But You Did Not Come Back: love letter to a lost father

<em>But You Did Not Come Back</em>: love letter to a lost father

Marceline Loridan-Ivens is one of around 160 living survivors of the 2,500 French Jews who returned after the war, of the 76,500 sent to Aushwitz-Birkenau. ‘I was quite a cheerful person’, she writes in the opening words of But You Did Not Come Back, her moving memoir addressed to her father. Aged fifteen when she and her family were rounded up by French police before being despatched to Auschwitz, she survived but her father did not return.

After seeing the acclaimed film Son of Saul, Marceline Loridan-Ivens’ slim volume has been the second journey back into the dark heart of Auschwitz that I have made in  recent days. Continue reading But You Did Not Come Back: love letter to a lost father”

Henri Matisse: celebrated in his home town

Henri Matisse: celebrated in his home town

Late in the afternoon of the first day of my trip to WW1 sites in Flanders and the Somme, I was in the little village of Ors where Wilfred Owen is buried and where his platoon spent their final hours before being mown down by German machine gun fire.  The nearest town is Le Cateau-Cambresis and, since it is the place where Matisse was born, and since it has a museum devoted to Matisse, I had to go. Continue reading “Henri Matisse: celebrated in his home town”

Matisse in Nice: through an open window

Matisse in Nice: through an open window

 

We arrived in Nice for a long weekend to celebrate my birthday just as a summer-long tribute to Matisse was drawing to a close.  Nice 2013: A Summer for Matisse brought together many of the city museums to celebrate the artist who chose to live in Nice for more than thirty years.  2013 also marked the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Musee Matisse in Nice. Continue reading “Matisse in Nice: through an open window”

A new state pensioner’s salade Nicoise

A new state pensioner’s salade Nicoise

 

For my 65th birthday we flew to Nice for a long weekend.  Quite possibly, it’s my favourite city, relaxed and unpretentious, its face turned south to the Mediterranean and the broad sweep of the gorgeous Bay of Angels; a city with a beach and a promenade enlivened every hour of the day by a parade of strollers, rollerbladers, joggers, cyclists and bathers. Continue reading “A new state pensioner’s salade Nicoise”

In search of the asphodel

In search of the asphodel

In a previous post I described returning to Nant and St Jean du Bruel, villages at either end of a verdant stretch of the valley of the Dourbie on the edge of the Cevennes.  Above the valley lies the contrasting landscape of the causse – the wild and rugged limestone plateau that has a beauty of its own.  For a few days last week we explored that landscape, discovering the abundance of wildflowers that grace the high plains, and searching for the asphodels that in spring – our guide in the St Jean tourist office had assured us – grow there in profusion.  After searching several locations we found them – but only on our last day.

The causses form a huge Jurassic limestone plateau over a thousand metres thick, deeply cut into dramatic gorges wherever a major river flows through it. This is a lean, spare land, sheep country,unspoilt, too harsh for intensive farming.  Pretty, picturesque it is not.  Yet there is in its boundless horizons something that makes the heart soar – soar like the spiralling griffon vultures, riding the afternoon thermals, circling on outstretched wings. Two decades ago these giant raptors were almost extinct in the Cevennes. Now, thanks to a successful reintroduction programme, they’re back again – nearly 100 pairs, apparantly, now breed in the national park.

On the causses, where the vultures search for carrion, life is hard – for humans and wild creatures.  The land is bone dry and scorched in the summers, frozen and snowswept in the winters.

the purple scalp of the earth
combed in autumn
   and in times of famine

the metal bones of the earth
   extracted by hand

the church above the earth
   arms of our clock crucified

all is taken

– ‘Earth’ by John Berger, from and our faces, my heart, brief as photos

With its drystone walls and grey stone barns there are echoes of the limestone landscape of the Yorkshire Pennines around Malham – but on a much grander scale. It’s the domain of sheep and small patches of cultivation where winter fodder for the flocks is grown.  The scarcity and preciousness of water is revealed in the clay-lined dewponds known as lavognes that are dotted about the causses.  Outside the fortified village of La Couvertoirade there’s an impressive example – this one stone-lined and designed to collect the water that pours from the village streets in winter rains or the occasional summer storm.

The Cevennes is one of the last places in Europe where transhumance still persists: the traditional practice of moving flocks of sheep, that have wintered in the valleys below, up onto the causses to graze on the high summer pastures.  Thinking about this made me think of the English novelist and art critic John Berger who, in the 1970s, moved to a rural community in the French Alps. Berger wanted to observe peasant society firsthand, join them in their work, and better understand their traditions and the challenges they face.

