March 2017 Newsletter
This month's Newsletter continues on from last month with the first part of our journey eastwards along the south of France. This extract stops as we pass over the summit of Mont Ventoux (pictured above) and next month I will cover what we found by complete accident next - a cheese festival in a remote French village.
We left my cousin and her husband enjoying their delightful house near Montesquiou and continued our journey, this time with a decidedly eastwards aspect to our direction. To reach where we were now we had dropped down the western side of France from Roscoff but our destination at this stage of the trip (it was to change later) was much further to the east. So we had to turn left somewhere and this is where we did it. If I hadn’t had an appointment to see my cousin we would have cut diagonally across France from Roscoff or even headed for Germany and then down through Austria but from south west France the way east was fairly clear, the only choice to be made was whether to keep inland or have a look at the coast. This was a decision we could postpone for a while because we didn’t intend to do a lot of driving each day which was just as well because from Montesquiou we first had to get around Toulouse.
Toulouse is the fourth largest city in France and I suspect at the wrong time of day it has some epic traffic jams, but travelling in the middle of the day the roads, while busy were free flowing. We avoided the péage although this is probably worth taking at other times of the day. As a measure of how rural Gers is, Toulouse alone has a population five times greater than the population of the whole of the Gers department.
After squeezing around Toulouse we drove south east for a short while before stopping at a campsite in the village of Sorèze at the western edge of the Montagne Noire, a small group of low mountains north of Carcassonne. This is a relatively unknown French backwater; worth exploring but our first impression of the campsite was the singular lack of dog walking facilities. The campsite was on the edge of the village but there were no convenient paths other than one going around the outside of the local cemetery which Charlie and I wandered up and down. There were no complaints from the residents to our presence but on the other side of the cemetery there was an actual burial going on which made me feel a little uncomfortable. I don’t know who it was they were interring but the grave diggers outnumbered the mourners so it was a lonely farewell for someone.
On a cheerier note I found it was now warm enough to put on a pair of shorts, an act which marked for me the official start of British Holiday Time. The Five Minute Bell having been sounded when we had sat outside in sunshine a few days earlier with cold beers in front of us. We had intended to stay two nights at Sorèze but despite a nice grass pitch and a few British neighbours to chat to the lack of dog walking amenities persuaded us to move on the next day, by which time we had begun to form something of a plan, though it wasn’t to survive long after contact with the Mediterranean.
The next morning we left dog-limited Sorèze and headed towards the sea, as the Mediterranean wasn't too far away. Our route soon took us through the little village of Durfort just outside Sorèze. Here we spotted a good aire very close to the village centre which looked to be equipped with bars and a restaurant from what we could see as we drove past. This aire wasn’t listed in my online guide (CamperContact - see Appendix 2) otherwise we would have chosen it over the campsite, but it is certainly somewhere to note should we come this way again.
After driving on narrow roads through the edge of the Montagne Noir, which were heavily wooded with beech, we dropped down towards Carcassonne going past the village of Salsigne where there used to be a major gold mine, now worked out but according to local gossip you can still scratch the odd flake of gold out of the river Orbiel.
We were now on the edge of the Haut Languedoc, the south western corner of the Languedoc-Roussillon, an area well known now for its wine production. The name Languedoc derives from the language which used to be spoken not just here but in a broad band stretching from north east Spain, through southern France and Monaco and into Italy. Not that the language is dead, though in France, which always had the largest number of speakers of Occitan, it has been supplanted by the French language of course but it remains an official language of Catalonia in Spain although even here Catalan, a close relative of Occitan, is more widely spoken. In France, despite a concerted attempt in the Nineteenth century to stamp out the local patois in an effort to unify the population it still persists in one form or another as a local dialect, for example as Provençal in Provence and in another form of Occitan in the Limousin. If you do ever hear it being spoken cherish the moment as it features in the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages.
Our seaside destination was a campsite at Sérignan Plage, south of Béziers, unfortunately, we also found seaside weather here, British seaside weather. It was chilly, intermittently raining and gales were forecast for the next day. It was also a busy but soulless site and we decided almost immediately to move on to somewhere more interesting the next day. I had half expected this part of the coast to be not for us and so it turned out. Live and learn or rather live and re-learn because we keep doing this. The tell-tale signs are obvious from the map. If the coastline is smooth and there are no hills near the coast then you can expect flat, featureless beaches with relatively modern resort towns. The original inhabitants were not so daft they would live amongst the mosquito ridden marshes which often back these types of coast. The main cities on this stretch, Narbonne, Béziers and Montpellier, are all set well back and a little above the low coastal lands. Of course defence was also a major factor in siting these cities, even the Vikings reached Sicily but pirates from North Africa predated on shipping in the Mediterranean and would readily take captives to sell on as slaves. These factors did not encourage much of a building boom for seaside properties so what there is by the sea is invariably relatively modern except where there is a natural sheltered harbour for fishing boats.
