One fine spring day

The village of Vieussan clings to its perch in the foreground. Behind it is the mass of Mont Caroux (the Sleeping Lady) in the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Languedoc.

A lovely day in this corner of paradise
Saturday, 3 April was our last day of freedom in France— our third covid lockdown was looming. The weather was fine, and a small group of us decided to have a day trip, driving nearly two hours to begin our adventure in the hamlet of Douch, situated north of us in the sprawling Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Languedoc.

Before putting our boots on the trail, we were enticed by the hamlet, built entirely of local stone. We spent a happy half-hour strolling past ancient structures, some in perfect condition, others showing the effects of time and gravity with warps and dips and missing stones. Douch is a place right out of a fairy tale.

A charming house in the hamlet of Douch.
Claude standing in the doorway of a stone garage in Douch.
A simple and picturesque door latch.

Leaving town, we passed a bronze sculpture of a mouflon, the local wild sheep that is distantly related to the bighorn sheep of North America. The trail got steep in a hurry. It was a beautiful blue-sky day, but the wind was biting, so we had all begun our outing feeling a bit chilled. Climbing steadily uphill, though, is a great way to warm up, and soon we were stopping to shed jackets and sip water.

We were walking through a forest that wasn’t quite yet ready to relinquish its hold on winter; there was no sign of green leaves, although thick patches of vivid green moss were abundant on rocks and the trunks of trees, creating an elegant and peaceful space reminiscent of a Japanese garden.

The start of our trail took us uphill through this picturesque forest of trees and granite. Rosie said it looked like a Japanese ski area, which is an apt description. Also: she has skied in Japan.

The granite here is entrancing; it contains more mica than the Nevada-California granite I know well. Everything twinkled in the sunlight. The trail looked like glitter had been dusted over it, and every stone sparkled like a jewel. Between the cute stone houses, the mossy forest, and the glittering rocks, I think all of us felt like we were walking through some kind of fairy land.

Soon the trail topped out and we were delivered into new terrain: a flatter area that was dense with huge beech trees.

In a forest of huge beech trees, this tree flexes its arm, er, branch.
The roots of this massive beech tree had me thinking of a raptor’s talons.

Some time around noon and right on cue, stomachs began to growl. We found a warm spot in the sun, sitting on the stone foundation of a hiker’s refuge, built in 1895 to provide shelter for folks traveling on foot. After a lovely lunch, we explored the shelter and then continued walking.

Claude playing with one of the (empty) bottles on offer in the hiker’s shelter where we stopped for lunch in the sun.

Walking a little further brought us to another world, one made of grand vistas and rocky cliffs, endless blue sky with a few puffy white clouds in the distance. Several villages nestled along the river far below our feet. We consulted a fine 1930s-era table d’orientation, one of those large maps done in enameled ceramic, indicating points of interest in the wide arc of our view.

From the southwestern edge of Mont Caroux (the shoulder of the Sleeping Lady), the world seemed to be at our feet. This view looks west toward the Pyrenees, hidden by clouds on this day.

We clambered around on the rocks and enjoyed our wind-whipped view, and then we turned eastward, entering another forest. Eventually we came to a boardwalk snaking through yet another new landscape. After Claude and Maryse spoke of the tourbière (a word definitely not in my vocabulary until this day) and the long history of humans using this area and others like it throughout Europe, it finally dawned on me that this is a high-elevation peat bog. I’ve read much about Europe’s peat bogs, but this was the first time I’d seen one. I was grateful for the elevated wooden boardwalk, because the dense grasses and dark water did not look like fun walking.

It looks like a standard grassland, but those clumps of grass hide the dark waters of a peat bog. This one has been used by humans for thousands of years.
Just above the peat bog is a gentle climb to the high point of Mont Caroux, a wind-whipped point at 1,090 meters (3,576 feet).

