The ups and downs of Languedoc

Sunday 18th December 2005, Ambre les Espagnolettes
Apart from an enjoyable walk up in the hills behind St. Chinian we did nothing very much yesterday. To make up for this we decided an early start today would enable us to explore the Gorge d’Héric about 24 kilometres north of here. However, things do not always work out quite as expected. Not only did we oversleep, we realised we needed a couple of essential items from the Sunday market. On arriving at the mairie to collect Modestine we found her jammed in on all sides by assorted pairs of donkeys, ponies and horses, all hitched up to carts and traps. In addition it would seem the car park had been double booked by the local cycling club as a rendez-vous before setting off on their weekly tour around the mountains.

Sunday morning in Ambre

Modestine enjoys some company

Ambre is a tiny village where people rarely bother to open their shutters, and anyone passing through the village could be forgiven for thinking that apart from the barking of dogs nothing much appears to be going on. Linger for a while though and you will see the travelling grocer, butcher, and bread lady. The last comes daily, touring the villages in a huge and very dilapidated old van, carrying messages from one community to the next, reporting on the state of people’s heath and generally being the font of all local gossip. She is tiny and aged and we call her the “Granny from Hell” as she roars up the village street with her thumb on the horn to alert everyone she’s on her way. Outside the mairie she does a nifty three point turn and roars back down again, hooting at the half-dozen barking dogs disturbed by her on the way up. This cold weather she wears a woolly hat pulled down to her glasses. That’s all that can be seen of her above the dashboard. By the time she reaches the bottom of the village people have appeared from their shuttered homes and are deep in animated discussions about the state of their vines, the forthcoming tombola to win the back end of a wild pig or how many decorative cushions have now been embroidered by village ladies as a fund-raising event in aid of Lourdes.

Eventually the cyclists departed and the cavalcade of ponies left the mairie to trot along to the next village, leaving behind an empty car park and several steaming piles of manure where they are pretty well guaranteed to get trodden into the mairie on Monday morning. As we were getting in to Modestine we were approached by an Englishman living in the village. He was interested in Modestine but it was probably an excuse to engage in conversation as he already seemed to know who we were. Word had got back to him from the Dutch people we had met in St. Chinian a while back. It seems the British and Dutch here have all become friends and developed their own community in parallel to the French one. Many do not speak French and they have found integration impossible. Dave and his partner were very pleasant and friendly and were curious to know whether we intended to move here permanently. They have been here a couple of years. Certainly if we were resident we would have no difficulty becoming integrated into the non-French community. They invited us back to their new, modern home on the edge of the village for coffee. However, we explained we were on our way to the Gorge d’Heric but have been invited to call in when we have time.

We quickly accomplished our shopping in St. Chinian and made our way along quite little roads through the hills to the entrance to the gorge. Here we parked and after a picnic in the sunshine we set off up the side of the little river running through the gorge. Sheer grey rock hemmed us in on either side and the sunlight was unable to penetrate to the bottom so it was dark and icy cold whereas above us the cliff tops were bathed in bright sunlight. Seeing an exciting narrow bridge across the river we crossed and followed a steep, stony and boulder-strewn path that twisted up the rock face of the gorge on the further side. For ninety minutes we scrambled up the Sentier des Gardes through the rocks and scrubby bushes, winding through stunted oaks with ever widening vistas of the gorge as we struggled up out of the gloom to the sunlit crags above. The rocks here appear to our amateur eye to be mainly twisted and folded mica schist with intrusive granite and quartz. We were aiming for the Col de Bertouyre but time ran out and we were obliged to return the way we had gone. This took even longer as we gingerly scrambled and crawled over the rocks, stopping to take pictures, not one of which does justice to the view. Thank heavens for decent hiking boots and climbing sticks.

The landscape near the entrance to the Gorge d’Héric

View from the mountain path

View near the Col de Bertouyre

Not easy walking underfoot

Rocks overhanging the path

Typical landscape of bare rock

Along the footpath

Looking down to the road in the gorge

Climbing higher

Returning home we stopped to explore the partially deserted village of Vieussan clinging to the hillside above the winding road. Cars have to be left below and the streets are more like alleys threading up and down between the empty ruins of old houses built directly into and onto the living rock. The site is spectacular with views down onto the river Orb which flows around it on both sides. The few residents that do live in the village seem to take a pride in keeping it as nice as possible and it looks as if it is gradually being brought back to life. There is ever a rosier – an alley of rose bushes as part of a little public garden that has been constructed above the village. When they are in bloom it will be a wonderful place to stroll.

