There are several blogs covering our time spent previously in the Languedoc. For further descriptions of places mentioned below please refer to earlier blogs.
Into the Languedoc October/November 2005 and the following few blogs
Ambre Solaire, September 2007 and the following entry
Languedoc, May 2009 and the following entry
Wednesday 30th December 2009, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
Several days have passed since we wrote of our wonderful Christmas with Roland and Susanne in the Jura. It now seems such a long time ago. Since then we have packed up our world into Modestine and made our way south from the chilly climate of the Jura to find ourselves basking in warm sunshine amidst the sleeping vineyards of Southern France. This really is a contrast we find hard to believe. Just a few days ago we had temperatures of 18 below while today in the sunshine it's been nearer 18 above!
We eventually left Champagne mid-morning on Monday after difficult farewells and promises to return later in the year. Anxious to avoid possible icy roads in the mountains we decided to follow the Rhone southwards until we reached its delta and then turn right. It was as good a route as any and certainly we never encountered anything worse than cold and chilly rain which disappeared completely on the second day. Vistas of the Alps though showed there was still a lot of snow around.
Initially our route took us through Lons-le-Saunier, home of the Marseillaise and the Laughing Cow cheese. Rouget de Lisle, the composer of the French national anthem stands flamboyantly on his plinth in the town square while the laughing cow grins cheerily down from the factory roof and from billboards around the town.
Anxious to avoid motorways or getting caught up in the congestion around Lyons we travelled across country wherever possible. The routes were very empty and the population widely scattered, the road passing through tiny hamlets of a farm, a couple of houses and maybe a bar. They all looked exactly the same, set down amidst the vast emptiness of the French countryside.
During the afternoon, crossing the Drôme region we were intrigued by a sign to the Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval and stopped to investigate. This surely must count, along with the artificial insemination centre at Laigle and the cow on the roof of the church at St. Sauge, as one of France's more bizarre sites open to the public. Back in the 1870s the local postman chanced on a stone that he rather liked and took it home. Over the years he collected more of them as he went on his rounds, bringing them home in his postbag. Soon he began taking a wheelbarrow with him as he delivered the mail and his weekends were spent cementing the stones together to form what was eventually to become an embellished and elaborate palace that looked not a little like Angkor Wat. It came to the attention of Pablo Picasso and André Malraux both of whom praised it as the world's best example of naive architecture. The little town of Hauterives has certainly benefitted from the hobbyhorse of Postman Cheval which attracts tourists throughout the year. He is honoured with a statue outside the post office.
It was cold and soggy all day Monday and there were no campsites open along our route. By late afternoon it was already dark and we were at risk of being funnelled into the city of Valence, south of Lyons. We took the easy option and checked in to a Formula1 hotel as we passed through Romains. These hotels really are boring places. You could be anywhere as they are all identical – rather like Lidls in that respect. As at the others we've used recently, the one regulation socket doesn't work with our international electrical adaptor as it's located a fraction too close to the wall. (For an international hotel chain you'd think they'd have worked that one out. There must be hundreds of frustrated English and American travellers in Formula1 hotel rooms unable to use the wifi or watch their DVDs to while away a really boring evening.) It was only after we'd climbed onto the only chair to unplug the overhead TV and shift it on its stand so we could reach to plug in our computer that we noticed the warning – in French only – that it should not be tampered with as it was fitted with an anti-theft device! Oh well, it livened up the evening and maybe Formula1 may now think about relocating the socket for guest use in every one of its thousands of hotel rooms!
Yesterday we were off early. Once round Valence we noticed the landscape and architecture changing. Gone were the grassy pastures, forests, large stone farmhouses and glazed tiles of the Jura. Here the dry grey mountains filled the horizon, frequently topped by castles, while the valley floor, to either side of the Rhone were laid out with vines.
Villages looked bright and warm seen from a distance with their pink and yellow roof tiles, mauve shutters and orange, pink and ochre-coloured walls. Passing through the towns though, they appeared shabbier and scruffier than we'd been used to further north though they were far livelier than anything we'd seen in the Jura. We stopped for a picnic lunch in a vineyard with a view towards the fortified hilltop town of Castillon-du-Gard. Later we drove up the steep, twisting road to park just outside the walls to explore the pretty mediaeval streets and the views out over the surrounding landscape.
We had a half formulated plan to camp at Nîmes (the town with an accent, as the tourist office cleverly describes it) but neither of us could remember quite where the all-year campsite was that we'd once used. So we decided to press on, passing though the Camargue and along the coastal route to avoid rush hour in Montpellier. There were white horses, black bulls and pink flamigoes. Watching a flamingo flying is an experience. They stretch out flat, their long necks and legs forming a near square cross with their flapping wings. As they come in to land on the shallow lagoons where they feed, their necks go up, their legs down and they literally run cross the surface of the water before finally closing their wings.
We were very weary as we rounded Béziers, but at least we were back on familiar ground. Darkness fell over the arid hills of the Haut Languedoc national park as we passed through the vineyards and rocks, grasses and wild herbs that form the garrigue so typical of the local landscape.
