocco in their campervans, stocked to the gunwales with provisions, and spend no money — according to the locals, anyway. Mind you, there is only so many days in a row that you can eat tagine, according to my nephews.

  5. Hello Helen. Love the post. So many things that resonate with our life here. The beautiful, surprise landscapes, the simplicity and the some time sparseness of life. Resilience and self reliance needed in bucket loads! Yes, we had heard that reputation about the Dutch too. When we first moved here, we were told that whilst we weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms (that has changed now completely, glad to say) we were more welcome than had we been Dutch, when they would have expected us to barricade ourselves in to our property with ‘Propriete Privee’ signs all over the place and never join in with anything. Glad to say also that amongst our friends in the village we count an excellent Dutch family who completely buck this trend. Hard working, fun, joiners-in with stuff. All the best. Lindsay Nixon. Lot. France

    • Lindsay, how I wish you’d been in our area when we were installing a stair rail on as circular ston staircase.

      Odd about how tourists are seen, isn’t it? In the Loire Valley campsites the Germans had the same reputation.

  6. Love that, put’s me off my work and in mind of my holidays. Can’t wait. We like it to the East of Bergerac along the Dorgdogne and then north a bit. Very nice and quiet, Well except Sarlat. All the tourists that are not anywhere else so you wonder where everyone is, are in Sarlat. Not sure why but that’s OK as I know how to avoid them

  7. Helen, this is such wonderfully vivid and evocative writing that i felt I was with you all the way, enjoying the antics of the Mothers and your solitary, but obviously not lonely, holiday in the shadow of Mont Caroux. You should put a link to this blog on your other, so that more people can find and enjoy these fascinating posts.

    • I’m enjoying seeing the places again in my mind….and I’m glad you enjoyed it with me.
      I’ll try to put up a blogroll….

  8. Hum. Have to say our toilet leaves something to be desired. It’s ok when I sit on it, not too good when an internet friend visited a few years ago. We’ll fix it one day.

    Renting places blind? Been there, done that. If you have time read the villa from hell on my blog.
    But, what beautiful scenery. Just gorgeous. Lovely post Helen.

    • The Eymet house was rented through family of one of the group….went commercial after that experience…wasn’t cheap either.

      I shall look for the villa on hell to enjoy on Sunday…..

      The scenery is wonderful….I should have gone back…but life intervened.

  9. Helen, I remember seeing a billboard near Souillac some years ago that, translated, read “Thank you English tourists for making it so that our children cannot afford homes here.” Not very welcoming. But even then (early 80’s) there was an English language bookstore in Souillac for awhile. As for the wines of Pechermant, among my favorites.

    • Perhaps they should have blamed themselves for asking higher and higher prices.
      A friend of mine heard the same complaint at the local OAP’s meeting. Her response?
      Well..who’s selling the houses then…! Nothing to stop you giving a decent price to a neighbour’s kid, is there?

      I first found that wine at a co op…but in later years the found the Corbiac domaine bottling its own…they were a lovely family…and the wine is superb!

  10. Sounds like a great trip. You weren’t very far from us when you dropped in at Villefranche de Rouergue. We were down in the Minervois about 20 years ago before we even moved to France and I particularly loved Roquebrune, which we visited one day.

    • It was a lovely trip…and I wish I had travelled more around France when I finally moved there…but spare time then was spent on going to the U.K. or to Belgium to see family!

  11. Hello, Helen 🙂 I really enjoyed this post. I live in the Hérault, and will be driving up the motorway to Lodève today. The area you describe around here hasn’t changed much physically, but the numbers of expats here have shot up, and the English have been joined by the Germans and the Dutch. In some local villages you have to look for the few French sunames on the letter boxes: entire hamlets have become holiday homes. On the other hand, the locals agree that the Brits have very good taste in renovation and do miracles with some places that the French would tear down and replace with their equivalent of a Wimpey home, nicely dubbed the “maison phoenix”.

    • Oh…the dreaded ‘maison phoenix’…omnipresent in the Loire Valley too….real blots on the landscape. I’ve often wondered what happened to French eyes in the period since the last war…

      • I live in the hope that they are called Phoenix houses because they are programmed to burn down and be replaced by something more tasteful….. 😀

  12. No such luck….unless they are wired by the artisan francais in which case anything inflammatory is possible…no end of cases in the region over the last two years…wonder which firm…?

  13. Helen, this made me miss France so much – even with the news that the Pecharmant is now touristy. I remember going there when it was a backwater with wonderful wine discoveries. Ah, well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: