Much to see on our travels into the depths of France

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The temperature in France has dropped a little after the searing heat which lasted ten days or so. We found that our plans for a four day trip to explore the country further south took us (as one would expect) to even higher temperatures which were often around forty degrees centigrade.

On the way down south, at the motorway service stations, contractors were erecting additional structures for shelter from the searing heat; given that we were bang in the middle of the French as well as visitor summer holidays, with thousands of people going south, these extra shelters were needed, especially as a large number of people picnic on their travels rather than use the motorway cafes or restaurants.

Cereal crops were harvested as we progressed south, with tobacco and sorghum to be seen as well as maize and sunflowers of course.

Carcassonne had changed a great deal since I last visited 18 years ago; busy as ever, even more commercialised and hotter than I remembered! It really was like an oven, the walled city radiating heat, with little shelter from the intense heat. This strategically placed fortress city, between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic; on the corridor between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe, never fell, and was restored to its present magnificence in the 19th century.

It had fallen into disrepair once its importance declined following the ‘Treaty of the Pyrenees’ (1659), which relocated the French Spanish border.

The drive south from Carcassonne to Perpignan through the Pyrenees and into the Corbieres region was breathtaking. Spectacular cliff and rocks, with the road carved through the unyielding scenery, short tunnels dug through rock, as it winds its way, following the river.

Catalan Perpignan with its palm trees has a distinct southern feel; the Mediterranean at ‘Canet Plage’ was warm, crowded, and uncomfortable for anyone not in the water due to the high humidity, literally wet and sticky air; more popular with the younger members of our party than the adults.

Driving east along the coast the next day after an overnight stop at Perpignan, reminded me of the Spanish coast, with the same colours, smells and similar landscape.

Climate is similar of course, as is the rugged terrain; but it has its own subtle and delicate aura and fragrance, which is not immediately apparent.

In the Camargue we saw the famous horses and of course the Flamingos, mostly white, with a hint of pink.

The local fruit sold at the roadside was delicious, tangy flavours which had captured the heat and intensity of the sun. The little port town of Sete is lovely, but too busy for a stop.

Arles is an interesting and charming town, with its Roman Amphitheatre (seating 21,000 people!); they still have bull-fighting in this southern part of France, with videos showing continuously in the cafes.

Van Gogh’s restaurant is still painted in its resplendent yellow, and the funniest comment on the trip was following the remark that Van Gogh painted this restaurant. ‘Oh really? What colour’! The artist spent time in a small hospital at Arles, which is now a cultural centre devoted to his life and work.

Aix en Provence provided us with a very comfortable night in a Chateau on the outskirts of town. A swimming pool certainly has its attractions in this climate!

As there were several birthdays, wedding anniversaries, exam results and anything else we could think of as an excuse to celebrate, we justified this one night where we pushed the boat out. My idea of tackling the Menu Gourmand was a step too far, and although we had not eaten anything since breakfast other than Camargue apricots and nectarines – our initial hunger was to be our undoing.

They bake their own bread rolls at the chateau, a delicious variety of different flavours and topping. Initially, the bread kept coming, followed by various dishes. We relaxed with a glass or two of the region’s wines and soaked up the atmosphere of dining in the garden of this wonderful old building dating back to the sixteenth century.

The French are constantly but pleasantly surprised when our group insist on very rare if not ‘bleu’ beef; steak tartar ordered by the youngest member of the group raised eyebrows, rare or pink duck breast.

This often necessitates an assurance that we do know what we want and understand what it means. Farmers value good quality meat, and we teach our youngsters how it should be best enjoyed; it certainly made the chef happy.

The next stop in Mende proved to be the highlight of the trip, a wonderful hotel (Hotel de France – a staging post dating back to 1856), far more than we expected, with excellent food, providing an overnight stop which followed a very scenic drive up through the Corniche des Cevennes National Park, in the Massif Central, most of it at quite high altitude with great views and interesting little villages tucked in under the peaks, sheltered from the worst of the weather, and historically easier to defend.

In the Auvergne there is so much to see, apart from Mende town itself with its impressive church. We were within a short drive of the Tarn Gorge; a well known deep gorge with villages and small towns at the various crossing points across the river.

At Le Malene, I insisted on tackling a ‘route difficile’ which forbade vehicles other than cars, but I guessed our minibus would be fine.

With Lorayne (and others) nervous and likely to be very critical if I got into trouble, it was essential that this went smoothly!

Despite their nervousness, especially as some of the hairpins needed a shunt to get round, the view as we climbed from river bed to a thousand metres in a mile and a half was incredible.

With no barriers alongside the narrow road and the odd car coming the other way; passing was a matter of luck. Was there enough space, and more importantly, depending on the trajectory; were we on the inside of the road next to the rock, or on the outside on the cliff edge.

The Griffon vulture is making a comeback in this area and we saw a few, wheeling in the sky; with wingspans up to eight feet they are quite a sight. Mainly a bit of sheep farming on these hills, with the odd field of wheat where some decent soil was to be found, otherwise trees everywhere.

Dropping down (not joking!) to the valleys below, revealed rich soils with rivers providing irrigation, and wonderful crops of maize, sunflowers the size of dinner plates hanging down, almost ready to harvest.

After many miles on the way back, before Aurillac, we suddenly arrived at Estaing; the most beautiful little town, once the fiefdom of one of the greatest families of the Rouergue, dating back to the 13th century.

Their impressive Chateau, towers above the village, which nestles beneath on the river bank, a beautiful Gothic bridge provides a crossing, used by huge trucks and general traffic.

Having spent many weeks roofing our various barns, and a bit of general building work, I am always interested in the various roof structures, styles and shapes; these vary greatly across the length and breadth of France, and the areas we visited; Pyrenees, Languedoc, Provence, and the Massif Central, each had their own roofs and housing style.

Slate was more prominent in the mountains, with steeper roofs to cope with weather, reverting to the canal tiles in valleys and more sheltered areas.

Being the only European country facing the Mediterranean and the North Sea, France has been subject to a particularly rich variety of architectural and cultural influences.

From the 100 years war with England in our area of Perigord, the Black Death, various threats and attacks from other quarters; France recovered to become the envy of Europe by the 18th century, with its rich culture.

From the Revolution of 1789, the remarkable military leadership and consolidation by Napoleon (Civil code, school system, Bank of France); threat and actual invasion by Germany, the trauma of the First World War, and occupation again by Germany during the second world war, has shaped this nation into what it is today, with its impressive infrastructure and its own way of doing things. Germany still the great rival has been forged into a partnership and it is not difficult to see why the European Union is so important to France, whilst it nevertheless strives for advantage. They understand the rules and certainly play the game in Europe very well, but are of course now embroiled in the euro crisis; keen to find a way of resolving the issue that threatens their stability pact.

Gwyn Jones - Farm Diary