Work colleague Kate has made a bold decision and emigrated to the Gard department in France (part of the Languedoc-Roussillon region which is now subsumed into the Occitanie administrative region - phew). Tina and I are going to visit, it’s a first outing for Thelma and Louise, a practice run for Route 66, in my mini convertible. We are going to be staying in the gite that Kate owns and used to holiday in, before she made The Decision. She now has a remote farmhouse. We are aiming for the nearest village, St Andre de Valborgne, buried in the heart of the Cevennes Mountains, in the southern reaches of the Massif Central.
The GPS takes us along happily on the whole, though there is one heart stopping moment on the Paris Peripherique, when we misinterpret directions (I’m being polite here), take the wrong slip road and somehow end up facing three lanes of traffic all heading towards us. Fortunately, the French drivers are forgiving and it isn’t very far to another slip road to get us facing the right way. We manage to avoid getting caught by the many intimidating speed cameras erected along the AutoRoute (or maybe we don’t and they can’t be bothered to track us down) and not to run out of petrol.
Thankfully there aren’t too many hold ups (‘Attention: bouchons’ the sign on the gantry warns) and we overnight near Clermont Ferrand. Its an area famous for its goat’s cheese and our evening menu touristique involves cheese at every course. By dessert enthusiasm has been replaced by an overwhelming feeling of nausea.
Before we head off to the mountains we take a whistle stop tour of the Parque des Volcans, home of Volvic and Evian (Perrier comes from further south in Gard itself). It’s very evocative with the mist (and some hot air balloons) hovering over the distinctive peaks.
It’s a very relaxing week, resting by the river and testing the cuisine in the two restaurants in St Andre de Valborgne. Kate has a veritable menagerie, chickens, boisterous dogs (one that bites almost as much as it barks and it barks a lot), cats and llamas. The latter have been rescued and live up to their reputation for spitting. It’s also very warm and we end up struggling up hills at times, after visiting the village for shopping and a restaurant or two. (Our gite is out in the sticks too). Kate’s partner Richard zips past us on his mountain bike on more than one occasion. He’s clearly much fitter than we are.
It takes an hour to escape the mountains (if that’s the right word, as they are magnificent, if a little forbidding). First stop Montpellier, one of the largest cities in Occitanie and the administrative centre of the department of Hérault (we've strayed from Gard). It's one of the fastest growing cities in France, possibly because it's so close to the Mediterranean Sea (you get a good view as you swoop into the airport). Montpellier has one of the oldest universities in the world, but it was founded by the Spanish. Montpellier was part of the kingdom of Aragon. until it was sold to the French in 1349.
We're seeking out the imposing monuments. Montpellier is recognised for its culture and has apparently been nicknamed 'Gifted'. Most of the interesting mansions are centred on the Place de la Comédie, with the Opéra Comédie built in 1888. Most of these buildings have have medieval roots. But they have nearly all been modified over the centuries. The Jardin des Plantes de Montpellier has the oldest botanical garden in France, (founded in 1593). There are the remains of the old city walls, an eighteenth century aqueduct and the Peyrou promenade. This is the highest point of the 'Old Town' and boasts the Porte du Peyrou, a triumphal arch built at the end of the 17th century, and the Place Royal du Peyrou.
Nîmes is the capital of Gard. It developed on the important Via Domitia which connected Italy with Hispania, so it's known for its well-preserved Roman monuments, such as the Arena of Nîmes. This is a double-levelled circa-70 A.D. amphitheatre still in use for concerts and bullfights. There's also the Maison Carrée, a white limestone Roman temple, dating from the late first century B.C. It is one of the best-preserved temples to be found anywhere in the former Roman Empire; it's almost totally intact. Close by the Maison is the Carree d'Art, a gallery designed by Norman Foster. It's home to a good café too.
Finding somewhere to leave the car in Nimes is a little traumatic, until we discover the chain of subterranean car parks.
