If I had a hammer …

For a long time, I have known that the area around Saint-Chinian is particularly rich in study material for geologists.  The rock formations are spectacular, even to the untrained eye, but to me geology has always been like a closed book.  Some time ago, one of my guests sent me a link to a website where he had discovered an article about a self-guided tour of sites of geological interest around Saint-Chinian – more specifically, the sites were of the lower Ordovician period. The website can be found via this link – in addition to the tour around the Saint-Chinian area, there are several others on this page, no doubt equally interesting!

According to Wikipedia, “the Ordovician spans 41.2 million years from the end of the Cambrian Period 485.4 million years ago (Mya) to the start of the Silurian Period 443.8 Mya.”  To give you a visual idea of the timescale, here is a picture of a geological clock, found on Wikipedia – humans arrived only at two seconds before noon!

The website itself can be translated via one of the translation engines on the web such as translate.google.com but I’ve not been able to translate the PDF files of the itineraries.

I had sent the itinerary to a friend who was very keen to follow it, and so one sunny day earlier this month we set off on our trip!  The first stop was near Berlou, at a site which illustrates the upper Cambrian and the start of the Ordovician.  On our way there, we walked past a flowering oak tree:

Stoechas lavender:

A cistus with tiny flowers:

And some wall pennywort, which the French name translates to Venus’s navel:

Unbeknown to me, my friend had done a course in geology at university in her younger years, and she’d found the hammer she used when at university!!  With erosion and exposure to the elements, the surface of rocks changes quite a bit, so splitting a rock with the help of a hammer will show its ‘true’ colours.  What fun we had with that hammer!!

Here are some bits of quartz, which we found at the same site.

And bands of quartz embedded in a rock.

 

On our way back to the car, we enjoyed looking at some very typical vegetation.  The heady smell of the garrigue was wonderful!

Our next stop was on the road to Berlou, at a place where a trench had been cut into the rock for the road.  The rocks on the left hand side of the cut were an outcrop of the Saint-Chinian formation, and on the right an outcrop of the La Maurerie formation was visible.  I’m not sure that I saw a lot of difference, but I’m no geologist 🙂  The view of the valley in the direction of Berlou was very beautiful though!

Onwards to the viewpoint, just outside Berlou, and another spectacular view of the mountain in the distance, Mont Caroux. The mountain is called ‘The Sleeping Lady’, and in the right light and with enough imagination, you might just about be able to imagine a reclining figure, with the head on the left hand side.

The road took us to the village of Berlou, and through beautiful countryside, past the villages of Escagnes and the hamlet of Mezeilles, before arriving at Vieussan.  We had planned to have lunch at Le Lezard Bleu in that village, but unfortunately the restaurant had to close on that day for maintenance.  We booked at table in Roquebrun instead, at Le Petit Nice. Just before we reached Roquebrun, we stopped once more – this time to observe a fold in the rock.

After a delicious lunch in Roquebrun, we continued towards the village of Saint-Nazaire-de-Ladarez.  On the way there, we stopped to admire the Landeyran valley with its sheer cliffs.  The cliffs are much used by rock climbers to test their skills on!

Our last stop of the day had nothing to do with the Ordovician, but was on the itinerary as a point of great geological interest, and because the road back was passing right by it!  The former Coumiac quarry has been designated a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP).  Wikipedia defines the GSSP as follows: “A Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point, abbreviated GSSP, is an internationally agreed upon reference point on a stratigraphic section which defines the lower boundary of a stage on the geologic time scale. The effort to define GSSPs is conducted by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, a part of the International Union of Geological Sciences. Most, but not all, GSSPs are based on paleontological changes. Hence GSSPs are usually described in terms of transitions between different faunal stages, though far more faunal stages have been described than GSSPs. The GSSP definition effort commenced in 1977. As of 2012, 64 of the 101 stages that need a GSSP have been formally defined.”

At Coumiac we are in the upper Devonian, at the transition between the Frasnian and the Fammenian.  I can’t make a great deal of sense of the scientific explanation, but the rocks are spectacular to behold!  The quarry is only a short walk from the car park beside the road. Two viewing platforms have been created to allow visitors safe access to the site.

