Around the Herault

Wednesday 20th May 2009, Brissac, Herault continued
This morning we tore ourselves away from our friends and their wonderful pool and set off towards the coast. Inevitably however, we were side-tracked and we are still way up in the hills of the Cevennes and Languedoc. First we drove up onto the Causse du Larzac, one of the driest areas of France where only sheep seem able to survive, though today, so early in the year, the grass, trees and flowering shrubs still looked green and healthy. Here we visited the Cirque de Navacelles which we described back on 19th December 2005. It was every bit as awesome this time as we'd found it on our earlier visit. The ground just disappears into a massive void. It was formed when the appropriately named little river Vis (screw) changed its twisting course, taking a short-cut via a waterfall, to rejoin itself further downstream, rather than meander around a little island trapped in an ox bow lake. Now the dried-up river bed is used for cereal crops and the island has been terraced for olives. From the rim of the surrounding abyss, the buildings of the little village snuggling at its core, several hundred metres below, are no more than tiny red specs. What a very strange place it must be to live!

Cirque de Navacelles with its island, dried up ox-bow lake and village

Much of the rest of the day was spent simply making our way back down from the Causse. The route twisted, turned and coiled right back on itself so that soon we were completely disorientated. At the pleasant little town of Ganges we decided not to stop, given the dearth of parking places, and continued to the Grotte des Demoiselles. This was closed but looked very much as of it had become a major money-making attraction with an internal cable car to carry visitors around inside the great void in the rocks. There were campsites around but all of them were still closed until mid July. So we have been obliged to drive right down here to Brissac before finding one open.

Our route wound down from the top of the Causse du Larsac

Also during the day we have managed to visit Lodève, mainly for essential food supplies and diesel but we found time to look around the town. It seemed very cheery with its car boot sale with the usual assortment of unbelievable tatt! This time we found the gothic church open. Just inside we found the baptismal font in the red and white marble so distinctive of St. Pons. We also found several large 19th century oil paintings and a pleasant cloister, the garden filled with Mediterranean herbs.

Baptismal font made from St. Pons marble, Lodève

Junk stalls on the streets of Lodève

Friday 22nd May 2009, Montblanc, near Pezenas, Herault
Yesterday morning we set off down the Gorges de Herault towards the sea. We've not even reached it yet we get so side-tracked! We passed down the gorge back in 2007 and were impressed. Since them we've seen other, more awesome ravines but still find this one delightful with its shady trees, the river, navigable by canoe, running below the road and views towards the grey, rocky surrounding hills.

It was Ascension Day in this strongly laic country so, paradoxically, it was a national holiday. Many people have taken a day's leave on Friday to link to the weekend and deserted the cities for a gambol in the countryside. At St. Guilhem-le-Désert we found it anything but deserted with cars packed into every possible space. We gave up on any chance of parking Modestine. A kilometre further on though we found a rural corner for her and discovered a very pretty pilgrims' footpath back to the village which is one of the stopping-off places on the route across France to St. Jacques de Compostelle. The path, edged with wild figs, cherries, olives and mulberries, took us down beside the clear, green river as it curled its way, gently at this point, through the chaos of rocks and boulders. A huge mulberry tree had covered the ground with ripe, deep purple fruits that transferred immediately to the soles of our sandals, leaving us instantly traceable around the mediaeval streets of St. Guilhem.

Pilgrims' path beside the river Heraut leading to the church in St. Guilhem-le-Désert

Mulberry bush beside the river Heraut near St. Guilhem-le-Désert

Wayside flowers along the pilgrims' path near St. Guilhem-le-Désert

Wild figs near the river Herault, St. Guilhem-le-Désert

River Heraut near St. Guilhem-le-Désert

The village is considered to be one of the most beautiful in France. It is certainly that, but almost too good to be true and with far too many restaurants serving crayfish tails in cream, foie gras avec son verre de vin, and similar sophisticated dishes, to have the least air of authenticity. The Romanesque church of course was completely empty and not a sign of a pilgrim anywhere: they'd long since struggled up the wet and windy slopes to the col de Roncesvalles and were probably currently striding doggedly across the harsh, baking plains of central Spain.

