Paradise lost

Tuesday 2nd April 2013, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
During our first visit to this area we were talking with a garagiste in St. Pons. He told us he had once visited Devon and found it very enjoyable. However, he informed us, “c’est bien là-bas, mais ici c’est le paradis!” In their own way both are stunning areas but it provides us with a handy title for what is our last blog from here before we move on in a few days time.

We have enjoyed some sunny days on our own here and we are looking forward to the arrival from a frozen Caen in northern France of our friend Geneviève. She is hoping to enjoy some warm sunshine but sadly, after a glorious day yesterday the sun has disappeared and it is raining steadily. It will be good though to catch up on news of family and friends over glasses of wine in the kitchen.

Monday 8th April 2013, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Genevieve left after breakfast to drive to Montpellier where her friends were expecting her. We’ve spent three happy days showing her just why we find this area so very attractive and have made a convert of her. She, like so many others, has always turned left when reaching the Rhône estuary and headed towards the Camargue and the chic, commercialised resorts of Provence. Here in the Languedoc lies a stunning area of mountains dressed in vines, pines and chestnut forests, the poor, stony soil a lovely shade of ochre. It is perfect for the vines but of little use for anything else. Villages with rosy tiled roofs and walls that match the colour of the soil cling precariously to the hillsides, while within their walls the same buildings have been occupied continuously since the middle ages. They are cool in summer though sadly, dank, dark and very chilly during the winter months with narrow, broken alley-ways leading steeply between the houses until they peter out on the mountainside above the village.

Ian and Geneviève give a demonstration of synchronised shoelace tying

The landscape is charming. No matter where you look the sunbleached mass of the Espinousse offers a familiar skyline while the vineyards cover the gentle, pinky-brown slopes at their base. We have wandered for miles along the rough tracks across the landscape, scrambling through muddy cart ruts and jumping over, or wading through fords, where trickling streams have widened with the heavy rains.

We’ve had sunshine for a return visit to Minerve in pursuit of the Cathars and to take tea in a delightful bookshop where Ian recognised a displayed page as coming from the Description de l’Egypte, the magnificent survey made during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt.

In the bookshop, Minerve

But we’ve also had a day of icy rain. On such a day we were frozen through after exploring a couple of the villages on the banks of the pretty river Orb and decided to lunch at the Blue Lizard cafe at Vieussan. An extremely agreeable way to spend a couple of hours beside the wood fire when the rain poured down outside.
Street in Vieussan

The Blue Lizard auberge, Vieussan

Determined that Geneviève should at least see the entrance to the Gorge d’Héric we parked there and walked a few hundred metres into the gorge. The river was swollen and as beautiful at it can get, while snow lay over the crags and peaks through which the river surged so joyously. Even we though found it too cold and wet to linger and the path would have been under a permanent waterfall as the rain cascaded down from the rocks. It was though the most beautiful and impressive we have ever found it.
Yesterday we visited the crowded market in St. Chinian. We didn’t really need anything but we went for the atmosphere and the coffee and croissants in the main bar so we could sit there and people watch. Last week was cold and few local citizens bothered to go. Even many stallholders took Easter Sunday off and stayed by their firesides, but yesterday was bright and sunny. There was an Easter funfare as an added incentive and St. Chinian once again had the atmosphere that had enchanted us when we first came here eight years ago.

After a sunny Sunday lunch on our terrace we drove to Le Somail on the Canal du Midi where we had heard of a huge store of antiquarian books. The tiny port on the canal is an overnight stopping place for those travelling by boat and is both picturesque and well endowed with rustic restaurants. It seems a popular place with families crowded around tables drinking wine. Personally we found the wind too chilly to enjoy sitting in the open and the bookshop was freezing cold. We quickly decided they knew their prices and we were unlikely to discover a bargain. Rather, we discovered that the delightful collection of 19th/20th century books on the locality we’ve been enjoying in the house here are worth far more than we’d imagined.

