Languedoc to Normandy

Thursday 27th October 2011, Saint-Rome-de-Tarn, Aveyron
All things considered today has been lovely. The campsite at Colombiers was a bit scruffy but functioned really well with new centrally heated individual bathrooms. We felt clean and relaxed, happy to be back in the Languedoc and full of nostalgia. Was it only yesterday that we were west of Barcelona? It seems a world away! We decided to relax a bit after so much travelling during the past few days and made for St Chinian passing through ever more familiar countryside, towns and villages. We longed to stay in Ambre rather than rush home to sort out our various problems.

Landscape near Saint Chinian

We parked in our usual place under the trees in the main square of Saint Chinian. It was market day, but rather quieter than usual. In the library Karine was still running the service. “Ah voilà les grands voyageurs!” How wonderful to see a familiar, friendly face. We explained our predicament and she logged us on to the library computers for a couple of hours, free of charge, so we could alter all our various bank details on a secure network and catch up on emergency emails. It felt so good to be back where we had spent so many happy weeks. At lunchtime we crossed to the market and bought a couple of croissants – real French ones, so much richer then the Spanish imitations, and two teilles de Sète - seafood pies. The Les Balcons café had had a facelift. It was now much cleaner and smarter with a new colour scheme. There was the same clientele and waitress though, although the surly waiter was no longer in evidence. We ate our croissants with really good French coffee and watched other customers and the activities in the market. Three men and a lad at a neighbouring table ordered an assiette de huitres from the market. The oysters arrived on a huge dish and we watches fascinated as they opened them, squeezed lemon onto them, scraped them with a knife and scooped the raw oysters into their mouths.

We left Saint Chinian under a grey, looming sky and drove the familiar route to Ambre-les-Espagnolettes. Time has stood still. Nothing seems to have changed in the village. We could have called on Madame J. but didn’t like to as she owes us ten litres of wine and it would look as if we only called to collect it! There was nobody at “our” house and all was locked and barred. We had hoped that our friends might have been there but they were obviously still in England. We wrote a note and popped it into their letterbox.

Rain started as we left Ambre and made our way round along the Orb valley to Roquebrun. Every bend in the road evoked happy memories and we determined to ask our friends to let us return one day. Rain and mist closed in hiding the Caroux mountain but making the hilltops magical in the swirling clouds. We have never seen it so beautiful with the river below and tree clad hills rising all around as the road twisted below medieval hamlets.

We followed through to Bedarieux, then Clermont Herault to pick up the motorway north climbing dizzily up onto the Causses. We knew of only two open campsites at this time of year, this one and another 200 miles further on at Clermont Ferrand. The spray from heavy lorries, the poor visibility, driving rain and the cold up on the Causses decided us to stop in the valley of the Tarn. What a lovely site, steeply terraced, with the Tarn flowing far below us. The wooded hills were turning gold and red.

We parked Modestine and walked up a steep lane to find ourselves in the tightly packed medieval village of Saint-Rome-de-Tarn. It was amazing, full of fortified houses with defensive towers, winding narrow streets, barred windows, low rounded stone archways and thick heavy wooden doors. A stream runs through it to empty into the Tarn. The surroundings are vivid autumnal woodland, a few vines and village allotments down beside the river. Like so many little towns it has its local hero, in this case Denis-Auguste Affre, born there in 1793 who became Archbishop of Paris in 1840 and was killed at the barricades in 1848 when he was bearing a papers to propose an amnesty between the parties in the civil war.

Fortified house, Saint-Rome-de-Tarn

Stream below old walls, Saint-Rome-de-Tarn

Main gateway, Saint-Rome-de-Tarn

Monument to Denis-Auguste Affre in the main square at Saint-Rome-de-Tarn

We bought bread and wine in the village shop and now it began to rain again in earnest. We reached Modestine dripping wet and have spent the evening steaming ourselves dry, grateful for the warmth of the Remoska. The temperastures are now twelve degrees and it gets dark early. We are sheltering from the darkness around us and the rain battering on the roof listening to a Mozart cassette and with a glass of wine as we wait for supper to cook, relieved that our finances seem secure and that Indi is safely back home again. All the more relaxing for not having to get out the computer to blog.

