Road Trip, Last Day

Thanks to all of you who have been following along on my road trip through a lovely part of France. I had planned to make a couple of stops on my way home today, but when the tires began to roll on asphalt, I decided that I had done enough for this adventure. I’ll save those stops for another trip, another day.

I did return to Laguiole, to the cheese shop, to get some things to bring home, and had one more walk around town. I also stopped in Recoules-d’Aubrac one more time to see if the Templar church was open (it wasn’t).

For the past week, I’ve been seeing a lot of raptors flying over the pastures where the cows are grazing. First I identified the peregrine falcons. Then I realized that the big ones I was seeing were griffon vultures, with the vulture’s telltale upturned wingtip. (I saw a griffon vulture next to the highway today, about 12 feet from me, sitting on a guardrail.) And today I realized that what I saw the most of are swallow-tail kites, beautiful and mesmerizing.

With that satisfying piece of info, I turned the car for home, content to close out one splendid driving tour.

I began the trip with Maryse and Claude, who are always prepared with interesting places to see. They are wonderful and fun travel companions. We saw cute towns, including many on the list of “Most Beautiful Villages in France.” We visited one museum and saw museum-quality delights around every corner. We ate well, perhaps a little too well. We laughed a lot.

After five days together, we went our separate ways, and I turned my car toward the volcanic region of Puy-de-Dôme. Very low, very dark clouds brought three days of rain, but when the sun came out on the fourth day, I learned what all the fuss was about. That is one gorgeous region, with so much to be explored, preferably on foot.

Then I headed south, spending a few days quite close to where the trip had begun two weeks earlier. I was in the Aubrac, home to the lovely Aubrac cattle, a landscape that manages to be both rocky and verdant, and a lot of pilgrims on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques.

One of the things I like about traveling alone is that it’s easier to start talking to people, and you never know what you might find out. Every day I met interesting people and had interesting conversations; we shared tips and shared laughter. One couple invited me to stay with them when I travel to their region. I met people from other parts of France and other parts of Europe. These encounters added depth and richness to a trip that was already brim-full of beauty, wonder and adventure.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been talking about all the green. Here are a few last photos, plus a nowhere-near complete list of shades of green. Do you have some greens to add?

My first glimpse of the velvety green Cantal.
The steeper volcanic hills of Puy-de-Dôme.
British RacingPistachioPhthaloPersian
Cattle country

Road Trip, Day 13

Fabulous light from a stained-glass window in the Abbatiale Saint-Austremoine.

This was another day where I didn’t make a lot of photographs. I’ll tell you why and show you a few photos from today, and then the rest of the post will include photos from the previous week that didn’t already make it into the blog. It’s a grab-bag of imagery—have fun!

This is my last night on the road; tomorrow I’ll set my course for home. Depending on the weather and my inclinations in the moment, I may take a detour along the way to see a couple of towns I found on the map. I’ll do one more post tomorrow to summarize the trip and sign off from the adventure of daily posting.

Today was a day that had its own to-do list, the last day to see things in this area before I head home. I returned to the cute village of Recoules-d’Aubrac, in the hope of getting into that 12th century church, but still no luck.

Next up was a visit to the atelier (studio) of a potter whose work I’d spotted last week. I called her to see if I could meet her in her studio, and today was the day. I quite like her work, and bought a few things from her, while playing peek-a-boo with her 17-month-old daughter.

I enjoyed a delightful lunch in Laguiole at a place named Le Bardière, which has a fresh, inventive, delicious menu and a friendly staff. After that, I’d planned to visit a shop a few doors away, named 12 Whisky, a local distillery. Alas, they were closed, so it goes onto the list for the next time I’m in the area.

The Cantal (top shelf) and Laguiole (bottom shelf) in the fantastic cheese shop named Les Buronniers.
More of the local cheeses available for sale at Les Buronniers. Yum!

I stopped into a shop called Les Buronniers (the fellows I mentioned yesterday, who used to live all summer in a stone buron in the mountains), with the plan of buying some cheese to take home. But the clerk told me that since I don’t have a proper cooler for the car, she thought it would be better for me to return tomorrow when I leave. So, that’s now first on the list for tomorrow morning.

