Paradise regained

Monday 15th April 2013, St. Pons de Thomières, Languedoc
When Ian went to pay this morning the lady said she was over the moon with the way yesterday’s event had gone. A good time seems to have been had by all.
We have been wondering how and where the Canal du Midi is replenished. Every time a lock is used water is displaced. It must be returned to the canal somewhere or it would run dry. Examining his map, as Ian is wont to do from time to time – like every couple of minutes – he discovered that the 18th century engineer of the canal, Pierre Paul Riquet, enlarged a lake near the highest point of the canal at Revel to the north of where we were camping. We determined to investigate and set off along winding roads through delightful countryside of green fields and hedges more reminiscent of Brittany than southern France. There were even sheep and cattle out in the fields. There were no vines to be seen and the bedrock appeared to be sometimes schist and sometimes granite.
At Saissac the village sits on a ridge of rock with a stupendous view out across the plain lying far below. We could not resist stopping to explore and found it a very pleasant little place with steep winding streets leading down to the remains of the Cathar castle below. The church was open allowing the sunlight to penetrate within its thick dark walls and give the place an airing. In common with other churches we have seen in the region there was a wide central nave with side altars to each side. They were painted and decorated using the cross of the Languedoc as a central theme. Saissac is obviously very proud of its church.

Saissac with its castle and church

Painted interior of the church, Saissac

Castle ruins, Saissac

The castle is a ruin but very picturesque in its location. We did not go round however but continued on our way to the lake at Revel.

Here we discovered a massively long trail of processionary caterpillars - there were several yards of them hanging on to each other. Warned of their evil nature we kept well clear as we made ourselves a coffee and sat on the grass beside the lake. The museum about the construction of the dam was of course closed. Things we really want to see usually are, whereas touristy things are already mostly open. However, the gardens, constructed as a pleasurable strolling place and to show off the engineering achievement of the canal, were freely open to the public.

Conduits from the barrage at the head of the lake allow water to pass through at three different points. They feed down in a series of cascades and waterfalls, the head of water producing a magnificent fountain spurting high into the surrounding woods, the spray reflecting as a beautiful rainbow. Below this the feeder stream continues to the canal some distance away towards Carcassonne.

Fountain in the wooded public garden at Revel

Subterranean conduit leading from the barrage to the feeder stream of the Canal du Midi

Conduit through the woods carrying water from the barrage to replenish the Canak du Midi, Revel

Water from different feeder conduits combine to augment the supply to the Canal du Midi, Revel

The military engineer, Vauban, was a contemporary of Riquet and with the supply system for the canal that links the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, the two great engineering minds of the 17th century came together to produce something phenomenal for its time. Vauban’s expertise with defense and fortification was employed to strengthen the retaining wall of the reservoir whilst Riquet designed the feeder system for the canal. Four centuries later it is still functioning effectively on a daily basis!

Barrage on the reservoir at Revel

Recognition to Pierre-Paul Riquet, 1604-1680, Revel

From Revel we continued to Mazamet, listed in our book of exceptional French towns which are worth a detour. We are discovering they are all towns that are too small to have much to recommend them and too large to have a village charm. Mazamet is definitely more interesting and attractive than Limoux and has some very pleasant public gardens and an interesting history. The streets though are congested and crowded with noisy traffic while huge lorries and tractors cause permanent congestion.

We discovered a small museum however that informed us that in the past the town had been famous for processing the skins of sheep for the production of leather. It also produced huge quantities of raw wool which was exported world-wide. What puzzled us though is that the skins they processed were imported from around the world, many arriving from Argentina and Australia. Why? Mazamet is a small town, inconveniently situated in the hills so getting the fleeces there for processing would have been expensive and difficult. The finished skins and wool would then need to be transferred out again. Not surprisingly, the industry died a death in the 1930s.


Public Gardens, Mazamet

By now the day was drawing on and the nearest campsite on our list was way up in the mountains to the north. We knew there was a nearer campsite open back at St. Pons and decided to make for there despite feeling strange returning back to the area of Paradise from which we had so recently been expelled. It is a good site, on the edge of the town so we could use the supermarket and also fill up with fuel. The lady at the site told us we’d last stayed there back in May 2009 and gave us a pass for a couple of hours free wifi.

Next day we finally turned our backs on Paradise and drove off up into the hills towards La Salvatat in the mountains of the Sidobre near Castres . It is just a bit too far from Ambre to comfortably do in a day so we’d never been there. It turned out to be quite charming, clinging to a promontory, high in the hills with a winding road leading to a bridge, then steeply up to the top of the little town. The town melted into the landscape, the stones of the houses and streets being those of the immediate surroundings. We wandered the tiny winding streets, new and pretty vistas opening at each turn. It was bigger than we expected and will probably be crowded in the summer but on our visit the sun was shining and the streets uncrowded, with just a few local people on the terrace of the PMU.

