Storms and floods

Thursday 10th November 2005, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Time rockets past so quickly that it came as a shock today to realise that it is three months exactly since we left Exeter! Three very happy, full months with so many experiences and memories to think back on once it is all over. Meanwhile we look forward to the rest of our gap year with enthusiasm and curiosity.

The last couple of days have been relaxed, just enjoying being here and discovering things close to our village. Yesterday we finally unpacked the bikes and rode into St.Chinian, chaining Hinge and Bracket to the railings of the mairie, it being the day the mediathèque was open. We cycled home again for lunch, returning when the computer suite re-opened at 2pm where we worked through until it closed at 5pm. During the afternoon it rained steadily so updating our website and catching up on correspondence made best use of our time. St. Chinian is a leisurely twenty minutes away by bike. Cycling along quiet, level roads surrounded by vineyards stretching to the dark mountains of the Haut Languedoc national park is a very agreeable and civilised way of travelling.

The cloisters of the former Abbey at St. Chinian – now the mairie

Today we drove to the village of Roquebrun a few kilometres from here but already in the Haut Languedoc with its inhospitable grey mountains of twisted and contorted schist, limestone and granite covered in Kermes oak trees. These are a dwarf variety with tiny sharp spiky leaves and an abundance of acorns, adored by the wild pigs that apparently thrive in these woodlands.

Spiky-leaved Mediterranean or Kermis oak

Roquebrun is a very pretty place on the river Orb. Almost certainly bustling in summer, today, except for the permanent tumble of the river over the wear below the bridge, it was very quiet. We climbed up through the narrow, steeply twisting streets between the tightly packed houses of the mediaeval town towards the ruins of the old castle perched precariously on a rocky promontory. Here we discovered a wonderful treasure! A really lovely Mediterranean garden built on the south side of the hill on the old terraces formerly used for growing olive and grapes. It was warm and sheltered here as we wandered the steep little paths between the terracing with lovely views down over the orange tiled roofs of the village. The plants were wonderful. Even in November there were many in flower, or fruiting. There were cactuses, tall spiky columns straight from the wild west, broad flat monsters with spiky fruits growing around their rim, enormous agaves with massive, heavy grey leaves edged with jagged spikes, and of course the smooth leaved, rough edged aloe vera plant. There were succulents, trees and shrubs of every shade, size and shape. Almost all were protected by thick, course foliage, woody stems or fierce spikes. There were herbs - lavender, thyme and sage . There were trees bearing berries, nuts, seed pods and fruits – carob trees, juniper bushes, strawberry trees, pomegranate, citrus and Eucalyptus trees and of course olives, heavy with green, red and black fruits. There was mimosa, oleander, hibiscus, box, buddleia and many more we did not recognise.

Strawberry tree or Arbutus – they grow wild everywhere here

Roquebrun from the Mediterranean garden

The garden closed at midday so we climbed down through the village – too steep for vehicles, and after lunch by the river, took a three hour walk onto the mountainside behind the village following a rough stony track up though the harsh scrubby undergrowth of shrubs and bushes, clambering between and around the rocks, higher and higher until we rounded the ridge with views down into the wooded ravine on the further side. Our path took us on through woodlands of stunted Mediterranean oaks and dwarf chestnuts with unknown mushrooms growing in the damper corners. Right up here there were the remains of ancient terracing and abandoned olive trees. The whole experience was like walking through a gigantic rockery and the scenery was quite spectacular. Coming down was more difficult than climbing up - steep, very uneven and unstable underfoot, scrambling over loose and crumbling slates and schists. Down in the woods again we crossed tiny streams in formation that by the time we returned to Roquebrun had developed into one fast flowing stream where it entered the wide river Orb. During the whole afternoon we neither saw nor heard any sign of active human presence, though we did see the ruin of a long abandoned shepherd’s hut still with its cistern of clean rainwater.

Deserted landscape

Hills of the Haut Languedoc

Friday 11th November 2005, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Armistice day is recognised as a national day of remembrance throughout France with each village giving recognition to those from the community who lost their lives, primarily in the first World War but acknowledging also the second. Here, as shown on the monuments in villages throughout France, loss of life by soldiers was far greater during the 1914-18 war than during that of 1939-1944. During the former France was fighting throughout but was under occupation for most of the second. Many of those named on village monuments from the second World War were civilian deaths of those deported to Germany to work as forced labour.

We joined about 100 local residents in front of the mairie at the top of the village this morning for the wreath-laying ceremony at the war memorial. The Last Post and the Marseillaise were played by a lone trumpeter, a minute’s silence was observed, the roll of honour was called aloud from the memorial and the lady maire wearing her tricolour sash read out a statement from the president of the war veterans association, just as every maire in every village across France was doing this morning. It was a touching little ceremony, attended also by several English and Dutch people beside ourselves.