We descended the mountain and returned to our car for what turned into a wonderful, meandering trip back to Bize. Almost immediately, we stopped again just below Douch to visit the charming church, the Église Sainte-Marie-de-Douch, which has its roots in the year 966, but most of the structure is a few hundred years newer than that. Unfortunately, like many a small country church, this one was closed, but we found an interesting story in the churchyard.

It turns out that this church was the site of one of the first French Resistance actions against the Germans in World War II. In August 1943, a small band of maquisards* had come here to get some basic military training, thinking that they’d found a suitably hidden place for such activity. Unfortunately, the Germans stationed nearby found out, and arrived early one morning for a battle. Of the original 47 maquis, two were killed and four more taken hostage (and eventually shot by the Gestapo in Toulouse); the larger German group of 200 lost eight, with another 12 injured. More important, the rest of the maquis managed to escape.

After the war, General Charles de Gaulle wrote in his Mémoires de Guerre: “Le 10 septembre 1943, à Douch dans l’Hérault, se déroule un combat en règle qui semble une sorte de signal. Une compagnie Allemande est mise en fuite par les nôtres, et laisse sur le terrain son capitaine et 10 soldats morts. Il est vrai qu’à la Borie, le Maquis vainqueur sera a son tour décimé et son chef, le Lieutenant de Roquemaurel, tué à l’ennemi…”

“On September 10, 1943, at Douch in the Hérault region, a full-scale battle took place that seemed to be a kind of signal. A German company was put to flight by our troops, leaving its captain and 10 soldiers dead on the field. It is true that at La Borie, the victorious Maquis was in turn decimated and its leader, Lieutenant de Roquemaurel, killed by the enemy…”

A marble inscription outside the church quotes General De Gaulle’s Mémoires de Guerre, in which he mentions the actions of the maquis at Douch in 1943.

*Maquis, from Wikipedia: “Rural guerrilla bands of French Resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Initially, they were composed of young, mostly working class men who had escaped into the mountains and woods to avoid conscription into Vichy France’s compulsory work service to provide forced labor for Germany.”

Back in the car
We wound our way down the mountainside, pausing for a brief look around the village of Combes, another stone town clinging to the side of the steep mountain. Our favorite find here was closed: an auberge that boasts a lovely deck with a great view and a mouth-watering menu. I think each of us made a mental note to consider returning for a meal.

Our final stop was in Berlou, another perched village. This one, however, is in the midst of the AOP St Chinian wine region, and produces some fine wines. We were able to have a short tasting, bought some wines, and then realized that we were pushing our luck with the curfew that would start around 45 minutes later. Claude drove rather too fast, but he did get us all back home well before the curfew, each of us savoring a remarkably diverse and rich day.

Our last stop of the day was in Berlou, and I came home with this beauty.

Parting shot
I had invited two friends to lunch, women who are on their own and new to the area. It’s spring, and the asparagus is rich and wonderful, so I built a menu around that: lightly-sautéed asparagus, wild rice and salmon. When I sent the emailed invitation, I asked if there was anything that anyone didn’t eat, and said it would be easy to change the menu from the salmon I was planning to serve.

A week later, on the morning of the lunch, I was about to step into the shower when I received an email from one of the guests, saying that she’d forgotten to tell me that she’s a vegetarian, and is also gluten- and dairy-intolerant. I thought, “Why in the world did she wait until a few hours before lunch to tell me this?”

Then I got a second message: “Also, no nuts, pulses, fish or vegetables of any kind!” What in the world?

I replied to say that I wasn’t sure I’d have time to get to the store, so maybe she could help me with foods she could eat. Without waiting for an answer, I took a shower and got into a bit of a lather while I lathered up, completely forgetting that the day was April 1.

Well, Laura got me well and good, a fine joke!

April Fool’s Day in France is called Poisson d’avril (April fish), and the literal celebration of it involves sticking a paper or plastic fish to someone’s back. Usually in schools. Teachers are known to return home with whole schools of fish attached to the back of their clothes. Me? I served the fish for lunch.


