Ambre Solaire

Saturday 22nd September 2007, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
It hardly seems possible that it is nearly two years since we first arrived in this little village in the south of France, caught between the flat plains of vines stretching to the Mediterranean sea and the inhospitable, arid landscape of the Haut Languedoc with its deep, stunningly beautiful ravines of the Herault and the Orb and the sparse, coarse, heathers, shrubs and herbs of the garrigue.

Our journey here from the Jura took three days, travelling across France on minor roads. Beyond Lons-le-Saunier the roads were new to us and we stopped briefly to investigate the little town of Louhans with its old, arcaded streets designed to keep off the snows of winter and the extremes of heat during the summer. Its brick gothic church was of particular merit. Beyond Maçon we crossed the Rhône to the west bank in the hope of avoiding the worst of the traffic around Lyon. Unfortunately we reached the suburbs during the rush hour and wasted a frustrating hour weaving our way through the city outskirts where every traffic light seemed set at red. Once we eventually left Lyon behind we found the west bank of the Rhône to be more peaceful than the east side we had followed on our previous trip, passing Vienne and Valence. Instead, this time we passed through the peaceful vineyards of the Beaujolie region, very pleasant but lacking the beauty of the Moselle and the classic architecture of the Loire – though there were the remains of several impressive castles strategically positioned on hilltops overlooking the river.

Main street, Louhans
Gothic church, Louhans

Our aim on this trip south was to discover the Gorges de l'Ardèche, just as we had explored the Gorges du Tarn on our previous journey down to the Languedoc. We spent the night at an excellent but deserted campsite at Isérand where, after sleeping really well, we continued south of Montélimar, famed for its nougat and eventually turned away from the Rhône to follow the tortuous route up the Gorges de l'Ardèche.

Whereas the Gorges du Tarn is seen from the bottom of the ravine, looking up at the huge, towering cliffs as you travel down beside the water, the Ardèche is seen from a corniche road, high above and travellers look down, over the edge of the precipice to the twisting river far below. As a driver, it is easier to enjoy the splendour of the Tarn from the driving seat than it is the Ardèche. Normally the cliff edges are covered in low bushes and stunted oaks, the ravine being unseen except at certain places along the route where view points have been established. This means we were stopping to park every few hundred metres, locking the car and walking through woodland to the cliff edge. The view invariably justified the effort but on a hot day with lots of other visitors it was less enjoyable than we had hoped. Down in the surprisingly small, twisting green meanders of the river canoeists were paddling down the gorge, making their way through the shallow rapids. It looked an idyllic way to travel, sometimes in bright sunshine, and sometimes plunged into chilly gloom as the river rounded a bend to pass beneath towering bare grey rock.

Gorges de l'Ardèche

Meander on the Gorges de l'Ardèche

Gorges de l'Ardèche

We found somewhere fairly isolated to pull off the road for a picnic lunch with a view across the landscape to a strange rock formation similar to that we discovered near Lake Iseo in Italy back in April. Water had eroded the rock leaving tall columns capped with wide, flat, "hats" of rock. Just as we finished our picnic, a couple of mountain goats with huge horns appeared, clamouring for the remains of our lunch. So we threw them some bread and packed everything rapidly into Modestine while they literally fought over it! They were most aggressive.

Limestone stacks, Gorges de l'Ardèche

Fighting goats, Gorges de l'Ardèche

The day was wearing on but it was still 28 degrees at 6pm as we neared the end of the ravine at the famed beauty spot, the Pont de l'Arc. This is a massive, natural arch formed by the action of the river breaking through the limestone rock. To either side, natural beaches had formed as the river's meanders changed over time, and the river widened out into a small, shallow lake, perfect for canoeing and swimming. It would have been wonderful to spend the night here and join in the fun, but Ian, who is nowhere near as keen on water sports as Jill, insisted we needed to press on.

Pont de l'Arc, Gorges de l'Ardèche

Pas de lieux Rhône qu'à nous, (say it and think about it!), Gorges de l'Ardèche

So we continued to Alès. By now our route had almost met up with the journey we made through the Cevennes in 2005 following in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stephenson and his donkey Modestine – a journey they made in 1878. It was to Alès that he travelled by stage coach after having sold Modestine in St. Jean-du-Gard. We of course are still only too eager to enjoy our Modestine and she seems to know it. Alès today is a large, busy town which we skirted on the ring road, passing through its ugly commercial hinterland. We were glad to leave it behind and make our way up into the beautiful hills of the Cevennes, passing almost within sight of St. Jean-du-Gard where we terminated our previous travels along the Modestine route. By the time we reached St. Hippolyte-du-Fort it was time to find somewhere for the night. The grubby little town, in its beautiful setting, did not impress us much but just outside we found a clean, pleasant but extremely basic camp site.