Transhumance photographed by Martin Castellan

Out of his experience came a trilogy, Into Their Labours (from the biblical text, ‘Others have laboured and ye are entered into their labours’).  The first volume was Pig Earth, published in 1979. It’s a description of the life of French peasants – in no way romanticised – written as their way of life was drawing to a close. The book is a typical Berger melange of short stories, journal entries and poetry, and concludes with an essay on the economic role of the peasant through history viewed from a Marxist perspective:

Inexhaustibly committed to wresting a life from the earth, bound to the present of endless work, the peasant nonetheless sees life as an interlude.  This is confirmed by his daily familiarity with the cycle of birth, life and death.  […] The peasant sees life as an interlude because of the dual contrary movement through time of his thoughts and feelings which in turn derives from the dual nature of the peasant economy. His dream is to return to a life that is not handicapped. His determination is to hand on the means of survival (if possible made more secure, compared to what he inherited) to his children. His ideals are located in the past; his obligations are to the future, which he himself will not live to see. After his death he will not be transported into the future – his notion of immortality is different: he will return to the past. […] His dream is not the usual dream of paradise.  Paradise, as we now understand it, was surely the invention of a relatively leisured class.  In the peasant’s dream, work is still necessary.  Work is the condition for equality. […]  The peasant ideal of equality recognizes a world of scarcity, and its promise is for mutual fraternal aid in struggling agaunst this scarcity and a just sharing of what the work produces.

The buzzard circled
biding his everlasting time
as repeatedly
as the mountain

Out of the single night
came the day’s look,
the wary animal glance
on every side.

Once the animals flowed like their milk.

Now that they have gone
it is their endurance we miss.

– ‘They Are The Last’ by John Berger, from Why Look at Animals?

The poor schist and limestone soils of the causses have never been suitable for much else but grazing sheep (to produce, amongst other things, cheese – such as the famous Roquefort – from ewes’ milk or growing chestnuts – which explains why this is an unspoilt landscape, a rugged terrain of low population density, with cultivated land limited to the surroundings of the picturesque medieval villages.

It’s a land which the people of the region fight hard to protect.  When we first came here in the late 1970s there was a big campaign of resistance against the plan by the French government to massively extend the Larzac Military Camp which had served as a garrison and training centre since 1902. The expansion would have destroyed more than a hundred farms included within the new perimeter of the camp. Peasant farmers threatened with expropriation were joined by soixante huitards (‘sixty-eighters’) – assorted hippie idealists, leftist radicals and greens who had settled in the area in abandoned farms and in the dilapidated village of La Couvertoirade, trying to survive by living off the land, making things from wood or opening little boutiques and cafes.  A decade of campaigning finally achieved success in 1981 when François Mitterrand was elected as President and officially ended the expansion project.

Fracking protest in Nant

In the past two years a new ecological campaign has also achieved its goal: in spring 2010, the French government granted three licenses to search for shale gas in the region, employing the technique known as fracking.  Nant was the epicentre of this movement, led by the region’s Europe Écologie MEP Jose Bove, who first came to prominence in the campaign against the expansion of the military camp on the Larzac plateau in the seventies. As a result of that experience Bove became a sheep farmer, producing Roquefort cheese on the Larzac causse.

The event which gained Bové international attention was the trashing of a McDonalds that was under construction in Millau in 1999, a protest against American restrictions on the importation of Roquefort cheese and other products, which were harming peasants who gained their liveliehoods from these products. Bove also wanted to raise awareness about McDonald’s use of hormone-treated beef. Later, the European Union imposed restrictions on importing hormone-treated beef. However, the WTO (dominated by the USA) disallowed this restriction. After the EU refused to comply and remove the restrictions, the United States placed tariffs on the importation of certain European goods, including Roquefort cheese, as punishment.

The campaign against fracking was successful: in October 2011 Minister of the Environment confirmed that the licenses for Nant were revoked.

I can still recall our amazement, thirty-odd years ago, when the forbidding grey stone walls of La Couvertoirade rose up before us out of the desolate landscape of the Larzac causse.  The village was built in 1158 by the Knights Templar as a staging post for pilgrims travelling the old Roman road across the causse.  The walls and sentry towers were added in the 15th century by the Knights of Saint John.  In the late seventies the place had the air of an ancient ruin, with crmbling fortifications and derelict dwellings.

