Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Into The Unknown, On Monday

So E contacted me because he wanted to take a drive. He's got visitors coming, and was looking for short day-trips, and I have one I do for first-timers which involves going to Sommières, then driving to St. Martin-de-Londres, which takes you between Pic St. Loup and L'Hortus, the limestone escarpment "across the street" from it. From St. Martin, it's off to the famous St. Guilhelm-le-Désert, the Pont du Diable, and Aniane for education about the Terrasses de Larzac terroir. Turned out E and J had never been to most of that, so we decided to do it on Monday.

Note to people who've never been to France: France is closed on Mondays. True, the post office and banks are open, for the most part, but basically, France is closed.

So yesterday when I got to the train station, where I was to join them, E was alone; apparently J had decided to stay home. He had planned to pick up a couple of quiches to eat, so we wouldn't really have to stop for lunch, but I told him that one thing about this part of the country is that just about any bakery you stop in has some local specialty for sale, and it's always better to try that. I was remembering my last trip to St. Martin, when I'd ducked into the bakery on the market square there and come out with some fantastic pastry with ham and cheese in it that set me back €1.50. I don't even remember what it was called. So he didn't bother with the quiches. (Fine with me; cold scrambled eggs doesn't do much for me).

One of the huge disadvantages of Montpellier is getting out of town. It takes forever. But once we got past Castelneau-le-Lez, we were in the clear, and rolled on to Sommières. Fortunately, E had been there several times, so we didn't need to stop and do the tourist thing there, and, once we got to town, we went left instead of going across the Roman Bridge, and headed straight to the road to St. Martin.

The mountains performed as expected: it really is an awe-inducing sight, and this time I concentrated on looking at l'Hortus instead of Pic St. Loup going through its changes. The trip to the Dordogne had made me more aware of prehistoric dwellings, and I was wondering if l'Hortus' Neanderthal site was visible from the road. I saw a couple of suspects, but nothing definite, and then something utterly unexpected: a fort of some sort built into a corner of the mountain. This came and went so quickly I didn't really have time to check it out, but, not for the first time seeing old fortifications, I found myself wondering who was defending what from whom. That there was a commanding view there was no doubt. But what were they looking for? Given the history of this region, there's certainly more than one answer.

At any rate, we got to St. Martin, parked the car, and hiked up the hill to the famous Romanesque church. For the first time in all the years I'd been coming there, the church was open  (it closes at noon, opens again at 3), and its interior is gorgeous, albeit pretty much unadorned; the proportions alone give off a wonderful feeling of comfort. Adding to that were four little old ladies, who were singing unison hymns of some sort. They seemed to be in some sort of French, and totally acappella. Amateurs all, they still knew how to fill the space with their sound, which comes with a fairly robust echo for such a small space. Just your typical magic moment in Languedoc.

We went back to the town square and noticed both bakeries were still closed. This might have had something to do with it being Monday. Did I mention that most of France is closed on Monday? We walked back to the car, and I said we'd get our lunchtime pastry in St. Guilhelm. The question was how to get there, so I unleashed E's super-detailed map, and was looking for the way to the road there when two young guys came up and unlocked the car near us. "Where are you going?" they asked, and I said St. Guilhelm. "If you go there via the road to Montpellier, there's a lot of construction," one of them said. "You'd be better off taking another route. Hey, I know: why not go via St. Jean-de-Buèges?" He grabbed the map, and sure enough, it was kind of the long ways around, but there was a little town up there. "That's where we're going: just follow us!" Hell, why not? We had no plans. So we did.

We went up. We went up a lot. We went over a mountain ridge. We started going down. Then we went up some more. Limestone towers poked out of the woods. I'd seen these sorts of rock formations before, when I'd gotten lost somewhere else not far from here, and recalled that there are also natural bridges in the vicinity. I knew that below us was the Hérault River. Somewhere: it was a long ways down. Finally, we crossed it, and started going up again. I had no idea whatever where we were. I also knew that that wasn't a problem: I had a basic idea what direction we were going in, and could steer us towards the Mediterranean -- and the freeway -- if I had to. Plus, we had a map. A very detailed map.

So the only thing to do was groove, stay on the road, and trust that it would take us to St. Jean-de-Buèges. Finally, the landscape opened up, and there, right by the side of the road, was a picnic table. We had no picnic, but surely there was a bakery where we were going. And man, was the view amazing. Off to the left was this:

Look, a vineyard! We were near civilization! And over to the left...

Wait! Was that a village poking its head out next to that huge piece of limestone? It was indeed. Was it the village we were headed to? It was indeed. And so, heading down, down, down, we found ourselves headed in just that direction. We stopped outside of town, and I grabbed a couple of shots.

I kind of like the picture-within-a-picture aspect of this, but it's also the best shot I had at the Château, the fort/whatzis on top of the hill. The two guys we'd met in St. Martin had arrived, and were walking into town, having left their car well outside. As we drove in, it turned out that there was a lot more to St. Jean-de-Buèges than was immediately visible, though, and there was even a parking lot. This was well signposted, but E did something I thought was silly but turned out to be a good idea. He asked a local woman with a blue blouse who was sitting on a bench where the parking was and she said "Just a little ways up this street and to the right." Just where I thought it was, in other words.