Twelve miles outside Nimes is the incredible Pont du Gard. This three tiered Roman aqueduct, designed to carry water over 50 kilometres to the Roman colony of Nemausus, crosses the River Gardon here. One thousand men laboured for five years to build the titanic structure. It's the most-visited ancient monument in France.
My favourite town in Gard is Aigues-Mortes. It's built where the Gard meets the Mediterranean coast for a short stretch. Aigues-Mortes is not quite on the sea, but it's a medieval port on the junction of two canals. It's thought the town was founded in Roman times, though there is no evidence. Charlemagne erected a warning tower here, as the town is surrounded by salt marshes. (The name means 'dead water'.) But the town really came to prominence as a harbour, in the the late thirteenth century, when the remainder of what is now the French Mediterranean coast was owned either by Aragon, Naples or Toulouse.
It’s almost compulsory to circumnavigate the well preserved walls, for views across the town and out to the flamingo filled lagoons on the edge of the Camargue.
This time I’m flying EasyJet to Montpellier and Richard meets me and conveys me to the farmhouse. I only have one night there before embarking on a new adventure that Kate has suggested - a yoga of relationships group that is meeting for a week at a retreat near St André.
We manage a catch up gossip and a visit to picturesque Anduze, the gateway to the mountains. It's a delightful town, overlooking the Gardon Valley. It developed on the back of the silk and wool trades, followed by pottery and coal mining. There are winding cobbled streets, a medieval Clock Tower and a 16th century castle. Numerous humming fountains, a covered market square, churches, an abbey, a monastery and botanic gardens. Not bad for a relatively isolated area.
St André looks much the same. Stone houses, a turret or two, a fountain, a few small shops, the boucherie, the droguerie. The hanging baskets on the bridge are slightly differently arranged. The stereotypical French village with everyone out walking their poodles. The menagerie is still in fine voice. The new cockerel is cleverly named Gregory Peck and there is another dog, a springer spaniel, George, who only threatens to bite when the mongrel does. The llamas have gone, so at least I won’t be spat at.
The retreat location, in a quiet valley could not be bettered. The meadows are carpeted with spring flowers and there is a little beach by the gushing river. Evening camp fires and gentle sing songs are atmospheric and the sunsets complete the perfect view. The retreat is family run. The host’s mother, Frances who’s in charge of the vegetarian kitchen, lives in a yurt in the field above the main farmhouse buildings.
I’ve stayed in touch with Frances. She escapes the yurt and the gloom of the winter, when the retreat is closed, to sojourn in India, Thailand and Australia. Now I’m going to spend a few days staying with her in the yurt and with Kate in her farmhouse.
Yurt living is considerably more comfortable than it was in Kyrgyzstan, but it’s still not for me long term. It's cosy - there’s an eco-stove and its charmingly decorated with Frances’ art, but the toilet is an earth closet just outside the door. You have to top it up after you go. And the bathroom is in a log cabin up the hill. I lose my way the first time I go for a wash and end up scratched and muddy enough to need two baths. There’s a commode for night time - in the kitchen behind a screen. During the day, its de rigeur to pee outdoors, it saves toilet emptying and it fertilises the flowers. It’s quicker too.
It's blue sky sunny but windy and sitting outside is an act of fortitude. Over to Kate’s where the mad menagerie has been extended. There are now three cats, all named after soap characters: Elsie, Bet and Lola. Lola is a new arrival. There is absolutely no connection between this and the midnight attack on the chicken coop. Gregory’s comb has been sadly mistreated. He is more aggressive than ever. And very confident - he fought off the attacker, despite the damage, though not all the hens were so fortunate. If I approach their cage he runs full pelt to try and head-butt me though the netting.
We stroll up the mountain looking for eagles (but they are elusive). So we visit the market in St Jean du Gard, one of the little villages up the valley. There’s the local speciality - boar sausage - in a variety of flavours. Kate buys pate for our lunch, but it doesn’t make it to the table. George spots in on the kitchen counter. There is much bad language.
It’s more sheltered in the garden here and I can sunbathe, visited by the animals in turn. Elsie creeps up and head butts me too.
Read more about France here.
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