The house was waiting for us. It has been unoccupied since late September to judge by the newspaper left on the kitchen table. Behind its heavy shutters the interior was far colder than the temperature outside and we opened everywhere up to air as we unloaded Modestine. Soon we'd go the heating going and were sitting around the familiar kitchen table with a glass of wine, amazed that it was as long ago as 2005, when we started our travels, that we were first here. It seems as if we'd just gone away for a few days, everything is just as it always was and always should be. It's a lovely house, full of charm, set in the heart of the old village. There are pictures of the house at Into the Languedoc and adjoining blogs.
We were so tired we slept very deeply but this morning we were eager to be off rediscovering the area and checking out wifi access in St. Chinian. Walking up the street to collect Modestine – parked in her usual place outside the mairie being too large to fit in the narrow street outside the house – the scruffy mongrel, self appointed guardian of the village,(see end of entry for 22nd September 2007) trotted up to us with a reproachful expression on his face. "Where the h..l did you two get to? I saw you safely back to the edge of the village after our last walk together. I can't spend every second of my time looking after you. I've walls to sprinkle and people to sniff as well as dogs to snarl at, cats to chase and all sorts of smells to investigate. So how come it's taken you nearly three years to turn up here again? Oh well, I'd best stick with you now or you'll only get yourselves lost again. What's that! You're off in your car without me? Such ingratitude! Oh well, best have a scratch and go check out the mayor's rubbish bin."
In St. Chinian library a new person helped us, telling us that Luc now works in a library in Brittany but that Karin will be back from leave in the New Year. We used the internet briefly but it's obviously not going to be easy as the IT suite is rarely open and in heavy demand. They don't have wifi and the Tourist Office charges 5 euros an hour. In any case it's closed until 6th January. Investigating surrounding towns and villages it looks like we'll need to drive into Béziers every time we need to send a blog or read email.
Next we headed for the supermarket, arriving just as the shutters went down at noon for a three hour lunch break! We'd forgotten how near to Spain we are here and that particular custom seems to have spread into this part of France.
After lunch back home we drove to Cazoules-lès-Béziers where we explored the little town in the warm sunshine. There's not a lot actually going on but everyone looks very busy. This even includes the dogs that all take themselves for walks and investigate everything along the way. The streets are a slithering rink of squashed deposits, as unfortunately, is the case in most villages around here. It's something we'd forgotten but already we've learned not to take our eyes off the road as we walk. We headed to the only place in the town we felt safe. Dogs are banned from the cemetery and as it's almost a miniature town we were happy to wander its labyrinth of little streets, each with its own name, edged by elaborate mausoleums to local families. The atmosphere is remarkable, the sunlight glancing off stone finials, embellishments and holy statues, the grey tombs shaded on this shining afternoon by overhanging dark green cypresses.
Friday 1st January 2010, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
The start of a New Year. May it bring everyone happiness and good health.
The sunshine of the past few days has disappeared and we are left with dark, threatening clouds hanging low over the surrounding hills and the stony orange soil of the bare vineyards. In France New Year is of greater significance than Christmas. Around here the countryside will be completely silent today as families celebrate behind the heavy wooden shutters of their homes. We'd planned on a peaceful, sunny walk in the garrigue, safe from the sound of gunfire as local hunters enjoy the game they've recently culled in the vineyards. With such an angry sky though, we could get caught in a thunderstorm. We'll need to reconsider.
Yesterday we drove into Béziers. As usual we got muddled and lost trying to park, reluctantly leaving Modestine where we could, on the far side of the river in a run-down area with lots of broken glass around. In fact, that describes most of Béziers. Our original impressions four years ago remain unchanged. It is on a splendid site and from a distance looks stunning, built on a hilltop with the heavily fortified cathedral of St. Nazaire overlooking the river Orb.
Within the city there are many imposing buildings with decorated façades and caryatids, though many date from the 19th century. The older, cobbled streets radiate out from the summit around the cathedral or climb up from the river through dilapidated blocks of ancient flats occupied almost entirely by immigrant Islamic residents. The streets are dirty, broken, smothered in cigarette stubs, broken glass and dog turds. Washing hangs from windows, rubbish blocks passageways and there is an all pervading smell of urine and cooking. We've not seen Naples but this area of Béziers seemed rather as we imagine it to be. There is so much obvious poverty and unemployment in the city with small groups of young men standing around with nothing to do. Many of the older people wear long gowns and some men wear a fez.
The city has a tragic history having been sacked in the 13th century on the orders of Pope Innocent III carrying out a crusade against the Cathars. The atmosphere of these past atrocities seems to have blighted the town even today. It has the potential to be a lovely city but we cannot warm to it.