Friday 28th October 2011, Orcet
After a peaceful night above the banks of the Tarn, it was still dark as we ate our breakfast. We left the campsite and drove along winding roads high into the hills with mist shrouded vistas of a stunning landscape of mountains and wooded hillsides covered in a bright green, orange and scarlet tweed of autumn – truly a natural beauty. There was a distant but impressive view of the Viaduc de Millau with its fine thread of road supported by a network of taut white cables. We passed an isolated wayside monument to fourteen members of a local farming community, victims of wartime aggression by German soldiers who rounded them up as they worked in the fields and shot them. One was only 15, several only 17 or 18. It put our worries into perspective; it was only our computers that had been stolen, not our lives.

World War 2 monument near Saint Léons

After thirty kilometres of stunning woodland and vistas of glorious hillsides we rejoined the free motorway to Clermont Ferrand. Around 11.30 we stopped at the Aire de Service de l’Aveyron after an impressive drive through countryside that must be amongst the most stunning to be seen from a motorway anywhere in Europe. Despite the perpetual rain and chilly weather, the scenery of flat, table-top mountains, ravines and steep gorges, all thickly covered in autumn foliage, was awesomely beautiful.

Mountains through the rain on the A75

Autumn colours on the A75

This must be the most interesting motorway service area we have visited. It contains a free exhibition on the history, industry, geology and wildlife of Aveyron, including the life of Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915), the father of modern entomology. After a career as a schoolteacher he was able to fund his researches after his retirement in 1870 from the proceeds of a series of successful school textbooks. In his honour there is a nearby science theme park Micropolis, devoted to the world of insects. The film Microkosmos that we saw several years ago was largely filmed in a meadow near here and revealed the secret life of insects as homage to Jean-Henri Fabre. There was a shop selling local produce: Rochefort cheese, honey, vegetable fritters, dried sausage, aligote (potato mashed with local cheese and garlic), fruit compote, speciality biscuits and so on. It was all quality produce, attractively presented.

Outside the restaurant, shops, exhibitions, museum and other facilities we found a spectacular view to the hilltop village of Sévérac, the slopes a patchwork of fields stitched together by hedges. We were invited to follow the sentier des bergers which explained the life of a shepherd on the Causes, the arid upland area where normally little rain falls - what Baring-Gould called the deserts of southern France. He guards his flock which roams free, surviving on very little water. From the milk comes the locally produced Rochfort cheese, blue veined and salty. It is matured in natural caves in the region. The shepherd used to live on the hills with his sheep. There were many wolves in the area until the 19th century. Stone pens were constructed to protect the sheep at night. The path led us to various dry-stone walls and stone shelters for the shepherd to protect himself from the sun and wind, to store tools and equipment or to climb up to better survey his flock. There were also beehives made from tree trunks with large flat stone on top to prevent animals from entering the hive.

Chateau de Sévérac with shepherd’s shelter

Shepherd’s lookout, Aire de Service de l’Aveyron

Scrap, the sheepdog, Aire de Service de l’Aveyron

Metal sheep, a picture of rusticity, Aire de Service de l’Aveyron

Wooden beehive, Aire de Service de l’Aveyron

We moved on after lunch, never having spent so long at a service area, a real free wayside museum, and drove on northward to the outskirts of Clermont Ferrand, a lovely drive despite the rain. We turned off at Orcet to locate the campsite but it was still early so we drove to Vic-le-Comte, a wonderful medieval town full of fortified walls, ramparts, narrow alleyways, carved lintels, steep steps and low dark archways. France has some stunning old towns, unchanged for generations, though frequently individual properties have been crassly renovated with picture windows, glass porches, modern garage doors or unsympathetic use of breezeblocks or modern bricks.


We followed the little country roads back through woodland and villages, along the sides of valleys, winding up and down hillsides, past fertile fields of vegetables or livestock: cattle, sheep, healthy horses, fat happy donkeys – totally different in every way from our experience in Morocco. The woodland was so colourful as we passed the old château of Busséol on the opposite side of the valley. Returning to the campsite we checked in and prepared our supper of Aveyron vegetable fritters with rice.

Château de Busséol

Saturday 29th October, Gien
We went to bed so early last night, having no blogs or photographs to keep us up late, that we were awake and ready to move on almost before daybreak. We travelled initially along free motorways and routes nationales. We had intended stopping at Moulins but it looked very uninspiring and it was raining, so we drove on through; some French towns can look so tasteless and depressing they are best forgotten.

