ROAD TRIP SWITZERLAND and RETURN via NORMANDY
PART 1: SWITZERLAND to the MID CEVENNES FRANCE.
At the invitation of our Swiss friend, Thomas, we returned to Rebstein Switzerland by train from Berlin with a stopover in Munich. Thomas had two weeks leave so with camping gear packed in his car we headed to Le Puy-en-Velay, one of our favourite towns in southern France.
The reason for going to Le Puy was we wanted to show Thomas the Cathedral of Notre-Dame du Puy, the towns Protective Virgin Mary on Corneille Rock and the Chapel of Saint Michel d’Aigulhe. During our Encountering the Past Odyssey Part 1 (December 2012) Bev and I visited this town when we were following in the footsteps of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson. In the 2012 post I said I could easily live in Le Puy and following our second visit I am still of this mind.
CATHEDRAL NOTRE-DAME DU PUY
The cathedral contains architectural styles of every period from the 5th to the 15th century, which is why it has a very individual appearance. It housed many treasures until the French Revolution when all the treasures were destroyed.
The French Revolution was a time of dramatic social and political change in France and lasted for ten years from 1789 to 1799. The aim of the revolutionists was to reduce the power of the monarchists and eliminate the privileges enjoyed by the clergy and this of course included ransacking and destroying religious establishments. During the ten years, France went from a monarchy ruled by King Louis XVl to a republic ruled by the people and then to a dictatorship run by Napolean. The years of turmoil were the bloodiest times in European history.
CHAPEL OF ST MICHEL D’AIGUILHE
The chapel was built in 962AD to celebrate the apostle St James. The chapel is reached by 268 steps carved into the natural rock formation. When Bev and I visited the site in 2012 there was no public access as it was winter, so being able to climb up to the chapel this time was a bonus.
In England during World Wars 1 & 2 gardens like this one below the chapel were called Victory Gardens. The gardens were established on vacant lots, parks or on railway land running adjacent to railway lines. Food produced from such gardens took the pressure off the public food supply and thus indirectly aided the war effort. Another wartime aspect was the fact that they were great civil morale boosters and during WW2 when cities were being bombed it was safer on the garden plot away from the cities where most of the bombing was concentrated. Many communal gardens had, and still do today, have small hut-like cubby houses in which owners can stay a night or two. If one lived in a high-rise apartment, getting to the plot for the day, away from claustrophobic living, and sitting by a fire would be of great benefit.
The caption attached to the bomb crater garden photograph said: Where Nazis sowed death a Londoner and his wife have sown life-giving vegetables in a London Bomb Crater.
During WW2 in Sydney most people had a vegie garden in their backyards too and this was only possible because many Sydneysiders had realized the great Australian dream which was to own a house on a quarter acre block (0.10ha). In our backyard my grandfather had a very productive garden. Grandfather had some unusual habits when attending the garden. The ‘silly old goat’, as my father sometimes called him, would apply liquid manure to the garden from a watering can, in the rain with an umbrella up. At the time I thought this odd but now I realise that applying the homemade fertilizer when it was raining helps the fertilizer get to the root zone. In our backyard there were also fruit trees, (the Blood plums were scrumptious), choko and passion fruit vines and a chicken run. Sometimes I think I am in love with my childhood and the love comes in part from having a backyard.
The backyard above is no quarter acre; it is more of a nook. A nook is a corner or recess offering seclusion or security. Closely related is an inglenook: a space within a large fireplace to sit in and keep warm.
Today the Chapel of Saint Michel d’Aigulhe is one of the starting points for pilgrims setting off on the seven hundred and thirty six kilometre walk to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. Before setting off many of the pilgrims have their walking poles blessed here or at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame du Puy. The blessing is said to ensure you get there. The walk from Le Puy to Santiago de Compostela is known as the ‘Way of St James’. Over the last two decades the walk has undergone a renaissance as people from all around the world walk the trail, not only for spiritual renewal reasons but for physical and cultural reasons as well. One walker I spoke with who was about to set off said, ‘I decided I simply wanted a long walk’. The map below shows four pilgrimage walks.
The reason the walks end at Santiago de Compostela is that in the year 814AD bones were unearthed in a Roman cemetery nearby and were believed to be that of the apostle St James. How the bones of St James came to be buried there is of course subject to much speculation, however the faithful believed the bones were of the apostle and they beat a path to the grave. The destination for Christian pilgrims ranks third after Rome and Jerusalem. There are a number of shops in Le Puy devoted to equipping out pilgrims, selling clothes, walking poles, maps, books and other necessities the walkers may need.
In earlier days pilgrims began their pilgrimage from the doorstep of their homes and, according to the Pilgrimage Information Centre, some people still do. Modern day pilgrims start their walks from as far away as Russia and Greece.