Leaving Sérignan Plage we headed back inland and straight into countryside where we felt more comfortable; the Cévennes. This relatively low mountain range are the first proper uplands you reach driving away from the Mediterranean. They form part of the south eastern corner of the Massif Central, the raised middle of France.
I first began to take proper notice of this region a few years ago when cycling from Aix Les Bains (near Geneva) to Avignon with my brother. We were staying in hotels each night and at La Bastide Puylaurent we only just managed to get a room in the only hotel in the town which was open at that time of year. As we arrived it was already rapidly filling up with walkers and we soon learned they were all doing the Stevenson Trail, which was not something I had heard of before then.
The walk follows the path of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson who in 1878 walked with a donkey called Modestine from Le Puy en Velay, which we had also cycled through, to St Jean du Gard, a route which took him through the only remaining part of France where Protestantism prevailed, which was his reason for choosing this region. The route has been reconstructed from his writings as far as possible for the present day and is very popular, with many organised package holidays, as we met in Puy en Velay, plus many others doing it unsupported on their own. Stevenson described his journey in a book, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes and the trail starts at Le Puy en Velay and takes about 14 days. The organised tours will carry your luggage to the next hotel if you want to give it a go. It may even be possible to hire a donkey if you insist on being as authentic as possible and indeed a number of the walkers do take a donkey along with them, which must take a little more planning than usual as the typical hotel doesn’t in these days offer the same facilities for stabling as they did in Stevenson’s day.
By a strange stroke of symmetrical fate our destination in the Cevennes was Saint Jean du Gard, where Stevenson finished his walk. Having stumbled by accident on the start of the walk while cycling we now found ourselves at the other end of the walk in a motorhome. Some day we must explore more thoroughly the bits in between and though much of today’s route is on paths and tracks impassable to a motorhome the villages he travelled through are still there and accessible by road.
Saint Jean du Gard is also the end of another route - the short heritage railway which runs beside the river down to Anduze. When we arrived at the aire which is in the station car park the train à vapeur (steam train) was sitting in the station, vapourating away and whistling from time to time. By the time we were settled and I had got my camera out it had departed and I had missed the train again.
Stevenson did not intend to end his journey at Saint Jean du Gard, he only stopped here because Modestine the donkey had an injury and needed a couple of day's rest, so the author sold the animal together with fittings for "five and thirty" francs. Stevenson wrote he did this because he was keen to get to "Alais" to pick up his post, so he proceeded onwards in a coach or more precisely a "diligence". The Alais he was heading for is now spelt Alés on modern maps. Locally, they don't make much of this aspect of the tale, which is understandable. After all, if you lived in Saint Jean du Gard would you want the place remembered because of a spavined donkey? Better to concentrate on the author.
While staying in Saint Jean du Gard Stevenson was asked by the town's Marie (Mayor) to help a local lady translate a couple of letters she had received from agencies in London. As already mentioned, this area remained Protestant in largely Catholic France and the common religion made it a popular place for the recruitment of French governesses for England. After helping with the translation Stevenson gave the young lady some advice, what the advice was is not recorded but Stevenson felt the quality of it "...struck me as being excellent."
Stevenson also recorded how phylloxera had destroyed the region’s vineyards and he met some labourers crushing apples to make cider instead. They remarked that " It's like this, just like in the north. " A reference to cider making being hitherto a pursuit of places like Brittany and Normandy. The inference was the world had gone mad. Of course France's loss was the making of the Spanish wine industry as phylloxera did not travel south of the Pyrenees and the vineyards of Rioja flourished in the extra demand. Not all the vineyards were destroyed in the areas where phylloxera struck. A few small pockets of resistant vines survived and there are still today a very small number of vineyards in Europe making pre-phylloxera wines. The disease itself is caused by a sap-sucking aphid which was native to North America but introduced to Europe by gardeners keen to try North American vines. The solution, perhaps not unsurprisingly, also came from North America because there the native vines had developed a degree of tolerance to the aphid and so it is now almost universal that vines grown in Europe are grafted onto rootstocks originating from North America, Perhaps a little more surprising, even today there no effective treatment for phylloxera other than the growing of resistant plants.
