Friday 28th September 2007, Albi, Tarn
Tonight we find ourselves back in Albi again. Our last visit was on our way back from visiting friends in Salies-de-Béarn late in 2005. Then there were Christmas trees in the streets and ice beneath our feet. Today it has been much warmer.

Warmer too than yesterday when we found ourselves in the Haut-Languedoc, several thousand metres up with the chilly north wind, known as the Tramontane blowing powerfully across the hill tops.

The last few days have been very sociable which has left absolutely no time for continuing this blog. Last Tuesday we visited the Mediterranean garden perched on the rocks above the steep, winding streets of the popular village of Roquebrun. The views from there over the valley of the Orb, the Caroux and along towards the Gorges de l'Héric are magnificent. During the afternoon we pottered around the house tidying away our scattered belongings and preparing supper ready for the arrival of Lesley and Ivor, the owners of the house in Ambre. They arrived around 6pm and once they had settled in and recovered from the journey we enjoyed a very leisurely supper on the terrace by candle-light.

Roquebrun on the Orb seen from the Mediterranean garden

Roquebrun from the road to Cessanons - Mediterranean garden surrounds the tower above the village

With Ivor and Lesley and a bottle of Ambre!

Next day we left them to settle in peacefully, unpacking, taking a walk by the river in search of wild herbs and changing the tyres on their bikes ready for an extended cycle ride around the countryside and across the plain to Narbonne. Being far less hardy than them, we spent the morning in the library at St. Chinian before picnicking by the old windmill on the hill above the town and driving through the countryside to Narbonne! In a couple of lazy hours of driving we covered much of the same ground they were about to spend two or three days doing! They will of course be far more fit at the end of it. How they manage the hills, even with proper bikes and decent gears we cannot imagine! Hinge and Bracket would be quite incapable of such a journey.

Narbonne is a pleasant town dating back to Roman times with an excellent mediathèque. It is the ville natale of the writer André Malraux. In the past it has seemed rather dirty and unsavoury, particularly beside the attractive canal where the pleasure boats are moored, which doubles as a dogs' recreation area. It did seem cleaner this time. Returning home Modestine caught her bottom on one of the many road humps or potholes in the town of Capestang, since when we have had a permanent rattle from somewhere in her bodywork which we have been quite unable to trace
Roman mosaic (1st century BC) discovered beneath the floor of the new mediathèque, Narbonne

Modern mosaic (2000 years later) depicting André Malraux on the pavement outside the mediathèque, Narbonne

Another delightful evening was spent with our hosts, this time in the kitchen as the Tramontane had arrived, tossing the leaves and tendrils of the vine covering the terrace and attempting to whip the cloth from the table there. With Lesley's leek soup, seasoned with the wild herbs of the garrigue, a couple of bottles of wine and a DVD Ivor had brought from England, the evening passed all too quickly.

By yesterday morning the wind was whistling around the village, which is actually more sheltered than out on the plain towards Narbonne. Ivor and Lesley decided to wait a day before setting off. Certainly cycling in such a wind would be very difficult and unpleasant. So they spent the day sorting out their new computer hoping the weather would be better today. For us though, it was time to move on. We had arranged to visit Christine and Mostyn in Bédarieux, on the far side of the Caroux mountain. They showed us great friendship when we met them during our previous stay in the Languedoc, inviting us to spend Christmas with them and even allowing us to clear our backlog of laundry in their washing machine! You can read more at Baubles at Boubals

First we popped round to say farewell to Mme. J. and to buy several litres of her wonderful red wine. She gave us farewell kisses and yet another of her quality St. Chinian wines, confident that we would return again one day, and determined we would choose to buy from her over the other producers in the village! When we told her she'd never be rich if she kept giving the stock away she told us her purse may not be, but her heart would definitely be richer.

We bid farewell to Ivor and Lesley who have been so very generous with their hospitality and friendship, allowing us to use their home for several weeks during the winter of 2005 and lending us a set of keys in case we need an emergency base at any time while we are travelling. But for them we may never have discovered this corner of southern France or forged several very rewarding friendships.

We spent the day on a very leisurely journey along the valley of the Orb, beneath the towering bare mountain of the Caroux before joining the road to Bédarieux. Ian wanted to see the Bois des Ecrivans Combattants so we turned up into the forest of sweet chestnut trees covering the lower slopes of the hillside. We drove along a steep winding, narrow road through the wood but saw nothing resembling a memorial and the bright green spiky chestnut cases were not yet ready to release their nuts. We were freezing by the time we drove down into the strange little spa town of Lamelou and headed for the café attached to the state-run betting office, the PMU. The coffee was good and we had the added interest of watching the punters placing their bets and cheering the overhead TV as they watched the racing. In France a particular form of racing is Le Trotting. The jockey does not actually ride the horse but sits on a very lightweight carriage behind the racehorse and guides it around the course at a very brisk trot.