The village of Vieussan

Back home we prepared supper for our invited guests Doug and Karen. Before collecting then we called round to take a tiny posy of narcissi from the market and a home-made Christmas card to our wine supplier Mme. J for the many little kindnesses she has shown us since we arrived. She seemed genuinely pleased and introduced us to her husband who had just returned from hunting and had his gun over his shoulder. They invited us for an aperitif which delighted us but was not possible this evening. It would be lovely though if we are invited again.

The rest of the evening was spent with our American friends, snug in our lovely kitchen with a rabbit casserole – rabbit is very common in France, assorted French cheeses and a glazed apple tart with crème fraîche. Of course the local wines were also sampled, that of the village being contrasted with a lovely red from St. Chinian provided by our guests. Both were excellent.

Monday 19th December 2005, Bédarieux
Today we managed to get up and out early. We had been invited for dinner and to spend the night with friends we have made from Exeter, Christine and Mostyn. They live just north of Bédarieux so it was a good opportunity to return up onto the Causse du Larzac which had so impressed us when we crossed it from Le Caylar on our way here at the end of October. It is too far for a day trip from Ambre during the short winter days.

We had experienced the coldest night of the year here so first we had to scrape the ice from Modestine’s windows leaving fingers numb from cold. Vineyards and roadsides were covered in a thick white frost, small streams had ice at the edges and shaded ponds remained frozen all day. Once the sun was properly up temperatures rose and it turned into a brilliant sunny day with a cutting chill in the shade.

Our route took us up a steep, twisting ridge of hills north of Roujan from where we had a magnificent panorama stretching in one direction to the long range of the snowy Pyrenees, like a row of very uneven white teeth, and in the other to the shimmering orange mirror of the Mediterranean reflecting the midwinter sunshine.

Mists rising towards the Mediterranean

Snowy Pyrenees through the morning haze

We continued to Lodève, a prosperous woollen town in mediaeval times where we stopped to explore and buy a picnic lunch. There were pleasant, but freezing, pedestrianised streets of little shops where sunlight never penetrates in December. The 13th century cathedral of St. Fulchran was closing as we arrived. It adjoins the 18th century Bishop’s Palace, now used as the Hôtel de Ville.

Lodève Cathedral

Once we had completed the long climb up onto the dry, arid, limestone plateau the route was fairly level through an empty landscape of bushes and poor grassland. The area is used mainly for grazing scraggy sheep, which seem to be able to exist without drinking. Their milk is used to make cheese, the most famous of which is Roquefort on the edge of the Causse du Larzac.

Box or buisson on the Cause de Larzac

The rain falling on the plateau passes straight through the limestone to form underground river systems, much as happened in the Jura region. The geological activity here has been on a massive scale with the plateau suddenly dissected by deep ravines, cirques and gorges – such as the Gorges du Tarn we passed down on our way south. Our target today was to see the Cirque de Navacelles, which has got to be one of the largest and most weird natural holes in Europe. It is quite mind-blowing in its proportions.

A section of the Cirque de Navacelles

We approached it along a peaceful, flat, deserted and very sunny road, the surrounding area a wasteland of low box bushes. We parked and walked a few yards to find ourselves peering over into a vast abyss. The far side was on exactly the same level and the same rock strata were clearly visible. At some stage water had hollowed out a massive area below the plateau which had finally collapsed under its own weight, presumably leaving the twisting little river Vis at the bottom exposed to daylight. In French, Vis means screw. The river is aptly named. Its path has been so twisted and contorted over history that here, at the Cirque de Navacelles it had changed its course and made a short cut to rejoin its course by creating a waterfall. This has left its meander literally high and dry! From our eagle’s-eye view this showed as a huge, flat, grassy horseshoe of land used for growing cereals and olives, overshadowed by the huge surrounding cliffs and white with frost. At the neck of the loop is the little village of Navacelles, quietly getting on with its daily life! When we arrived it was bathed in brilliant sunlight but within the hour it was plunged into the deepest of shadows.

The village of Navacelles just showing at the bottom of the cirque

Another section of the cirque showing the access road down into the village

The dry river meander in deep icy shadow with the village just visible at its neck.

The village of Navacelles. Today the river cascades down just behind the village

Having visited the interpretation centre – possibly the first visitors today – and watched a video there on the history and ecology of the Causses, we returned along our route, diverting to visit the picturesque little village of St.Guilhem-le-Désert in the Gorge de Hérault. The sun had disappeared and dusk was beginning to fall so we had little time to explore. The one street led us up through tiny houses and tourist shops to the Romanesque abbey church, which is a stopping place on the pilgrim route to Compostela and has a piece of the (supposedly) true cross bought back by Charlemagne’s counsellor, Guilhem in the year 806.