I stopped to fill up on gas, and then took a meandering route back to my lodging in Aubrac, turning down more of those tiny, twisty country roads. Puffy white clouds skittered across the blue sky, sending their own shadows dancing over the rocky land. I saw more cows, and more of the raptors that seem to follow the cows; there are definitely peregrine falcons, and there’s another, larger bird (vulture?). It really is lovely here.

And now for a few new photos from the past week.
I was zipping along the mountain roads, returning to Le Mont Dore, when I rounded a bend and saw this. Who lost his/her boot? I’ve no idea, but it made the scene!
From my day atop Puy de Sancy: I made this photo to show what the French trail blazes look like. The national system for marking the extensive system of walking trails is remarkably well-organized and well-maintained. The top yellow line indicates a local day-hike (PR for Petite Randonnée). The lower blaze in white and red indicates one of the GR routes (Grande Randonnée), the much longer multi-day or even multi-week treks of France. I have no idea about the yellow dot. And yes, I realize that it looks like this trail drops off into the air, but I found that it doesn’t.
The next day I drove to Aubrac, where I spotted this Citroën 2CV. This car never fails to put a smile on my face.
I know, this is a little hard to read. But it’s cool, so I included it. It’s a piece of marble carved with various paths from other parts of Europe to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.
Other kids play with their food. I play with light refracting through my drinking glass.
A column capital from the 11th-century Église Sainte-Marie in Nasbinals, depicting warriors.
A carved figure on a corbel of the Église Saint-Saturnin in tiny Recoules-d’Aubrac. I’d read that there are many more of these carvings inside, but I was locked out. This 12th-century church was built and used by the Knights Templar.

Parting shot
I’d stopped for gasoline on my way out of Laguiole today, finding a station next to a grocery store. While I was pumping gas, I noticed a car pull up to what at first glance had looked like a bus stop (I really wasn’t paying much attention). When I’d finished and paid, I turned to look and realized that the bus stop is actually a drive-up laundromat. I’ve never seen anything like this, but I think it’s a brilliant idea!

A drive-up laundromat in Laguiole. Eight kilograms equals just under 18 pounds.

Road Trip, Day 12

Calves! As I drove past this field, I saw a mamma licking her calf; by the time I found a place to stash the car and walk back, they were all having a siesta. It’s still cute.

Today’s forecast virtually guaranteed rain, so I hopped in the car to explore some of the tiny roads in the region—one of my favorite ways to see a new area. My plan was to see as much as I could before the skies opened up, but they never did. It was another full day.

I began by taking a turnoff from the larger road between Nasbinals and Laguiole, and found myself almost immediately in terrain that was even rockier than what I saw yesterday. I turned up a narrow track toward a place called Recoules d’Aubrac.

Recoules is an immaculate and lovely stone village/hamlet that boasts a big claim to fame: it was founded by the Knights Templar. I wanted to visit the Templar church, but it was closed (I’ll see if I can get in before I leave the region). But even without the church, it’s a lovely place to have a stroll.

I’ve been talking to you about lauzes, the thick, flat stones that are used for roofing around here. I finally found a place where I could photograph it for you, so you can see what I’m talking about.

Here’s a fabulous roof that’s covered in rounded lauzes (tiles made of stone, often a thicker piece of slate).
Here’s a closer view of the lauzes tiles. Like slate, if they’re of good quality and well-installed, they can last a lifetime (or beyond).
A closeup of the extremely durable lauzes tiles for roofs.

Like all the other settlements in the area, nearly all the buildings are made of stone. Here are two from the village of Recoules-d’Aubrac.

The windows and door on this house have exposed stones that probably date to the building of the house, while the remainder of the exterior finish is probably “newer” (even though it, too, looks plenty old).
This place looks abandoned, although it’s still oozing charm.

As you walk or drive through this area, you begin to notice large stone huts in the hills. These are burons, and they represent a way of life that has all but disappeared. In the summer, men would move the cattle into the hills (this is called transhumance); the buron was a home base. The structure was built into the hillside, to take advantage of the cooler temperatures provided by the earth. The buron provided a simple home for the men working with these animals, as well as the work space for producing and storing the cheese. These men were called buronniers.

This is the ancient method of production of Cantal and Laguiole cheese. Laguiole cheese dates to the 12th century, and its younger form (tome fraîche) is what is used to make the local dish called aligot (cheese and potatoes, a perfect combination).

Today, many of the burons are abandoned, and others have become popular restaurants that typically specialize in… yes, aligot! It turns out to be difficult to get a reservation, so I have to save that experience for my next trip to the Aubrac.