PMU café, watching the race, Lamelou

Lamelou is nothing like any of the other broken, dilapidated towns in the Haut Languedoc. It is reasonably smart with a casino, cinema, theatre, several late 19th century hotels and a spa complex. The town specialises in the treatment and rehabilitation of those confined to wheelchairs. Every shop has a ramp at the door and there are always several wheelchairs to be seen in the main street.

Last time we were in Lamelou the fountain had frozen over. It was not that cold yesterday but the fierce north wind made it feel much colder than the official seven degrees. We moved on to the next town, Hérepian, where Ivor had told us we should visit the bell foundry. We arrived to find it closed, the season for visits having officially ended at the start of September. By this time it was late afternoon and we were expected at Boubals.

It was a happy reunion with Christine and Mostyn, who, like Jill, once worked for the University of Exeter. As may well be imagined, none of us regret that we do so no longer! As the wind howled around the mountains outside we sat around their first log fire of the season with mugs of tea catching up on news and learning more about the progress they have made in mastering French and integrating into the local community. They seem to have done amazingly well in the four years since they left England and have even been asked by some of their French neighbours to start English conversation classes for them!

Before it became too dark to see clearly Mostyn took us for a walk around their "domain" which stretches right across a field with a vegetable garden at the side of the house, to an orchard of apple, pear, plum and fig trees beyond. He even has 40 metres of vines but the grapes, although sweet, do not make good wine and are suitable only for eating. Then there is an area of woodland where he is removing damaged trees and sawing them up for the log fire. Finally we came to the banks of the river Orb. After weeks without rain it is just a rippling surface of water too shallow for fish. Soon though, it will become a raging torrent, tearing trees from the banks and carrying them downstream! Both Christine and Mostyn are still enjoying their new lives and remain convinced the move from England was the best thing they have ever done. But they have both been determined to make it work and have put a huge amount of effort into becoming active members of their commune.

It was midnight before we eventually went to bed. This morning Mostyn was up before us and out gathering fresh figs for breakfast!

We moved on around 11a.m. They told us of an exhibition up at St. Gervais, high in the mountains of the Espinouse. Unfortunately, as so often happens in France, when we arrived the exhibition room was closed until 2pm. There was no way we could wait several hours so we continued along our route through the impressive, grey, green mountains of the Espinouse towards Lacaune. The wind had dropped and temperatures risen since yesterday, but at 800 metres the air was still very fresh at the col de la Croix-de-Mounis. Here the scenery changed abruptly. Looking back across the Languedoc we saw a bare, scrubby, Mediterranean landscape while looking forward, as the road started the descent on the far side of the col, there were hedgerows, trees, ploughed fields and meadows with cattle!

Farewell to the landscape of the Languedoc, Les Espinouses seen from the col de la Croix-de-Mounis

We reached Albi around mid-afternoon and having settled Modestine onto the campsite we walked into the centre of the city where we re-explored the old quarter and marvelled at the huge, brick-built cathedral. Outside it is bare, austere and intimidating. Within it is ornate gothic, a complete contrast in style and decoration to the exterior. As on our previous visit, we found Albi a very interesting town, clean and smart and with such sympathetic and continuous use of brick as a building material, it is sometimes difficult to notice where the ancient buildings end and the modern ones begin! There are rich merchant houses built with the wealth of the cloth-dying industry. The area was once known as "le pays de cocagne" which roughly translates as "the land of milk and honey". This was founded entirely on the production of woad, used to create a purple dye in the 13th century.

Red brick cathedral at Albi, built at the end of the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars, around 1280

Elaborate gothic interior of the cathedral, Albi

Birthplace of the artist Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi

Sunday 30th September 2007, Cahors, Lot
Is it only yesterday that we left Albi? Since then we have visited several bastide towns built on inaccessible promontories along the winding valleys of the rivers Aveyron and Lot. In this region there are so many little mediaeval villages that have been designated as amongst France's most beautiful villages, that it is almost the exception to find one that is not! Approaching them from along the river they stand, high on their hillside, protected by a curve of the river, a castle at the summit and strong, defensive walls guarding the narrow streets within. They are wonderfully picturesque, almost as if they have been planned as an exquisite architectural entity rather than having evolved over the 13th to 15th centuries.

Monestiés on the Cérou, while not a hilltop town, is medieval, with an old stone bridge and streets too narrow for cars. In the centre of the town we discovered a children's concours de pétanque.

Village street, Monestiés

Outside the church, Monestiés

Children learning to play pétanque, Monestiés

Gateway into the village, Monestiés

View from the river, Monestiés

We continued, bypassing Cordes, a delightful bastide that we visited in 2005, to Najac on the river Aveyron. This was indeed a typical mediaeval hilltop town and made a stunning impression as we approached it, perched high above the winding river with its castle, church and steep streets of stone houses with their rounded roof tiles of natural stone that so resemble fish scales.