The first glimpse of the quarry is of the GSSP – a huge slab of rock, covered in thousands of fossilised goniatites (prehistoric snail-like creatures), killed during what is called the Kellwasser event.

The quarry was in operation until 1965, with a type of ‘griotte’ marble being extracted – a red marble with small inclusions of white.  An example of a fireplace made of griotte marble can be found at Acanthus in Saint-Chinian.

Here is a closer view of the GSSP slab:

All in all, this was a very interesting day, and I learnt a lot!!  Do let me know if I have mis-translated any of the geological jargon, I’ll be happy to correct it!

A winter walk

Winter is as good a time as any to go for a walk in or around Saint-Chinian. The days are often sunny and mild, and I always try to wear layers, in case I need to shed some clothes as I work up a sweat!  Today I’d like to show you a walk just up the road from Saint-Chinian.  The official starting point for this walk is on Avenue de Villespassans, but sometimes I make it easier for myself by taking the car up the hill, to the car park across the road from the windmill!. 🙂

The Pays Haut Languedoc et Vignobles, a federation of local councils, published a collection of 73 marked walks, which are available either individually or as a pack from the tourist office in Saint-Chinian.

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The walk I’m writing about is called Les clapas.  Clapas is the name for the impressive mounds of limestones which have been cleared from the fields and piled up by successive generations of shepherds and farmers.

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The leaflets for each walk give details of the walk as well as points of interest along the way.  Because of copyright issues, I’ll not reproduce the inside of the leaflet, but I’ve found a link to details of the walk here.

Most of the Les clapas walk is fairly gentle, especially as I avoided the steep climb out of the village by using the car and parking near the windmill – naughty I know! 😸   The countryside “up on the hill” is a mixture of vineyards and friches, which is the name for abandoned agricultural land.  In some cases the land has been abandoned for some time, but there can still be signs of the passage of humans.  Below is a piece of wood from an old shutter, with the hinge still attached – barely!

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A lot of the vineyards had already been pruned at the time of my visit.  Hard work, but it’s got to be done if there are to be grapes (and wine)!

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Even in the middle of winter, there is still interesting vegetation to be seen.  The plant below is commonly known as butcher’s broom (ruscus aculeatus).  The tips of the leaves are quite spiny!  I believe this plant is used in dried flower arrangements – I wouldn’t want to have to work with it!

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There were still a few olives on some trees – this one was probably missed when the rest of the olives on the tree were harvested.

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The limestone rocks were impressive!  But no, I didn’t have to climb up there!!

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Here was another vestige of humankind, in the middle of nowhere – an old car!!

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This was on the edge of a former friche – I guess the car wreck and the rocks were pushed there by a big digger when the land was cleared! The car must have sat in the wilderness for some time, by the looks of it!!

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The itinerary took me through the hamlet of Fontjun, where I spotted another old vehicle from a bygone age!

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And just around the corner there was second one!  It was painted the same blue colour, and somewhat better preserved.  These carts would have been used for work in the vineyards.

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I saw this beautiful doorway in Fontjun …

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… and a few steps away I spotted this sliding door.  I loved the colour and patina!

The piece of rusty old steel in the picture below was part of an old garden gate – wonderful detailing and patina!

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Along the path, in the middle of nowhere, I came across an abandoned hut.  It had had a fireplace once, and someone had left the bellows to get the fire going, but the chimney had long gone.

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Towards the end of the walk, I took this picture of a capitelle, a stone hut built without any mortar!  This one was very picturesque against the blue sky.

img_6833It was a lovely walk, and I hope you enjoyed it!  I’ll be doing it again before too long – do let me know if you’d like to join me!

Bamboo collection

You may remember my trip to Uzes last fall, if you’ve been reading this blog for a little while.  After my visit to the Witches’ Market in Saint-Chaptes, I stopped off at La Bambouseraie, near the town of Anduze.  La Bambouseraie is a botanical garden, dedicated – no prizes for guessing – to bamboo.  It had been on my list of places to visit for many years, so it was quite exciting to finally be able to get there!!

As it was out of season and not long before the garden closed for the winter, there were few visitors, which suited me fine! 🙂

Right from the entrance gate, bamboo was in evidence everywhere, from stands of enormously tall bamboo, to the fence made from bamboo poles.