As we have travelled south we have been aware that it is not just the landscape that had been changing, but also the style of buildings. In the Midi there are large, old, crumbling farmsteads and peasant homes amongst the vines - known as a mas - with low walls and almost flat roofs covered in huge, pale pink and orange terracotta pantiles. Windows are usually hidden behind heavy closed shutters covered in peeling lavender paintwork to keep the interior in permanent darkness against the searing heat of the summer sun. These building are timeless. They must have always looked old with their shabby, crumbling plaster and rough, exposed stonework. In much of Europe such properties would surely be declared uninhabitable. Outwardly at least, the lives of many living in rural areas of southern France, have changed very little over the generations, where whole families carry on the same traditions of wine production and agriculture as their parents.

Yesterday morning we drove down from the Cevennes, across a flat landscape of vines with the dark green and grey hillsides of the Languedoc to either side, into the crumbling but picturesque little town of Ganges. Ironically for a town so named, the huge river that must once have flowed beneath the bridge at the entrance to the town was completely dry. It was nothing but a wide, boulder-strewn bed filled with straggling weeds and bushes. While we in northern Europe have had one of the wettest summers on record, down in the Midi there has been no rain for months!

Ganges, the river running dry

We walked into the town and discovered it was market day. Markets in the Midi are the best in France and France has the best markets in Europe. So we gave ourselves up to the pleasure of wandering the streets of the town lined with hundreds of exciting stalls selling everything you could possible ever need and far more besides. There were the clothes and shoes stalls, selling the latest fashions at a fraction of what would be charged in city stores. There were book stalls, record and DVD stalls and stalls selling bedding, towels, even beds. There were live chickens, rabbits and quails on sale and a huge tank of live trout from which customers made their choice. Once caught the fish were rapped over the head with a stick and impaled immediately, still twitching, onto an evil looking gutting machine.

Market day in Ganges

Other stalls were less disturbing, selling herbs and spices, and soaps from Marseilles in a huge range of colours and perfumes. There were cakes, breads and pastries, even stalls specialising in various types of onions. There were dozens of different kinds of olives for sale as well as china and fabrics printed in the bright sunny colours of Provence.

Olives and dates, market day in Ganges

Herbs and spices, market day in Ganges

In such wonderful weather, surrounded by so many fascinating sights, it was sheer delight to sit on a terrace with a coffee and watch the entire town out doing the weekly shopping. The market really is the heart of every rural French community and the characters are as colourful as the produce for sale. There is nothing in England that can remotely compare.

Nothing is perfect however and as people stopped to kiss each other on each cheek and block the way through the crowd as they exchanged gossip, their pet dogs, bored with waiting, would leave hefty deposits on the market thoroughfare which their owners would studiously ignore. It was never more than a few seconds before the mess was trampled around amongst the stalls!

Leaving Ganges we made our way down the Gorges de l'Hérault. Somehow we never got round to doing this when we were here before. It is truly splendid, the Mediterranean vegetation of coarse leaved bushes, kermis oaks, arbousiers, heathers and herbs crowding the hillsides to either side of the gorge where the green waters of the Hérault tumbled down to exit eventually onto the vine-covered plains. It finally reaches the sea at Marseillan.

Mediaeval bridge and church, St. Etienne-d'Issenac on the river Herault

Marseillan was our destination too. It lies on the salt water Bassin de Thau, sheltered from the sea by a spit of land stretching as far as Sète, to the west of Montpellier. We have described this area in detail during our earlier stay here so will not describe it now.

We were on a mission to visit the Noilly Prat factory in Marseillan in search of some special wine. The house we are currently using is owned by English friends in a little village for which we invented the name Ambre-les-Espagnolettes. See our earlier blog for an explanation why. The name stuck and we now call the village Ambre rather than its proper name. We recently discovered that Noilly Prat produce a limited edition aperitif called "Ambre" that is sold uniquely at the factory in Marseillan. It seemed the perfect gift as a surprise for our wine-connoisseur hosts when they arrive here next Tuesday!