Later in the day we crossed the Loire and were back on home ground. As we reached the river BBC radio 4 cracked back into existence, ending for us weeks cut off from the news! France is a truly beautiful country with a great diversity of landscape and scenery. We’ve seen some of its loveliest areas at a time when it is at its most stunning with the autumn colours of deciduous woodland, vines, hedgerows and gardens and water reflecting the sky in lakes, rivers and canals.

We followed the Loire, stopping for coffee beside the river at La Charité with views across the wide river from our parking place on a little island. La Charité has a huge Romanesque priory dating from the 12th century, built by the Cluniac monks. It is said to be the largest after Cluny itself, with beautiful stonecarving. The town calls itself la cité des livres and there are indeed many second-hand bookshops selling ancient tomes, fine bindings, prints and maps. We climbed up onto the town ramparts for a view over the town with the silver Loire shining beyond. A skein of geese flew over, hundred of them creating ever changing patterns in the sky as they formed and reformed lead groups – an amazing sight.

La Charité-sur-Loire

Priory and river Loire, La Charité-sur-Loire

Doorway in the priory, La Charité-sur-Loire

Skein of geese, La Charité-sur-Loire

We continued along minor roads to Gien, passing through pleasant well-maintained villages and alongside an attractive canal. We eventually reached Gien at dusk. It is a campsite we have used before, one of the few in the region open so late in the season. It is located directly on the south bank of the Loire. It was pleasant to walk beside the sandy shore watching the lights come on in the town across the river and reflect in the water. We gathered mushrooms which we cooked in the remoska for our omelette supper.

It was a pleasant mild evening. After supper we walked to the bridge and across into town. There were a few pleasant restaurants but otherwise things were very quiet. We were disappointed as we were hoping for some Halloween fun. A large poster announced that the local cinema was showing Tintin in 3D. Around the corner we stumbled across the cinema and the film was due to start in a couple of minutes. Great! On an impulse we bought tickets and 3D glasses and slipped into the darkened cinema. The entire town seemed to be there for the first night. It was great fun. Tintin should be seen in French, even if it had originally been made in English. There were lots of blims! and blams! The action was fast, furious and funny and we generally just about hung onto the plot. There was a standing ovation from the audience at the end.

We walked back across the river and home in the darkness. It was just what we needed after our recent worries and put us back into a happier frame of mind. Genevieve expects us back in Caen tomorrow and our journeying will be at an end.

Sunday 30th October, Caen
Driving through the rain we reached Caen at dusk for a happy reunion.

Monday 31st October, Caen
Together with Genevieve we strolled round the Colline aux Oiseaux, the wonderful park constructed on a former rubbish heap for the city’s wartime debris to the north of Caen. We were even able to have lunch in the garden, as the sun was shining warmly after all the recent rain. Genevieve’s nephew Nils came to supper with his fiancée and it was good to have young company around the table.

Tuesday 1st November 2011, Caen
Today is Deyvi’s fourth birthday. We hope to be in Beverley next weekend for a late celebration, and we’ve now booked the ferry home on the internet. It was another sunny day and we all visited the pepinières de Bavent, a garden centre already awash with Christmas baubles. We also went for a picnic in the Forêt de Grimbosq near Caen. The trees were beautiful and the well waymarked paths led to a lake and an enclosure with wild pigs and deer. After a long walk we were pleased to relax over an aperitif in the late afternoon with Genevieve’s mother Germaine. Our supper with Genevieve was delayed by a series of visits by the children of the neighbourhood, all dressed up as ghosts, witches and vampires, often with parents in tow, hoping for sweets. Genevieve had foreseen this and had laid in a stock of goodies, but these were exhausted by the time the last clutch of kiddies arrived.

Thursday 3rd November 2011
We took the ferry home on 2nd November leaving Ouistreham at 8.30 in the morning. After dinner in a local pub we stayed overnight in Andover with Lesley and David, the owners of Erik, the campervan who had accompanied Modestine in Greece. The next day we stopped off for lunch with Peter and Rosemary in Wilton and arrived back in Exeter this evening.

Sunrise at Ouistreham