Walking in the hills of the Languedoc

Looking down from the hills of the Haut Languedoc, along the road from St. Julian to Minerve, the  coastal plain lies before you leading to the blue smudge of the Mediterranean (photo).  The plain is dotted with the small ‘wine’ towns of the Minervois, such as  Olonzac, Pepieux and La Liviniere.  Away  to the south west lie the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees (photo), leading north  eventually to the Bay of Biscay. It is a marvellous sight, which never fails to  thrill. About ten years ago my mother decided to sell up her London home and  buy a place in the Languedoc, partly to have somewhere to paint and write,  partly to have a place for family and friends to come and stay. My family have  been regular visitors and have come to know and love this part of France and  most particularly the walking.

The small end of terrace house she bought in the hamlet of  Campredon, in the commune of Ferrals Les Montagne, is built into the side of  the hill. On the ground floor the rear room, which serves as a dining room, is partially underground and stays cool in the heat of summer. Stairs lead up to the first floor living room with French windows leading out onto a small garden. More stairs lead up to the second floor main bedroom, which in turn leads out onto a small terrace looking down on the rear garden. It is like living in a ship, where you move constantly between decks above and below the waterline, as it were. Next door the old garage has been extended to provide an upper storey ‘Atelier’ or studio. There are two small terraced gardens by the side of the atelier, with shade provided by an old plum tree. Around and about are the vegetable plots which elderly villagers cultivate assiduously in these inflationary times. Down the lane is the building where, during the Season, local hunters of the commune butcher their kill and drink some wine. It is all very rural, very traditional and far from the tourist trail.

The village of Campredon is situated in a high wooded valley  (altitude c. 1000-1200 feet) with open hill tops all around. These hills lie just within the southern boundary of the Parc Naturel Regional du Haut-Languedoc and comprise the foothills of the higher Montagne Noire and Espinouse Ranges (lying north-west and north respectively), reaching altitudes in excess of 3000 feet. Within the overall geography of the region these foothills form the last southern outcrops of the Massif Central, separated from the  foothills of the Pyrenees by the Minervois valley, a wine producing region running from Narbonne through Carcassonne to Toulouse.

The road which winds down the valley from the Col de Serrieres, passing to the side of Campredon, then on to Ferrals and ultimately the coast, was originally an old coach route from the North. The building in which we stay once had stables on the ground floor; the settlements of the valley generated additional income by supplying the needs of the passing carriage trade. When we first came to visit it was  difficult to know where we could walk to.

In general the walker may roam in France over all footpaths and open tracks, unless there is a Propriete Prive sign and the land is enclosed with a ditch, wall or fence.  However there are no public footpath signs giving directions and distances to other local places, as in England. Fortunately there are a couple of way-marked routes, on sentiers de pays (local footpaths), starting from the larger village of Ferrals situated a kilometre down the road. The ‘higher’ walk has become an old favourite, taking you on a circular route of 15km along the ridges on both sides of the valley, rising to about 1800-2000 feet. As you climb higher it is possible to see the sea and, if it is a clear day, the jagged outcrops of the Pyrenees.

It is rare to meet other walkers, an impossibility in England; here you may go out for a whole day’s walk and have the countryside completely to yourself.  As you approach the col at the head of the valley you pass the graves of a group of resistance fighters in the woods. They were captured and shot by the local German garrison in the summer of 1944, after the Normandy landings when the Resistance was at its most active. They were buried where they lay, compelling you to pay your respects as you pass by. The German guardhouse situated at the approach to Ferrals still remains – an imposing concrete blockhouse now used as a store for building materials.

Over the years we have discovered a network of old little-used paths criss-crossing the valley. Each of these explorations has been an exciting journey opening up new routes, new possibilities. Often these paths take you deep into the woods, where the canopy is dense, where you come across the tumble-down remains of abandoned stone buildings by small streams. These are places where people once lived, had families and worked the land.  These ruins are a reminder that historically the valley is a depopulated place.  Further indications of this are the sweet chestnut trees that abound in the woods: chestnuts were a traditional staple of the rural diet.

From the densely wooded areas on the lower slopes and valley bottom, the paths climb higher, giving access to summer pastures for hay production. It is clear these meadows have never suffered the onslaught of modern farming methods. By mid-summer they produce a rich carpet of wild flowers, attracting an equally rich and varied insect life.  The wild flora and fauna of this area is simply staggering for someone used to walking in the large arable fields of Cambridgeshire.

Many is the time when we have taken a stroll up to the meadows to be met by a host of dancing butterflies, with cicadas hoping about our shins, lizards scuttling into the undergrowth, whilst over head buzzards circle on a lofty thermal. Your senses can be overwhelmed: in the spring the dawn chorus rises up from the wooded slopes of the valley as a wave of sound; in the evening heat of summer the sound of cicadas lulls you to sleep. During the middle of the day there is a deep, quiet stillness in the air, only broken by the passing whir of a giant dragon fly.

