Sunday, April 10, 2011

the Causses

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Saturday was a big touring day. Katie and Dave schemed all evening Friday and ended up with a gorgeous driving tour itinerary that covered miles of scenic places in the area called the Causses. These limestone hills and low mountains are relatively barren and unfriendly to agriculture. Covered in low shrubs, with rocks sticking out everywhere, these hills nonetheless provide gorgeous views and vistas where the various rivers that run through them have carved rather steep gorges up and down which one can drive (or bicycle if you're either crazy or training for the Tour de France) over narrow roads laced with hairpin turns and dizzying curves. Now and again one can view small towns clinging to hillsides. The limestone has been carved out by the rainfall of milennia and the countryside is dotted with spectacular caves and whole underground water systems. This whole area of the Hérault is a huge tourist area for the French as there are endless activities available - hiking, camping, swimming, rafting, kayaking, fishing, and visiting some small historic towns. On a Saturday the French are out and about enjoying the fine weather (upper 80's even in the hills) recreation opportunities. We see lots of picnickers and hikers, quite a few campers and lots of families out and about at the various stops we make. They are all French and we probably stick out like a sore thumb. We get odd looks from time to time.

Our first order of business is to do grocery shopping for the weekend. Stores aren't open on Sunday (except for the boulangerie so we can get fresh bread for breakfast). We split up. Katie and Dave go to the supermarket where, while their list is small, their wait to check out is long - 25 minutes. Everyone is shopping for the weekend on Saturday morning. Christie and I go to the boulangerie (bakery) and the boucherie (butcher shop) in town. At the butcher's Christie picks out meat for 2 meals and we consult with the butcher and another customer about what to purchase to make beef stock for an onion soup Christie wants to make. She supplies us with a beef neck bone and a veal bone and confirms that we know to toss these and not try to use the meat in the soup.

Once in the car with lunch supplies of baguette, cheese, jambon sec (like prosciutto), grapes, huge and juicy clementines, and plenty of water, we drive 40 minutes to our first town, Lodève.

Meant to be a quick stop, this town is having a large market (several streets are blocked off in the very center of town). Of greater interest to Dave is the remnant of old city wall and tower we pass on our way into town. We find a great parking place, stop in the tourist office to pick up a "plan de ville" which has a walking tour of the town's highlights. We meander the market, check out the wall parts, (built during the 100 Years War, 1337-1453) make our way to a medieval bridge that's pretty cool, and finish at "la cathédrale Saint-Fulcran", (12th-14th centuries, gothic) an abby church with cloister, where over 800 years of bishops are buried (the earliest is 350 AD). Our quick stop is over an hour and puts us behind schedule. (You're not surprised, are you?)

We now drive to our next point of interest the Cirque de Navacelles following a small road that takes us up the causses and across the plateau at the top. We eat lunch in the car to save time. Katie is expert at making sandwiches in the car and manages to avoid cutting herself with the knife as Dave negotiates curvy, narrow roads and one lane bridges. The car becomes littered with bread crumbs. Apologies to those visiting next who will have to brush crumbs before getting into the car.

The Cirque de Navacelles is a geological oddity (there are several in the region)again related to the limestone causses. It is an enormous circular hole (300 meters deep) with steep cliffs all around that was carved by a river that once curved and made a big loop almost back onto itself. The river eventually cut across the loop completing the circle and abandoning its former circular path for a shorter more direct path. Left in the center at the distant bottom is a small hill of limestone with a wide swath of green grassy area all around it. At one edge of the circle there is a town (Navacelles). I told you it was a BIG hole. We stop at the top where there is an outlook, Belvédère de la Baume Auriol, take photos, but decide not to travel down to Navacelles and back out both to save time and to be able to take another route that has us following gorges carved by the Vis river (the same one that created the Cirque de Navacelles).

Once again we follow dizzying switchbacks for miles to get back down into the valley to make our way to our next stop, the Grotte des Demoiselles. We meet cyclists whom we decide must be part of a cycling club - they're all wearing the same uniform, are of all ages, including a white bearded guy and a couple of girls. They are winding their way UP these dizzying roads pitched at steep angles. Those folks are hard core cyclists. We stop several times for panoramic views and when we see an interesting chateau perched on the hillside of a small town.

The Grotte des Demoiselles is clearly organized for tourists with plenty of parking and a cafe with views looking out over the countryside. It's entrance has been dug into the side of the hill to allow easy access by visitors by a short funicular (like a cog rail but runs on a wire with the cars acting as counterweights for bringing up 25 or 30 people at a time.) The cave has cement stairs, railings, and walkways which is helpful. It just happens to have a lot of them: 561 to be exact which coupled with walkways lead us from the very top (where you can see the hole in the ground where the sky shows which was the original entrance to the cave) and through various depths of the cave. The most impressive room is called the Cathedral (roughly 150 feet high by 300 feet long by 120 feet wide). The formations of stalagtites and stalagmites is impressive and ongoing. The tour is in French and I can give brief summaries to the girls as we go, but not much explanation is needed. The story of the discovery of the cave, why it's called the cave of the fairies (locals thought fairies lived here), history of the cave and its exploration seem unimportant sidenotes compared to what unfolds before our eyes. Of greatest interest is that the cave (which has amazing acoustics) is used for musical performances and even cooler (well the cave is 57 degrees at all times), is that Christmas Eve mass is celebrated in the cave with choirs and over 400 attendees participating from the various stairs and walkways.

After all those stairs, we stop for beverages before continuing to our last town, St Guilhem-le-Désert. By now we are 2 hours behind schedule and we think we'll miss seeing the abbay as we won't get there till after 6 PM. We drive along the Gorges de l'Hérault, but decide, when we get here, that we can't just look at it in passing, wehave to walk around a bit, even though the sites and shops are mostly closed.

This town, Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, was founded in 804 by William, the grandson of Charles Martel and "cousin" of Charlemagne. He helped fight off the Saracens in southern France and northern Spain, but at the end of his life decided to found a monastery in the Gellone valley where he lived out the remainder of his life as a recluse. The reputation of the abby and the fame of William made this a vital medieval town. It avoided sack and ruin during the French Revolution and was taken over by the French Historic Monuments in 1840. It is now also a UNESCO Heritage site and this helps it maintain its historic character. It is also a a part of the Pilgrimage Routes of Santiago de Compostela (Saint Jacques de Compostelle).

The town is amazing and we spent too little time there, but plan that we will go back to spend with other visitors. Its medieval streets and buildings still cling to the steep sides of the surrounding hill where it drops to its river flowing into the Hérault. We wandered the streets noting that this is a real tourist town for the French with lots of art galleries and boutique-y stores (most of which were closed) Dave and I stopped in a food specialty store and purchased 2 jars of tapenade (an olive paste to be spread on bread and eaten as an appetizer) along with a small jar of salsa. Christie and Katie discovered a candy store back at the top of the hill where the car is parked and bought some unusual lollipops.

We finally got home around 8:45 and I was no longer a happy camper- just tired and crabby and very hungry. Christie cooked chicken with potatoes and asperagus. Sounds boring perhaps, but it was anything but. While she cooks we try out the tapenades with great approval. I don't last long after dinner - I leave Katie, Christie and Dave scheming about the next adventure, too tired to care and too crabby to be coherent. It is afterall midnight and we've had a long day.

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