One of France's most beautiful villages, St. Guilhem-le-Désert

Pilgrims' church of St. Guilhem-le-Désert

Cloister of St. Guilhem-le-Désert

Despite the care taken to maintain the village, the French visitors had immediately reduced the little streets to a cess pit with their wretched dogs. On every street the council had provided little dispensers called "toutounet" for dog-doos, each completely full of nice clean bags. In the streets owners stood patiently as Pompom or Gizmo squatted in everyone's way or raised a leg against a stall selling fresh strawberries, before walking blithely on. When not thus occupied the dogs were sniffing happily at the squashed pavement offerings before rubbing their noses eagerly around some poor diner sitting amongst it all trying to enjoy his overpriced fish lunch and Chablis.

The main square at St. Guilhem-le-Désert

As we saw nobody using a toutounet, except a small boy who filled his with water at the public fountain and threw it over his little sister, we helped ourselves to a couple which we filled with ripe mulberries on our return along the deserted river path.

Our next intended destination was the Pont du Diable. There is now a massive car park and interpretation centre, for which acres of trees have been cleared leaving a glaring, bare, dustbath in which to park. It looked hideous so we gave legends a miss. We'd seen it before anyway in prettier times, and continued down, out of the gorge onto the flatter plains towards the coast. Here we stopped in a peaceful vineyard for a picnic lunch – avocados with garlic dressing, seafood pâté with crusty bread and coffee with pain d'épice, mulberries and crème fraiche. We can be pretty sophisticated too and the croaking of the frogs in the nearby ditch was certainly less intrusive than a wet nose in the crutch as we ate, while the views of the Languedoc hills and the bright green grape clusters forming on the vines were far more agreeable than any tacky souvenir stall.

The rest of the afternoon we spent at Pezenas. (See also halfway down the entry for 8th November 2005) We'd seen it in the winter time but the warm holiday weather had brought out the tourists and there was a very happy atmosphere in the town. The old town has many 17th and 18th century mansions, several of them with links back to the dramatist Molière. He is to Pezenas what Shakespeare is to Stratford, and the town makes much of him with permanent exhibitions, museums and plays. There are plaques and statues of him around the town.

Street in the old town of Pezenas

One of the town's many attractive doorways, Pezenas

Another figure of note was Robert Clive, Governor of India between 1755-60 and 1764-67. He stayed in the town at one time with his Indian cook and introduced the citizens to what are now sold as "petits pâtés de Pezenas". We bought a couple and they are very nice being a cross between a mince pie and a Melton Mowbray pie. Meat rather than fruit is used in a raised pie case but it is cooked with caramelised syrup and Indian spices. You get very sticky eating one in the street.

Robert Clive's petits pâtés de Pezenas – proper pukka pies!

In the park we encountered yet another vide-grenier selling the worst tat we've yet discovered. Amongst it however we found a couple of outdated Michelin guidebooks to Provence. As we didn't think to bring any information about France and are undecided where to go from here we bought them for a euro each and will now probably head on to Provence and put them to use.

Returning to Modestine we passed through an area of brocantes or antique shops, mostly selling items just a step up from the vide-grenier in the park. Stopping to browse the yard of one of them we realised it was in the middle of a police raid, the owner looking very scared, while the police turned the place over and demanded documentary evidence of provenance. Deciding it wasn't the moment to make idle enquiries about the price of a bronze, winged eagle, its claws carrying a huge and hideous 19th century clock, we left them all to it, feeling rather sorry for the proprietor, even if he had been a bit naughty.

Our camping book mentioned this site in a little village nearby. It's hardly open yet really and is a bit scruffy. Almost all campsites are still closed despite the beautiful weather. Many in France open just for July and August and don't cater for retired people travelling out of season. This site is supposed to have free wifi but my laptop won't even connect and Ian's is intermittent and very slow. We've such a backlog of work now it's all becoming daunting. What nerds we are!

Saturday 23rd May 2009, Loupian, Bassin de Thau
Yesterday everywhere was crowded. It's amazing quite how much difference a long, sunny bank holiday can make along the Mediterranean coast.