But new life was returning to the place: some buildings were being restored by artisans and hippies, some local but many from distant cities, seeking to tread the earth lightly and live sustainably off local resources.  By the time we returned with our daughter in the early nineties a huge amount of resoration had taken place: the cobbled streets were pristine, most buildings were spruced up and either inhabited or converted into cafes, restaurants or artisan shops.  You could walk around the entire village on the restored battlements.

On every door, it seemed, was nailed the iconic symbol of the Larzac: the Cardabelle.  Although its a member of the common thistle family, the Cardabelle is a protected species and cannot be cut.  So how, I wonder, do all these cardabelles get there?  Because it’s not just in La Couvertoirade that you see them: in towns and villages all across the region you encounter them nailed to front doors.  When we first visited La Couvertoirade cut specimens were on sale and we bought one that is still intact, nailed above our back door.

The Cardabelle is known on the causse as the ‘shepherd’s barometer’, because it has the special property of opening up when the sun shines and closing shortly before bad weather. This is why they are nailed to doors – not for good luck, but predict the weather.  At one time, every household kept a Cardabelle for this reason. But the Cardabelle had other practical uses too: it’s possible to eat the heart of the thistle (the plant is related to the artichoke), and use the outer ‘sun’s rays’ portion of its thorny centre to card wool.

This plant, with its history as ancient as the doorways it decorates, is also related to the daisy and the dandelion.  Its botanical name is La Carline a feuilles d’acanthe.  The generic carlina is a variant of cardina, derived from chardon or thistle.  It flowers from July to September, in the field or nailed to a door it retains the persistent yellow of its centre.

The Cardabelle is a popular subject for local artists, inspiring paintings and sculptures, and every newsagents will have postcards with titles like Esprit d’une terre and Soleil des Causses, bearing photographs of it.  (In the 21st century these have been joined by ubiquitous postcards of the Millau bridge).

The 20th century Occitan writer Max Rouquette who wrote everything in Occitan, the ancient language of the area, dedicated a poem to the Cardabelle.  In Occitan it reads:

Cardebela, rosa verda,
roda de prima endentelada,
erba solelh a ras de sou nascuda
das amors de la peira e dau solelh…

Translated into French:

Cardabelle, rose verte
Et roué dentelee
Herbe soleil au ras du sol venue
Des amours de la terre et du soleil…

While the more prosaic English translation goes:

Cardabelle, green rose,
and jagged wheel,
grass sun come from the ground
of the loves of the earth and the sun…

This reminds me that three decades ago, in a sign of the political disenchantment with Parisian government in this region, you would encounter freshly-painted slogans on walls in villages or along the road that proclaimed Oc! – support for the ancient language and culture of Occitania and for the Occitan Party that campaigns on local cultural and ecological issues and has elected councillors in a few townships.

The party’s members are active in struggles for the keeping of local jobs, against wholesale tourist commercialization, against the nuclear power industry, and for the preservation of Occitania’s natural environment. They also take part in the defence of the Occitan language and identity.

In the 1970s, our 2CV sported the famous ‘No to Nuclear’ sticker, and in France we’d see their equivalent ‘Non au Nucleaire’ badges.  On the causses, ocassionally we’d see the Occitan version (left).

The restoration work at La Couvertoirade continues: this time we noticed that an early seventeenth century windmill on a hill overlooking the village had been restored.  There is a sense of stepping back in time as you enter the village through the arched gateway overlooked by the towers of the ramparts, and then wander the cobbled streets with their little 17th century houses.  At the heart of the village stands the fortified 14th century church of St Christopher with its Templar graveyard.

We followed several paths through the causses during our short stay, always on the lookout for the elusive asphodels.  One warm, sunlit morning we walked out on the causses near the village of Campestre, before dropping down to Alzon for lunch. Skylarks sang above us, and every so often we heard the distant sound of a cuckoo.

The plateau here is particularly rich in megalithic monuments: there are dolmens, menhirs and several stone circles.  We came across these remains, in the scrub just off the path.

They turned out, on closer investigation, to be prehistoric burial chambers, probably from the later 5th millenium BC. They consisted of blocks of schist arranged in layers horizontally and gradually narrowing to create a roofed structure.  An antechamber led to a smaller funeral chamber. They reminded me of the neolithic structures built by the nuragic people that we saw a few years ago on Sardinia.