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The history of the garden dates back to 1856, when Eugene Mazel, a passionate botanist, started to plant his exotic garden.  Following the death of Mazel, Gaston Negre bought the estate in 1902 and continued Eugene Mazel’s work.  The estate still belongs to the Negre family – it is now run by Gaston Negre’s granddaughter, Muriel.

Today the part of the estate which is open to the public covers 15 hectares (about 37 acres).  Another 19 hectares (47 acres) are given over to a nursery where bamboo is grown for sale.  I would describe the visit of the garden as ‘spectacular’ – I was absolutely amazed by the beauty and sheer size of the bamboo plantations!!  There were so many different types!

The self-guided visit, where an audio commentary was available at certain points, was highly informative!

The stalk of giant bamboo (phyllostachys bambusoïdes) in the picture below is 20.8 metres long!!

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Deep in the bamboo forest, I found a cluster of buildings, all constructed from bamboo!  The buildings below are typical of the houses of Lao people, who live in the Mekong river plain.  Built on stilts, the houses are in three parts:  the main living quarters, the kitchen, which is joined to the living quarters, and the rice store, which is set a little apart.

The ‘shop’ is another building on stilts, and one of the meeting points for the village.  The shopkeeper lives in the shop!  All the items on the shelves are made from bamboo too!

A charming enclosure was home to some little black pigs! 🙂

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Phlyllostachys bambusoïdes is the star plant at La Bambouseraie – it is as strong as steel, and can be used to reinforce concrete in place of steel.  It also has an incredibly fast growth rate – at the garden they have measured a growth of over 1 metre in the space of 24 hours!!  In the picture below, you can see the root system at the base of a stalk.

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The name bamboo covers a variety of plants – all of them belonging to the family of grasses!  Of the nineteen bamboo poles below, 18 belong to the phyllostachys species, while the second from right is a chimonobambusa quadrangularis.

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Apart from bamboo, the garden is host to many other plants.  The planting below looked spectacular at the time of my visit!

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In 2000, a Japanese garden called ‘The Valley of the Dragon’ was opened.  The fall colours were absolutely perfect when I visited!

Another bamboo tunnel opened to a small clearing, where the house of the park’s guardian stood.

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In front of the house there were some stands of smaller bamboo – I could almost see the one on the left in my garden! 🙂

A path led from there to an area which was dedicated to aquatic plants.  The basins were planted with water lillies, papyrus, lotus and many more plants whose names I was not familiar with!

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A giant wisteria covered a most beautiful pergola.  I’m sure that would look spectacular when in bloom!

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Below is a stand of phyllostachys sulfureus with some yellow maple leaves.

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And this was the entrance to the bamboo maze!!  It was great!!! I did get a bit lost in there!!  🙂

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The way out led through a tunnel made from bamboo, and into the garden centre, where all kinds of bamboo were available to be bought.

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I am so pleased that I finally got to visit this amazing garden – it is only two hours from Saint-Chinian by car!

La Bambouseraie is open from March until mid November and you’ll need half a day to visit all of the garden.  Have a look at the website for more details.

 

Open farm Sunday

During the early part of last year, I came across an event called De Ferme en Ferme, which translates to ‘from farm to farm’, and which takes place in farming areas all over France at various times of the year!  I managed to pick up a leaflet for last year’s fall edition of the event, and found that some of the farms were not all that far from Saint-Chinian, relatively speaking 🙂 .

I set my eyes on visiting a farm called Le Rodier, up in the mountains between Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres and Mazamet.  The day started a little misty and overcast, and as I drove up the mountain, the tops of the trees started to disappear into the fog. The farm is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by meadows and trees.

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As I walked from the car park to the farm I passed this magnificent mushroom, its top as big as my hand!  I don’t know many mushrooms, but I do know this one is edible.

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Le Rodier is run as a dairy farm by Marie and her husband Sebastien, and Marie’s parents, Martine and Jean-Louis.  The farm has been owned by successive generations of Marie’s family for 100 years!  Marie and Sebastien had careers in law and finance, but when Martine and Jean-Louis began to look at possible retirement, Marie and Sebastien decided that they would carry on the family’s farming tradition!  With lots of enthusiasm they re-trained and became expert cheese makers and farmers!