The town of Agde though was quite peaceful when we arrived around lunch time. It was originally a Greek city dating from the 5th century BC and is built entirely of black basalt from a nearby volcano. It has all the potential to be a dismal, unattractive town but surprisingly, it is anything but. The black church on the banks of the Herault is huge, overpowering and heavily fortified with crenelations. The streets are dark and paved with basalt, as is the main square with its statue to Marianne. Please link to our account of Agde on 15th November 2005.

For lunch we tried out some orange coloured, star-shaped fish pies typical of the area. They are filled with octopus, cuttlefish and tomatoes and taste better than they sound. Ian followed this up with one of his periodic binges on synthetic cakes oozing in plastic cream. This time he was not disappointed proclaiming it to be every bit as sickly as it looked.

Down at the coast we reached the Cap d'Agde, crowded with holiday makers and the yachting fraternity. Camping cars were banned from parking in the town so we dare not risk stopping as we cannot predict how the police will react. (At one French seaside resort recently we asked at the police station whether would be allowed to park and they simply laughed at the idea that we might be banned as a camping car.)

Down by the port there were no such restrictions so we parked and strolled back towards the centre exploring the fishing boats with their almost invisible plastic netting piled up in crates ready for the next trip out. The air smelt strongly of fish and the sea and it was very muggy and hot. Up on the cliff top we found a memorial to the American forces which landed here from North Africa in August 1944. We've heard so much about the D-Day landings in Normandy but this, just two months later, is something about which we know almost nothing.

Port area of Cap d'Agde

Commemorating American troops landing from North Africa as part of the liberation of Europe, Cap d'Agde

The sandy beaches, with their curious rock formations had families sunbathing or swimming.

Beach at Cap d'Agde

The town of Sète was somewhere we wished to revisit. It occupies a headland along the coast towards Montpellier and has an interesting history. Here the Canal du Midi, linking the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, exits into the sea. It is also the native town of the poet Paul Valéry. Please see our account of 15th December 2005 for more impressions of Sète and its surroundings.

To reach the town we drove along the causeway that separates the Bassin de Thau from the sea. On one side were sandy beaches, lined almost continuously with camping cars parked up for the weekend, while on the other sand dunes and sea grass hid the huge, saltwater lake from view. We eventually found a space in which to park and went for a stroll along the sand and a paddle in the sea. Inevitably I found the thousands of seashells quite irresistible and have been severely told off by Ian for gathering a bagful I cannot bear to leave behind.

Some of the shells I couldn't leave behind

By the time we reached Sète it was getting late in the afternoon so after a preliminary explore we decided to find a campsite and return today. We'd reckoned without the endless queues of traffic and spent the next hour inching our way out of the town. When eventually clear, we continued on the Montpellier side, turning back down to the sea, only to find it very unpleasant, overcrowded and every campsite full. So we turned inland and back along the inside edge of the Bassin de Thau where we found this very pleasant and inexpensive campsite with plenty of space, its main disadvantages being a group of noisy bikers in a far corner, no hot water and another of those irritating scop owls eager to share our pitch all night as he perfects his one, short peep every couple of seconds for hours on end!

Port area at Sète with just a few of the cars

Sunday 24th May 2009, Loupian, Bassin de Thau
Yesterday it was too hot to do very much at all and we spent the morning seeking out the meagre shade on our pitch where we lurked, working on our computers. We really are not typical holiday makers and are regarded with mild curiosity by neighbouring campers. After lunch we went for a bike ride. Ian wanted to visit the nearby site of a Roman villa but we arrived at the wrong time as only guided tours were permitted and the next was not until 11am today. Instead, we cycled down to the Bassin de Thau, separated from the sea by the same causeway of dunes we drove along to Sete on Saturday. A couple of times a day sluice gates are opened to the sea allowing craft to enter or leave the huge saline lake. We found ourselves in the small town of Meze which we instantly recognised as somewhere we stopped to explore briefly on our way back from Avignon in 2005. Then, on a chilly winter's afternoon, it had been deserted but yesterday the narrow, tideless beach was crowded with families and sunbathes. There is no depth to the salty water and several dads were occupied teaching their small children to swim. Off shore there is a huge expanse of oyster beds and small fishing boats are moored beside jetties, while holiday sailing craft line the harbour. The entire town is pervaded by the smell of seafood and oyster shells are piled high in abandoned corners. Out on the mudflats the crushed shells are several feet deep. No wonder the Romans found it a good place to settle!