I made an attempt to photograph the steam train later in the day when we returned to the station after walking around Saint Jean du Gard, which is a busy town filled with lots of bars and restaurants catering for the tourists and walkers. I saw it in the distance approaching us, throwing smoke and steam up into the air above it. I stood ready to take a photograph only to see it suddenly veer off at a set of points and disappear into its engine shed not to be seen again.
Before leaving Saint Jean du Gard the following morning we walked over the bridge to the supermarket for a few essentials like wine. We have been surviving very well on boxed wines, which typically costed from about €10 to €15 for 3 litres. There were cheaper, €9.50 for 5 litres in plastic barrels for example, but none of the ultra-low price one litre "bricks" you get in Spain, which typically cost well under €1 each. The wines on offer were also of course, exclusively French. Note the lack of the sorts of sign you would see in the UK supermarket in the photograph below saying “Spain” or “Chile”.
This sort of supermarket shopping is extremely painless and no one should be worried about travelling in France or indeed anywhere in Europe providing they can find a supermarket. No language skills are really needed although in France it is wise to look out for the word “Cheval” on the meat counter though generally there will also be an accompanying picture of a horse’s head to ensure there will be no errors of identification. Not that horse meat will poison anyone and horse meat burgers were sold as everyone knows for some time in the UK before anyone noticed.
The only thing to look out for is in some supermarkets you have to weigh your vegetables before taking them to the checkout. We have now learned to look for the tell-tale weighing machines by the fruit and vegetable counters but it is still easy to be caught out and this is certainly a memorable way to get an introduction to the French language as the queue grinds to a halt at the checkout as you present your weightless produce.
From Saint Jean du Gard, which we left sadly without seeing the steam train again, we drove around a very busy Alés to the village of Chusclan, close to the Rhône and a little north of Avignon.
Here there is a free aire owned by the Vignerons de Chusclan, it was really just a large car park opposite a big wine cooperative where a large number of Côtes du Rhône Villages wines are produced. The aire was surrounded by vines and with the sun shining we had a relaxing lunch then went for a walk around the village. One of the first things we came across was a little sign which described the “mystery of the arches”. Chusclan we discovered as we explored its streets has a lot of arches for such a relatively small place. There are fourteen remaining around the old centre although there were apparently many more. Their purposes seems somewhat obscure but it is likely some were entrances and others were opening to allow rainwater to drain away.
We finished our exploration of Chusclan, it doesn’t take long, with a glass of local wine at an outside table in the village centre. Chusclan, apart from the arches, is a very typical French village with the only businesses in the centre being the Holy Trinity of Post Office, Pharmacy, Bread Shop and a Bar/Restaurant, where we had our wine. Which is four of course but it is a Douglas Adams Trinity of four, or perhaps even five if you include the Mayor's office.
They have been making well regarded wines here at Chusclan since at least the Seventeenth Century so it is perhaps not surprising the bar doesn’t have to import wines from say Australia and as we had discovered at Saint Jean du Gard you shouldn’t expect to find wines from anywhere but France in a typical French supermarket either. You can get wines from other countries of course, but you have to hunt for it. Chusclan is mainly a red wine producing area but a small amount of rosé is also made from exactly the same grapes as they make the red with. The trick, using a method called saignée, is to draw off some of the grape juice from the pressing, leaving behind the skins and from this pink juice the rosé is made.
We visited the co-operative wine caves opposite the aire before we left in the morning and they were quite busy with some locals turning up with big plastic bottles to be filled up at the "pump". You could try the wines but there was a bit of a queue - this was 09:30 in the morning and we didn't fancy waiting or drinking that early (must be getting old or even, perish the thought, sensible) so we bought a half case of the rare rosé (less than five percent of local production, the rest being red) and set off for the day.
We had just one hundred and thirty kilometres to go but the route I had selected would take us over Mont Ventoux but the legendary Tour de France peak was not to be the greatest hazard we were to face this day. We were starting to the west of the Rhône and the options for crossing it at this point without involving busy cities are limited. The satnav took us through the city of Orange without problems until just on the east side of the city, at a point when I thought the worst of any problems would be behind us I suddenly saw the road we were on dipping under a railway with a 2.3m headroom warning sign. We are 2.7m high. There was just time to swing off right into a car park where we turned round after a considerable amount of backward and forward shuffling as the car park had height barriers too! It was an entirely avoidable incident as the Michelin road atlas clearly shows the height restriction but of course in order to see this obstacle one must actually study the map before start the day’s journey. Another lesson re-learned.