Thomas is not about to commence the walk but it is the sort of thing he would contemplate doing. If Bev and I ever had the opportunity to walk the Way of St James I think we would hire a donkey to carry our gear. People do hire donkeys and because they can be sometimes stubborn and hesitant to leave home it’s best to hire a donkey in a town at the end of the walk and have it shipped to the starting point as it is more likely to be co-operative because it knows it is going home.
Before leaving the topic of the 1052 year old Chapel of Saint Michel d’Aigulhe I must say that a building 1052 years old is very ancient for Australians as the oldest surviving building in Australia is Cadman’s Cottage which is only 198 years old. Cadman’s Cottage is on the foreshores of Circular Quay Sydney.
STATUE of NOTRE-DAME de FRANCE
The monumental statue was raised between 1856 and 1860 as a token of Christian faith. Noted sculptor Jean Bonnassieux won a competition staged by the civil authorities of Le-Puy. He won the competition mainly because he was able to meet the criteria where the arm of infant Jesus did not obscure his mother’s face when viewed front on.
The statue is sixteen metres high and weighs 110 tonns. And for a bit of useless trivia, the head of Jesus weighs 1100 kilograms and his arm weighs 600 kilograms. Two hundred and thirteen cast steel cannons retrieved from the battlefields of Sebastopol were melted down to form the sculpture. The statue was not cast in one piece but in one hundred and five pieces which were bolted together. The amazing thing is there are no visible joints. Maybe they have been filled with epoxy resin in latter years and sanded smooth.
Taking into consideration the weight and size statistics quoted above this certainly is a masterpiece. The hole just below the Virgin Mary’s cuff is an outlook hole where tourists who climb up through the Virgin Mary poke their heads out. The hole is two face diameters in size. This gives you an idea as to how monumental the statue is.
After walking Thomas around some of the Le-Puy backstreets we headed south, avoiding cities and larger towns. Keeping to the backtracks meant open roads and picturesque rural France. Travelling the motorways is not only stressful but all you see is the back of the car in front and the sound barrier fences to either side ensure you do not see any of the country side.
History hugging history here. I’m guessing that the central tower was fortified at some time and the buildings on the left were a later addition. This cluster of buildings was on a flood plain and that is the reason for the raised garage floor and the levee in front of the low windows.
CHAUDREYAC VILLAGE (South of Le-Puy)
On this journey we intended to camp but unfortunately the weather was not particularly favorable. Every afternoon heavy storm rains weren’t conducive to pitching a tent and even if the weather was fine the camping areas were not the sort of places we would camp as they were overcrowded with summer holiday makers. Our only alternative was to take hotel accommodation wherever we found ourselves at the end of the day. This was not necessarily a negative as some of the villages and towns, although nondescript, had a feature of some sort that we couldn’t resist taking a closer look at before moving on. The urge to look around meant we didn’t get on the road until mid to late morning on some days.
In Europe there are many edible mushrooms and fungi. When travelling the backtracks or forest roads we often came across cars parked along the side of the road. Wondering why cars were parked there I was told the owners were off picking mushrooms.
In Australia a cockie’s gate is a makeshift gate made with wire and a loop and without hinges. The origin of the name is amusing. When farmers ploughed their paddock and planted seed wheat cockatoos often descended on the freshly planted paddock and ate the seed. When the paddock was covered with white it looked like the farmer was growing cockatoos. The term wheat cockie, sheep cockie and cow cockie became accepted as a way of describing a farmer’s specialisation.
Mirandol is on the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail in the Cevennes.
For details of the Mirandol area search archives December 2012 Part 1 of our Encountering the Past Odyssey.
LE PONT de MONTVERT
In the world of ecology the duty of moss is to break down the parent material. In this case the schist (metamorphosed mudstone) turns to humus thus forming the basis of good compost in which plants can establish themselves. Mosses appeared on the planet as far back as 450 million years ago and when they arrived and covered vast tracts of bare rock the temperature of the planet fell by eight degrees. If this was the case and in light of the earth warming at the moment it might be a good idea to encourage the use of more plant roofs.
Location, location, location is what real estate agents expound. Well, here it is. It would be worth buying this house just for the balcony. What a place to sit and read a book and watch the stream go by. But then maybe the small outshot connected to the veranda is actually the garderobe so sitting on the balcony might not be the most desirable place to sit as the lower level of the outshot may be a cesspit.
GORGES DU TARN
Florac was our entry point into the Tarn and Jonte Gorges region.
Edouard Alfred Martel, the father of speleology, explored the Tarn Gorge area in 1883 and said after his first encounter with the gorge: ‘In spite of the most enthusiastic descriptions I had read, reality far surpassed the dreams of my imagination. Nowhere has nature edified a more extraordinary monument’.
