Monday, August 25, 2014

A Special Un-Welcome Back


I'm just back from two lovely weeks in the UK: one week chez mum, and one week in Rhossili with my big bro and his family in a fantastic house for nine, including four teenagers...

Yesterday, it was back to France on the train. My suitcase had finally given up the ghost on the journey over, and been taken to the dump, so I was going back with a massive one my mum didn't need any more that used to be used by my dad on his visits over when it had been filled with goodies. It was heavy... and unreliable. Sitting in a train on the Circle line, my eldest, who'd been given the task of hauling it around, realised the trolley handle was stuck and wouldn't retract. Ah.. We decided to worry about how to get it into Eurostar's luggage space later.

I popped into M&S in St Pancras to pick up a couple of their tasty salads for the journey, and found myself also paying for four bottles of ale that my son added to the basket. He discovered ales such as Gower Gold, and 1555 this summer and took to them like a bee to honey.

Almost first on the train, my suitcase found a home in the roomy empty luggage space but had to be jiggled about later to make room for others as the train was heaving. Crossing Paris was as ghastly as usual. I'm so glad I don't live there and have to travel on the RER every day! We had enough time before our train to Montpellier to venture outside Gare de Lyon to buy the boys some kebabs and chips at their favourite Turkish place next to a sex shop...

The TGV was half an hour or so late much to my eldest's disgust as he was planning to go out and see his buddies when we arrived home - I don't know where he finds the energy! Eventually we were let on, and I managed to get the recalcitrant suitcase snugly stowed on the luggage rack as I was one of the first in that carriage too. Thank heaven!

Back home, my cat welcomed me with neurosis and revenge poo on the bed. Not the first time either, the little sod even though next door pop in and keep his dishes full and give him attention. Shame catteries are so expensive because he'd be in there like a flash!

Next up was the fridge. My eldest had joined us (just) in London, travelling by himself from Montpellier to London. He nearly missed the train however, as he partied the night before he left and didn't hear the alarm, or me calling his phone. As a result, he didn't do all the things on the list I left, such as to put all uneaten chicken breasts in the freezer, and ten days later, they were not a pretty sight, or smell. You can imagine how happy I was throwing out six raw chicken breasts!

He also left the dishwasher full and unwashed despite me telling him not to use it. It was a repulsive sight in there, I can tell you, and the smell was foul. One wash was not enough either, and one of my wooden spoons has been consigned to the bin covered as it is in mould even after everything the dishwasher could throw at it.

Finally, this morning, my car wouldn't start so I had to call out the Assistance, then watch as the car was taken away to deal with the battery, and wait for a taxi to take me to the car rental office. A morning's worth. As I was in the taxi heading for the centre of town, I saw the truck with my car on the back that I'd seen off an hour before going in the opposite direction to where Toyota is located in Montpellier. Bizarre. I presume it's all okay... and will get to where it's going eventually!

The rental car is a snazzy DS3 which is black with a white roof, runs on turbo-charged diesel and goes like a bat out of hell. All paid for by the Assistance. Could be worse...

Monday, August 04, 2014

Changing arrangements, dog poo and walks

I spent Friday evening in a flurry of changing arrangements. My youngest who, chez his dad, didn't know when he was coming home, and then later he did (more-or-less), friends from afar who were due to spend the evening with us, but sent a message to say they couldn't make it which I didn't get, and other friends who rang to suggest meeting up the next lunch time. In between having to think hurriedly about eating seeing as we weren't going into town in the end. Much time was spent on mobile phones.

In the end, it all sorted itself out, as it always does. We had lunch the next day with my DB's friend and his family, and dinner in Arles with my Aussie buddy and her husband from way back (1999) in Dallas. Before dinner, we worked up an appetite by walking along the banks of the Rhone, delicately picking our way between the smelly dog turds. They marred an otherwise very pleasant stroll. We also witnessed the arrival of one of those river cruise ships - not Viking - but a Swiss company. It was very very long, and did a 360° turn to berth competently at Arles. The passengers inside were all happily finishing off their dinner and I suppose were getting ready for an evening's exploration of the town.