They farm an area of 70 hectares (70,000 square metres or 173 acres), either as pasture or to produce hay and cereal feed for their 45 cows.  The cows are called Brune des Alpes, and they are out on the pasture from the end of winter until the first snow, producing a total of 270,000 litres of milk during the course of the year.  60,000 litres of that milk are used for cheese production on the farm, the rest is sold to a dairy.

Sebastian had set up a display of various equipment used for the production of their cheeses.  For hygiene reasons, a visit to the dairy itself was not possible.

Before I had a chance to visit the shop, Martine took a group of us to see the cows!  On the way we passed the hay barn – they had certainly made hay while the sun had shone!!

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The cow shed was large and spacious, and very clean-smelling!  I remembered that sweet smell from when I went as a child to a farm in the neighbourhood to get fresh milk.  Most of the time I would be allowed to visit the cows as they were being milked!

There weren’t many cows about, most of them were out grazing.  The ones in the barn were about to give birth, or had very recently given birth.

Here are the calves:  the one on the right had been born the day before!

The milking parlour was our next stop – the cows walk in at one end of the parlour and line up with their rear ends towards the pit, where the milking machinery is located.  Once they have been milked they walk out the other end of the parlour and back into the barn – all very organised and efficient.

Martine was a wonderful guide, and she communicated her passion for her work and her animals so well – it was a privilege being able to spend time with her!

Finally to the shop, where Sebastien was busy serving customers.  The range was relatively small compared to what you would find in a cheese shop, but for a small family business it was impressive!

On the top shelf there was faisselle (cheese curds), butter, creme fraiche and fromage blanc.

On the second shelf there was half a blue cheese (left), and three trays of frisquet, a fresh cheese much like goats cheese, either as is or with various ‘coatings’ such as herbs, pepper or paprika.

The third shelf held desserts 🙂 : Creme caramel, chocolate cream, rice pudding with caramel, and plain rice pudding!

Finally, on the bottom shelf were bottles of fresh raw = unpasteurized milk, and some camembert.

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The firmer cheeses are the ones made in the large moulds, which Sebastien had on show outside.

The Pastural is the softest of them – 18 litres of milk are needed for one cheese.  For the blue cheese to the right, 20 litres of milk are required.  The large cheese towards the right is called Rodal and it is made from 120 litres of milk!  On the very right of the picture you see part of a tomme – during the cheesemaking process, the curds are pressed with a weight, resulting in a firmer cheese, made from 40 litres of milk.

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Sebastien was happy to let me taste the various cheeses, and I came away with a lovely selection AND some fresh milk!

On the way back I caught a glimpse of the cows in one of the fields.

I must confess that the cheeses from Le Rodier were not a new discovery for me – Marie and Sebastien come to the little market in Agel (circuit court) every other Thursday.  But it was wonderful to visit their farm, and to meet Marie’s mother!  In case you are wondering, Marie’s father was there also, but he was busy with another group, so I did not get a chance to meet him.  If you want to experience this farm yourself, the farm shop is open every Saturday from 10am to 6pm, and you can of course buy the cheeses every other Thursday in Agel from 5pm to 7pm.

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The last of the season

With winter marching in and Christmas on the way, I thought I would share some pictures of the glorious autumn colours we had in Languedoc this year.  I took the photographs on a walk last week, a couple of days before some wet and stormy weather moved across Languedoc.  I’m sure there are still a few leaves clinging on out there, but mostly the leaves are gone now.  Not surprising really, it’s early December after all!

Here’s where I started my walk – this field is just a few steps away from the main street in Saint-Chinian.

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Look at how these leaves glow in the sunshine!!

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A little farther on, the trees appear to have shed most of their leaves, but the leaves on the vines beyond are still almost green, and of course the evergreens around the vineyards stay ever so green!

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At Clos Bagatelle, this vineyard was a myriad of different shades of orange and russet.

Just around the corner I found this bottlebrush plant (callistemon) flowering its heart out.

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Daisies seem to thrive everywhere!

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At Chateau La Dournie, the predominant colour was yellow!

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This wonderful stand of trees is right by the Vernazobre river:

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Some plants thrive in the shelter which these trees provide.

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At La Rive, the market gardens had some very neat looking rows of cabbages!

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Returning towards Saint-Chinian, I caught this view of the windmill with the vineyards below.