I saw this buron yesterday on my drive along winding, narrow roads.
I love turning down an unknown road, preferably small, and seeing where it will take me. Today I found a road that turned into a dirt road, although that’s a generous description. It was made of small stones, larger than pebbles, that sometimes made a good driving surface and sometimes sank like a soft pillow. Anyway, treasures are often to be found along such roads, and this buron was one such treasure.
A front view of the same buron. The cows in the fields across the way watched as I walked up and down the road to make photographs. I wonder what they were thinking as they watched.
Some of the stone walls I mentioned yesterday, many of which look like someone just dumped stones in a pile that eventually turned into a line. I’ve no doubt there’s more to it than that, but it looks a bit random.
I stood on a stone bridge that crosses this waterway south of Nasbinals.
This is the village of Aubrac, where I’m staying for a few days.

Road Trip, Day 11

The rocky countryside around Aubrac

I’m spending a few days in the far northeastern corner of the Aveyron, where it meets the Cantal and the Lodève départements. My whole trip has been in cattle country, cows grazing everywhere. I’ve spent much of my life in cattle country, but now I live in goat country, and it really is different. Before I left on this trip, my friend Sue said that Aubrac has beautiful cows, and she’s absolutely right. So, more cow photos coming.

This region is remarkably rocky, and as I drive along the winding roads, I see fields full of rocks of all sizes, many far too large to move without huge equipment. Some of the rocks that are “merely” large have been used to create stone walls. Again there’s something different going on here than where I live: the walls in my home region tend to be drystack walls, but the walls here are much lower and tend to look like someone just dumped the rocks there. I think that’s not actually true, but as I drive past, I find it hard to discern a building technique.

And all those rocks have been used for millennia to build structures in the region, from simple shelters to small houses to castles. This is cattle country, but it’s also rock country.

A lovely old stone barn outside of Laguiole.

It was a gorgeous day, one to be outside as much as possible. I took a drive to nearby Laguiole, famous for its cheese and its knives, and made a lot of stops along the way to admire the countryside.

Two stone houses in the center of Laguiole.
Another stone house in the center of Laguiole. This house and the one above both have lauzes roofs.
I stopped by the town of Saint-Urcize and saw this mermaid on a building with a historic marker. She’s from the 15th-16th century. And we’re a long way from the sea.

I wanted to have a cheese tasting, but that didn’t quite work out. Maryse had suggested that I try to have a tour of a buron, which is an ancient style of stone structure, usually found in relatively remote areas (not in town); they were used in the production and storage of cheese. Alas, they are no longer used for this, and many of them have been abandoned. Others are now restaurants, where one can go for a meal of aligot, the soul food of this region. I’m still working on finding a slot; so far, everyone I’ve called is all booked up. Dang, I guess I’ll have to come back!

Aligot, by the way, is a dish that is made of silky mashed potatoes, to which either Cantal or Laguiole cheese is added in copious amounts, plus some crème fraîche, to create a smooth, elastic sort of cheese porridge. It’s a trick to dish up, because it forms long ribbons that just keep stretching. It is total soul food, perfect for warmth and comfort on cold winter nights. It’s usually served with grilled sausage.

Another thing to do in Laguiole is to peruse their lovely knives. This area has a long-standing reputation for master knife-making, and there are shops all over town displaying their wares.

A display of single-blade folding knives with wooden handles. Knives from Laguiole tend to have a bee on the handle, and in this particular range, each knife has a different bee design.

Other bits I saw today
I love this sign for a car wash in Laguiole. That’s a model of a vintage Citroën, and I have no idea why there’s a propeller. Had to have a photo, though!
A stone wall in Laguiole with spring-green moss growing along the cracks.
An Aubrac cow I saw on my way back at the end of a wonderful day. What a sweet face!

Road Trip, Day 10

The lovely Viaduc de Garabit, with contrails that seem to be celebrating something.

Today was a travel day, as I moved from Le Mont Dore in the Puy-de-Dôme region to Aubrac in the Aveyron. I drove through both the Cantal and the Lozère to get here.

Aubrac, as you can see by the red dot, is right at the point where three départements meet: the Cantal, the Lozère and the Aveyron. And keen eyes will note that I’ve come nearly full-circle since the start of the trip in Saint-Geniez-d’Olt.