Placing the wreath at the war memorial

The maire invited everyone into the mairie afterwards to see an exhibition of local crafts and to drink a verre d’amitie together. We did feel rather awkward here and none of the French people seemed inclined to speak to us though offered us glasses of Muscat very willingly. We eventually ended up chatting with a Parisian lady married to an Englishman from Dorking where they had lived until moving to Languedoc a couple of years ago. She told us they had found it quite impossible to break through local reserve and make friends, admitting that they were very lonely here. If she cannot break down barriers and integrate it is small wonder so many British retiring here make contacts amongst their own nationality rather than integrating with the local French people. It is something anyone thinking of retiring here from Britain may well be unaware of until too late.

We eventually found an opportunity to speak briefly to the maire, thanking her for the open invitation to join with the village in a ceremony that naturally has equal importance in our country. We thanked her too for including us for the aperitif. She seemed very pleased that we had approached her and acknowledged we all shared a common sorrow for the past.

As it has been a beautiful warm sunny day here, after lunch we took a ten kilometre walk along sandy, stony tracks through vineyards, hamlets and woodlands up behind Ambre. We did wonder whether it was wise as it was done under constant gunfire! The hunters were out with their dogs and although we were clearly visible it can be quite frightening to encounter a man with half a dozen lively dogs and a loaded rifle taking shots at any bird flying up from amongst the vines you are walking through!

The church and the roofs of Ambre

The village of Ambre

Fortunately we eventually left the hunters behind and found the gatherers had taken over. The national passion for free mushrooms had brought families out by the carload to search amongst the pines and oaks of the garrigue. Here people were really friendly, happily showing us their baskets of dirty pine covered mushrooms, explaining how to recognise them, the best conditions for finding them and most of all, how best to prepare and cook them. If they can be so friendly to us on chance meetings like that, it seems strange that people are often reluctant to speak in the villages!

It was a lovely afternoon, easy walking over flat stony terrain in the bright sunshine with the inhospitable scrub-covered hills beyond.

Sunday 13th November 2005, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Yesterday was spent in Béziers discovering what more the town had to offer. On our last visit the pleasure of discovering the splendours of the town had been marred by the filthy condition of its streets. Unfortunately it did not improve on closer acquaintance. Within our first twenty yards of walking up the street we stepped around as many heaps of dog turds and there is a permanent smell of urine everywhere. There are so many dogs in the town, many just wandering alone. On the human front, public toilets are non existent and we even saw people using the street as a urinoir! The town is twinned with Stockport. Hard luck Stockport! If you go on a twinning visit make sure you wear your wellies!

The town has more than its fair share of beautiful impressive buildings, theatres and churches. There are public gardens and the shady tree-lined Allées Paul Riquet – a resident of Béziers in the seventeenth century responsible for the amazing Canal du Midi linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, in its day recognised as one of the world’s greatest engineering achievements.

Moulin Cordier, 1827. Used for raising water from the Orb to the town on the hill above

The theatre in Béziers

Statue of Pierre Paul Riquet

War memorial in Béziers

The Canal du Midi passes beside Béziers and is particularly interesting near this point. While walking through the back streets of the town towards this canal we discovered that unfortunately the living conditions of many of the inhabitants today are considerably less grand than the buildings of the town centre would imply. Many are living in conditions that beggar belief in 21st century Europe. Small wonder there has recently been so much discontent amongst France’s ethnic minorities when many are obliged to live in filthy crumbling backstreet buildings surrounded by weed-covered wasteland and stretches of fetid disused canals. We do wonder how a government can leave some of its citizens in such abject unsanitary living conditions while spending countless millions of euros restoring and rebuilding the legacy of architectural splendours that contributed towards its Revolution in the first place?

A less impressive view of Béziers

The canal glides through southern France for a hundred and twenty miles from the river Gironde at Toulouse to Sète on the Mediterranean coast, west of the Rhône delta. Today used mainly for pleasure craft, in its time it dramatically improved the trade communications of the countries surrounding the Mediterranean avoiding the necessity for vessels to pass through the straits of Gibraltar. Here by Béziers can be found the nine locks of Fonseranes, perhaps the greatest challenge Paul Riquet undertook. It enables the canal to descend twenty-one metres in a series of eight steps over a couple of hundred metres. It is a truly impressive work of engineering designed to overcome the problem posed by the canal exiting from the world’s first ever canal tunnel at Malpas, too high to cross the river Orb at Béziers. In 1857 an aqueduct was constructed to carry the canal across the river at a higher level so that two of the original locks have now fallen into disuse.

The aquaduct, 1857 carrying the canal across the river Orb at Béziers

Le Canal du Midi at Béziers

View up les Ecluses de Fonseranes at Béziers

View from the top of les Ecluses de Fonseranes towards Béziers

Béziers has had a turbulent past and was the scene of unbelievable carnage during the persecution of the Cathars. Although only a small proportion of the residents were Cathars, during the crusade instigated by Pope Innocent III, the entire population was massacred, Cathars and Catholics alike –“ kill them all, God will know his own”. Maybe something of the past gives an atmosphere to the town today that even the sunshine cannot efface. Certainly we found our exploration of the town interesting but not comfortable.