Returning every year, these walks in the valley have become familiar territory, old friends, to which we return time and time again. Coming at different times of the year, we bear witness to their changing seasonal character: in the spring the higher rocky slopes are covered in drifts of narcissi (photo) and dwarf irises (photo); the shady woods a treasure trove of wild orchids; in the summer wild thyme and sun roses adorn the bare rock; in the autumn deep drifts of leaves carpet the woodland floor.

The character of the high circular walk along the ridges changes completely between summer and autumn. On a hot day in June or July you start early before the heat is up, making your ascent on the more westerly wooded slope, affording shade from the Sun. From the highest point you may take your ease on a grassy meadow – summer sheep pasture – and gaze upon the panoramic view opened up before you. In the autumn thick cloud swept in on strong westerly winds blankets the ridge and a driving rain hurries you homeward.

This wind which sweeps across the Montagne Noire is called the Vent du Nord. All the winds here have names: from the East the Grec; from the south the Marin, from the Pyrenees the Tramontane and down the Rhone the Mistral. It is a windy place, especially at altitude.

I feel as though the valley and its hills have born witness to my own life’s passage. When we first came here I was approaching 40, still walking the upward slope; now I am 50 and have passed the watershed. Each time we return I climb the ridges. So far I can still make it. That is precisely what makes it so special, knowing I shan’t always be here to witness the changing of the seasons, or enjoy the  view of the interlocking wooded spurs of the valley rising up to the col.

And so over time we have got to know the valley pretty well, though not perhaps as well as the local hunters. It is wise not to go walking during the season between mid-August and the early spring when the hunters are out; partly so as not to get shot accidentally but also because of the risk of running into wild boar, dangerous, deadly creatures when fleeing the hunters. On Wednesdays and weekends the local hunters gather early in the morning down the lane in their 4x4s, dogs barking in the back. There is the usual huddle of men in bright jackets and caps, cigarette smoke rising, the hum of conversation, a few young sons hover by their fathers, awaiting their initiation into the world of men. For the rest of the day you can hear the crack of rifle shots up and down the valley. Later they return to divide the spoils, have a ‘cook up’ and a glass or two. Outsiders are not welcome. You have to be born and bred in the valley to be a member of La Chasse. For the rest of us the likeliest time to see boar is when driving at night. Locals often tell of near-misses when they have stopped suddenly to allow a whole family to scamper across the road.

Thankfully the hunters don’t manage to kill everything. In July this year, whilst out walking on my own, I was descending through mature pine woods. The path lay strait before me and ahead a female red dear with foal came out from the ferns onto the path. I was about 75 meters away and there was no wind to alert them to my smell. For a minute I stood rock still as they walked ahead of me, oblivious, nibbling the ground. Then they headed back into the woods and I was able to move on. Such moments are blessed.

As we have come to know the valley we have gone further afield, exploring the paths around other villages in the commune. From Cassagnoles (photo), situated on a tributary valley above Ferrals, there are paths leading up to the ridge from which you can view the celebrated ‘Montagne Noire,’ a series of darkly forested ranges running away to the west.  Between the Montagne Noire and the Pyrenees lies the ‘Carcassonne Gap’, an important migratory and trading route since prehistoric times. The smaller farming hamlets above Casagnoles such as Masnaguine show fewer signs of modernisation. Apart from one or two holiday homes this place has an old run-down feel: ancient farm buildings built from the local rock, supported by massive wooden beams in a state of disrepair; small courtyards with dogs tied to leads, little sign of human life.

But they run to a better class of graffiti at Masnaguine. Hand painted with a neat rolling style on the door of a barn is the following inscription:

‘On a trouve, en bone politique le secret de faire mourir de faim ceux qui, en cultivant la terre font vivre les autres’… Voltaire’.

Translated: ‘Good politics has taught us the secret of how to starve to death those who cultivate the land, so that others may live.’ It is a concise and striking comment of understated irony. Voltaire would have appreciated its application to modern times, where ‘bon politique’  has taught us the secret of letting the majority suffer so that bankers can received their bonuses and international finance remain unregulated. But who was it who wrote this comment on the barn door and when?  It speaks for a time of rural poverty and desperation when life was a hard and ceaseless act of unremitting toil.

The waters which collect and flow down from the headlands of the valley form the river Cesse, which has its source at Ferrals. The local commune has built a small and tasteful ‘grotto’ from which water streams from the hillside. Just below the village are a series of delightful cascades (photo) with some deep pools for cooling off in during the summer.  Lower down the valley the river has cut an impressive gorge (photo) of the same name through the limestone rock. Its winding course leads down to the ancient Cathar citadel of Minerve and on to the town of Bize.

When there are heavy rainstorms the upper tributaries and feeding streams of the Cesse become raging torrents. The water courses around Campredon are in a constant state of repair. Each winter storm waters prise loose the rocky soil, sending large boulders tumbling down the streams, undermining their banks. Each spring the mechanical diggers are brought in to scoop out the channels and straighten their courses, bridges are repaired, more concrete is poured. It is a constant struggle to hold back the process of weathering and erosion, allowing habitation to continue in the upper reaches of the valley.