La Salvatat

La Salvatat

We continued to Lacaune through a landscape that skirted a lake and continued through forests. The town, when we arrived, was a disappointment. All traffic passing through this mountainous, uninhabited landscape must pass right through the town centre as there is just no space for any sort of bypass. On our visit there were necessary road works creating additional chaos.

All French towns have something special to boast about as you arrive. It is usually part of their charm. If they are really desperate however there will be a sign telling you that there are three, or six, pedestrian crossings. Lacaune publicises its fountain. Known as la Fontaine des Pisseurs the town prides itself on the diuretic properties of its waters!! We decided not to stop for a morning coffee!

Fontaine des Pisseurs, Lacune

We continued along the winding country roads through villages and green fields. Gone for ever were the vineyards of southern France. Soon we had left the Languedoc completely behind and were in the Aveyron with its magnificent woodlands, rugged hillsides and deep ravines. Just before St. Affrique we stopped for a sunny picnic lunch at the pleasant riverside village of Vabres - l’Abbaye. Here we discovered that what appeared to be an ordinary village church actually once had the status of a cathedral!

Varbres l’Abbaye

Soon we had climbed up onto the Causse de Larsac. Here there is almost no water! The bedrock is so porous that any rain falling passes straight through to form deep underground caverns. Eventually, millions of years ago, the roofs of some of these caverns collapsed leaving steep sided craters in the landscape. Where the fallen rock tumbled down, tunnels and well ventilated caves were sometimes formed keeping the air at a steady temperature of 10 degrees centigrade with 95% humidity. These conditions have proved ideal for ripening Roquefort cheese produced from the milk of the ewes that graze the arid Causses. They are scraggy, docile creatures without horns and they have adapted to living with almost no water. Miraculously they produce an average of 250 litres of milk per sheep each year during their milking period. Thus, at Roquefort, conditions are perfect for the manufacture of the famous blue-veined cheese produced from sheep’s milk.

Roquefort has protected status, AOP or Appellation d’Origine Protegée, granted by the EU in 1996. The cheese is produced from ewes grazed on the Causses within the “rayon de Roquefort”, that area covering Aveyron, Tarn, Lozère, Gard, Héraut and Aude.

The town of Roquefort is high on a hilltop. There are seven producers using the caves behind the main street for ripening their cheeses. We managed to park Modestine beyond the town and walked back in. In the small, steep main street huge distribution lorries were loading up with crates packed with Roquefort to be carried all over the world. One company was offering a free guide to its cellars with a small museum explaining the history of the cheese. This we visited. It was excellent and even offered us a free cheese tasting when we finally emerged. There was no pressure to buy which was just as well as we’ve been carrying a half eaten one around since we left Ambre. We really will have to finish it soon or campsites will be refusing us admittance!

Main street, Roquefort, with advertisement for the local cheese

Milking the Ewes, Roquefort circa 1900

Milking the ewes, Roquefort circa 1900

Ripening Roquefort

Loading cheeses to be carried throughout the world, Roquefort

Roquefort from the top of the town

Publicity for Roquefort cheese

Our route continued towards Millau. Last time we passed this way on the autoroute, high above the town on the stunning, delicate, Viaduc de Millau, we were rushing back from Sète, anxious to get Ian home as he had his arms in plaster after his fall from his bike. This time we were way below, passing beneath the delicate white ribbon that stretches across the wide ravine, saving travellers the steep descent into the town and the long, steep climb out again. Here at Millau we camped for the night on the banks of the river. Unfortunately our leisure battery, providing the lighting inside the caravan part of Modestine, died on us leaving us no choice but an early night, making up the bed by torchlight. It was a hot and humid night making sleep difficult.

Viaduct de Millau seen from below

Millau in its natural setting

This morning we were directed to the nearest camping car specialist who confirmed our diagnosis that Modestine needed a replacement leisure battery and fitted one for us. Problem solved but we were disagreeably surprised that it cost 165 Euros! We are sure we never paid anything like that back at ATS in Exeter seven years ago!

Modestine goes to the doctor, Millau

Anyway, we don’t care what we spend on Modestine. We indulge her every whim. She’s worth it to us, having enabled us to explore so much of Europe in such depth over the years. She dislikes motorways unless she is in a hurry, which she rarely is, and is perfectly happy to puff her way up mountains and wind through ravines so long as we let her have a cool down from time to time. She is part of our team so if she wants something, she usually gets it.