We had a delicious, very jolly dinner at l'Autruche, choosing to sit inside as there was an Alert Orange in force and a forecast of hail stones... I think it might have rained a bit, but hail there was not. Today I saw that the storms had devastated certain villages in Ariege and further east: mud slides, gravel slides, raging torrents, the lot!

On Sunday we went to Corconne for a walk. It's about a twenty minute drive from chez moi, and we often go past it as it's on the way to Quissac, Anduze, Alès, and Sauve. I found a walk in a book that I bought before I was married - Balades: 52 itinéraires autour de Montpellier, published in 1993! We decided to do part of the walk through the Forêt de Coutach which would take us up through the cliffs above the village, past the Pont du Hasard, through a 'forêt sauvage' to a view point, and then back to a chapel and castle ruins which overlook the village. The walk in the book is 11km and takes three and a half hours, but we didn't want to go that far so decided to walk to the belvedere (view point) and back via the chapel, probably half the distance. To show how old the book is, it says to take the PR35, but it has since been renamed the PR47 which can lead to confusion and a heated discussion about being on the right path...

Cliffs form a backdrop to an amphitheatre around Corconne
Despite the book declaring there were 'difficultés: néant' (no difficulties), we found scrambling up parts of the path to the Pont du Hasard quite challenging and almost impossible if you'd inadvertently gone with a very small child.
Path goes up to the right - spot the yellow stripes

Difficulté : néant? Try going up this if you're not steady on your legs!

At the top. The tor takes up almost all the path!
The sun was in the wrong place to take a picture of the Pont du Hasard so here is one taken by someone else:
Pont du Hasard natural rock arch

Weave your way between the rocks
It was mostly shady, but still very warm (29°C). Once on the plateau, it was plain sailing on an easy path through the forêt sauvage of scrubby trees and bushes as far as the view point which looked west towards the village of Pompignane.
View point (belvedere) looking west, Cevennes in background

Two 'teeth' that form the top of the cliffs

Cliffs 

View from chapel looking north

View from chapel looking south, note Corconne's charming rooftops
The chapel was built on the ruins of a castle that was first established on that spot before 1000AD. It is much younger, having been constructed in 1858 with, apparently, a line of villagers who passed up roof tiles one by one to the top.
Chapel, still in use on Sept 8.

Many crosses line the path to the chapel

It's amazing what a bit of water will do...
We certainly exerted ourselves going up, and down paying careful attention to where we placed our feet on the pebbly path. My DB did his 10000 steps, according to his Fitbit Zip podometer (his daily challenge), so we were able to find a picnic spot once back at the car and enjoy our lunch happy in the knowledge that he could have a snooze and slob about for the rest of the day. 

I went to pick up my youngest from the station. Hurrah!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Bliss in Bruel

Saint Jean de Bruel, that is, not Patrick the singer. We came across another delightful location this weekend thanks to the book of walks we bought on our last trip. Not only did we open it, but we chose an itinerary to walk! We drove up to Causse Bégon which is a tiny spot in the middle of nowhere that has a 5km walk on the causse. Causses are limestone plateaux which have a particular arid terrain made up of stubby trees, dolomite outcrops and cropped grass. You see one when you take the A75 from Lodève to Millau which crosses the plateau de Larzac.

Our walk was pleasant enough. It was cool up there when the wind blew and had some nice views although nothing spectacular. One bit must have been eroded by water at some point in its past. It had lots of holes in the rock which I couldn't resist poking with my finger. My DB hoped the one I poked wouldn't be inhabited by snakes. As it was less than 5 cm deep, I thought I'd probably see them coming.
Water erosion and no snakes 800m up on walk around Causse Bégon
At some point, we had to climb steeply for what the signpost said was 80metres but felt like more, to see the dolmen called the Giant's Tomb.