Port at Marseillan

While we were there we decided to visit the factory which has been in production since the early 19th century. We gazed in astonishment at the huge barrels, some holding as much as 40,200 litres of wine! We still find it hard to believe they are cleaned inside by a man climbing through a really tiny door at one end. Being overcome by the fumes must be a real possibility! We were given a fascinating guided tour where we learned that two different wines are stored separately and matured outside in oak casks for over a year, subject to all the rigours of the Mediterranean climate and seasons - sun, sea air, wind and rain. Eventually the wines are blended together and secret herbs and spices are added to create the three different Noilly Prat specialities. The one we were interested in, Ambre, is infused with vanilla, the peel of Seville oranges and cinnamon. It is months later before the wine is eventually ready for bottling and finally for sale. We could well appreciate why such an aperitif does not come cheap.

Wine maturing in the open, Noilly Prat factory, Marseillan

Cask of 21,700 litres showing tiny door used for cleaning. Noilly Prat factory, Marseillan

Finally we stowed our ambre liquid in Modestine and headed for our village, excitement rising as we drove. We skirted Béziers to the south – a town we hate to drive through as we invariably get lost and end up in the industrial outskirts – and soon found ourselves following familiar routes. As we reached the village it seemed as if time had stood still and we were just returning from one of our days out. The intervening two years seemed to disappear and we still find it strange to recall all the travels and adventures we have undertaken since we were last here. Our key unlocked the door and we were back in the dark, shuttered house where our fingers automatically found the meters and light switches. Everything looked just as we had left it that icy January day in 2006 when we departed to make our way around the Iberian Peninsula. There are pictures and a description of the house on our earlier blog

We spent a nostalgic evening lingering over supper in the familiar old kitchen where we had spent so many chilly winter evenings in the past. Soon though, tiredness overcame us after the long drive and we climbed the steeply winding stone stairs to our bedroom at the very top of the house. The night was so warm we slept with the shutters and windows wide open onto the narrow street below.

This morning, Saturday, we drove into St. Chinian for a nostalgic stroll around the town and to visit Ecomarché to replenish our mobile larder. With the rising hills of the Haut Languedoc national park on the skyline the view from the supermarket entrance must surely be second to none!

View from Ecomarché, St. Chinian

Next we called at the library to use the internet in the IT suite. Once again we had the feeling that it was only a week or two since we were last there. The library staff, Luc and Careen, who had been so friendly and helpful to us, were sitting at their desks exactly as we had last seen them. They were happy to see us back and we all swapped news before finally using the computers.

After returning to Ambre for lunch on the roof terrace we donned our hiking boots for a walk through the woods and vineyards surrounding the village. The chocolate brown mongrel dog that patrols the village street and keeps everything in order immediately came to investigate. He obviously recognised us and remembered that last time he permitted us to go off on our own we got lost for best part of two years. This time he was taking no chances. Abandoning his usual afternoon activities of barking at passing cars and investigating the communal refuse bins, he trotted beside us as we set out along one of the stony tracks leading out from the village into the endless expanse of vines. Several times our companion hesitated, a look of longing in his eyes as he sighted a couple of the other village dogs locked in combat and a funeral procession on its way to the village cemetery, but he knew where his duty lay.

Our walk turned out to be about 10 kilometres. Soon our companion was disappearing amongst the vines, chasing out wild hares, investigating interesting ditches and raising his leg against the thick clusters of dark, ripe grapes soon to become one of the famed A.O.C. St. Chinian quality wines. Never though, did he consider abandoning his duty and whenever we came to a fork in the path, he was there waiting, to make sure we took the correct one! If we walked 10 kilometres, he undoubtedly managed twice that. Once in the woodland our pace slowed as we climbed the steep, rough tracks. He became impatient and left us for longer stretches, but sooner or later we'd encounter him trotting back to find us, or lying on the dusty path scratching and exploring himself in the way mongrel dogs do. We don't much like dogs as a rule and French ones are the very worst, but somehow we reluctantly warmed to this unsavoury animal. Once back within sight of the village, confident that we couldn't get lost, he abandoned us and rocketed off at top speed to snarl and bark contemptuously through the gate where a semi-spaniel was kept ignominiously locked in the garden, unable to retaliate.

