It’s hot in Aix in August, with afternoon temperatures of 33C (91F) in the shade, so we jump at the invitation to visit friends in the Cevennes mountains. They are in the department of la Lozère, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, north-west of here.
From Aix we head on the highway towards Arles, then Nîmes. We soon find ourselves in traffic jams on the autoroutes – after all, it is the first weekend in August – then things quieten as we drive through the flat marshy area that is the Camargue, the delta of the river Rhône. As we continue on to Alès, highways give way to routes départementales, then to local roads, and finally to narrow mountain roads which climb and turn, hemmed in by rocky crags on one side and a precipitous drop down steep hillsides on the other.
The house is located in a tiny hamlet of four dwellings, only three of them currently inhabited. More than two-hundred years old, it was originally built in pierre sèche, dry-stone construction, but most of it has since been filled in with mortar. It clings to a narrow ledge at the side of the road, its back thrust directly into the hill which rises steeply behind. Our bedroom faces south, and we look down on the valley of the Lot, where wisps of morning mist linger below us in the densely-wooded valley. At more than 1,150 meters high and with walls over a meter thick, it is certainly a cool contrast to our city apartment.
First stop, a concert in the local church at Saint-Julien-du-Tournel, featuring a mezzo-soprano performing works by Handel, Beethoven and Fauré, accompanied by piano and a chorus of criquets. After the concert, the local mayor invites everyone to a “pot” at his expense. Then it’s home for a dinner of steak and ratatouille, that delicious provençal vegetable stew.
The meat is local, from a breed of hook-horned, bay-colored cows called Aubrac. From early spring they roam freely on the hills, with cows, their bull and all the year’s new calves grazing at will on the mountain pastures. Needless to say, both meat and cheese from these animals are delicious. Other treats during our stay include pintade (guinea fowl) and veal cooked with cream and girofles, a type of wild mushroom.
On our last afternoon we take an old jeep along bumpy farm tracks to a shady wooded area. We collect fraises des bois, tiny wild strawberries which pack a burst of intense flavor, and a few wild framboises (raspberries). It’s a little early in the season, but we’re also hoping to collect some mushrooms. We find some large bracket fungi which look good, but on closer examination they have a strange red ring on the stalk. Not sure what is edible and what is dangerous in France? Easy: you take your mushrooms to the local pharmacist who will help you identify the species.
On the way back we stop the jeep for a leisurely chat with the local farmer’s mother, out collecting dandelions (dents-de-lion, often known as pissenlits) for her rabbits. She eyes our collection and declares them “douteux,” very suspicious. A quick look at a reference book back home confirms her diagnosis – poisonous!
The weather breaks with a violent storm, lightning exploding from hill to hill and hailstones (grêle) crashing against the shutters. We drive home to a barrage of hail on the car roof and windshield, and rain gushing across the tiny, winding roads as we descend. Mountain ash trees (sorbiers) give way to chestnuts (châtaigniers) for which the Cevennes is famous, and the heart-stopping mountain roads again widen out into busy routes départementales. We join a long, slow line of traffic behind two camping cars. Back to civilization!
© 2013 Text and photos Trevor and Valerie White