Campestre proved to be a hamlet, home to just 113 inhabitants, its church steeple visible for some distance across the causse.

Even a place as small as this has its own Mairie 0r town hall.  Here I found perhaps the two most important civic structures side by side.

A noticeboard give an idea of local excitements, including a wild-looking local cumbia outfit operating under the soubriquet Tortilla Flat.

In the centre of the hamlet, the inevitable memorial to the lost sons and fathers of the First World War.  Twenty-two souls lost from such a tiny place, amongst the peasant farmers the Marquess du Luc.

Alzon

The village of Alzon is beautifully situated in a deep bowl surrounded by the high plateaux and revines of the causses.  There we found only one restaurant, and we were its only patrons.  But the attentive owner quickly rustled up a wonderful spread of steak and frites, and for me, the vegetarian, a superb omelette.

During the descent to Alzon a stunning view opens up of the Valcroze viaduct which once carried a railway that ran across the causse du Larzac, linking Millau with Le Vigan  to the east of Alzon.  This must have been a beautiful line to ride, but it survived for only 59 years.

The line was commissioned in 1896 and, after 11 years of gigantic works that included 37 tunnels, 14 viaducts and countless bridges all built of stone, it opened in 1907. Despite an upturn in traffic between the two wars, it was closed to passenger traffic in 1939. Until 1952, it remained open for freight traffic , and the rails were finally removed in 1955.  But, surprisingly, it’s not been converted into a long-distance footpath: which seems a shame, since it would provide a superb path through exceptional countryside.

For our last walk on the causses, we spread out the map and randomly pinpointed a walk along a stretch of Grand Randonnier 71D starting from the village of Cazejourdes.  There, in the middle of nowhere, we encountered the roaring noise of this fearsome monster: out of all the hundreds of square miles we had managed to find the place where the track was being gouged out in order to lay a pipeline.

Fortunately, we were soon able to leave the noise and dust behind, the peace of the causses restored.  It was here, among many other varieties of wild flowers that I found patches of last summer’s cardabelles, some with their bright yellow hearts still ablaze.

Take it with you!
The smallest green thing that has happened to you
can save your life some day
in the winter land

Just a blade of grass,
a single faded little blade
from last summer
frozen fast in the snowdrift,
can stop the avalanche’s
thousand deadly tons
from plunging down.

– ‘Memories’ by Hans Borli

This landscape is harsh, stony and dry yet still supports a rich diversity of plants and animals. Our friends are accomplished bird-watchers and they took enormous pleasure in drawing attention to the variety of birds here – the griffon vultures and eagles, and many more besides whose names I have now forgotten. The songs of skylarks and nightingales was our accompaniment everywhere on the causse.

Just as rich is the array of wild flowers to be seen, especially in the months of May and June, when the thin soils of the limestone grasslands come into bloom and display large numbers of Pasque flowers, rockroses, lilies and orchids. Though the thin turf barely covers the stony causse, wild flowers thrive in unbelievable profusion.  Sometimes, specific plants seemed to be concentrated in particular small areas: one part perhaps displaying masses of blue-purple Pasque Flowers, another with dwarf daffodils and irises, while a third might be awash with purple orchids.  And as far as the horizon, shrubby masses of wild box.

So here is a bouquet of flowers of the causses.  Some of them named, others that I hope to have identified soon.

Brilliant patches of the miniature Wild Tulip (Tulipa australis), possibly imported into France from Asia Minor or the Caucasus by the Romans.

Velvety, anenome-like Pulsatilla that bloom early in spring, giving rise to their common name of Pasque flower, referring to Easter.

We didn’t see many varieties of orchid: the blue and reddish specimens below we saw many times, yet this region is renowned for its  variety and abundance of orchids. A local photographer had presented the hotel where we stayed with an album of orchid photos in astonishing numbers.

Orchis mascula, Early purple orchid

We found many patches of these tiny daffodils and dwarf iris,  Iris danfordiae, (both purple and yellow varieties).

Star of Bethlehem

Helianthemum apenninum, White Rock Rose

Aphyllanthes monpeliensis

Saponaria ocymoides or Rock Soapwort

We finally found the asphodels when walking through the causses near Blandas.  We had come, first to one of the area’s most awe-inspiring sites: the Cirque de Navacelles.

