We head off from Saint-Flour via a bakery breakfast of blue cheese and nut quiche (yes really!) for Marie and a rhubarb tartlet for me. There’s also a “tourte de Saint-Flour” (an almond paste filled crunchy number topped with praline, which promptly covers the car in crumbs). I’ve been awake since 4am so have thoroughly researched the weather (rain, rain and more rain) and our travel options, coming up with, well, nothing. Marie woke up at 7:30 and within 20 minutes had more accurate weather reports, a plan for the next two days and a hotel booked. So, with this plan we’re continuing south, heading from our current cold climate and high altitude down to warmer climes
So far our travel has largely avoided motorways, instead preferring to take the smaller, pretty and free roads (most motorways have tolls in France). Today we’ve decided that two days driving is enough and aim to get to a destination by lunch. For this we think we’re sacrificing pretty views for a boring but quick motorway straight down….turns out we couldn’t have been more wrong!
We join what turns out to be one of my favourite roads ever, the A75, which runs from Clermont-Ferrand in central France straight down to Beziers on the south coast. We’re surrounded by mountains covered in evergreens to begin with and later climb to more than 1100 metres above sea level. There’s tall fascinating rock faces on the roadside reaching far up beside us and the road later snakes around mountains and through them with tunnels. We also cross the giant Millau viaduct, 2,460m in length crossing the Tarn River some 200m below. It sits 19m taller than the Eiffel Tower and is reminiscent of ship sails as you pass through under its peaks. The surrounding landscapes of mountains, gorges and lush valleys transform to arid landscapes of scrub (where Roquefort cheese is made) and then later back to lushness but now with cute little houses with peach walls and terracotta coloured roofs visible in clusters on hillsides or below us in valleys. It all looks gorgeous and I’m itching to explore.
Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert is our first stop and it’s gorgeous. My first taste of a southern village and it’s beautiful, with warm stone buildings around a square, people sat having coffee in the central plaza, narrow cobbled side streets leading off in every direction. We set off to explore and are drawn to the church where there are female choir singers performing inside, we sneak in and immediately Eliza’s bottom lip trembles and she starts to cry- clearly not the religious sort then! We make a quick exit before we draw any attention and head off up the lanes to find somewhere for lunch.
I’m hoping to find a little place down a side street and we’re in luck. Isaluc is a tiny house come shop come restaurant built over 1000 years ago with a thick stone domed interior like a cave and very friendly owners. We’re welcomed inside, invited to sit at one of the two tables there’s space for and allowed upstairs into the rest of the owners house to use the toilet and later, even into their bedroom to change Eliza! The restaurant is also their kitchen and the husband of the couple is a fine cook, we have a delicious onion quiche and salad followed by an apple and caramel tartlet and a chocolate tartlet. Eliza meanwhile steals everyone’s hearts and is happily entertained by some bubble blowing by the owner after we’ve finished our meals.
We then have a ‘digestive walk’ around the rest of the village, taking in the stream running through the centre before we head back to the car for our next stop. We’re halted at the car however by a very friendly old man from Provence who gives us tips of nearby great walks, reminisces over his visit to Rouen (Marie’s hometown in the north) and advises us of good places to visit in his home area once he learns of our trip- at the same time bemoaning the changes and increased prices caused by tourists coming to the region! Oh and of course, is quite taken by Zaza so has a little coo and a chat with her too!
Moureze is our next stop, another pretty little village but with houses a deeper red in colour and which sits against the beautiful Cirque de Moureze as a backdrop. In front of us there are 300 hectares of wilderness covered in massive strangely shaped limestone rocks that have been gradually eroded over time. As we snaked along the road to get there we saw right on the roadside a wild goat-like animal with auburn fur and little horns happily munching away as the cars were going past…edit: a quick google search has informed us that it was a Pyrenean chamois (or Isard in French) that we saw. A beautiful animal with fantastic markings.
We have a great time climbing and exploring the Cirque de Moureze. The smell of the wild rosemary and other plants as you brush against them is one of the best bits. We get so excited by it that we clamber further in and further up to get the great views and then end up with quite a mission to get back down again- Zaza is very patient in the sling but it wears thin in the end and she has a much deserved feed in a nearby park afterwards.