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This mushroom is not edible, but looks quite attractive.

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And here is the last picture from my walk, the flowers and fruits of an arbousier (arbutus unedo).  I’m not sure if there are many plants which bear fruit and flowers at the same time, but this is definitely one of them!!

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If you’re planning a visit to Saint-Chinian, and are interested in following in my footsteps, I give you below the map of my walk.  I hope you’ll enjoy it!

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Up on high

If you have ever visited Languedoc, you might have caught a glimpse of a flat-topped mountain, which can be seen from far away.  Its official name is Mont Caroux, but locally it is called La Femme Allonge, the sleeping lady.  If seen in the right light, from the right viewpoint (and with enough imagination) the small peak on the left looks like a face in profile, with the crags resembling flowing tresses.  The picture below is not really showing that interpretation, but it gives you an idea of the general shape of the mountain, which can be seen from as far away as Valras Plage.  Apparently, the outline of Caroux has been used by mariners to help with navigation.

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The mountain is a paradise for hikers and wildlife alike!  There are many tracks and trails to be explored, and if you are lucky you might catch a glimpse of a mouflon,the big horned wild mountain sheep.  The roads are sinuous and sometimes narrow, but there are rewards for navigating these roads!!  The driver has to concentrate on the road, but the passengers can enjoy the glorious views!

I recently visited the village of Combes, which is located on the southern flank of Caroux at 500 meters altitude.  My reason for going there?  Food, of course!  I went with friends, to eat at the Auberge de Combes.

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The Auberge de Combes had been recommended to me a number of times over the years, and I was very much looking forward to the meal.  The drive was beautiful and the weather just perfect for eating outside, on the shaded terrace.  The views from the terrace and the dining room are  amazing!

And the food was wonderful too!!  Here is a picture of our amuse bouche, the pre-starter, to get us in the mood for what was yet to come:  Escalivade (roasted red pepper & anchovy filet), aubergine puree in a shortcrust pastry case, and gazpacho made with heirloom tomatoes!

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The starter was a delicious composition of crisp pastry, tender baby squid and tasty greens.

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The next course was a crayfish bisque with wild gambas – oh so very tasty!!

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For our main course, we had pan fried foie gras with roasted figs – wonderful!!

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The main course was followed by a plate of tasty cheeses:

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The meal finished with dessert, and three different desserts made it to our table – there might have been more on the menu, but I don’t recall.  This was a peach soup with peach ice cream and a crunchy crumble topping:

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The raspberries were on a bed of light pastry cream, in a crisp pastry shell, served, of course, with raspberry sorbet.

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The chocolate vacherin was to die for – chocolate mousse, chocolate cream, mandarin cream, meringue AND mandarin sorbet!

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Now that I’ve eaten at the Auberge de Combes, I know that the people who recommended the restaurant were right – it’s definitely one to visit!!

After all that delicious food we needed a walk – badly!!  I suggested to my friends that we continue our drive up the mountain, and visit the hamlet of Douch.

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Douch is on the northern slope of Caroux, at 900 meters altitude, and the road ends there.  The hamlet is a popular starting point for the climb to the top of Caroux, and there is a greeter by the car park: a megalith made from locally quarried granite.

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On the way from the car park to the hamlet we passed some very neat vegetable gardens.

The houses are all clustered together, sheltering one another, no doubt!

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Just on the edge of the hamlet stands a communal bread oven.

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The bread oven was built in 2012 by the municipality with the help of local volunteers.  A sign on the wall invites visitors to make use of the oven.

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Everything is there: wood for the fire, a paddle to put bread and/or pizza in and out of the oven, even some brooms to sweep out the cinders.  There is a big table right next to the building, made from one huge stone slab!  Such a wonderful idea, and what a welcome for visitors!

I’ve made a mental note for a future outing to Douch, armed with pizza dough and toppings – it could be great fun!!

The little chapel was unfortunately closed.

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Before the advent of running water, this pump would have supplied the neighbourhood.

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At the end of this narrow alley stood a most magnificent hydrangea, surrounded by other plants and flowers.  Somebody must have a green thumb!

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The view from the hamlet was breathtaking – a wide expanse of hills and not much else!

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And then it was time to leave Douch and start our drive down the mountain again.  I’ll be back, before too long!

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