Here the Vis river has carved a deep ravine through the plateau and, in its meanderings, has created huge cliffs and caves.  The plateau is nearly 1000m above sea level and some of the cliffs are more than 300m high. We  walked through the flat, shrubby, stone-littered landscape of the plateau until suddenly we were standing at the edge of a precipitous gorge looking down at the Cirque which contains the little hamlet of Navacelles.  A noticeboard explains that, millenia ago, the river, ‘serpenting with nonchalence’  through the limestone plateau, formed an oxbow lake. The river later resumed its original course and the lake dried up, leaving this curious, horseshoe shaped bowl.

It was shortly after that we spotted our first asphodels by the side of the road.  We stopped the car and walked away from the road.  Soon we were walking through a meadow of asphodels that stretched as far as our eyes could see.  We had arrived a little too late: the flowers were past their best, just beginning to fade and brown.  A week or so earlier we would have been looking at a carpet of white.

The White Asphodel, Asphodelus albus, is a flower of ancient myth.  The Asphodel Meadows constituted the section of the Greek underworld where the souls of ordinary people who lived lives neither wholly good nor wholly evil rested after death (as opposed to the Elysian Fields, reserved for the Gods, the righteous and the heroic, and Tartarus, the abyss of torment and suffering where the evil suffered eternal punishment and damnation.

Homer is cited as the source for the poetic tradition of describing the meadows of Hades as being covered in asphodel. One translation of a passage from The Odyssey, Book XI reads, ‘the ghost of clean-heeled Achilles marched away with long steps over the meadow of asphodel’.

The University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology website explains in more detail:

Largely a grey and shadowy place, the Underworld was divided into three parts. Most souls went to the “Plains of Asphodel,” an endless stretch of twilit fields covered with grey and ghostly asphodel flowers, which the dead ate. A very few chosen by the gods spent their afterlife in the Fields of Elysium, a happier place of breezy meadows. But if the deceased had committed a crime against society, his/her soul went to Tartarus to be punished by the vengeful Furies until his debt to society was paid, whereupon he/she was released to the Plains of Asphodel…. Souls of the dead were only a pale reflection of their former personality, often portrayed as twittering, bat-like ghosts, physically diaphanous and insubstantial.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
– ‘The Peace of Wild Things’ by Wendell Berry

Perambulations around St Jean du Bruel

Perambulations around St Jean du Bruel

During our recent short break in the Cevennes we were based in the village of St Jean du Bruel, about 7 kilometres east of Nant and marking the point where the valley  of the Dourbie narrows to a steep-sided gorge. The village is smaller than Nant (population 690), and also seems little changed from last time we were here.  The first sight that met our eyes as we stepped out from our hotel onto the main street was of a group of locals sitting outside a cafe with a goat.

We stayed at the Hotel du Midi Papillon, that has been managed by the Papillon family for 150 years. I would recommend the place highly: the Papillons raise their own chickens, make charcuterie from local pork and jams from the fruit in the hotel garden, and the cheeseboard is to die for.  In 2005, as The Observer noted, the hotel is one of ‘those individually owned and run hotels that offer the unique French values of bonhomie, good value and seriously good food’.

After we had checked in at the hotel we called at the tourist information bureau to enquire about local footpaths where an advisor recommended a walk that took about two hours on a path that led up from St Jean to Le Sentinel, a crag from which a statue of the Virgin overlooks the village (top).

It was a great start to the holiday, the path winding up through woodland and eventually emerging at the lookout point which provided great views of the village and the Dourbie gorge to the east.  The chap  in the tourist office also suggested that we go in search of the orchids and asphodels that flower in profusion on the nearby causses at this time of year – but more of that quest in the next post.

Saint Jean du Bruel gained its name during the Middle Ages but, I discovered, during the Revolution, they renamed the village La Sentinelle, after this lookout point which marked the borders of two old provinces.   The village name was restored under the First Empire.

In my previous post I compared Nant, the neighbouring village down the valley, to Arcadia.  But it was not always so: this now-peaceful valley was torn apart by the 16th century wars of religion, and the Camisard Rebellion of the late 17th century.

