Sunday, August 10, 2008

From St Cirq to Provence

Mont Dore, Puy en Velay, Millau Viaduct to L'Isle sur la Sorgue

We were booked into a very staid and traditional hotel in Mont Dore. We rejected the room on the third floor, only access via three circular staircases and settled for a smaller one on the first floor, age, arthritis and weight of luggage being important factors.

Storm clouds behind La Grande Hotel Mont Dore

We had travelled from the vertical village of St Cirq-Lapopie, high above the Lot River and its limestone cliffs, through country that changed dramatically. After cliffs and rivers surrounded by fields and crops, and swathes of the red poppies I had been looking for, as well as vineyards, we suddenly cut into more mountainous grazing territory, surrounded by forests. The poppies gave way to a yellow broom type plant, the crops to horned cattle, no apparent geese to fatten for pate de foie and absolutely no grape vines. The Auvergne has very few wines but lots of cheeses and sausages.

We were situated in the volcanic region of France the home of the “puy” or volcanic dome (and of Puy lentils for the gourmets). Mont Dore is almost alpine and people come here to ski in winter and walk the mountains in summer. They also come to take the cure at the thermal baths which sit in faded splendour in the centre of town. Thermal baths because there is still something volcanic going on down there to heat the water; it isn’t quite as dormant as it seems. We could see some of the mountain tops and edges of old volcanos clothed in green grasses and lit by the afternoon sun. The tops of the mountains were clothed in cloud which was moving quickly across the sky with a hint of thunder. Got a great storm with thunder and lightning during the night.

A tiny, overly managed and landscaped cascade runs through the town. It is the beginning of the Dordogne River which was in flood further down. In Dordogne it is a large, swift river with high cliffs and fortified chateaux which were fought over by the British and French during the 100 years war, so some were built by the British. Beynac (built originally by Richard the Lionheart) faces Castlenaud which was French.

We travelled to the top of Puy le Dome and looked out on the grassy slopes of a number of smaller volcanos with holes in the top, also carpeted in grass.

The mast on Puy le Dome

Looking out on the other volcanic domes

The weather was sunny at first and we got to see the mountain looking green, then clouds boiled up in huge heaps and the day ended in thunder and heavy rain.

We settled in a newly renovated small hotel in Puy en Velay, quite sparse and modern but close to the old town. We had a few days there and could see all the exciting things that get built on any old bit of volcano that happens to stick up. There is a fortress built on one, though we didn’t climb up it. There is one here with a chapel, one with a red statue of virgin and child cast from the melted cannon from Sebastopol (giant size, you can climb up inside) and another of St Joseph and the Christ child, also huge.

From left to right, the chapel, virgin statue and cathedral on their rocks

Notre Dame de France cast from cannon from Sebastopol

We climbed the many stairs to the cathedral and tottered back down the slippery flint cobbles, me hanging on to Nick. A very steep town indeed!

Door in cathedral cloister

The road we followed had many of these signs, each commemorating a road death and giving the age of the person. Sometimes there were three or more at one spot. A good reminder to drive carefully.

We drove to Millau through the Tarn gorge which is absolutely spectacular as you follow the Tarn river through magnificent towering rocks and fantastic formations.

Into the Gorges du Tarn

Mountainous overhang of the road

Then two nights at Creissels, near Millau, visiting the cheese caves of Roquefort (yum!) and photographing the viaduct at Millau from every possible angle.

Millau Viaduct

The hotel we stayed at was an old chateau, first mentioned in 800 and something, with bits rebuilt at various times after fires and so on, but we had the Bishops’ room, so called because several bishops came to stay in the nineteenth century. Really a very interesting room with an ancient, creaky parquet floor held with wooden pegs, and wooden treatment of all the doors and window surrounds with carved wood which matched the extraordinary wall recess of curtained bed space and two cupboards which filled one wall. Obviously old and obviously built to fit, it also contained a gorgeous carved wooden bed covered with one of those French embroidered coverlets.

The Bishops' Room joinery

The corner turret room had been turned into a bathroom with tiled floors and walls. Very nice. The restaurant in the vaulted cellars was also lovely, with chairs covered in tapestry and very good food.

Best of all though, was the view out the window of the Viaduct.

This is the highest bridge in the world, with one pylon taller than the Eiffel tower from ground to bridge deck. The towers on top make it much taller. Just imagine 7 Eiffel towers across Paris with a road on the top and then suspension towers on top of that. This thing is so big that even having driven across and boated under it, it still seems somewhat unreal. It is also built across two valleys which have a wind problem, so that high winds might affect the stability of the bridge and the safety of things going across. To counteract the first they built it like a reversed aeroplane wing so that wind across it pushes it down onto the pylons rather than lifting it. To counteract the second they close the bridge if the wind gets too high and have warning signs and wind socks. There are also deflectors all along the guard rail which have the effect of pushing the wind up and over the traffic without interfering with the view. Very French! No sense at all of height when driving over it. Underneath is a different matter. We took a flat bottomed boat down the river while our guide Chris told us all about the bridge and the history of the village in the gorge. He held the boat in the shadow of the bridge while we all took photos, (most of which didn’t work because of the large light contrast between the sky and the dark underside of the bridge. Ah well...)

Three people have base jumped off it and there have also been three suicides. It is possible to walk up inside each pylon, not that they allow it. I think this is still the most magic bit of engineering and the most graceful of bridges.

To get to L’Isle sur la Sorgue in Provence Nick decided on the gorges de la Jonte. That was probably the most hair-raising drive I have been on. Instead of being almost at river level you are waaay above. The French don’t seem to believe in railings on the edges of dangerous roads and there really wasn’t room for two way traffic to move freely. The road turned and looped and we were on the outside when we met other cars. I was most grateful when it finished with us in one piece and all four tyres firmly on the road. I was also grateful that there wasn’t time to take the high corniche road along the hilltops and we settled for a fairly major road with white lines down the middle. Quite frankly I was too scared to ask to stop to take photos. There were to be later roads that were just as high!


Margaret said...

Found your blog via Tripadvisor. Just read this post today sitting in our room in le Grand Hotel, le Mont Dore. Just had to comment on the coincidence! Also from here we are heading to le Puy en Velay and thence to the
Luberon and beyond. Your travelogue is going to be most helpful! Margaret also from Australia

Margaret said...

Found your blog via Tripadvisor. Just read this post today sitting in our room in le Grand Hotel, le Mont Dore. Just had to comment on the coincidence! Also from here we are heading to le Puy en Velay and thence to the
Luberon and beyond. Your travelogue is going to be most helpful! Margaret also from Australia