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.


Pedometer for a year

Much has been written about seeing 2020 fully in the rearview mirror, and I don’t have much new to add, which has left me pondering just what to do with this January blog post.

As the year was lurching to a close, I spent close to six weeks not being able to walk much, and since walking is my primary exercise, I was eager to get my feet back onto the trail. That happened a few weeks ago, and I’ve been racking up the kilometers as much as time and weather permit. On one such walk, it occurred to me that I could tell a story of 2020 through some of my walks of the past year.

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Old stone walls

Where there is rocky soil, there will be stone walls. I don’t know why, but I love these things that are built of stones. I have enough photographs for at least two stories, and this first one is to introduce you to some of the walls and other structures near where I live. Nearly every day, I pass one or another of these sites as I walk around the hills.

Before there were machines, anyone who wanted to farm the soil had to first do the hard work of removing the larger rocks. By hand.

You can picture it: there is a plot of land that someone would like to plant with food crops. The land is rocky, which makes farm work difficult, so the first chore is to remove all those rocks. The whole family spends as much time as it takes—days, weeks, months, a lifetime—to move the rocks away from the field. As time passes, there are growing piles of stones at the edges of the field.

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The smell of fresh-baked bread

Cauduro Fresh Loaves
Can you smell it? Warm, freshly-baked bread cools on racks right after being taken from the ancient bread oven.

Nine hours of bread: part one
We began the day with a drive that climbed high into the hills north of town, taking increasingly tiny roads and finally arriving at the hamlet of Cauduro for their bread feast. I have a weakness for tiny roads and secrets to be discovered, and this day’s outing was a dandy example.

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Il Palio, Part 2

I closed the last post by saying that the world of the Siena contradaioli (the members of the various contrade) is almost entirely focused on the two days a year on which there’s a horse race, which today is referred to as the Palio, or in Italian, “Il Palio.” Now it’s time to learn more about the Palio itself.

Horses
It’s all about the horses! From left, a piece of street art in Siena; a horse on an Etruscan tombstone; a copper weathervane.

 

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Il Palio, Part 1

Siena, Italy, is a city with two personalities: a successful modern culture layered onto a rich, storied medieval foundation that functions today much as it did 800 years ago. I love it, and recently returned from a visit there to experience the crazy bareback horse race known as the Palio. There’s so much to talk about that I’m planning to divide my story into two blog posts; this one will tell the background story, and the next will cover the Palio itself.

A long history, in brief
Historians tell us that Etruscans founded Siena a few hundred years B.C., and then the Romans arrived in the first century B.C. But that’s a little dry and the legend contains more intrigue: it holds that Siena was founded by Senio and Ascanio, sons of Remus and nephews of Romulus, the founder of Rome. Romulus murdered his brother, whose sons then fled Rome. The twins took a statue of the she-wolf suckling the infants Romulus and Remus, made the symbol their own, and founded Siena; today, these statues are seen all over town.

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