The boss of Ambre-les-Espagnolettes

On our way down the village street we met Mme. J. She and her family are one of the independent wine producers of the village and are mentioned in the Michelin good wine guide. We became friendly on our last visit when she obligingly filled our five litre cubi for us at regular intervals at a fraction the price charged for bottles. We've been dreaming of her wine ever since we left. So we went round to her cellar and after lots of chat about the excellent quality of this year's grapes and the drastic need for rain to revitalise the vines now their vendange is complete, we finally left with five litres of liquid sunshine which we paid for, and a bottle of their latest award-winning rosé as a gift! She also gave us an invitation to visit the family's new cellar and store room, now almost complete. She says the olive trees near the entrance are over two hundred years old and had to be dug up and moved to their new location once the building work was completed.

The new cellar with the old olive trees, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes

Sunday 23rd September 2007, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
We were up and away early this morning. The market at St. Chinian is the highlight of the week for everyone in the surrounding area, the place to see and be seen. We wandered the stalls, needing nothing but wanting everything. Suddenly the rain Mme. J. had been waiting for arrived without warning and everyone ran for cover leaving the poor stall holders to cover their table linen, bedding, bread, soap and olives with plastic sheeting. We paused long enough to buy a couple of croissants before crossing to the Café Balcon to join the usual Sunday crowds around the little tables with their drinks as the portly waiter squeezed between them. Meanwhile the bar staff behind the counter scattered cigarette ash into the coffee cups in direct contravention of the EU law prohibiting smoking in public places! Such legislation is not for the French!

While the rain fell we enjoyed our croissants with a couple of coffees and watched the mix of nationalities at the surrounding tables. There is a very large resident Dutch community in the south of France and almost as many English here too. Eventually the rain stopped and across the street on the edge of the market, a crowd began to gather. When we went to investigate we found people were being entertained by a group from Holland called "The Salty Dogs" specialising in singing sea shanties! Standing around listening to Dutchmen singing an English song about a Liverpool docker, while in the heart of southern France seems a sufficiently bizarre way of spending a Sunday to us and we happily joined the crowd. The 20 strong group was really rather good. They were all past retirement age and had come to sing on the invitation of the Nederlandse Vereniging Languedoc Roussillon. Their repertoire included rousing sea shanties in French and German as well as English and Dutch. They spoke all four languages fluently. The Dutch really are amazing linguists.

Singing Dutchmen,, St. Chinian

Their audience was predominately Dutch and they loved every minute, singing along loudly, swaying to the tunes and even dancing around the market place. Maybe they felt a little nostalgic for the country they had left behind. Meanwhile the French stall holders and their customers looked on, somewhat bemused by it all but smiling when the Dutchmen sang a well known shanty about a fisherman from Marseilles.

Dancing to the music, St. Chinian

Eventually the singers adjourned to the Café Balcon for a well needed beer and we wandered off to buy a tub of paella full of mussels, prawns, squid, chicken, rice and vegetables which we took back to Ambre for lunch.

This afternoon we checked furtively and discovered our canine companion fast asleep in the middle of the road round the corner. Being solely responsible for safeguarding an entire village is a huge responsibility and even he needs to rest sometimes. This way he ensures no vehicle slips down the street unnoticed! So we crept off through a back alley and escaped the village without our guide. This time we walked to Cessenon. All the routes are through the vineyards because there is nothing here but vines and stunning but arid scenery. The sun was far hotter than yesterday and we were soon wilting with the lack of shade. However, a mirage of cold beer kept us going and eventually we staggered into the town and collapsed in hot, sticky heaps on the terrace of the bar Le Helder which, judging by the name, is probably run by yet another Dutchman. The beer was icy cold and the huge plane tree protected us from the heat of the afternoon. We put off as long as possible the moment to start our return walk but it was still unbearably hot and bright as we returned across acres of vines without a spot of shade, directly into the setting sun. At least we could help ourselves to dark, ripe, sweet grapes as we walked. Eventually, as we neared our village, we could stop for moments of shade beneath occasional fruit trees. In the Jura we found nuts, apples, pears and plums. Here we found figs, pomegranates, almonds and olives.

Confluence of the Vernezobre with the Orb

Parched landscape near Cessenon

Pomegranates, Languedoc

We had walked about thirteen kilometres by the time we reached home where we found the mongrel dog patrolling our back street with a reproachful expression. Our first priority was cold water, to drink and to bathe aching feet. Maybe we are just getting soft but we prefer to think it's just too hot still for serious walking.