Our route over Ventoux was almost the reverse of the one taken by my brother and I when we cycled up it a few years ago, this time we ascended the north side, which seems the steepest, then dropped down the other side before heading east at the Chalet Reynard towards Sault.
The traffic going up was very light with cyclists outnumbering cars and motorcycles by a considerable margin. The mountain is a magnet for two wheelers of all description but some don't make it. On the approach to the mountain I slowed down as a car in front reduced speed to turn into a very narrow gate. The car behind also slowed but not the motorcycle behind him which overtook us all. This was all on a sweeping right-hand bend so he didn't see the car coming the other way. There was just room for him to get between the oncoming car and the one turning right, but a change of underwear may have been necessary later.
A little further on we came to some light-controlled roadworks where there were a lot of people milling around. A motorcycle was wedged under the rear corner of a car but the rider was sitting nearby with his helmet off and looked relatively unscathed if not perhaps unshaken. He had perhaps jumped or rolled off sideways just in time.
And this was before we even got to Mont Ventoux. Of course it is not obligatory to drive over Mont Ventoux and anyone in a hurry would be strongly advised not to and go around it but the mountain (which is technically part of the Alps but sits apart) has been conveniently placed in past eons right in the way we were heading so going over it was the obvious thing to do.
For those unfamiliar with Ventoux it is notable for being almost two different mountains. As you ascend it you pass through forests interspersed with meadows. Meadows in which at this time of year a profusion of cowslips were growing. Eventually, after some twenty kilometres of ascent you emerge into a treeless landscape of bare, shattered rock. The name Ventoux is derived from the French for “windy” but we were very fortunate in having perfect conditions for our ascent. An ascent during which we could see far off in the distance the snow covered Alps although I avoided mentioning this because this was the way we were heading (towards the snow) and Mary isn’t a great fan of the cold when on holiday.
The route up was very quiet in terms of motorised transport but there were many cyclists but these were outnumbered a million to one by the flies as we approached the end of the tree line. The air was thick with small, brownish flies. It must have been horrendous to cycle through. They were only on the north side of the mountain and seemed to prefer shade as the presumably hotter south side of the mountain was free of these clouds of flies. There is in theory parking at the summit but it was absolutely heaving with people, parked cars and of course those cyclists enjoying the moment of their victory and escape from the flies. Stopping at the summit wasn't therefore an option but there were places to pull off the road just after the summit, one of which is a little below the Simpson memorial which was erected at the spot where Tom Simpson collapsed and died aged 29 in 1967. Simpson was at the time considered Britain’s most successful cyclist but he raced when the use of drugs was both widespread and considered almost essential by those who wished to win races. At his post mortem his blood was found to contain traces of amphetamines and alcohol, the latter apparently from brandy mixed with water in his water bottle. Simpson’s death on the thirteenth stage of the Tour on a blisteringly hot day was one of the triggers which led to the mandatory testing of athletes for banned substances which was introduced for the first time at the Giro d’Italia and the Summer Olympics in Mexico the following year.
Descending carefully from the 1912m (6,273 ft) summit in low gear we were overtaken in the upper stretches several times by cyclists. It was mostly second or third gear all the way down but I had needed first gear with brakes on the steepest bit near the summit. Going up had been mostly second or third gear but often I had to drop down to first in order to follow cyclists until we reached a point on the twisty road where I could see whether it was clear to overtake. The road is mostly twin track but nearer the summit there is no white line down the middle and you have to be careful overtaking the cyclists as some of the traffic (and cyclists) is descending very quickly in the opposite direction towards you.
Generally the road is well graded, averaging around ten or eleven percent almost all the way except for the summit section. My brother and I found cycling up it not too strenuous if you selected your lowest possible gear but the biggest surprise was the descent, which for us was on the north side. In the shade of the mountain the cold after cycling up in sunshine was bitter and soon penetrated our windproof clothing. We were forced to stop several times to defrost our fingers and wiggle our toes to encourage the circulation. In our motorhome we had no such problems of course but I still felt envy for the riders dropping down off the mountain because I remember the tremendous sense of achievement we had felt after summiting the “Beast of Provence”.