I didn’t drive directly here, and along the way I found myself on more than one very tiny country road (which I adore), and I also found myself waiting in traffic stops for road construction. Thus, there wasn’t much exploring being done, and there aren’t a lot of photographs.

My first stop was to visit the lovely Viaduc de Garabit, for which Gustav Eiffel was the construction engineer. This bridge came several years before its famous cousin, the Eiffel Tower in Paris. This was not a straightforward construction project, and it involved some top-notch engineering by the Eiffel team.

The resulting span was used regularly until 2009, when an inspection showed some cracks. They were repaired, and the bridge reopened, with a 10-kilometer per hour speed limit.

I wasn’t sure if I’d manage to see this, and then suddenly, there was a sign for the turnoff. I took it. This is the Viaduc de Garabit, built by Gustav Eiffel in 1882-1884.
Looking straight up one of the towers that supports the flat span, also one end of the bridge’s lone arch. Eiffel’s company had already established itself as among the best engineering firms in the world, so it was easy to reward the company with this project. I spoke with one fellow who said there are only six bridges in Europe with this single-arch design.
This is a view through one of the short tunnels in the heavy footings of the bridge. I made this photograph because the shadow looks a lot like what I imagine a collapsing Eiffel Tower would look like.

The rich green countryside of the Aveyron. This scene is near the town of Nasbinals.
Another view of the countryside, plus the biggest cowbell I’ve ever seen.
This is one part of the old hospital, built in the 15th century.
A lovely old house in Aubrac. It has the lauzes roof that is so common in this region.

Road Trip, Day 9

The summit of Puy de Sancy, 1,885 meters (6,188 feet).

It’s been several days of rain, clouds I could nearly touch, and no sign at all of the mountains I’d come to hike. All that changed when this morning dawned sunny and bright.

I drove to the Sancy téléphérique (cable car), joined around 20 masked people inside, and we all got whooshed up the mountain. Coming out, we were faced with a very long wooden stair path that climbed up and curved toward the summit, adding 110 meters (360 feet).

I made this pano the old-fashioned way: by taking three different photos and superimposing them on top of each other (no digital stitching). I’ve always liked the pre-digital look of this sort of work, and I hadn’t made one in a long time. The view from near the top seemed a good opportunity.

Puy de Sancy is the highest point in the Massif Central, at 1,885 meters, or 6,188 feet. The entire region is volcanic, with around 450 volcanoes dotting the landscape. The youngest of the volcanoes are those in the Chaîne de Puys, which encompasses 80 volcanoes in an area that is only 45 kilometers long by 5 kilometers wide. The highest point in that group is Puy de Dôme at 1,465 meters (4,806 feet).

Here’s an interesting tidbit for anyone who’s been to the Dordogne area: there are two creeks that start on the northern flank of Puy de Sancy. One is named the Dore and the other is named the Dogne. Somewhere a little further along, the two creeks join and become the Dordogne River.

The well-trod marker at the summit of Puy de Sancy.
Here’s a view from just below the summit, showing the dramatic uplift to the rock formations, high above a fertile valley below.
Above and below: more cool rock formations. The volcanic activity in this region covers a big range of time, from one million years ago to only 7,000 years ago.
After I spent some time at the top, I came back down the stairs you can see in the upper left (with little dots of people). In front of me is another path I followed to more cool rock formations.

I found a relatively comfortable rock and sat down to enjoy the moment in time. It was warmer up at the top than it was way down in the parking lot, and there was no wind. It was pretty much a perfect day in this little corner of paradise.

There were masses of swallows swooping around the rocks, and I saw a peregrine falcon suspended in mid-air as it searched for lunch. I could hear the bells of a large herd of cattle that was grazing far, far below me.

The dynamic movement of the volcanic rock was endlessly fascinating in its forms and obvious energy. Where I sat, the cracks in the rocks were filled with thick, spongy moss and flowering heather in several shades of pink.

The lovely weather today brought out a lot of smiles on the faces of people who were happy to be scampering about on steep mountains. I enjoyed conversations with several people, and nearly everyone gave me a smile and a “bonjour” as we passed each other. There were a lot of dogs, too, and I got in some good ear-scratching along with people talking.

What a wonderful day!

I’ll close with a photograph that has nothing to do with the big mountain. It comes from my dinner this evening. It’s light passing through my water glass and the pitcher of water and onto the surface of the placemat.