Sète seen across the Bassin de Thau from Meze with the oyster park off shore

Defensive church walls overlooking the Bassin de Thau at Meze

Fishing nets drying at Meze

There was a regional boules championship in full swing and we stopped to watch, fascinated, as always by the serious way the French treat this game. There were dozens of matches taking place and hundreds of onlookers. Heavy iron balls were hurdled violently around the rough ground, bouncing off from each other and evoking gasps and "ooh la"s from the participants as they measured distances from the "cochonette" with their special tapes and picked up their boules with special magnets on strings to save bending down, before polishing them carefully with their special boules cloths!

Boules championship at Meze

Returning past the campsite we explored the village of Loupian. On the edge, amongst the vineyards, stands a huge fortified church typical of this area. Beside it are the remains of a very early, probably Roman, Christian church which fascinated Ian rather more than it did me on a hot afternoon. The tiny old town is surrounded by defensive walls with three gateways. Inside it is dilapidated but picturesque, cool and shady. Most of the inhabitants were sitting in small groups outside their houses in the dark narrow streets, chatting, looking up to say bonjour as we squeezed past pushing out bikes.

Fortified church and vineyards beside the campsite, Loupian

Pretty corner of Loupian

Inside the old town of Loupian

Today we have had a crisis! This morning was as hot and bright as ever. Ian declared his intention of returning for a guided tour of the Roman villa just up the road. I declared my intention of waiting here in the shade and preparing lunch. Off Ian set on his bike Bracket. Minutes later he reappeared, white and shaken asking me to get him to hospital as he'd fallen from his bike and dislocated his elbow! It was certainly hanging at a very odd angle but we don't think anything is actually broken and he has no bleeding anywhere.

Having no idea where there may be an A and E department we sought the help of the friendly lady at the campsite. Soon we heard the sound of a siren and a big red emergency ambulance arrived in a cloud of dust at the entrance. In France this service is run by the Sapeurs-pompiers or fire service. Ian was laid on a bed and his arm and elbow gently fitted into a cradle while I filled in forms and searched for our health cards and insurance papers. They carried out all sorts of tests on Ian before deciding there was time for a quick cigarette before starting the siren and rushing him off, weaving through the holiday traffic to the emergency department in Sète. (Sounds an appropriately named place to have his elbow repaired!) I was not allowed to accompany him, which is a real worry. The campsite lady assures me it's not worth trying to travel to the hospital in Modestine and the ambulance people have promised to phone her with any news. She tells me that on a holiday Sunday Ian will be there for hours before anything is done. Thinking I'd be going with him I'd packed books, mobile phone and things to keep Ian distracted while we waited. All I could do was hand the bag to the ambulance crew. So I am here with no money or phone and no way to contact family to tell them the news or to be in contact with Ian. At least he didn't seem to be in a great deal of pain so long as he didn't move his arm. Thank heavens we are in a country where we understand the language. We've explained so many things and filled in so many forms even before the ambulance took him off the campsite!

As for his bike, Bracket, it seems fine and I've packed it away in its bag in disgrace. Ian thinks he must have used the front brake too severely and being a tiny, lightweight, folding thing, the back wheel bucked, sending Ian over the handlebars. So he was destined not to see his Roman villa today.

I think I am about to learn new skills. I've never raised the rear supports on Modestine when we are camped-up but obviously Ian won't be able to do so now. Nor will he be able to make up the bed at night or heave Hinge and Bracket in and out of the back. Will we even be able to carry on travelling? Sleeping in Modestine with his arm strapped up isn't going to be easy for him.

Unfortunately, when something so exciting happened, the camera was strapped round Ian's waist and he was strapped down in the ambulance, so I couldn't even get a photo for the blog. Very sorry about that. It all looked very dramatic.