This evening we sat with a glass of wine on the roof terrace, illuminated by a couple of candles in jam jars, and watched the moonlight through the overhanging vines.

Roof terrace, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes

Roof terrace, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes

Roof terrace, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes

Monday 24th September 2007, Ambre-les-Espagnolettes, Languedoc
Please look back at the key to our earlier blog for details of places mentioned below.

In every way today, Monday, has been a Grand Day Out. The sun was already hot as we sat on the terrace with our breakfast. It promised to be unbearable for either walking or cycling. We want to do and see so much in the brief time we are here, so first we drove to Capestang where we strolled the familiar streets and stopped for our morning coffee on the main square. On previous visits we were muffled against the icy cold so we greatly appreciated seeing the summer face of the town. Next we walked up to the nearby Canal du Midi with its avenue of shady plane trees stretching across the parched landscape. Here there was a marina for the canal boats and barges making their way up and down between Beziers and Carcasonne. We indulged in a little Schadenfreude as we gleefully watched the pig's ear three Germans were making of mooring their boat. We waited with baited breath as they reversed into neighbouring berths and lost the mooring ropes overboard. Ian stood eagerly poised with his camera, waiting for one of them to fall in! Sadly he was disappointed.

Street terrace at Capestang

Three men and a boat, Canal du Midi at Capestang

Canal du Midi, Capestang

Next we drove through the familiar landscape to Minerve, one of the strongholds of the Cathars which finally fell in 1280. This little village, in its spectacular setting on the edge of the ravine of the river Cesse is today recognised more for it wonderful Minervois wine than for its tragic religious history. We re-explored the shady, narrow streets of the town with the high tower of the castle the only obvious evidence of its past grandeur. Soon though it became too hot on the bare exposed clifftop and we made our way down into the gorge below. Last time we were here there was water swirling through. Today there was nothing but a stony, dried-up river bed.

Bridge across the Gorges de la Cesse to Minerve

Street in Minerve

A gorge named Brian

Beneath the village, perched on its sheer cliff edge, is a natural tunnel some 150 metres long where the river usually flows. It was the only place to find shade today and we were able to walk right through, scrambling over the rounded stones of the river bed! Nearby the dried-up gorge of the river Brian joins up with that of the Cesse. The bottom of the gorge is an awesome, intimidating place to be, with the baking sun on the dry limestone rock face towering above, surrounded by nothing but boulders and tree trunks swept down by winter floods, butterflies, lizards and amazing grasshoppers with bright blue and scarlet "wings" that open when they jump, enabling them to glide huge distances. The climb back up to the village and across the suspension bridge linking it to the far side of the gorge where we had left Modestine was gruelling in the afternoon heat.

Gorges de la Cesse with houses of Minerve on the very edge

Entrance to the dry river tunnel beneath Minerve

River bed of the Cesse from the far end of the tunnel

Our route home continued via St. Pons-de-Thomières, famed for the red veined marble quarried nearby. It has been regularly used in churches around the area for centuries. There is so much marble that the trimmings have been used to pave the streets which look most attractive. Which is just as well really as there is little else about the town that is exceptional. Once off the main street it would be easy to imagine you were back in mediaeval times with crumbling masonry, broken tiles, rotting old doorways and window frames that frequently lack glass. How can the people of southern France accept to live in such dark, dirty, dank conditions in the western world during the 21st century? Meanwhile others live sophisticated lives in the major cities of the north. France really is a nation of contrasts.

Back street in St. Pons-de-Thomières

We returned home via the picturesque old town of Olargues along the valley of the Orb, passing the entrance to the spectacular Gorge d'Héric before turning up into the mountains with spectacular views towards the stark, grey, huge Caroux mountain in the chain of the Espinousse, shining in the setting sun. Once over the col, we descended through steep-sided vineyards to Berlou to eventually regain the plain of the Bas-Languedoc near St. Chinian.

Sunset over the Caroux near Ambre-les-Espagnolettes

After supper we sat by candlelight on our terrace watching the full moon and the stars shining in the clear night sky.

It may be a while before we continue this blog. Our hosts, Ivor and Lesley, fly in to Toulouse from Bristol tomorrow and will be here with us by supper time.