Tuesday 27th September 2016, Les Rivières, Near Albi continued
We returned along the Corniche des Cevennes to the same campsite in Florac for the night and yesterday made our way down the Gorges-du-Tarn to Millau. This was a really easy ride and utterly delightful. It is almost entirely downhill so we could roll happily along, winding our way around the solid walls of rock as we followed the shallow river ever downwards. It took us most of the day making our way through, stopping regularly to look down into the chasm as the river wound its own course through the rocky gorge. How many years must it have taken for that little river to wear out such a deep, winding and narrow defile through the towering rocks? Sometimes we stopped too to look across the river at tiny mediaeval villages isolated from the world, cut off for centuries with no roads in or out and reliant, even today, on a pulley system across the river for everything they needed from the outside world. The houses are built from the local rock and are indistinguishable from it. Sometimes we had to peer quite hard to work out whether something was a man-made castle ruin or a natural rock formation. And the rugged mountains looming upwards, hundreds of feet above the river on either side.
At St. Enimie we stopped by the river for a picnic lunch and to explore the mediaeval village. I am quite sure that last time we stopped we found the top of the village as neglected and dirty as it would have been in Mediaeval times and agreed with a description we found of the place written by Sabine Baring Gould during his travels around the area in the 1870s when he referred to the standards of sanitation and hygiene as not having improved since the Middle Ages! So many things I have complained about in France over the years seems to be being addressed! (I cannot believe our blogs are quite that influencial!) Roads have been dramatically improved, streets and towns are being restored everywhere and France is cleaner and smarter than we have ever known it. It can be quite hard (though certainly not impossible) to find traditional French sanitation and campsites have improved beyond our wildest dreams over the past eleven years of our travels. Yesterday we found the narrow, steep, cobbled streets of St. Enimie clean and even freshly washed! Troughs of bright flowers lit shady corners and everywhere looked well restored and delightful.
We stopped again further down the Gorges at La Malene, another mediaeval village. Here we were accosted as we explored by an indignant lady who asked if we understood French. She had a strong accent of the Midi but we could follow what she told us. She asked us to read a message about flood prevention work outside her house. The printed flyer had been handed out to everyone in the steep little street. She showed us her house and explained that even her letter box got flooded when the rains came and the water rushed down past her house. Last winter she had gone out to the bakers’ next door and in the time it took to buy a baguette the rainwater had flooded past as a small river and she couldn’t get back home. The flyer was to call a general meeting of residents and she was determined to make her point to the local council. She told us she was 90 years old and had been widowed for ten years. Her husband died from alzheimers but she was determined she would stay healthy in mind and body for as long as she could. She said that she talked to anyone who would listen as it kept her brain active. She then dragged the local baker, who came out from his shop, into the conversation. He explained that he was actually in the village learning how the bread oven worked. He lived in Paris but was moving to La Malene shortly to take over the bakery. The lady told him with a saucy smile, that if even he was lonely and needed company, she lived next door and he only had to knock. She also expressed a wish that he might bring her a nice cake when he called.
We were impressed by her resilience to the rigors of living such an isolated life, hemmed in by overpowering mountains that in winter must keep the sun from ever reaching into the dark recesses of the mediaeval streets of the village, where nobody much ever came except during July and August when they came in their thousands. She had lived there ever since she married. Her sister-in-law lived nearby and together they kept each other going.
We continued down the gorges and reached Millau, with its amazingly delicate viaduct ,around 5pm. We stayed here only a couple of years back. This time we found a campsite on the far side of the river. There were very few people there and it will close for the season on Friday.
Indeed, the campsites are rapidly closing down around us and it is fortunate for us that Ivor and Lesley have kindly allowed us to once again spend time in their house in what we have always called Ambre-les-Espagnolettes. Currently our hosts are in residence themselves so for a few more days we are free to vagabond around the countryside of the Languedoc haunting the last of the campsites still open at the end of the season. Because there are so many agreeable things to do around the village when we arrive, we are using this time to visit again those places that are just too far for a day visit from Ambre.
So today we have revisited Albi with its huge cathedral to Sainte Cécile built entirely of pinky-red brick, as is almost every other building in the city. We believe it is the largest brick cathedral in Europe, possibly the world! Nearby is the museum of Toulouse Lautrec. Both of these we reported on when we first passed this way back in 2006. Today the weather was warmer and the sun was shining. We have decided that despite its history and the horrors of the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars in the early 13th century, the city is stunning. The size of the cathedral and its surroundings are awesome.
One place we discovered in the city today that we had previously missed, was the Cloister of Saint-Salvi dating from 1270 and erected by Vidal de Malvesi. The cloisters and the central garden, filled with flowers and vegetables and set against the backdrop of the stone carved cloisters and the ancient walls of the church, came as a stunning contrast to the modern shopping precinct just a few steps away - a haven of calm and beauty in a bustling city.
Albi provided a delightful afternoon browsing the streets and parks, picnicking under the acacia trees and licking ices on a shady bench in the city centre. Eventually though we had to brave the traffic and find our way out to the ring road around the city and head off in the direction of Toulouse. I have no desire to struggle into the centre of the city tomorrow so we have camped up with the intention of driving to the nearest town on the railway into Toulouse and parking there for the day tomorrow while continuing into the city by train.