Lunch on the terrace, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes

Le Somail

Le Somail

We took a short and windy stroll beneath the grey plane trees lining the sides of the canal as it curves away across the landscape towards Ensérune. Barges were moored along the banks and a few motor boats chugged their way past but generally, despite the sunshine, it was too cold and we gratefully returned to Geneviève’s car and drove to Cruzy, a village we had discovered on our first visit here. Apart from some lovely walks on the surrounding hillsides the village has a number of interesting ancient buildings, an impressive fortified church and an excellent free museum where once again we saw the banners rescued after the wine riots in 1907. In a monoculture where wine is the only produce of the region, any failing of the harvest can be devastating, bringing starvation to the producers and their families. Here, the combination of diseased crops and wines adulterated by cheap Algerian imports and the use of poor quality grapes from the Eastern Mediterranean eventually lead to riots throughout the area with hundreds of thousands protesting at Narbonne, Beziers, Montpellier and Perpignan as well as in all the smaller towns and villages. The military took control and a number of people were killed or badly injured. These home-produced banners are a direct link with those riots, part of the local heritage and have been declared a national monument by the French government. They are rustic, painted onto sheets by a Cruzy resident and discovered years later in the attic by his grandson.

Britain’s economic problems spread to the villages of the Languedoc

A walk through the village of Cruzy

We returned home and, while Remoska cooked a final supper of rabbit in prunes for us all, we sat in the warmth of the kitchen with glasses of wine, glad to be out of the chill wind but regretting the imminent departure of Geneviève, and indeed our own.
Today we started clearing the house ready to leave on Wednesday. It’s amazing just how much stuff we carry around in Modestine. A bucket, a table or chair, a warm blanker, a swimsuit, medicines, potions, bandages and jars of marmite, jam and chutney. All are carried and all needed. What invariably turns out to be a waste of space is clothes. We need garments and shoes for all seasons but generally wash everything as soon as we change it so it’s at the top of the case and gets used again almost immediately while the rest gets taken home unused. However hard we try to cut back we always bring too many clothes.

After Genevieve left we took a walk out from the village of Ambre up though the vines and olive groves watched over by the sharply defined grey mass of Le Caroux. A couple of hours later as we made our way homewards along the sandy, muddy paths through the pine woods we chanced upon a sight we have long hoped to see. A long cord of caterpillars, at first glance it looked like a thin snake, was trundling slowly across our path doggedly following the leader and staying perfectly in step, each touching the tail of the one in front. They are processionary caterpillars and nest together in the pine trees in large, white balls of spun thread. We have often seen the nests but never before have we seen them marching. They are apparently a disagreeable and troublesome pest and are highly toxic if touched. However, in the interests of science and aided by a small stick, we interrupted the column. With one accord the entire line stopped immediately waiting while the dislodged one searched around and eventually located the tail of the one in front. The one at the head then continued the march. How does the message get conveyed right down the line? We have just read that famous 19th century French naturalist Jean-Henri Fabre once joined the first caterpillar to the tail of the last one to see what would happen. Apparently they walk around non-stop for a week in a circle ignoring the fact that their food source, pine needles, had been placed beside them.

Processionary caterpillars

Tuesday 9th April 2013, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes
Today has been our last day here. Tomorrow we return to our nomadic existence in Modestine. Happily the weather has turned warm and pleasant for more of the time, but we are playing safe and heading down to the border with Spain, exploring the hinterland of Perpignan. Campsites should be open by now and Modestine is eager to be on her way once more.
We’ve brought all our belongings together into a huge heap inside the front door, we’ve cleaned through the house and made it comfortable for whoever next passes this way and we’ve used up all the half consumed food so we can clean out the fridge. Supper this evening was an odd combination of left-overs but like so much of my “creative” cooking, it was actually very nice even though it contained broccoli stalks and wilted organic carrots along with the chicken remains from yesterday. Who knows, tomorrow we may be grateful for our emergency tin of ravioli.

This morning we left Modestine beside the windmill on the hilltop above St. Chinian and walked off into the garrigue with Ivor’s book of local walks. Our route lead us along stony footpaths through heathland, vineyards and woodland with stunning views in every direction at sun-soaked mountainsides covered in vineyards edged by dry-stone walls.

Garrigue above St. Chinian

Garrigue above St. Chinian

Hut constructed from dry stones piles up beside the fields once used for shelter from the sun and for storing tools

Vineyard on the garrigue above St. Chinian

Garrigue above St. Chinian