View descending from the Causse du Larzac

View from the unfenced road descending from the Causse du Larzac

The abbey church of St.Guilhem-le-Désert

Front of St.Guilhem-le-Désert

A house in St.Guilhem-le-Désert

Christmas in St.Guilhem-le-Désert

Time to head for Bédarieux but en route we stopped to add a quick photograph to our expanding collection of Ponts du Diable. This one spans the Hérault where it leaves its gorge to enter the plains of the Languedoc.

Pont du Diable on the Herault

By the time we arrived in Bédarieux darkness had fallen. No time therefore to explore this little town with its street of brightly lit little shop windows and Christmas decorations.

It was a really wonderful experience to enter the warm, Christmassy, comfortable lounge of Christine and Mostyn’s home and to be welcomed with mugs of hot tea, soft armchairs and a bright log fire. We enjoyed an evening of pampered luxury with a delicious supper of spicy Moroccan couscous, wine, figs from the garden and stimulating conversation. Knowing we did not have to go out into the icy cold to drive home, but could pamper ourselves with hot showers and a warm bedroom added to our pleasure. We were even offered the use of the washing machine, a joy that can only be appreciated by those who have been doing bucket laundry and hanging it wringing wet to dry outside, frequently in the icy cold!

Tueday 19th December 2005, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
It froze again overnight but today has been really warm, bright and sunny. Our coats had a rest until around 4.30pm when the temperature plummeted.

Over breakfast this morning our hosts suggested we should explore yet another of the strange landscapes to be found in the area by visiting the Lac du Salagou. Empty little roads led us through a deserted countryside that became more strange at every bend. As far as we can work out from our very hazy geological knowledge, layers of deep rust-red powdery standstone (ruffe) alternated with narrow bands of harder grey sedimentary clay (grés) which had been formed in stretches of shallow water some 260 million years ago and had then been forced upwards by movements of the Earth’s crust to lie at an angle of 20-30%. They had since slipped or weathered into “steps and stairs”. Recent volcanic activity (relatively speaking) within the last 2 million years had intruded through these beds to force up basalt cones and lava flows which had further twisted and contorted the sandstone beds. In places the volcanoes themselves had weathered away leaving nothing but the starkly silhouetted chimneys through which the lava had been extruded. It was a very strange, Martian landscape. As we scrambled over the dusty red sand and hardened grey clay we discovered, to our delight and astonishment, not only ripple marks of the water that once covered them, but several actual footprints of early reptiles!

Strange landscape

Footprints of an early reptile

Lava chimney of an extinct volcano

Signs of volcanic activity, solidified lava and volcano chimney

Modestine goes to Mars

Volcanic chimney with the remains of a castle

We continued to the Lac du Salagou. We are not sure about this. A guidebook we have seen referred to it as a lake in an extinct volcano. Certainly it is surrounded by volcanic peaks and many signs of seismic activity. There is an obvious volcano actually in the lake. However, it would seem that the lake is actually an abandoned project to construct a massive reservoir by evacuating the little village of Celles, building a barrage and flooding the area. The intention appears to have been to enable a diversification of agriculture but for some reason the plan was dropped part way through and the lake is now only used for fishing, leisure activities and a haven for birds and wildlife. The village stands deserted and derelict, roofs, windows and doors missing and its feet at the water’s edge. Nobody appears to live there but there is a mairie still open every day, the postman still collects from the village letter box and people from the surrounding villages arrive with their unwanted surplus rubbish to fill the otherwise empty skips still provided by the local council!

Le Lac du Salagou

The village of the dammed

Mid-afternoon we reluctantly left this fascinating area and headed towards Pezenas where we had been told of an enormous Emmaüs which we found covering several huge Nissan huts out in the countryside. We are still on a mission to find a small cupboard in a particular style. It is proving more difficult than we expected. Certainly there was nothing remotely suitable at Emmaüs. We suspect dealers pick over anything even half decent the moment it arrives. The quality of the goods generally today was very poor with items being battered, broken, split or scratched with handles missing, hinges broken and tops cracked. There was nothing there that wouldn’t be better for a good burning. We cannot believe people even think of giving such rubbish to a charity. We have friends we know donate decent things to the organisation. So why are they not appearing for sale?