Dolmen tomb for a small-sized giant

Just big enough for me lengthwise
Proof that my DB is not a country bumpkin happened when we were walking back towards the car from the dolmen on a different path to the original one, having decided not to slide back down the steep track. We suddenly found ourselves on the wrong side of a fence. On observing this, he asked me how we would get back to the right side. I spied some string bits floating in the breeze some way off and said that it was probably some sort of gate. He was doubtful. Then he wondered if the fence was electric. No, I said, they don't look like that. He was doubtful. It has barbed wire, he said. No, I said, it doesn't. Hmmm... We got to the fence and, as it was low, I could just lift me leg over it. No barbed wire, no electricity, AND the gate was a gate. I'm not that much of a country bumpkin, but it's easy to appear informed and clued up in the countryside compared to my DB!

We got back to the car and drove down to St Jean de Bruel where we hoped to find somewhere to sleep. We had not booked and discovered, of course, that both hotels were full. Our only option was a chambre d'hote. We are not keen on chambre d'hote (as you may remember), but the alternative was an hour's drive to cover 35km to Meyreuis (up and down and up and down), similar to get to Montpellier or stay in a scabby place half an hour away. The woman in the tourist office assured us that the chambre d'hote, Les Cardabelles, was quite like a hotel, so we decided to give it a try.

Good thing we did too as it was LOVELY and pretty much like a hotel only better because it had AIR CONDITIONING which 2-star hotels do not.
Unassuming exterior to Les Cardabelles chambres d'hote
Room
Bathroom, shower on right
View from room
There are three rooms at the top of the building and they have a separate staircase from the rest of the house. You could really believe yourself to be in a hotel. Our room had two extra beds so you could really get value for money from the cost of the room including breakfast (€66). We were the only guests, surprisingly, so had the breakfast table to ourselves the next morning, with delicious coffee (a rarity), and excellent home-made jams and bread as well as croissants, etc. It was a bijoux place! M Vidal, who owns it, also makes potted pâtés. His little factory is next door and I suppose he supplements his income with the chambres d'hote. We found him warm and friendly, and he didn't hang around or try to impose himself. Really, the perfect place.

That evening we were fortunate with dinner too! Recommended by M Vidal, we booked at l'Oustal just down the road and chose the €14.50 menu. We sat outside on the terrace and started with a mixed salad which was followed by one of the most delicious rascasse rouge I've ever had. It seemed to have been just fried, in butter but it was so tasty I could have eaten it all night. It came with quinoa and courgette, and the whole meal was simply delicious. We had cheese for dessert, and pichets of rosé to wash it down.

After breakfast, we mooched into the village to visit the little market. There we saw a local organic veg producer who, coincidentally, sells his produce with a small number of others in their shop in the next village to me! They take it in turns to keep shop, so costs are kept reasonable because they employ no extra staff. I am definitely going to take a look this week because I like the idea of these farmers getting together and doing some sensible, and the veggies looked excellent. What an amazing coincidence finding him there in the middle of nowhere!

We had a leaflet from the tourist office on a nice walk up to the village sentinelle. It was 5km so we decided we could cope with that if it meant admiring 360° views from the top. The walk was delightful. It took us through shady sweet chestnut tree woods up a gentle incline for much of it.

Shady path through the chataigners
Part of the view from the top, with sentinelle. The village is St Jean de Bruel.
The view from the top was definitely worth it, enhanced by the fact that my DB's Free mobile phone found a network whilst there was none in the valley, so he could listen to his messages!

We came back down and it was only just gone midday. Despite our delicious and copious breakfast, we went to the village picnic spot that I had noticed just down the road from where we stayed, and next to Noria, the water museum.

