The next 3 days - walking the high hills and mountains of Haut-Languedoc - were magical days. (When does a hill become a mountain? I'm never quite sure. It's like that Greek philosophical poser: take a stone, then put another stone next to it, then add a further stone, and so on. All well and good. But when does this growing collection of stones become a heap?) Leaving Lodève I took the wrong turning twice, but eventually found the right way - up a steep, narrow, rocky path through pine and oak woods. The view back towards Lodève looked like this:
Then it was a long, hard climb up to a telecommunications mast and a bare (except for the odd prickly bush) windswept plateau. Wide expanses of vine-covered hills opened up to the south. And was that the Mediterranean glinting steely-grey on the horizon? After zig-zagging down endless forestry tracks to the river Gravezon, I eventually reached the war memorial in Joncels and phoned Cathy at Les 3 Granges - which I'd arranged to do earlier that day. She picked me up in her car and took me the few kilometres to her beautifully renovated farmhouse half-way up a hillside in Joncelets. She and her husband Jean Luc had converted one of the outbuildings into a pilgrim gîte. They also ran a small campsite. I had dinner with them that night, and it was wonderful food - some of it traditional Alsatian cuisine, for Cathy came from Alsace: bacon and onion tart (a kind of Alsatian, thin-crust pizza), lasagne with fruits de mer, tarte aux pommes, cheese, coffee... The bill for all of this, plus the accommodation, not to mention a superb breakfast, was €25. Pretty amazing, don't you think? This is a photo I took of Cathy and Jean Luc (and their very sweet dog Pépette) before I left:
In the morning Jean Luc gave me a lift the short distance to Saint-Martin d'Orb on his way to work in Béziers. I was back on the trail at 8.15 and it was already very warm. This is the church at Saint-Martin:
Just before I climbed out of the adjoining hamlet of Le Bousquet d'Orb an old man with grey hair and lively, penetrating eyes beckoned me inside his garage. Every available space was packed with angels, cherubs, pilgrims, dogs, mice and madonnas - all carved out of wood. He was the sculptor Jean Rivière, sculpteur autodidacte as it said on his card - meaning he was self-taught. I signed his grubby pilgrim's register and continued on the Way, which took me a further 40 km along high forestry tracks to Saint-Gervais-sur-Mare and Murat-sur-Vèbre. Apart from the occasional group of French day walkers I had the place to myself. I picked sweet blackberries. I sniffed wild thyme (was it my imagination or did it really have a stronger, woodier scent than the cultivated sort? Whatever the case I felt that all my 5 senses were becoming more and more keenly aware and finely tuned as the walk progressed).
Lizards rustled the fallen autumn leaves, froze, then rustled them again as they darted for cover among the limestone cracks and crevices. Grasshoppers jumped across the path, flashing blue, occasionally red, wings. A young grass snake - umistakeable with its yellow collar - coiled and uncoiled its way into the vegetation beneath a bush of yellow broom. I saw a huge lime-green cricket on a leaf. Another insect crawled across the path (it had a green-barred abdomen and a long needle-like ovipositer) which I later identified, with difficulty and probably wrongly, as an ephippiger - a type of bush cricket.
If I ever doubted I was on the right track the occasional sign was reassuring and confirmed I was on the correct route:
Dense pine and beech forests stretched as far as the eye could see. Although the track was hemmed in by trees much of the time, every now and then you would emerge into a grassy clearing where stunning views of V-shaped valleys and thickly wooded slopes were suddenly revealed:
From time to time you would hear wild boar barking like demented dogs deep in the forest. And at one point I stepped over the carcase of a wild boar on the path. It had been half-eaten by scavengers and its bones gleamed whitely in the bright sunlight. Then I came across this stone shelter which had been restored by wild boar hunters. The notice says it's free for anyone to use. I peeped inside. When benighted in the mountains it could be a very welcome place of refuge for hunters, walkers and pilgrims alike - if a trifle spartan and cold...
My poem Walking Near Lodève encapsulates my mood during these golden days...