In 1560, the majority of the villagers of St Jean adopted the Calvinist Reformation, while neighbouring Nant remained Catholic. A bitter war broke out  between the two villages, War breaks out between the two towns, with reicprocal looting and massacres occurring until the Edict of Nantes in 1598 brought the wars of religion to a close.  However, the political freedoms the Edict granted to the Huguenots (seen by Catholic nationalists as ‘a state within the state’) became an increasing source of conflict during the 17th century. The decision by Louis XIV to revoke the Edict of Nantes and strip Huguenots of their freedom of worship led some Protestant families to convert to Catholicism and others to flee abroad. But when the persecution intensified and Catholicism was imposed on southwestern France, the Huguenots took to arms in the revolt known as the Camisard Rebellion. Hundreds of villages were destroyed by fire during ‘the great conflagration of the Cevennes’.

Nant was one of them.  At this time, the population of St Jean consisted largely of Protestant Huguenots and the village had become more prosperous than Nant thanks to the presence of the manor and its administration, and the quality and diversity of its crafts, fairs and markets. There was a bitter enmity between the two villages which culminated in the citizens of St Jean burning down the monastery in Nant and driving the villagers out.  It was only with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in  1789 that Protestants gained full security and equal rights as citizens.

Two bridges cross the Dourbie in St Jean, the Old Bridge of the thirteenth century and the Pont Neuf dating from the eighteenth century.  The Old Bridge (above), located in the oldest part of town, spans the Dourbie in a Roman single arch.

This old inn sign (above) is a reminder of St Jean’s former renown for its metalwork.  The Rue de la Coutellerie (below) was once the location of cutlery-makers.

Several industries developed in St Jean that depended upon the Dourbie as a resource or for water power. A pottery industry (manufacturing cheese moulds and glazed tiles) once existed, and from the new bridge you can see on the river bank a chimney (below) – all that now remains of the old pottery kilns.  To the right of the pottery chimney is the weir, built to regulate the flow of water to the 13th century mill which still stands on the other side of the bridge.

Other trades that developed in the past included woodworking (making use of chestnut trees which cover the hillsides around about), clog-making, weaving, hat-making, and watchmaking.  In 1800 the village had four times the number of inhabitants than today.  A sense of the former prosperity of the village can be inferred from these roofscapes.

Each morning I would stroll out of the village in one direction or another.  The mist would be rising from the valley as the day warmed up.  One morning I turned across the old bridge and walked along the valley in the direction of Nant.

Finally… the nightlife in St Jean: two photos taken around 10:15 outside the main cafe in the old market place.

The market place (Les Halles) dates in its present form from 1845, when it was rebuilt after being destroyed during the French Revolution. This where fairs, markets and meetings of the village council  would be held. The wooden beams which you can just see in my photo are made of chestnut.

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was living it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

– ‘The Vacation’, Wendell Berry

Migrations and homecomings

Migrations and homecomings

The swallows are back on the field, swooping and diving around me as I take the dog on her afternoon walk.  We’re back, too, after a short break, returning to old haunts in the Cevennes.

The return of the swallows and swifts (back, too, eternally on the wing above the gardens of our street) always fills me with pleasure.  After spending the winter in South Africa, these birds have followed the same path through western France as the Ryanair plane that brought us back from Nimes.

Once upon a time, decades ago, a couple wandered through France in their red 2CV and in the far south, in a valley lying deep between the limestone plateaux they call the causses, found Arcadia. For two successive summers they camped just outside the small town of Nant in the department of Aveyron, on the southwestern fringe of the Cevennes.  Twelve years later they returned with their young daughter.  Last week, and this time  with old friends, they went back again.

The beloved 2CV has long gone to the great scrapyard in the sky; times move on and what, in the 1970s, would have been an impossible proposition financially is now commonplace.  We flew to Nimes and drove up the old N9 (now the A75 motorway) towards Millau.  The climb from the Languedoc plain up onto the Causse du Larzac at the Pas de l’Escalette near le Caylar is still astonishing: in little more than 15 kilometres the road rises nearly 700 metres, today through heavily engineered curves and tunnels that have sliced through dramatic inclines and folds of limestone strata that were formed in the tertiary era on the bed of a warm, shallow sea and then twisted and broken by the formation of the Pyrenees. In the days of the old N9, this road was a straining cavalcade of lorries; now the drive is smooth and uncomplicated – but no less dramatic.  Several videos of the drive have been uploaded to YouTube; here’s one of them:

We turn off before the famous bridge at Millau (another bottleneck in the old N9 days) and head across the Causse du Larzac towards Nant, through the beautiful wild landscape of the limestone plateau.  Larzac is the largest, the most arid and uninhabited of the four Grands Causses of this region, with only the occasional medieval hamlet hunched on the horizon.