Picnic spot
The canal was built to secure access to running water for the mill even when the river on the other side of the picnic spot was low.
Old mill, now Water Museum, Noria.
After lunch, we went to visit the museum. We walked round the balcony to get to the entrance and admired the old thirteenth century bridge across the river Dourbie. I also admired the vegetable plot and gazed longingly at its lusciously fertile soil. For information, a one-bedroom flat in this village (in the middle of nowhere) is a measly €20,000!
View of XIII century bridge from museum
The mill has been put to different uses in its history. One of the main ones was cleaning woollen cloth. The cloth was wrapped around a type of bobbin and fixed to a box. Water came down via a channel to wash it and protect it from damage, and the bobbin turned every so often to work the whole cloth. It was a very clever system. Although the mill was closed for business 1985, it was restored and open to the public as a functioning piece of history. 

Water arrives

Huge hammers that bash the woollen cloth

Woollen cloth on the right getting a bashing
The museum also contains a functioning hydro-electric station (mini), a large model of a river modified to produce hydro-electricity where if you press a button, you get a commentary and demonstration of water management. There are several rooms containing interesting information about water - how to manage and treat it, and its place in the cosmos. There is even a "Bistr'eau" of four different waters to show you how water tastes different depending on how mineralised it is. Low mineralised water tastes 'hard' while a high mineral count gives a 'soft' taste. Did you know that?

Finally, there's a spot for kids to let off steam in a playroom shooting water and other games, a little bar and a shop. We greatly enjoyed our visit and learned a lot from the excellent displays. The shop was lacking in books in my opinion. They had loads of useless mini figures of dogs, owls, cows all dressed up. Someone needs to take the shop in hand and get in some more appropriate, interesting products.

A lovely weekend, and just an hour from Montpellier. It felt so different, and so did us so much good. I didn't want to come home!


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

University Registration à la Française

The French administration system is world renowned, its reputation having spread far and wide thanks to foreigners moaning to those at home about their dealings with it.

I've had my fair share of run-ins with it, but not as many as those who dare to start a business. I toyed with the idea back in 1990, and ran away, aghast at the true horror and expense, of starting something I just wanted to do to make a bit of pocket money. This was pre-AutoEntrepreneur days and you needed a capital of 50,000FF which I didn't have and didn't need to try and flog a few Provençal print shopping bags that I made from waxed cotton material bought locally. The paperwork had to be seen to be believed, and the hovering rapacious jaws of URSSAF (Unions de recouvrement des cotisations de sécurité sociale et d'allocations familiales) terrified the living daylights out of me. Richard Branson I am not.


Yesterday, my eldest and I were embroiled in the continuing saga of his university application. I had been nagging him to get onto the Admission Post-Bac website to see what had to be done and note the deadline. He saw that university inscription started on July 7, but didn't really take note of when it finished. Over the weekend, he had a funny feeling, logged back in on Sunday evening and saw that the deadline was Wednesday July 23.

He didn't tell me until he saw me again yesterday lunch time (Monday... tick, tick, tick). We got down to it when I got in from work. Naturally, there was a long list of papers to provide, including some which needed Googling to understand what they were. When I was typing the search, the automatic feature brought up the one I needed instantly, showing that we were not the only ones flummoxed by certain requirements! We were particularly intrigued by what could possibly be

  • Fiche d’inscription pédagogique dûment complétée (Déclaration d’examen 2014/2015)
  • Récapitulatif demande inscription Primo web 
  • Notification APB (original + photocopie) 

Here's the full list for the Law Faculty:

Pour tous les étudiants (all students):

  • Titre de paiement (chèque, carte bleue, mandat cash) (Cost for the year €189.10!)
  •  Carte Identité (original+copie) (or passport)
  •  Attestation d’affiliation sécurité datée de moins de trois mois (Secu membership)
  •  Immatriculation sécurité sociale N° personnel ou carte vitale (original+copie) (carte vitale)
  •  Photo d’identité 
  •  Attestation responsabilité civile datée de moins de trois mois (personal liability insurance)
  •  Fiche d’inscription pédagogique dûment complétée (Déclaration d’examen 2014/2015) ?? (discovered to be another certificate)