There is basically one valley (Dourbie Valley) and two gorges (Jonte Gorge and Tarn Gorge) running through the Central Massif. Our drive took us down the Tarn Gorge and because the road was narrow large tourist buses were unable to negotiate the road and therefore we were not plagued by the tourist masses.
The drive was spectacular and every cutting we went through meant we were able to look into millions of years of geological history. The gorge was formed back in the Mesozoic period (a geological interval of time of 252 to 66 million years ago). The landform was mostly of marine origin (limestone) but subsequent lifting of the earth’s surface and volcanic activity combined with water erosion has created today’s awesome geological architecture.
Construction of the road through the Tarn Gorge was commenced in 1905. Prior to the road’s construction tourists passed into the gorge by boat. Tourists in those days, as they do today, come to marvel at the castles and remote villages sitting precariously on the banks and on top of the cliffs overlooking the river.
Access to the hamlet above prior to the road being built was by boat. Today there is a flying fox across the river from the road. The reasons for building in such a precarious and remote location was for protection. It would have been difficult for marauders to attack the town and because many of the inhabitants living in such places had cult religious beliefs meant they had freedom of worship without being bothered by outsiders.
Rock climbing is a common activity in the region and Aiguille Rock would not be immune from having a piton or two hammered into it. Bev and I have a friend Kevin who delights in getting his face onto rock and when I looked at the challenging climbs in the Tarn Gorge I thought of him.
Should readers of this blog contemplate a journey into the Tarn Gorges I suggest they get a copy of the guidebook, Tarn Gorges. ISBN ; 2 913641-46-6. Study the contents, plan the trip, allow plenty time and let the journey take you.
After passing through the Tarn Gorge I realised that one could not attempt to see what the area has to offer under a month, especially if one wanted to get involved with a spot of wild walking, kayaying, climbing and camping. Maybe next time. In the meantime we will have to study our guidebook and dream of another adventure into one of the most fascinating regions in the world.
At the southwest end of the Tarn Gorge and on the River Tarn is the township of Millau and its 21st century claim to fame is the Millau Viaduct. The Millau Viaduct is the tallest bridge in the world, standing at 343 metres above the valley floor. For a comparison the Eiffel Tower is 301 metres high.
What would the navies who built the road through he Tarn Gorge in 1905 think of this engineering wonder? The word naive comes from the word navigator who were the men who dug English waterway transport canals through England. They navigated on dry land.
Our destination after passing through the Tarn Gorge and Millau was Ouyres, a very small village to the south of Millau. The reason for the visit was to make contact with a friend who we met around seven years ago on the Aboriginal community of Yuendumu 266 km west of Alice Springs.
OUYRES AND SURROUNDS.
Our friend Larry was not home when we arrived as he was away working. An email he sent said: I’ve filled the fridge with food, there is wine in the cupboard and the beds are made. I will be home in a couple of days. With time on our hands we went exploring the region.
The local stone in the area of Ouyres is called Rougier (reddened). A local I spoke with suggested it is red because of a high iron oxide content, a result of the decay of iron pyrites (fool’s gold).
There is so much to take in with regards the above photograph. There are telltale signs in the stone surrounding this ancient door that suggests the stone was scrounged from another building. The right-hand set of quoins are all different. Starting from the bottom: a triangle carved into the bottom right corner, the next one up is heel-shaped with a little dot, the third one up has a square indent in it and the top quoin is in the shape of a dog’s head. It even has a hole representing an eye and a crack for a mouth. Then there is the massive lintel with a dash of green lichens and two stones over the top of it missing. The quoins on the left are made from the local rougier stone. In the wall there are water worn basalt stones and the door has been patched at least three times. The latest is probably the metal patch, probably a flattened petrol or olive oil tin.
In the village of Vabres L’Abbaye near St Affrique we went into yet again another church and to our advantage there was a lady attending to domestic matters arranging flowers, dusting and doing things that ladies who help at churches do. The devotee of the church was very friendly and she took us for a tour. When we approached the pulpit shown in the photograph below she told us that the one we see is not really that old, the original one was chopped up and burned during the Wars of Religion conflicts, 1562-1598, between Protestants and Roman Catholics. It’s hard to imagine fanatics taking to a pulpit like this with axes and it makes me think about human mentality in those times. It also makes me wonder whether had I lived in those times would I have joined in the destruction…probably, yes because it was the norm.
French people as a whole, or at least the ones in the country, are very friendly. If you pass somebody in the street the majority will say ‘bonjour’ without any prompting. If seated in a cafe and patrons walk by they invariably greet you, not in the shallow ‘have a nice day’ way. The French are considered to be very nationalistic and the patriotism is considered to go back to the days of Joan of Arc. Napoleon also promoted nationalism based on the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. The French also do not like their language being corrupted by Americanisms and if you attempt to communicate in French they are overjoyed.