Approaching Najac

From the path leading up to the castle, Najac

We ended up spending so long wandering the steep streets, peering over ruined walls into hidden gardens or looking down from the castle, deep into the gorge as the river wound around the town, that we decided to find a campsite nearby rather than continue towards Villefranche as we originally intended.

Village fountain, Najac

Castle seen from the main village street, Najac

We are discovering that most campsites are already closed or will be doing so at the end of the month. Down beside the Aveyron we found a deserted campsite, still officially open. So we made ourselves at home, eating supper in the dusk beside the river and sleeping well. This morning after hot showers we were just beginning to wonder what to do about paying when the owner turned up to close the site for the season. She was surprised to find anyone there and has warned us we will not easily find campsites as we travel north later in the week.

Today we made our way to Villefranche de Rouergue, a much larger town, again set on the Aveyron. We climbed the steep streets up to the church and explored the narrow alleys surrounding it. All these towns still have their ancient stone fountains and the buildings, frequently timber framed, overhang the streets on the upper floors, while at ground level stone arcades often surround open squares. Down by the river we found a small Sunday market where we bought croissants before crossing to the busy terrace of a bar for coffee. Here we watched the local people meeting, kissing, ordering drinks, reading the paper and even practicing their guitar playing! It was a very pleasant experience in the Sunday sunshine.

River Aveyron at Villefranche de Rouergue

Street near the church, Villefranche de Rouergue

At Cajarc we joined the river Lot which twists its way peacefully along the valley towards Cahors. As we drove through the village centre a young man ran into the road signalling to us to stop. Breathlessly he explained in charming English that his mother needed to see our camping car as his dad would no longer take her camping in their big one and she needed one she could handle by herself. After answering all his questions and giving him one of the few remaining leaflets we carry, supplied by our Romahome agent because we told him it was quicker and easier to hand out publicity than to explain everything over and over again, he announced that he had one more request. Would we please follow him. He then lead us, at a snail's pace, through the village to his house and told us to park outside so his mother could see all over Modestine, open the doors and ask us lots of questions – including whether we would sell her! We are now quite used to being stared at and questioned, otherwise it would all have seemed quite bizarre!

We followed the bends of the Lot down to Calvignac on the far side of the river, looking very precariously perched on the high rocks above the gorge. Along the water's edge the trees shed nuts, apples, figs and wild quinces. Food for free!

Calvignac seen across the valley of the Lot

At St-Cirq-Lapopie we spent most of the afternoon climbing up and down the cobbled streets and broken steps of the pretty little town, obviously something of a tourist Mecca, full of art galleries, sculpture studios, craft and jewellery shops and countless restaurants selling such homely fare as maigrit de canard and escargots farcies. Generally the French don't go in for picnics or simple snack lunches. From the summit of the town we had splendid views down onto the winding river Lot as it flowed peacefully through the steep-sided limestone gorge.

St-Cirq-Lapopie, Valley of the Lot

St-Cirq-Lapopie, Valley of the Lot

Valley of the Lot seen from St-Cirq-Lapopie

Valley of the Lot seen from St-Cirq-Lapopie

Roofscape, St-Cirq-Lapopie

Mediaeval corn measure, St-Cirq-Lapopie

We continued our travels towards Cahors, famed for its wine. Passing through a tiny roadside hamlet we noticed a massive harvest of corn-on-the-cob being dried in special racks. We also noted, with surprise, golden tobacco leaves hanging in special drying sheds. We know nothing about tobacco growing in France, nor what the market for the dried leaves may be. It was most curious.

Drying shed with tobacco, Valley of the Lot near Cahors

Tobacco leaves hung up to dry, Valley of the Lot near Cahors

Troglodyte dwelling and road cut through the cliff, banks of the Lot

It was late afternoon before we parked Modestine in Cahors and went off to explore the town. So far it has been rather a disappointment, not least because we suddenly realised we were out of wine and needed to buy some urgently! Can you believe that it is impossible to purchase a bottle of wine on a Sunday anywhere in one of the major wine centres of France! In the end we have been reduced to opening one of Mme. J's bag-in-boxes and drinking wine from the Languedoc in completely the wrong area!

The town has an interesting barbican and seen from the far side of the river it looks attractive. Within however, its charm is less than expected. Nor is its importance as a centre of the wine trade particularly evident. It lacks completely the mysterious enchantment of Minerve, one of its great rivals as a supplier to British supermarkets.

Barbican, Cahors

Down beside the river, below the walls of Cahors, we found a pleasant campsite where the owner told us we could only stay one night as tomorrow morning she will be locking the gates until next springtime! When we started out last April we found ourselves amongst the very first to use the French campsites this year! How fast the months have flown by!