Sunday, May 8, 2011

Montpelier-le-Vieux and Gorges of the Dourbie

Duane and Judy live in Colorado and so are big time hikers, bikers, down-hill skiers and any other outdoor activity you can think of that involves beautiful landscapes. So it's not surprising that hiking is part of the plan for their visit. Dave also loves to hike and since I'm not a hiker, he's glad for the chance.

But finding an appropriately short, but still interesting, hike that is near enough to be done from Thézan is a bit problematic. The Cévennes mountains and the Pyrenees are just too far away for day-hiking. Two hours by car in each direction added to a day hike not feasible. The Causses (the rocky limestone plateaus that have been carved into deep gorges by the rivers that run through them) are a bit more than an hour away, but the hiking often crosses the flat tops of these plateaus which are pretty barren of interesting scenery.

Using the Green Guide, the boys find a place on the Causse Noir called le Chaos de Montpelier-le-Vieux.

What's chaotic about it is that it is a landscape of jumbled and tumbling limestone outcroppings with interesting formations. There are several hikes taking from 1 1/2 to 4 hours that explore the area and there is a "petit train vert" that I can take to get a sense of the scenery and see a couple of the more interesting formations as well as an overlook of the valley of the Dourbie River.

We get started right on time and make the trip up the A75 to just before Milau (the place where the fantastic highway viaduct is located). The day is meant to be partly sunny, but is really mostly cloudy, very hazy, and very windy. On our way to the valley floor, we stop at an overlook where you can see the viaduct as it crosses the valley of the Tarn and provides views of the Causse Noir and the Causse de Larzac.

There is a small wooden shed here that turns out to be a WC. In fact an eco-WC. I investigate before committing to using it. There is a full roll of toilet paper, a toilet and no smell despite its outhouse for handicapped access appearance. Once inside, I learn that this toilet uses no chemicals and no water. Instead, when finished, you step on a lever 5 or 6 times to move paper and waste along a conveyer where it is somehow separated and air dried with almost no impact to the environment. Duane and Judy have seen similar things in the mountains in the U.S. but I had never seen anything like it before. I think it's a terrific idea.

Back to the action: We head away from Milau along banks of the Dourbie River. The road is small, but there is no traffic. Unfortunately, there are only glimpses of gorge views as the roadside between us and the river is overgrown with trees and bushes. We notice that there seems to be less tourism along this river - no canoe and kayak places, no campgrouonds, almost no towns.

When we get to a small town called La Roque de Ste Marguerite we make a left in an alleyway (how did Olga know this is a road?) and head up the cliffs passing the town's 17th century castle.

This is another road that Grandma Dosch would not like at all. It is only one car wide, but two-way traffic (and we do meet a couple of cars along the way). It is also crooked and hard to see around the corners of the hair-pin turns. Oh, and did I mention there are no guardrails on the downhill side and nothing but rock on the uphill side? And it's about 6 km from bottom to top. Once to the top, we find ourselves on a better blacktop road - a bit wider and the landscape is mostly flat now.

We arrive, pay our entrance fee and have lunch on the benches by the parking lot. I buy my ticket for the Petit Train Vert which leaves at noon (50 minutes "aller et retour" - round trip). Duane, Judy and Dave head out for their planned 3 hour itinerary.

I am the only person on the train tour at noon, which is actually quite nice as I get to talk to the driver and he tells me that they are under drought conditions from previous years and are now heading into the dry period. All the delicate flowers I see clinging to rocks and burrowing into the rocky soil will soon be gone. But for now, there are all colors of blue, purple, yellow and white to be seen. Photographing them in the wind proves impossible and I toss all but one of those out of focus photos.

Once back together at 3, we head back down the same road we just came up on (Drat, I was hoping there was another path down) and continue in the direction of Nant at the other end of the gorge. We stop at a picturesque, if somewhat recreated, medieval perched village called Cantobre. It is truly picturesque and many of the houses have been restored. There are a couple of gites (bed and breakfast places) and no more than 20 houses altogether.

There's an old romanesque church and an old school, now abandoned to storage of building materials from the looks of it and 2 short roads in addition to paths around and through the village locations.

The irises are blooming here although they are past blooming in Thézan, suggesting cooler temps and a later spring up on these rocks.

There are no services - not even a boulangerie - so the few people who live in town must go down the hill to Nant for everything they need. How do they get their morning bread? The town would be a great place for a secluded and quiet weekend and obviously has some amount of tourism - we saw a few people walking through town and there are a few marked parking spaces along the road up to the town. It is a charming and isolated location and makes you wonder how people managed in the middle ages.

From the town you have no sense of the precarious nature of this perched village which sits on top of a couple of outcrop rocks. That is, unless you go to the edges where you can get vertigo looking straight down to the Dourbie River. We wish we could be there in the sun. Every photo would then look like a postcard.

It's 5 PM now and time to head home. We're home by 6:30 thanks to the A75 and its speed limit of 130 km/h. We have melon with prosciutto for aperos (along with olives of course). The melons here are small, maybe 4 inches across, but really sweet when ripe. I have bought veal pieces sold as blanquette de veau, a braised dish made with a white sauce. But since Duane can't have milk, I have found a veal stew recipe that looks easy and tasty. And it is. The veal is tender and the tomato sauce is tasty served with salad and asparagus followed by a cheese course set up by Dave. We drink a red Minervois wine that complements the meat. Dave says I can cook this one again. I wonder if I can find veal like this at home.

After looking at the weather and considering that this is both Sunday and a holiday (Victory in Europe day WWII), it is decided that a trip to the Cathar castles would be most likely to be open and available. The weather is still partly sunny, changing to all sun by afternoon continuing on to Monday, so we tentatively plan a beach day for Monday.

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