And then the descent towards Nant that I remember so well: situated where the valley of the Dourbie opens out into verdant meadows enfolded in a bowl of tree-clad hills, Nant is still the same picture of perfection: ‘those blue remembered hills …What spires, what farms are those? That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain, The happy highways where I went’.  We drive down and, less than five hours after leaving Liverpool, are seated outside a cafe in the main square consuming assiettes of local cheeses and charcuteries in the warm sunshine.  Nant seems unchanged since we were last here in 1993.

Etymologically, Nant has no relationship with the northern city of Nantes.  The name is of Celtic origin and means a place where land and water meet.  In the 10th century, Benedictine monks drained the marshy soil of the Durzon valley where it joins the Dourbie, constructing a network of stone-lined canals which still run through the village.  The monks’ success in developing agriculture led to Nant being called ‘the garden of Aveyron’. In 926 they built a monastery here, which became an abbey in 1135. The economy prospered, and the village of Nant grew up around the abbey.

During the wars of religion the monastic buildings were destroyed, but Nant continued to prosper – its golden age came  in the second half of the 17th century when the town had 3000 inhabitants (today it’s around 800) and, after Millau, it ranked as the second most important town of the region. The abbey church of St Peter, dating from the 11th century, still stands at the centre of the village, its fortified belltower giving it the squat appearance of a medieval castle keep.

The monastic legacy can be traced, too, in several Romanesque churches that are scattered through the surrounding countryside.  We walked out of Nant (past the site where we camped all those years ago) to one of them –  the 12th century church of St Martin du Vican, now inaccessible on private land and being used as a barn.

The arches of the halles (market) date from the monastic times, too, and would once have hosted local fairs and a flourishing market.  Now two cafes set up their tables under the arches.  On one of the arches is a memorial to nine local members of the resistance movement, shot by the Nazis in August 1944.

We arrived the day after the second round of the French Presidential elections had resulted in a decisive victory for François Hollande, France’s first leftwing president in almost 20 years.  I photographed these election posters on the main street.

Curiously, we were here the last time a socialist president, Francois Mitterand, was elected in 1981 and the countryside was plastered with election posters that promised his ‘quiet strength’:

The next day there was a ceremony to mark the end of the Second World War outside the elegant Mairie that dates back to 1762.  Several market stalls had been set up, selling local fruit, vegetables and cheeses.

In Provence last spring, climbing roses were everywhere.  This year, in the valley towns, the signature plant was the wisteria.

On the last day of our short break we set off from Nant to walk through the meadows by the Dourbie towards Cantobre, the medieval village that perches on a clifftop a few kilometres further along the valley towards Millau. We crossed to the far bank of the Dourbie by the elegant 14th century La Prade bridge, another indicator of the town’s medieval prosperity.

Above us towered the Nantais Rock, a spur that juts from the causse to the north of the town.

For a few kilometres east and west of Nant the valley is broad and verdant, but upstream above St Jean du Bruel and downstream beyond Cantobre the Dourbie burrows into a ravine of sheer rock walls, slicing a path between the Causse du Larzac to the south and the Causse Noir to the north.  Here, though, the path was broad and easy.

There’s a bridge at Vellas and here I crossed to the south bank again to follow the road back into Nant.  The view of Cantobre, perched on its narrow rocky ledge a little further on, was spectacular. From a distance the houses appear to be part of the cliff itself, and you can understand how the place acquired its name – from ‘quant obra’, ‘what a work’.  The village was abandoned after the Great War and remained in ruins until the late 1960s when it was gradually rebuilt.

On the return to Nant I passed the hamlet of les Cuns, little more than a couple of houses and one of those 12th century Romanesque churches mentioned earlier – only this time it was possible to go inside.

Romanesque churches were the first buildings since Roman times to use a stone vault instead of a wooden roof. Other characteristics of Romanesque architecture visible here include round arches, thick walls, small windows, and decorative details inside and out (see the little man carved into the base of an arch, below, which reminded me of the Kilpeck church carvings . When they were first built, Romanesque churches would have been bright with colour and imagery, with murals that served as a visual Bible to a mostly illiterate congregation.There’s nothing now but the bare stone.

On our second day, the afternoon turned dull with occasional rain.  We drove down the Dourbie towards Millau, stopping first to look around Cantobre. Most of the houses date from the 14th century when the fortified village of houses clustered around the church was developed by the Knights Templar.  It’s likely that the inhabitants were engaged in silver mining.