In November 1999 my mother moved into her new home in Campredon on the very night of the terrible storm which produced the worst floods in living memory. The towns of the Minervois valley were inundated and there were several deaths. During the night large boulders could be heard rumbling down the lane by the side of the house, swept on by the flood waters. The following morning the village looked like a war-zone. The small bridge connecting the village to the main road was littered with storm debris and all the streams around the village had been deeply scoured. The clean-up operation went on for months afterwards.

The more northerly ridge of the valley is the battleground between two distinct weather systems; the westerly maritime weather of the Atlantic and the southerly Mediterranean. Depending on the season each system wins out. In the late autumn and winter the valley is often blanketed in heavy cloud moving in from the west; in the summer the hot sun burns back the cloud from the ridge, allowing sunshine to reach the valley.  But all in all, the hills of the Languedoc are the place to be. In high summer the coastal plain bakes in a remorseless sun, reaching temperatures of 35-40 degrees celsius, whereas in the hills the temperature often drops into the mid-high 20s.

Unlike the surrounding hills the valley has no ruins from the Cathar period, no lofty citadels to defend the pass up to the col. Further west are the linked fortifications of Lastours, defending the southerly approaches to the Montagne Noire, comprising a series of walled bastions along the hillside. Today these ruins stand as an impressive and picturesque monument, framed by rocky slopes and cypress trees (photo).

Equally impressive is the ancient citadel of Minerve, a walled town standing upon a narrow promontory above the Cesse Gorge (photo). From the road between St. Julian and Minerve there are tracks along the edge of the Gorge and some lead down into the bottom.

From Minerve itself you can wander along the course of the river bed, partially dry in summer, exploring the natural limestone tunnels. There are several large cave systems in the wider region.  Both La Grotte de Limousis in the hills near Carcassonne and La Grotte de Devezes (photo) at Courniou, near St. Pons, have guided tours. Of singular interest is the le Gouffre de Cabrespine, a giant underground chasm not far from Limousis.

Our search for walks has taken us north into the heartland of the Parc Naturel Regional de Haut Lanquedoc, centred on the townof Salvatat sur Agout. Taking the road up to the col we drive on to the town of St. Pons and then there is a steep twenty minute climb with numerous switch-backs until you reach to top of the Espinouse mountains, above the 1000 metre line. Once on the top we let the car run slowly until the engine has cooled down.  Here there are numerous way-marked walks with splendid views through a landscape of mixed pine and deciduous forest and man-made lakes or reservoirs.

One of the longest footpaths in Europe runs through the Park, the Grand Randonnee 7 – The Vosges-Pyrenees Trail from southern Alsace to Andorra. The route of the GR7 runs approximately along the line of the watershed between the Atlantic and Mediterranean basins. A portion of this trail runs down to the small town of Labastide Rouairoux and southwards into the valley adjacent to ours. Next year we intend to walk this stage of the route from Labastide and cut back to Campredon across the ridge separating the two valleys. Labastide, we have recently discovered, is a good centre for walking. From the town there are several walks including the ‘Route de la Trois Cols,’ leading up into the Espinouse before descending back to the town. Again, it’s one we shall tackle on our next visit.

Just when you think you have exhausted the possibilities something new pops up. Friends in the village have also notified us of a book of local walks in the Minervois valley, prepared by the tourist office in Olonzac. So we shall also be heading south to explore the lower slopes and vineyards of the Lanquedoc.However after the two-day drive from England it’s great to be able to go for a simple walk from our front door.

Each time we return we take a short hike up the side of the valley to a favourite spot on the ridge, where we can look both up the valley to the col or away down to the coast. It has become a family pilgrimage for here we have built a small cairn from the rocks which litter the ground. Each time we come back we rebuild it after the ravages of winter. Others have also helped to maintain it so I guess it’s here to stay now.

Of course it’s not possible to conclude a piece about visiting France without mentioning food and drink and good places to stay. The Languedoc is one of the major wine producing areas of France and we have one or two caves nearby where we can purchase local Minervois wines at reasonable prices. La Liviniere has two caves selling good wines from local cooperatives.  The Auberge in Ferrals La Montagne has simple rooms and a decent restaurant. The Commune has spent some money doing it up and there is a now a pleasant terrace by the road where you can enjoy a good lunch. The restaurant is under new management; a young couple who are offering simple freshly cooked meals.  There is also a Chambre d’Hote in the centre of the village and numerous Gites in the valley including three in Campredon itself. Further afield there is an excellent restaurant with rooms at Minerve: the Relais Chantovent, which serves great food of the region in an elegant setting with a terrace overlooking the Cesse Gorge. Other favourite places to eat are Les Meuliers in La Liviniere and the auberge, Les Acacias, at Courniou-les-Grottes. Ferrals itself has a small open air market on Sundays, running from the early summer through to the autumn, where you can sample artisanal produce, including locally produced honey and a fine goat’s cheese from a farm higher up the valley.



About jonathanspain

My blog reflects my interests in local history in South Cambridgeshire, growing your own food, and walking in the district and elsewhere
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