 Pour les néo bacheliers (freshers) :

  • Relevé des notes du baccalauréat avec le n° INE (original + photocopie) (Bac marks)
  • Récapitulatif demande inscription Primo web ??
  • Notification APB (original + photocopie) ??
  • Attestation Journée Défense Citoyenneté (à défaut attestation recensement) (National Service Day certificate)

Pour les étudiants mineurs : autorisation d’inscription du ou des titulaires de l’autorité parentale (as a minor, he needs my permission to register at university)
Pour les étudiants qui auront moins de 20 ans le 30 septembre 2015 : 
Attestation datée de moins de deux mois de la couverture sociale des parents (my Secu membership as he's under 20) 

Not a bad list really. If he'd been a high level sportsman, a 'pupille de la nation' (whatever that is - orphan?) handicapped, grant receiver, employed, foreign or transferring from one university to another, there would have been even more paperwork to provide.

Luckily my printer had ink for all the copying and printing, and it took us about an hour and a half to get it all done, including filling in some crazy form on the internet to register (again) online. My eldest found out he could take an appointment to register in person (how many registrations do they need?) and he's going tomorrow lunch time. I'm not sure if I should go along and hang about outside (with my Kindle) in case of emergencies. We're bound to have got something wrong! Hopefully not though because:
ATTENTION : TOUT DOSSIER INCOMPLET SERA REFUSÉ 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Taking the Right Path on Mont Aigoual

Part I Steam Trains and Olive Oil
Part II Taking the Wrong Path on Mont Aigoual

The Bastille Day holiday, or rather, le quartorze juillet, was the opportunity for a flea market down the main road of Meyrueis. I looked out of the window of the Hotel d'Europe and noted the busy goings-on, all quite low key and local. Further inspection on our way to have a coffee and croissant in the village bar revealed stands of old postcards and books, others with crockery, glassware, some clothes, toys, an old microwave oven, and a mono-cycle (new, €15) with stand. I thought of my youngest, and how he often moans about having nothing to do (when kicked off the XBox), and decided that learning how to use a mono-cycle would give him something to do. My DB agreed, so I asked the woman to keep it for me until I came back later with the car. She believed me, and put it aside.

We had breakfast outside in the morning sun having bought croissants from the boulangerie two doors down, as had everyone else, and I got quite a caffeine buzz from the strong café au lait. Now wired for the day, I went and got the car, got the mono-cycle and, stocked up with sarnies from the boulangerie, we drove back up to Mont Aigoual to walk the famous Chemin des Botanistes, stopping on the way to buy the maps at the tourist office...
Valleraugue Valley
The top was clear of low cloud, and full of sheep. The shepherd and his hard-working dog (which did not look like Shep, if you can remember that far back to Blue Peter days) were hanging about outside his van on the road.
Sheep, and shepherd's white van
We started by going up the tower to appreciate the view while the clouds were high above scudding across the sky. You can see as far as 250km away. The sea was visible, just, as was the Pic Saint Loup, and Mont Ventoux. Looking west, the cloud cover was too low to make out distant landmarks. The panorama of 360° is breath-taking and well worth the visit. The photos didn't come out that well as it was too hazy.

Then it was time to tackle our walk. We drove back down to the menhir and got ready for the 90-minute trek. Less than an hour later we'd finished. It wasn't that we were particularly speedy because we weren't, but cheating probably cut off a chunk of time, more than we expected. Anyway, the chemin was a narrow track cut into the side of the mountain with precipitous drops on one side. Not for the faint-hearted even if it was without difficulty. We saw a lot of evidence of wild boar activity - it must be a favourite spot with them because there were several areas of disturbed soil. I couldn't see why it was called the Chemin des Botanistes, not that I know anything about plants, but it didn't seem that different to the path we'd been on the previous day botany-wise.

