Saturday, June 15, 2013

The Mystery of the High Castle

If it should ever occur to you to visit me here in the beautiful Sud de France, and should you have the time and the money, and should various other factors work in our favor, I'd ask you to rent a car (assuming you lived in the U.S. or Canada or outside France, at any rate -- that way you get unlimited mileage instead of 250km) and I'd take you on my Languedoc's Greatest Hits tour.

That's how I spent yesterday, and, save for one snag at the end, it all went very well. And, fortunately, the person I was showing around was of a very inquiring turn of mind, so we saw and did a lot of things.

The tour always starts in Sommières, a small town, formerly walled, which has a Roman bridge from the first century AD leading into it, a castle of sorts (pretty ruined, and not open to the public) looming over it, and a couple of decent places to have lunch. Yesterday, I didn't think I was going to get across the bridge, because there was a profusion of odd waterfowl, including a pair of black, black swans, who kept giving photo opportunities. At one point, a huge mammal appeared, nearly two feet long, leisurely boogie-ing downstream in the river. It looked to me like a muskrat, they have muskrats in France? Anyway, he was determined and it was odd to see his hind legs propelling him along as his nose and most of his body stayed dry.

Sommières Market Square and Beyond
I've posted lots of pix of this town, which does a brisk trade in British tourists and the sorts of things they buy, but with its lazy river, medieval superstructure, and quiet vibe, it makes a nice start to the tour.

Leaving Sommières, I head down a road that leads through wine country, and, eventually, to Pic St. Loup, a mountain visible from downtown Montpellier. It has a twin, l'Hortus, a "limestone escarpment," which makes it, technically, not a mountain. On the side facing the Pic, it has sheer limestone cliffs, in which, apparently, have been found Neanderthal dwellings. There is a winery, Domaine l'Hortus, which produces some very wonderful and affordable wines, although that could be said about the whole Pic St. Loup area. It's been "discovered" by the wine world, but there are still bargains to be had.

It's possible to climb the Pic all the way to the top, where there's allegedly a small chapel founded by the saint who gave the mountain its name. I've never done this, but the mountain is quite dramatic just from the side of the road. But it's l'Hortus which continues to fascinate me. The main reason for that is that I thought I once spotted a huge castle on it -- but only for a second and, because I was driving, only out of the corner of my eye. The place where this apparition appears is not conducive to taking one's eye off the road, though, and until yesterday I never got a good look.

Fortunately, as I said, my passenger was very interested in all kinds of things, and we found a convenient place to stop. We got out of the car, and through the trees, with the aid of my trusty zoom lens, I was able to snag a couple of pictures.

Very Mysterious
Now, this is out in the middle of nowhere. What you can tell from these two photos is that the building has buttresses and that the windows are arched. It doesn't look at all recent.

A little further along, we spotted a fine place to pull off the road and got out and found a better vantage point. Here, it was possible to get a shot of the entire ruin.

Even Mysteriouser
It may, with enough time, be possible to hike up to this thing, but I'm not sure how. (Remember, all of these pictures are at almost the maximum of my 36x zoom). Anyway, as you can maybe feel if you stare at the pictures long enough, it was nice and warm out there. I'm wondering if there's not a way to this place from the top of l'Hortus, and if it's possible to get closer to it.

Now that I've established just where it is, I notice there's a very tiny village up there called Le Fesq, and a road (D122) that may pass not far from the castle. I need a higher-resolution map than Michelin can provide, though, and even then the historical context will be missing. Who built this? Why? When? Who trashed it? It's pretty clear that the roof's been blown up.

NOTE: Later, after posting, we found it: this long essay is in French, but this is it.

At any rate, the rest of the trip -- the quiet of the tiny Romanesque church in St. Martin de Londres, the UNESCO sites of Pont du Diable and St. Guilhelm le Désert -- went well, but we arrived in St. Saturnin too late for me to buy a six-pack of the IV Pierres rosé from the Domain d'Archimbault, dammit. Making things worse, at the superb visitors center that serves Pont du Diable and St. Guilhelm, my friend got to taste the IV Pierres white, a masterpiece of a white wine, which this region isn't exactly known for. But not me. No, I was driving.

Not that I'm complaining. I saved that for the trip back into town, Friday afternoon Montpellier rush hour, which was just about as much fun as it sounds like. But we got away with €8.50 worth of gas for the whole thing, which I found remarkable.

So now I need your help. If anyone has some details on the castle/fort/thing I'd like to have them. And I'd also like more of you to come visit before I leave France, which is going to happen at some point. Great food, wine, scenery, and castles guaranteed.


  1. Hi

    the Sommieres castle is open to the public. It has 100+ very very narrow spiral steps. Talk to the Sommieres tourist office.

    The swans were introduced this year. They had swans until the big flood in 2002 and it has taken a while to think about re-introducing them. The town has built a wooden swans "residence" to keep them in town. Why two white and two (smaller) black ones is a mystery.

    The animal in the river is a ragondin. There is a family of at least four. On Saturdays people attract them, and the swans & ducks, by feeding them bread.

    An interesting blog about Sommieres :

    Local photos 1 :
    Local photos 2 :

  2. Ed, I wonder if it is Le château de Montferrand:

  3. Nope: see recently-edited blog above: this is definitely it.

  4. Curious about British tourists-what are "the sorts of things they buy: ??? Fascinating article,though !

  5. The ruin is Château de Viviourès or Roquette. Must have walked to it 15+ years ago, quite easy from the D122 and then along the ridge.

    Lots on the Internet these days e.g.

  6. Hey, Ed, we had Rose from Pic st. Loup this week. MMMMMM....


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