Our well deserved drink however is not to be had, with everything closed for the afternoon in low season and we are instead rewarded with glimpsing a man teaching his daughter sword fighting in a small medieval street, and a display of some sculptures made out of driftwood, including a very realistic looking camel.
As the late afternoon light is beautiful we decide to follow the scenic loop on the map around Lake Salagou before setting off to find our hotel. This gives us more beauty and again a different landscape. This time, and only a few minutes from the big grey limestone rocks, we’re treated to deep red rock and soil, well covered with greenery, in a hilly landscape all around. It reminds me of the soil around the Valley of the Gods in America (think Monument Valley but on a slightly smaller scale and with no other tourists) that we scooped up and smuggled back with us in our suitcases, having never seen anything so richly coloured before. We try driving around the lake but find the route a little confusing. As usual, my navigational abilities are amazing and we’re going back and forth around the lake perimeter as I’ve spotted what looks like an abandoned village in ruins that I want to explore but we can’t quite reach. Once we get there, it has great views but is all sectioned off so we’re quick to move on.
After our scenic tour we decide to head to our hotel. The map suggests there’s a scenic route option so I confidently direct us to…well…what starts off as a very narrow tarmacked road leading off from a tiny village. This quickly becomes a dirt track which then snakes narrowly alongside a river, crosses it precariously to go up between some hedges and into a vineyard. There’s nowhere to turn around so we continue onward, past the man tending to his vines as if this is a perfectly normal route to take (hoping he doesn’t block our path and ask us why we’re trespassing) and up and up further along a now tree lined route. Marie intermittently asks me if I’m still confident the road isn’t a dead end and I bravely state that I’m increasingly confident. In part my reasoning is that if they’ve bothered to continue a track out the other side of a farm, it must go somewhere and in part I feel we’ve invested too much in the route now to go back. Fortunately my cheek pays off and we end up coming out in a village, at which point Marie, who’s having to drive through all these challenges, turns to me and says ‘now don’t you dare be smug about this!…..it was beautiful though…’
The challenges of having me as a wife continue…she then suggests I pop the hotel into sat nav so we can go straight there when we arrive in the town we’re staying in. Turns out neither of us know what it’s called. That’s ok I say, I’ve got data on my phone today anyway, I’ll just check my email confirmation…cue dead phone with no battery life. That’s ok, I’ll just charge it in the car…10 minutes later cue an in-car charger that isn’t working…. cue pulling over on the roadside, unpacking the laptop in the hope that the confirmed booking page is still open and has the name or address on it…well it does, so I return to the passenger seat all pleased with myself only to find a slightly frazzled Marie as the sat nav isn’t recognising the address. Erm….that’s ok, we’ll look out for it…I soon realise it’s a town rather than a village that we’re staying in meaning there are a lot of streets it could be…ok, I’ll find a restaurant or some other point of interest in the sat nav on that street and that’ll take us to it…So what’s now happening is Marie is driving through the town looking at all the road names and asking me to do the same, I’m meanwhile scrolling desperately through the sat nav and Eliza picks this moment to feel discontent and want to tell us all about it. So, Zaza is now screaming louder and louder from the back while Marie semi shouts at her in exasperation and begs me to do something about it, whilst it takes all I have to keep my fingers away from her mouth as although it will work, they’ve not been washed in hours. Fortunately the restaurant I find on a slightly different version of the road does turn out to be near the hotel and we manage to check in with a rather tear-soaked baby.
Zaza then has ‘play time’ which is super super high pitched and vocal, heard by all surrounding rooms I’m sure. We also have ‘tummy time’ on me and she manages to crawl right up from my waist to my neck…I use crawl a little generously perhaps, shunt very gradually using repeat kicks of her legs. As hoped, this tires her out and she falls asleep during our walk to dinner. We set her up on the table with a blanket and jumper as a makeshift bed, much to the owner’s alarm as the cutlery is still beneath her (we then remove it of course) and stays asleep through dinner, the walk back to the hotel and some of the evening.