For us it still holds the gold medal par-excellence as the worst city we've seen for large dogs and their excrement. Many people have two or three animals, usually not on leads. The animals fight and sniff all the other dogs they meet, the cobbles run with urine and they foul the streets every few yards. The deposits are invariably trodden in and spread along the pavements or driven over, with tyres leaving regularly spaced blobs along the roads. It's impossible to exaggerate how horrid it is yet the residents seem to stoically accept it. Not once did we see a dog owner bother to use the plastic bags provided by the council. In one corner of the town we even found a street named Impasse du Chien!! We didn't investigate.
Being New Year's Eve there was a fair along the tree-lined Avenue Paul Riquet below the city theatre. Here the great 17th century engineer of the Canal du Midi stands on his plinth incongruously surrounded by dodgem cars, floating rubber ducks, candy floss and whirling, stomach-churning fairground rides.
Our two chief reasons for visiting Béziers were to find a laundrette and somewhere that charges less than five, or even six, euros an hour for internet access. We were unsuccessful on both counts. The only laundrette we found was in the Islamic quarter, a long way from anywhere to park, while the internet place admittedly only charged 2 euros, but it couldn't run the programmes needed to transmit our blogs or upload the messages we needed to send. Who could imagine it was so impossible to get access to the everyday requirements of modern life?
Everything though has a silver lining and today's was discovering the door to the cloisters of the cathedral was unlocked providing us with free access to the Bishop's gardens on a flat terrace overlooking the slopes of the town. From here the warm tiled roofs looked attractive, hiding the squalor in the deep narrow streets below while across the River Orb green meadows basked in the sun.
We walked down through the attractive, peaceful, and largely dog-free gardens of the Plateau des Poetes with its various sculptures, including an imposing if bizarre work by the local artist J.A. Injalbert known as the Fountain of the Titan. From here we returned across the ancient 13th century bridge to Modestine, leaving the city without regret. Hopefully we will find an alternative source for our essentials of modern day living as we have no great wish to return to Béziers.
For more about Béziers see 1st November 2005, 13th November 2005 and 8th December 2005
Daylight continues a little longer here than in the Jura. Arriving back in Ambre around 5pm there was sufficient daylight to drive up to the nearby Table d'Orientation set a short distance from the road in the heart of the vines. The sun had already set but it was a silent peaceful place surrounded by the dark bare hills of the Haut Languedoc, with the outline of the Caroux black against the horizon. Around us the stubby roots of the vines stood in serried rows and Mediterranean shrubs rustled softly in the evening breeze. The main shrub or tree here is the arbousier, known also as the strawberry tree. They clustered in small coppices with their hard green leaves and white clusters of new flowers. At the same time they have last season's fruit of bright red and orange strawberry-sized balls still hanging like Christmas decorations. It's a shame there seems little that can be done with these fruits. They are abundant but don't taste particularly good to eat. For more about the orientation table, the local flora and Berlou see 19th November 2005
Returning home we saw in the New Year alone with a remoska-cooked supper and a glass of the local wine while outside in the tiny central square the youth of the village celebrated with whoops of glee, a few firecrackers and a liberal helping of alcohol from their parents' cellars – no need for a bar in a village where everybody is a wine producer!
Later:Well we braved the risk of rain and explored one of the many footpaths radiating out from the village. It led us across vineyards, past an attractive isolated house and up into the garrigue. At first the views of the hills were good with a shining rainbow across the valley. Eventually though, the shrubs and heathers beside the rough schisty path became too high and dense to see much. We were hot climbing but after a couple of kilometres the path petered out into another vineyard. Here the wind and rain were glacial and we quickly returned to the shelter of the woods and made our way back home.
After lunch we drove to nearby Berlou intending to walk up into the surrounding garrigue. As soon as we set off we realised it was not one of our better plans. The wind was quite violent away from the shelter of the woods and a chilly rain was blowing off the Espinouse mountains. Such a lovely walk deserves better weather. Returning to Modestine we continued the twisting deserted road as it wound steeply up through rambling pink-walled villages clinging to the hillside with vineyards spread out across the bare orange landscape below. Around us the familiar rocky terrain closed in offering frequent stunning vistas of the Gorge d'Heric and the Caroux mountain range - known affectionately as the sleeping lady because of her pre-Raphaelite silhouette on the skyline. Today her assets were frozen as she slept beneath a light blanket of snow.
At Olargues we crossed the river Orb and drove up the steep road to the foot of the mediaeval village listed as one of the most beautiful in France. We could have been in a ghost town as there was nobody on the streets on New Year's Day – though there were a remarkable number of identical cats. It was sheltered from the worst of the wind and rain in the steep narrow alleyways that linked the maze of ancient houses. There was a very good life-sized crib in a dark stone stairwell with shepherds and wise men carrying lambs and frankincense. They stood at different levels on the stairs above and four flights up we emerged in a completely different part of the town beside the church. We became completely disorientated, entering beneath an archway at one level to emerge in a different street higher up the hillside. The river loops around the village, crossed by an impressive ancient stone bridge known as the Pont du Diable. For more about Olargues see 7th November 2005
We returned home in the dusk following the valley to St. Pons, passing the campsite we used back in May, before Ian damaged his arms. It's a far longer route than the steep twisting road across the hills but safer in twilight.