The rest of the morning we spent exploring Millau. There is a pleasant central market square with a covered market of which the town is proud. From the square, narrow streets lead off in all directions until they meet the very pleasant boulevard that circles the centre of the town. Along each side are pollarded plane trees with attractive 19th century townhouses behind, each with their grey or pale green shutters. Beneath the trees there are pleasant cafe terraces. In one of the streets was a craft centre with a display of modern craft bookbindings with abstract inlaid designs in multicoloured leathers. The attendant there directed us to the workshop of the binder and we had an interesting discussion with him on the techniques and aesthetics of the craft.

Central market place, Millau

Covered market, Millau

Millau was once famed for its glove-making industry. The sheep on the Causses making milk for cheese probably also supplied the leather. Gloves are still produced in the town but fashions have changed and now there is only one glove manufacturer, appropriately named Causse, founded in 1892, still operating. The gloves are produced from fine leather and are for the haute couture market. We chanced on the factory with its excellent free museum and were there until they closed for lunch. Even Ian was fascinated by the quality, range of styles and the skill of the staff. We watched as leather was stretched and smoothed until it was supple and soft. The men were the cutters. Generally they each cut 20 pairs per day. They were then passed to the women who stitched and decorated, sometimes by hand, sometimes using special glove machines, largely unchanged from the original glove making machines by Singer displayed in the museum.

Glove making, Millau

Machine for cutting leather gloves, Millau

Glove-making equipment in the museum, Millau

Leather gloves, Causse manufactury, Millau

Among their clients were Madonna, Coco Chanel, Victoria Beckham and Sharon Stone. I need some new leather driving gloves as the old ones have finally split. I naively thought Ian might buy me a pair. 350+ Euros for a pair of gloves! And many didn’t even have fingers! (Remember Madonna in “Desperately seeking Susan” with her black, fingerless leather gloves?) However, when you see just how much work is involved in producing soft, smooth leather gloves, it is hardly surprising that they don’t come cheap. There were cabinets displaying hundreds of beautiful pairs of gloves and an entire gallery of photos of some of their more exceptional designs. It was certainly a very different museum and completely free. In 2006 the company was awarded the “Living Heritage Company” label in recognition of its rare and ancestral know-how.

As if the morning had not already been charged with interest and delight we have spent the rest of the day making our way through the deep gorges and ravines of this most stunning and rare landscape. Tonight we are camped in Florac after spending several hours winding our way through the very heart of the Causses. When last we passed this way we felt so privileged to have been permitted to experience such stunning beauty once in our lifetime. Since then we have often remembered our time here and wondered whether we would ever be granted the good fortune to return. Today we have done so, moving from Aveyron to the Tarn and up into the Cevennes.

In October 2005 we descended the Gorges du Tarn. This time we approached from the opposite end, turned off and took the lesser known Gorge de la Jonte. This was ours to enjoy. The few camping cars venturing up through the gorges generally opted for the Tarn, deeper possibly and, as it lies at the base of the gorge, with fewer sheer drops into the void. Overhead eagles wheeled and soared on the thermals while the sheer rock walls to either side of the ravine had naturally formed faces of dinosaurs, lizards and strange creatures worn into them, depending on the angle of the light. Insignificant, and frequently lost from view far below, the river could be heard gurgling and tumbling on its way back from where we had come, to join the waters of the Tarn. I have been able to potter through the gorge, pausing whenever I wanted to peer over any particularly stomach-churning twist of the road. I could even stop while Ian popped out to take photos. There were hardly any other vehicles around - though one never knew what was round the next wall of rock. We felt insignificantly small and I feel unable to express how deeply we have been moved by this awesome scenery. If you can make only one journey through France, let it be here! Strong nerves and your own transport are essential though.

Gorge de la Jonte

Gorge de la Jonte

Modestine takes a short rest, Gorge de la Jonte

Gorge de la Jonte

Meyrueis, Gorge de la Jonte

So here we are. Last time we were in Florac it was the night of the Fête de la Soupe and we joined in with delight. This time it is far hotter and there is no autumn colour in the chestnut forests. There is though a haze of bright green on the trees down in the gorge and pink and white blossoms on the wild cherry and blackthorn bushes by the wayside. Modestine has returned to her special area of France. It was near here that her namesake was bullied along by Robert Lewis Stevenson as he made his way across the Cevennes to St. Jean du Gard where he was callous enough to sell her! Maybe tomorrow the temptation to once more follow at least part of that first Modestine’s journey will prove too much for us.


Market day, Florac


"C’est beau une librarie". Seen amidst the dried sausages of the butcher’s shop, Florac

Related links
Causses de Larzac See Friday 22nd May 2009
In the hoof prints of Modestine - a journey through the Cevennes