Thursday, 10 May 2018

Where the south begins...

This is a moot point, as much to do with a state of mind as an actual place. In other words it involves psychogeography as well as physical geography. So although Pradelles is further south than Cahor or Venice it does not seem so. Maybe it's all a question of hydrology, we are in the upper valley of l'Allier; the Department is Haute Loire. This means the waste water we dump here at the moho service point pollutes the beaches of the Vendée rather than poisoning fish in the Golfe du Lion. 

Perhaps that this simple fact tempts us to perceive the farm buildings hereabouts as more dun coloured than they actually are, imbue the misty wooded hills with an grey Atlantic sea fret and announce that the foggy conditions experienced on the Col de la Chavade as we crossed from Haute Loire into l'Ardeche was 'worse than the Cat and Fiddle'. This latter point was true, but the fact we were comparing the eastern escarpment of the Massif Central to the northern Pennines proves that whatever the GPS might say, in our heads we were still 'up North'.

Driving through gloom...

A stream tumbled down the canyon at the side of the road; it was signed 'l' Ardeche'. We had crossed the watershed. Everything from now on, including us, was heading inexorably Mediterranean-wards. Immediately we decided that the fog hereabouts seemed significantly more luminous than the drizzle on the l'Allier side.

the merest hint of brightess in the clouds is greeted as a surfire sign of the south..
As we dropped down towards Aubanas what began as a psychogeographical aspiration became meteorological fact. The sun broke through; the dashboard thermometer which read 6° when we left Pradelles reached 17° as we drove through Thueyrs . It was almost noon, though most shops were closed due to the Acension holiday there was a gateaux related 'bouchon' outside the patisserie and the cafés lining the square were doing a brisk trade. We pronounced this scene of ambient sociability 'very southern'. 

In the past strong unionisation among French shop workers has suppressed the manic retail fest you get on Bank Holidays in the UK. Over recent years there seems to have been an Anglicisation over here; when we stopped for fuel at Aubanas Casino supermarket we were pleased to find the shop open. I guess the manager was equally pleased to see us, as we were the only customers in the place. It appears French consumers have not quite caught up with shopping opportunities on bank holidays.

The countryside between Aubanas and the Rhone valley, to the north of the Gorges de l' Ardeche, seems unfrequented. It is lovely. The ancient village of Alba-la-Romaine, stretched across a low escarpment, protected by a ruined castle. It reminded me of a Cathar village in l'Aude. It exuded the same timelessness, a feeling of continuous habitation across millennia. The irrational sense that somehow this landscape is ancestral ground is part of the south's alluring psychogeography for me. Though it does not make sense, nevertheless I believe it in my heart

the sun breaks through on cue as we near the Bouches de Rhone border.
Southwards, now following the western side of the Rhone to avoid the autoroute tolls on the opposite bank, we were back in familiar territory. Any uncertainties regarding cartographic orientation dissipated, the intensity of light, the pantiled roofed towns with shadowy squares, vine covered hills glimpsed through avenues of plane trees, all these things asserted the south, almost stereotypically so -the  road signs a litany of favourite labels - Chuslain, Lirac, Mornac. 

Not everything about the south is equally welcome. Drivers are more irascible, given to extreme tailgating, suicidal overtaking on blind bends or the brow of a hill, roundabouts are embraced as places to assert machismo. It is not always a comfortable place to be trundling along in a medium sized right-hand drive truck with a GB sticker on the back. I was feeling particularly ill-disposed to the aggrevation. Today's journey had not been especially long, a little over a hundred miles. However the road across the Causse was winding and narrow in parts. Moreover, I am not entirely familiar yet with the new van. It feels quite different to drive than dear old Maisy. Built on a builder's truck chassis, with double back wheels and rear wheel drive what she lacked in speed she more than made up in stability. In addition, the automatic transmission simplified driving, making easy work of France's many roundabouts. Driving the new van is a different proposition. It is certainly perkier and noticeably more fuel efficient. However, the front wheel drive makes it feel less stable when cornering and using the six gear manual gearbox in the most efficient way is going to take practice. Today was the first time where the road conditions were in anyway challenging. By the time we arrived at camping La Sousta, next to the Pont du Gard. I was feeling somewhat frazzled. 

Camping Sousta occupies the 'rive droite' of the Gardon, about half a kilometre down stream from the Pont du Gard. The pitches are big, scattered among tall pines and gnarled evergreen oaks.


We took an evening stroll towards the river. The grassy banks were dotted with poppies. Swallows swooped and dived above the river hunting for insects. It is not possible to stay frazzled for long on evenings like this.





As dusk gathered we wandered back to the van. 

"You know," I ventured, "If you can't camp by the sea, then a a beautiful wood by a peaceful river has to be a close second."

"Or a lake." Gill added.


A momentary silence. I am thinking we may have a minor divergence of opinion regarding the relative charms of the fluvial and the delights of the lacrustine. When we head home in mid June we have planned a stop beside Lago d'Iseo. Lakes are lovely too, especially Italian ones

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