So now I'm completely alone in Modestine. It's only been a couple of hours so far but it's the longest time ever. Suddenly she seems quite big. When I put something down it stays there. I no longer hit my head on the cupboard door cos it's been left open, nor do I have to clamber over a huge pair of feet to reach a teabag or shift a pile of maps to get to the storage space under the seats. Suddenly though I no longer yearn for the space and would far sooner have Ian back here safe and sound.

He says he'll take a taxi back from Sète when they've done with him. It's best really as I'd never fight my way through the holiday mayhem in Modestine on my own.

The ambulance took Ian away at 10.45 this morning and he's been gone all day. Around 4pm the campsite lady came to say the hospital wanted to speak to me on the phone. It's fortunate I speak French because they refused to give her a message for me. Ian was okay, they'd ex-rayed him and pushed the elbow joint back into place but needed to keep him for a few hours to ensure he'd recovered from the anaesthetic. There is still no sign of him at 8pm so I've just rung the hospital on the office phone here and been told they insist that he is brought back by ambulance and he will be leaving Sète around 8.30pm. They did let me speak to him and he says he's okay and not in too much pain. He also says he's eaten. Huh! I've spent the afternoon cooking him supper, worried how he has survived all day and there he is tucking in to French hospital food. Bet it's all foie gras and canapés.

Wednesday 10th June 2009, Exeter
As you see, we have returned to Exeter for Ian to recover and it is only now that I have found time to finish this blog. Before I do though, we both want to thank everyone who has written, phoned, emailed or sent cards wishing Ian a speedy recovery. Since I emailed the news we have received so many kind wishes that we have been quite bowled over to realise just what warm and caring friends and family we have. Thank you all so very much.

Ian was returned to me by ambulance around 9pm at the campsite in Loupian. He had one arm bound in a cradle and the other swollen to twice its normal size and quite incapacitated with bruising. He was unable to do anything for himself. It was immediately obvious that we could not continue camping in Modestine and in any case we could not wait around for three weeks until the hospital wished to see him again. So after a very uncomfortable night we headed for home with Ian strapped helplessly into the passenger seat - unable even to cope with the map I'd left open on his knees!!! In the interests of getting across France coast to coast as quickly as possible we took the motorway. At every péage (toll) I had to stop, climb out, go round and pay, holding up a queue of French cars with left-hand drive.

X-ray of Ian's arm

We crossed the magnificent Viaduct de Millau, designed by Norman Foster and officially opened only in 2004. It is the highest and longest viaduct in the world and also the tallest bridge anywhere. Just beyond we stopped for lunch at an official viewing point. It is a truly stunning and graceful piece of engineering work.

Ian de Millau – like Venus, he's got troubles with his arms!

Millau, seen from the viaduct

Towards evening we stopped near Clermont Ferrand, in the heart of the volcanoes of the Auvergne. Here we were lucky. The campsite was attached to a thermal spa and had good facilities for the disabled. This is when you really discover just how difficult life can permanently be for some unfortunate people. Shower facilities were geared more for people unable to stand but at least there was space for two of us and somehow we managed to clean off the hot, stickiness of the day and make the poor invalid comfortable.

Next morning we phoned our daughter Kate to warn her we would be returning to Exeter where she is house-sitting, and also warned Geneviève in Caen that we would be passing by the next day en route for the ferry. She insisted we spend the night with her and indeed we were more than grateful the following evening to find ourselves amongst friends, back in her comfortable home with a real bed and a hot supper! We were also able to book our ferry and make an early doctor's appointment in Exeter.

So we arrived home, Ian still having no movement in either arm, but at least I'd got him safely back. Since then he has made enormous progress though has been very frustrated being unable to do anything around the house. Soon the swelling and pain started to subside and yesterday he had the plaster removed and further x-rays taken. Obviously he is still stiff but at least he can now do more things for himself and use his computer. My attempts to teach him to knit, for elbow and wrist exercise, were unsuccessful, in part because he's left handed and he still has insufficient movement. Still, we are making progress and hopefully our travels will resume very shortly even if we need to stick around England for a few weeks returning for physiotherapy appointments. I don't think we will be taking Hinge and Bracket with us next time though, Ian's too much of a liability!

The invalid recovers back home

Why do we travel when we have such a lovely garden?

View down the garden