Towns and villages huddled behind defensive walls in the turbulent centuries that culminated with the religious wars and the Hundred Years War – built to protect the villagers from marauding soldiers, both French and British (Rouergue, the former provincial name for Aveyron, changed hands several times, even falling to British rule for 17 years after 1360).

A little further down the gorge is Moulin de Corp, a 15th century water mill and rather lovely humpback bridge.

On the far side of Millau is another bridge that takes your breath away with its daring engineering and elegant beauty.  Opened in December 2004 , it is the highest bridge in the world, standing 270 meters (890 feet) over the Tarn River. That makes it slightly taller than the Eiffel Tower and only a hundred feet shorter than the Empire State Building. It was designed by engineer Michel Virlogeux (working for the same company that built the Eiffel Tower) and British architect Norman Foster.

We parked at the Viaduct Information Centre at the base of the bridge on the RD 992 outside Millau.  It was dull and wet when I took the photo above; the official one below shows the structure to best effect. The Millau Viaduct was conceived as a way of alleviating the huge traffic jams that would form every summer as tourists made their way south, descending the valley into the town of Millau which became a notorious bottleneck on the A75 autoroute.

In its pure simplicity the bridge, consisting of a very thin slightly curved steel roadway supported by pylons and resting on seven very slender pillars, blends seamlessly into the grandeur of the surrounding landscape. The route selected, and the method of construction were chosen to minimise impact on the environment.  Construction took four years – from October 2001 to its opening in December 2005.  There’s a remarkable video in the Information Centre that shows how the bridge was built: after the concrete pylons had been erected, the roadway was slowly pushed out across the gorge from each side, eventually meeting (and crushing a bottle of champagne) in May 2004.

For the four night we were away we stayed at St Jean du Bruel, seven kilometres up the Dourbie from Nant where the valley narrows to a steep-sided gorge.  The village is smaller than Nant, and also seems little changed from last time we were here.  The first sight that met our eyes as we stepped out from our hotel onto the main street was of a group of locals sitting outside a cafe with a goat.

We stayed at the Hotel du Midi Papillon, that has been managed by the Papillon family for 150 years. I would recommend the place highly: though the rooms are small and fairly basic, ours had balconies overlooking the Dourbie and the rates are very reasonable.  But what really makes a stay here truly memorable are the breakfasts and evening meals in the restaurant.  The Papillons raise their own chickens, make charcuterie from local pork and jams from the fruit in the hotel garden, and the cheeseboard is to die for.

We had returned to our ‘land of lost content’. This valley, from Nant to St Jean, remains one of those places that seem most precious to those of us who live in cities.  It’s more than likely that, with our city ways and city needs, we couldn’t abide here for long.  Yet, to return here and linger awhile refreshes the spirit.  While away I was reading Oliver Twist, and there I encountered this heartfelt passage:

Who can tell how scenes of peace and quietude sink into the minds of pain-worn dwellers in close and noisy places, and carry their own freshness, deep into their jaded hearts! Men who have lived in crowded, pent-up streets, through lives of toil, and who have never wished for change; men, to whom custom has indeed been second nature, and who have come almost to love each brick and stone that formed the narrow boundaries of their daily walks; even they, with the hand of death upon them, have been known to yearn at last for one short glimpse of Nature’s face; and, carried far from the scenes of their old pains and pleasures, have seemed to pass at once into a new state of being. Crawling forth, from day to day, to some green sunny spot, they have had such memories wakened up within them by the sight of sky, and hill and plain, and glistening water, that the foretaste of heaven itself has soothed their quick decline, and they have sunk into their tombs, as peacefully as the sun whose setting they watched from their lonely chamber window but a few hours before, faded from their dim and feeble sight! The memories which peaceful country scenes call up, are not of this world, nor of its thoughts and hopes. Their gentle influence may teach us how to weave fresh garlands for the graves of those we loved: may purify our thoughts, and bear down before it old enmity and hatred; but beneath all this, there lingers, in the least reflective mind, a vague and half-formed consciousness of having held such feelings long before, in some remote and distant time, which calls upon solemn thoughts of distant times to come, and bends down pride and worldliness beneath it.

And then it was back to an unseasonably cold, wet and windswept Liverpool.  And a Europe in crisis, with attempts to form a government in Greece collapsing, the prospect of the breakup of the eurozone, and an economic hurricane heading our way.

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