Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Circus Circus

I'm beginning to like this summer. Well, except for how hot it is. But then I remind myself I could be in Austin or even Berlin, which has had scorching heat -- often hotter than here -- all summer.

But it's the visitors kind of randomly dropping in that I've enjoyed, especially since they've tended to land on a Friday, which means wine-tasting and food-eating at the Estivales. This week, it was Ed and Andi from Berlin, on their way to an improvised vacation somewhere near Narbonne and, well, other places to be announced. But they came here for Friday and Saturday last week, and we decided that after the market on Saturday, we'd jump into Andi's 14-year-old VW and go...somewhere.

But where, exactly? Somewhere I hadn't been, but which wasn't far away, since we'd only have the afternoon. And somewhere we could reach from Pic St. Loup because I knew that valley between the Pic and the Hortus was a guaranteed show-stopper, and at least we'd see that. Checking the map as I drank my morning coffee, I saw that Michelin had decided that something called Cirque de Navacelles was worth three stars. I checked it against a guidebook (no Internet yet), and the description didn't make sense to me, although it, too, raved.

And thus it was we set off, German-speaking GPS machine doing okay with the French words (albeit with a German accent), and there we were, in the valley between the two great mountains. We continued along to St. Martin de Londres, where we stopped for lunch at a restaurant under gigantic trees, where there was very tolerable pizza and slabs of bark falling off the trees onto the canopies above the table. After that we headed north along the same route we'd gone the weekend before, but passed the turnoff to the swimming hole and past a mountain called Grand Arc, climbing into the hills as I took a couple of fairly lame photos out the car window.

The Hérault River just goes on and on, and there is more spectacular geology than I've seen in a while. Childhood memories of Wyoming and New Mexico come to mind, although that's entirely different, albeit on a similar scale of grandeur. There are apparently some fairly cool caves up this way, the Grotte des Demoiselles, which might be worth looking at after tourist season's over.

Laroque was having a Medieval Festival, and a bunch of townsfolk were wandering around in capes and such. The town looks interesting, and probably just as medieval without the dress-up. It's on my list of places to return to. After that came Ganges, where we bought gas and turned down a small road which, I see from the map,  parallels the back (north face) of the huge long mountain called La Séranne. This, too has a river, the Vis, which is kind of hard to find on a map because it keeps heading underground.

Finally, we found ourselves at a T-intersection, both of which directions would take us to the Cirque de Navacelles. One promised to take us to a town called Montardier, which had an 11th century castle, so we chose that one. Never saw it, though: both the signs and the GPS had us turn off on an even tinier road, with even worse switchbacks (Andi took the turns with elan, and I hereby nominate this entire region for some of the scariest driving in the world), and eventually took us down a straightaway at which there was...a little cafe, with postcards for sale. And across the street from that, a viewing area. And waaaaaaay down there below us, the Cirque de Navacelles. Which, now that I was looking at it and reading the sign posted where we were standing, made perfect sense.

It seems the Vis described an omega here (Ω) for many millennia. Then, about 4000 BC, it suddenly cut through whatever obstruction was causing it to meander like that and went in a straight line. The former river bed was nicely fertile, and the ecology of the near-island quite different from the surrounding mountainsides.

Yup, we were high, all right. And, it seemed, far from civilization. Then the GPS played us a neat trick: instead of getting us out of there, it took us all the way down the hill, through more terrifying switchbacks, right onto the island. Parking was mandatory (the GPS said there was a road through town, but where it would have gone if it existed is a good question), and I managed one more photo before my battery died.

Yes, people live there. There are also lots of picturesque little shoppes selling touristy stuff, and, to the right of this photo, a tiny church. But Wikipedia says there are 247 people here, and how they get their groceries and what happens to them if they have heart attacks I cannot imagine. There's a beautiful waterfall, and lots of people were swimming in the Vis, whose waters were so clear you could have read the date on a dime dropped into them. Fig trees shaded the swimming hole, and the whole thing would have been idyllic if we hadn't spent the last 20 minutes going this way and that and hoping some SUV wasn't around the next switchback.

There were more switchbacks, too, as we headed south to St. Maurice Navacelles, and the odd dolmen (prehistoric standing stones are all over around here, as are a couple of menhirs) and finally we found ourselves in La Vaquerie et St. Martin, an oddly-named hamlet with, unsurprisingly, a couple of dairy farms, where I'd been during last summer's trip to Lodève. After that, it was just downhill, through St. Saturnin and the Terasses du Larzac wine-growing areas, and, finally, the freeway back to Montpellier.

My apologies to Andi, who drove the whole way, but he seemed to enjoy it as much as both of us Eds did (we used to work at the same publications in Berlin, which was lots of fun -- "Has anyone seen Ed? No, not you"), and now that I've seen it I'll never ask anyone to go see it again.

Next up, I want to stay closer to the sea and head into the Aude and maybe the Pyrenées-Orientales. Anyone coming to town this weekend?

1 comment:

  1. Loved the narrative of this excursion. Wish I could make that trip myself.


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