The imposing Palais de Congrès in the avenue Saint Saëns was hosting a regional Pétanque conference when we looked in! We cannot get our heads around just how seriously this game of throwing iron balls about is taken! It all seems so good natured and friendly but there seems to be a great deal more to it than at first appears. In the past we have even noticed engraved plaques on the tombstones of deceased players from fellow team members! The lounge and bar were crowded with animated, smartly dressed men about to return to the conference hall where cups and trophies adorned the platform, to listen to the next speaker. (What can people say about pétanque to enthral an entire auditorium all day anyway?) Delegates wore badges, ribbons and medals and carried note pads and clip boards. Teams were represented from Montpellier to Toulouse.

Back home it was mild and overcast as we sat on our terrace with a glass of wine. We invited Nessa, the lady next door who is from Ireland to join us and spent a very pleasant evening chatting.

During the night the rains started accompanied by lightning flashes and heavy rolls of thunder. Storms here seem very fierce and go on indefinitely. We spent a restless night, aware of the gushing drainpipes shooting torrents of water into the narrow road outside.

It is now Sunday evening and the rain has not abated all day and nearly twenty four hours later the thunder and lightning are still very definitely with us. This morning we drove cautiously into St. Chinian as we were out of everything and needed to catch the supermarket before it shuts until Tuesday. The road was a torrent of orange water and the vineyards to either side were complete lakes. As we passed through a neighbouring hamlet the river, normally a tumbling stream with fishermen along its bank, was a massive, wide swollen torrent of heaving swirling water carrying logs and debris on its crest. Trees that should have lined its banks were way out in the middle of the flood. In St. Chinian a few doughty stallholders and customers stood in a shallow lake of water and cars drove gingerly down the river that had been the main street. We were only too glad to return safely to Ambre where we parked Modestine near the house to unload. Since then the weather has been too bad for us to take her back to the lake outside the mairie at the top of the street. The drains and gutters here are uncovered and water pipes from the houses generally flow into them. Today every pipe is in permanently full spate and the drains cannot cope with the torrents they produce. The tarmac surface of the street has been thrown up by the force of the water leaving huge potholes in the road. Our neighbour Nessa has just phoned to say she set off to go to Sunday mass in Béziers but the roads are so waterlogged and the thunder so frightening she had turned round and returned home. Would we like to join her next door so we can keep up each other’s morale. It is indeed quite frightening.

Monday 14th November 2005, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
We spent a very cosy evening with our next door neighbour yesterday, whiling away the stormy night with a delightful supper and glasses of local wine as jagged shards of lightening and violent crashes of thunder caused the lights to flicker precariously. The water pouring down the street outside reached such a level it started coming under the door and the old stone wall at the back of the house taking the brunt of the storm developed rivulets running down the inside, forming puddles on the landing.

Today we woke to the sound of silence! Even the gutters and down pipes had ceased to gurgle. Modestine looked brilliantly clean and we set off with high hopes to explore the Roman town of Narbonne which, until the 14th century, was an important coastal trading town. Silt deposits gradually closed the port and the town now stands about ten kilometres back from the sea.

We realise now why many of the roads around here are raised above the level of the surrounding vineyards. Water pours straight off the hillsides at such a rate the natural drainage systems are incapable of coping and the vineyards become huge lakes of muddy water. The river Orb was at least three times its normal width, huge tree trunks had been swept downstream, washed up on rocky islands that had previously been part of the river bank.

Flooding on the River Orb
(from the same location as those of our last blog page)

Flooding on the River Orb

As we arrived in Narbonne the rain started again in earnest. Impossible to enjoy the town but we did have the impression that it is a pleasant place with a spur to the nearby Canal du Midi running through the centre. The streets are nicely paved with flags of local marble, there are a couple of boulevards of nice shops, a castle – to which is attached the town hall with the nicest, cleanest public toilets we have seen anywhere in the south of France. (Sorry, we seem to be obsessed here with things we take completely for granted in Britain.) The town also has what would probably have been France’s largest cathedral, had it been completed. The downturn in Narbonne’s economic fortunes during the 14th century put paid to that so that the transepts remain an interesting mediaeval building site.

We found a very pleasant little café for lunch and later discovered a few Roman artefacts – a section of road and a couple of columns. The weather though made it quite impossible to walk the pedestrianised little streets with water gushing from every church gargoyle or overflowing the gutters of the buildings, cascading straight onto the roads and pavements.

Roman road at Narbonne

Mairie and Castle, Narbonne

Partially built cathedral and gardens, Narbonne

We drove home through continuous thunder and lightening, the rain falling in cords (as they say so descriptively in France) onto already waterlogged roads. At times we had to drive through long stretches a foot deep in floodwater. It was with a great sense of relief we finally reached Ambre where we are unimaginably grateful to have a dry roof over our heads and a nice warm kitchen in which to cook supper and dry our soaking shoes! In such weather life in a tiny camping car loses much of its attraction! Hours after returning home neither the rain nor the drains show any sign of easing. Our washing has been out on the terrace for a couple of days now but it’s raining too hard to bring it in! Narbonne justifies another visit under better conditions.

Driving home from Narbonne through the floods