I know I have posted a lot of door images over the past two years and you probably do not need to see another one but the one below took my eye.
Every French village that has a river running through it and naturally has a bridge or two crossing the river. The bridge in the foreground is built with stone and through its arch in the background is a reinforced concrete one. Of interest is that Frenchman Joseph Monier (1836-1903) introduced steel reinforcing into concrete. The first reinforced concrete bridge built in the world was designed by Monier and built for the Marquis de Tilliere in 1875. On our property we have six 20 000 litre Monier concrete water tanks and nearby to our home is a bridge claimed to be the first Monier-designed concrete bridge built in Australia.
INTO THE COMBALOU CHEESE CAVES, ROQUEFORT.
Roquefort cheese is a sheep milk blue cheese and it, along with Stilton and Gorgonzola, is one of the world’s best known blue cheeses. Most wheels of cheese weigh between 2.5 and 3 kilograms and a wheel of this size requires around 4.5 litres of sheep milk to make. The milk for the production of the cheese comes from three distinct breeds of sheep and they are located on 2100 farms across the Larzac Plains.
The actual process involved to produce blue cheese is complex. The process involves the use of Penicillium roqueforti mold, which is found in the soil of local caves. The growing of the mold in the old days involved the use of a loaf of bread or two. Bread was left in the caves for about five weeks during which time it grew mold. After the five-week period the inner portion of the bread containing the mold was dried and made into a powder. The mold powder was then introduced to the cheese wheel through holes poked in the rind.
The caves we visited were formed around one million years ago when the Combalou Mountains collapsed. The collapse created numerous caves and tunnels through which air flows naturally, the temperature sits steady at ten degrees centigrade and the humidity hovers around 90%. These atmospheric conditions are a result of natural airflow and exchange through small tunnels into the caves called the fleurines.
The cellar cave we visited was eleven stories high and held 300 000 wheels/loaves. Total annual production is in the vicinity of 1.4 million loaves/wheels, most of which is consumed in Europe.
If I have inspired you sufficiently and you would like to buy some Roquefort cheeses go to Smelly Cheese Shop, www.smellycheese.com.au Should you not be in buying mode go to the web page anyway and have a look at photographs of various cheese types.
One reference I found relating to the qualities of blue cheese said: ‘the cheese is white, tangy, crumbly, and slightly moist, with distinctive veins of green mold. It has a characteristic odour and flavor with a notable taste of butyric acid #(1). The green veins provide a sharp tang. The overall flavor sensation begins slightly mild, then waxes sweet, then smoky, and fades to a salty finish’. Wow what a cheese!
#(1) Butyric acid derivatives such as methyl butyrate are used as a food additive as they mostly have a pleasant aroma and taste, however others not so. One derivative is used in fish bait in the hope that fish are attracted to the smell. Butyric acid has also been used as a stink bomb by protesters in an attempt to disrupt Japanese whaling crews and by anti-abortion protesters to disrupt the activities of abortion clinics.
Unfortunately for the makers of blue vein cheeses it’s not to my taste. My taste in cheese is pretty simple and that probably relates to the fact that I grew up with Kraft Cheddar cheese which came in blue cardboard packets almost identical to what you can buy in the supermarkets today. My greatest fondness for Kraft Cheddar was the wooden boxes the cheese packets came in. I scrounged the wooden boxes from the local corner store and made pea guns and toys from them which I sold to kids at school.
I used the thicker end pieces of the box for the barrel and triggers and the thin sides for the handle guides. At one time during my pea gun-making career I managed to get my hands on some thin copper sheet which I used for the side handles. The polished copper handle models sold for sixpence more.
Pea guns and other such toys of torment I used to make as a kid are highly illegal in Australia these days because of the risk that someone might sustain an injury. The pea guns I made shot a pigeon pea no further than a couple of metres and the impact velocity would not have killed a fly.
The guided tour of the Roquefort caves storage facility was not all that satisfactory as the guide spoke only in French, (a scheduled English tour was too late in the day for us), and although the caves and production methods were interesting I was disappointed that we didn’t get closer to the production line zone where final processing, packaging and dispatch took place. Whilst our guide explained cheese production methods I amused myself by doing a spot of people watching and to my surprise I spotted an Alfred Hitchcock lookalike in the crowd. Hitchcock was known as the Master of Suspense.
That’s the end of this post. The next one will take us west through Brittany to Normandy and the D-Day landing beaches. After experiencing Berlin recently, understanding the D-Day invasion for us will complete the Berlin story.
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