Onward and Upward
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.
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…..