Sunday, 25 April 2010

Notes from the Haut Languedoc

I'm writing this from Lodeve in Herault, France, a place I've known since I was twelve, when my estranged mother bought a steep terraced vineyard on the road from here to the hamlet of Les Plans (The Maps). We used to camp there in the two mazets (shepherds' huts) in summer holiday, getting to know her. The vineyard was a Christmas present to my brother and myself, just a drawing on a card which had advent type windows with maps she'd drawn of a half-hectare of land with a stream, huts, vines, walnut, olive and cherry trees and an underwood. We used to shower under the cascade at the bottom of the steep terraces, wash our clothes in the stream and go crayfish trapping in the pools. 

Twelve years ago my mother died and I came to Lodeve to see the land she left me. It has little monetary value and the vines are long gone but it felt very strange owning it so I've kept it wild. The far mazet had vanished into the sous-bois and brambles but the first was still there, even some of our furniture. Where there was once a vineyard below us there is now a house, but the farm next door is still there and the farmer's wife remembered me, saying that seeing me again was like "a mountain meeting another mountain". I visited the Mayor in Les Plans, the same mayor who three decades ago had delivered milk in a horse-drawn cart. 

Seven years ago, two months after I met my second husband, we came here for a holiday, that August when it was so hot people died. We sweltered in this two star hotel then, and explored the surrounding landscape which I had previously ventured onto on my own by bus. We drove over the Grands Causses – great moors on the limestone plateaus, and we fell in love with the solitude and silence of them. So on this visit, almost cancelled because of the Iceland volcanic eruption which disrupted flights, driving our car from London, we have ranged further, a hundred kilometres a day, exploring the Cevennes in the Massif Central, and the gorges I have always wanted to see – the Tarn and Jontes. 

Our first excursion was to see the  wolves of Gevaudan in the Lozere area. On the way I teased that they were putting on their wolf costumes and practising howling. This area is famous for the Bete du Gevaudan, a wolf which had interbred perhaps with a hyena and eaten many people. There are 100 wolves in a semi-wild state in this park. As soon as we entered and looked into the Siberian wolf reserve, the limping alpha male assumed a howling stance and all the others joined in. The sound was nothing at all like it is in films, it seemed to surround us and each wolf had a different pitch. They looked enthralled with their singing. Then they all arranged their tails according to a strict hierarchical code and the alpha male and female strutted about checking that all was in order, the lowest ranking with tails tucked under cowering hindquarters.

In a corner of the park, past the Mongolian red wolves, the Arctic, Polish and Canadian packs, three males were isolated, with huge open wounds on their lower backs, the result of attempts to challenge the boss.

We also saw two green lizards in the park, one was a male with a sky-blue throat. I hadn't seen one of those since my childhood in the vineyard, when they used to flash across the path between our two mazets.

The next day we drove to the Gorge de la Jonte because B had read that it is famous for its griffon vultures. We recrossed the viaduct of Millau (highest in the world) which connects the Causse du Larzac with the Causse du Mejean, and swung around the hairpin bends of the deep and vast Jonte gorges, and reached the Maison des Vautoures. I inched out onto lookout paths, desperately clinging to the rock face. It was worth the vertigo though, to reach the terrace with telescopes aimed at various nests and perches where we could watch the griffons.

Tomorrow we hope to go to the Tarn. Yesterday we drove up on to 'the balconies of the Midi' as they say here – the Larzac moors which overlook Les Plans and Lodeve, and peered over the vast panorama towards the lower Languedoc while a nightingale and cuckoos sang. On the way up we passed a house called Chantoiseau – Birdsong.

I hope to post photos from the trip when I get back to London from this land of The Maps.