It was also next to the local cave cooperative, where the local winegrowers brought their grapes. It wasn't in operation (did I mention that France is closed on Mondays?), but there was much evidence of what the building was:

Those of you who have enlarged the photo to look at it will see the grapes that didn't make it into the trough, to be screwed into the crusher. None of you, however, will be able to smell it. This is really too bad. There was a kind of tourist center-cum-grocery store across the street from this which had a plaque which gave a weird version of the history of the village, although the one on the village's own website (French only) is much better. I wanted to put my fist through the window (the place was closed, it being Monday) and grab a bottle of Château St. Jean-de-Buèges, since the odor of the grapes was still with me, but I restrained myself.

We wandered around the town. It was another world. As you can see from the town history, it was once a center of silk production, but that got zapped by frost in 1956, and it never recovered. No, it would appear that the major industry here is gîtes, which is French for B&Bs. Pretty much anything that isn't a gîte is for sale. Because the Buège is a river, it's been tamed to run through the town, and the place is mighty green and cool as a result. That, plus the thick walls, meant that when we stepped into this street to walk to the church, the temperature dropped a good ten degrees Fahrenheit:

The church was as old as the one in St. Martin, but it was closed.

We wandered around some, but there wasn't much more to see. On the way to the car, we met some recently-arrived tourists who wanted to find the source of the Buège, which was a ways out of town. When I looked at the map to see how to get us to St. Guilhelm, I saw the road there, and by chance, as we drove out, we saw them again, and stopped to show them the map. Someone was behind us, though, so I told E we'd better move on, and he pulled over. Within seconds, the woman with the blue blouse was there. "Okay, where do you want to go?" she asked the tourists, and they told her. "Now," she asked us, "where do you want to go?" and we said St. Guilhelm. "Over the bridge," she said. Like there was another road.

But I realized that these people, these older folks you see sitting around these villages in twos or threes, it's not only polite to say hi to them as you pass, but it'll mean that they'll come to your rescue when or if you get lost. (These people are sometimes also joined by a cat, but it's no use cultivating the damn cat, because you'll get treated with the same contempt cats always treat people with).

At any rate, there seemed to be only two roads: the one we came in on and another one. So we took the other one.

Hoo boy.

It's called the D 122, and it will take you to places you've never been before. On my map, it's mostly a red dotted line, which, in the comfort of my slum apartment, I see is Michelin's way of saying "difficult or dangerous road." It's one-lane, and it's about 20km long. It ends in a town called Arboras, so keep that in mind: it does end. There is nothing there. E mused that, although his car is in good shape, an accident or a flat tire or something would be, um, a major inconvenience. It winds ("Don't worry: I learned to drive in Switzerland!"), it goes up and down, and, if you have the luxury of looking, it has some of the most spectacular scenery I've yet seen here. Far-off peaks, walls of limestone, forest and garrigue, and not one single person. Well, that's not right: after about an hour, we passed a house perched in the middle of nowhere with a post box. Given how long we still had to go, we decided he must be the most hated person in the region as far as the post office is concerned.

Every fifteen minutes or so we'd pass a sign indicating we were on the D122 and there would be a number, lower each time. But that number was a kilometer. Fifteen minutes of winding crazy road to travel one kilometer! At long last, we were dumped in Arboras. As we took stock of which way to go, E exclaimed "That was great!" So if you're going to do this, do it with a Swiss person who loves twisty dangerous roads. As with the Cirque de Navacelles, I'm glad I did it, and I'm glad I wasn't driving.

As we got closer to the end of the road, vineyards started appearing, some with familiar names, and this just increased as we twisted down into St. Saturnin, through Montpeyroux. Occasionally, one of the tiny trailers behind a diesel-stinking tractor would hold us up, another carefully-selected bunch of grapes going to the crusher. This seems to be the height of the vendage, and the word I've heard is that it's a small, but superb, crop this year. We'll find out soon enough, but the few vineyards we saw that were unpicked sure looked good: big fat dark grapes hanging in classic pyramidal form.

Okay, we missed St. Guilhelm-le-Désert and its UNESCO church (which was probably closed anyway because it was Monday), and the Pont du Diable down the hill from it, and we also missed Aniane, where I've still never been when it's open (it was Monday, after all), where I want to check out the wine scene (it's the gateway to the Terrasses du Larzac, one of the best-kept local secrets in terms of amazing wine) and visit the olive oil mill, because that's where my olive oil comes from. But instead we hit the freeway and zoomed back to Montpellier, very happy indeed with what we had seen. I mused some about St. Jean, its tower which was supposed to be protecting someone from somebody (but who would march over all that landscape to get 300 people making wine and silk?), and how one lives in a place like that year round. But it was a magic place, and when you're leaving, I suggest going back up the hill the way you came and finding the fork in the road that'll take you to St. Guilhelm. Unless you have a Swiss at the wheel.


  1. I was down St Jean de Buèges way this summer as there's lots of canoeing on the Hérault around there. I would agree with you that the views are stunning, and it all seems so hidden away. The canoeing was good too. Saw even more ruined castles sat atop ridges.


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