Song of summer

Garden Toad
A toad the size of my hand surprised me one morning when I was watering my garden.

 

Heard from my terrace
You know that old story about how city people can’t fall asleep in the countryside because it’s too quiet? Well, that doesn’t hold water here in the South of France. It is not quiet; all manner of things are making noise. I’m here today to talk about two of the noisemakers: cicadas and frogs.

The cicadas awaken when the sun pops over the hills and begins to warm the earth. All day long, every day through the summer, the cicadas sing their amazing song. That music can get quite loud, up to 120 decibels, enough to damage human ears at close range. The cicada—cigale in French—is among the longest-lived insects, and it is recognized as a symbol of longevity and metamorphosis.

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New discoveries: wine

Barrel Stain
Wine barrels in the cave of the Pierre Fil winery in the South of France.

 

Checking out the bottling truck
A friend and I recently visited a local vineyard that we quite like, and while there, we learned that the bottling truck would arrive a few days later. I’ve been intrigued by these trucks since I first landed in the South of France, and had been hoping for an opportunity to photograph one in action.

Annabelle, our host, was very welcoming of the idea, giving me a big smile and opening her arms to say that I would be welcome to watch, learn and take a few photographs.

Gasp! You mean the wines aren’t tenderly bottled by hand at each winery?
Some wineries still do their own bottling, but it’s an expensive, time-consuming and error-prone process. Here’s a list of the necessary steps: clean and dry the bottles, fill with wine, cork and cap, add labels, place bottles in cartons. Each step requires its own machine and/or operator. The equipment is precise, it needs to be maintained, and it can break down during bottling. There is also the complication that different wine varietals require different bottles, along with their own unique labels. If someone inexperienced is operating the machine for corking the wine or for placing the labels, things can go wrong, which means that while the wine inside might be perfectly fine, the bottle doesn’t look good enough to sell, so it’s set aside, and if that happens too often, there’s a problem with profits. Of course, the entire process must be done under strict hygiene restrictions. It all adds up to a nightmare of organization that many vintners are happy to hand off to the experts.

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Coronapéro: partying during quarantine

Apéro
A group of my friends got together via Zoom for a virtual cocktail party, to see each others’ faces and hear our voices, to share our stories, and to spend a few minutes feeling a little less isolated.

 

Last night several friends and I used Zoom to gather for apéritifs—called apéro here in France. We’ve only been on lockdown for less than a week, and we already feel isolated, especially those of us who live alone. The Zoom party turned out to be a fine way to connect with our friends, hear each others’ stories, ask questions, and drink a toast to each other. < Clink! >

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The beach in winter

Dune 1
This miniature sand dune reminds me of a zebra. This is about three feet long, or just under one meter.

A day at the beach
Off we went on a gorgeous blue-sky Sunday, headed toward the coastal étangs southwest of Gruissan. An étang is a small lake or pond, quite often man-made for purposes such as agriculture, salt harvesting, or even medieval civic water projects. On this day, we parked just beyond the local saltworks (a salin), which has probably been in use since Roman times.

We walked along the narrow paths defining the rectangular ponds, eyeing pink flamingos in the distance. Eventually, we came to a wide expanse of wild beach. The day was cool, and we were happy to have the warm sun, also feeling lucky to not have the normal high winds.

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Fall foraging in the forest

Day's Harvest
One hour’s harvest of red pine mushrooms, also called saffron milk cap.

 

One hour’s harvest of red pine mushrooms, also called saffron milk cap.

Mushrooms and Chestnuts, or Champignons et Châtaignes
Last week we donned our “wet forest” walking clothes and drove up into the hills behind town, in search of the edibles our forests could offer that day. It had rained two days before, and rain brings thoughts of the mushrooms that will appear shortly afterward.

Our first parking spot was in an area of scrub oak and some tall pine trees. It was the pines that captured our attention, because they mark the place to search for the vivid orange Lactaire Délicieux, also known as red pine mushroom or saffron milk cap.

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