Precipitous drop on the Chemin des Botanistes
Wild boar snuffled beds
We had expected to eat our sarnies somewhere along the chemin, but having finished in record time, we went back up to the top and ate them at a picnic table more-or-less out of the wind. They were filled with lettuce, ham and tomato salad, and were delicious. It also felt really good to be blown about a bit with cool air. Down in the valley it was 30°C+.

Picnic table and view
Eventually we dragged ourselves away and drove sedately back to earth.

The appeal of mountains and altitude is very strong with my DB and me. We love the Cevennes because it's so wild and mostly empty, and beautiful, and nearby. If I could have a weekend cottage in a small village with a fertile garden, I'd love it. Nothing grows in my arid corner of the garrigue so when I see the rows and rows of sweet onions on the valley terraces, it gets my none too green fingers itching. As we're not going to buy a cottage (we have yet to buy a house!), we have decided to walk there more often (hence the maps). It's not far, but it's so different from Montpellier, you feel like you've been on holiday even if you just go for a day. That's the plan, the resolution, the good intention. All we have to concentrate on now... is implementation!


Friday, July 18, 2014

Taking the Wrong Path on Mont Aigoual

Part I: Steam Trains and Olive Oil

It was thanks to a non-refundable hotel booking that got my DB and me to patch things up the next day and agree to enjoy the rest of the weekend together. I had indulged in a mega lie-in until 10am (I'm normally up no later than 8.30 even at the weekend, 9 grand max), so had to get my skates on to shower, pack an overnight bag (which hadn't really been unpacked since the weekend before...) and whip up a picnic.

I picked him up at 11am, and we drove off towards Mont Aigoual. Just outside Le Vigan, we took a road we've never been on before, not even on the bike. It was a teeny road - single-car narrow - and bumpy, the D329, and although not 'green' (on the Michelin map), it went through some lovely fragrant woods and scenery. (I note that it joins up at Mandagout with the D170 which is similar, but green. Must try that one next time!) We stopped at a shady spot amongst delicious-smelling pines for our picnic, and enjoyed the excellent 'Tradition' bread with good ol' cheddar, Branston pickle and spring onions, and dipped cucumber and green pepper into the rest of the hummus.

Thus fortified, we drove on and arrived at L'Esperou via the Col de la Lusette which was open (natch). There were very many bikers about, several of whom were sprawled on the sledging slopes having a snooze. Otherwise, it was pretty calm and very different from the frenetic atmosphere of the ski season.

We drove up to the tourist office at the Col de la Serreyrède and had a look at the maps and books of walks, but decided not to buy anything, which of course turned out to be a mistake. The girl at the desk suggested we do an easy walk at Mont Aigoual called the Chemin des Botanistes, and told us where it was and what to look out for.

At the top of Mont Aigoual is an imposing castle that was built in the 19th century as a meteorological observatory. It still serves this purpose, and today, has the addition of a free meteorological exhibition and museum. We had a quick look at the shop because we like to do things the wrong way round, and I bought a book on local edible salad plants because you never know when times could be hard... The exhibition was extremely interesting. It's not at all hands-on, so my boys would whizz round it in 5 minutes to be found in the snack bar later scoffing chips (probably), but I enjoyed reading the panels about clouds, the weather, and watching videos. There is also a museum of old machines used to gather information and make forecasts, and panels describing how the castle was built. We found it very interesting.

Mont Aigoual Observatory
Then, being lazy, we drove down to the menhir below the castle to start the Chemin des Botanistes. We should have started from the castle, but saved ourselves the 200m or so... Without the map, we got lost. We asked people if we were on the right path, and rather than show ignorance, they said yes, even though it wasn't. It was a nice walk along a wide path, but it was not the Chemain des Botanistes! In the end, as we were going ever further down down down, we decided to stop and turn round. It was as we neared the top that we saw the start of the Chemin des Botanistes which goes around the top of the hill.

Menhir (left)
It was lovely and cool up there. The temperature hardly ever climbs over 15°C so it's the place to go if you can't stand the heat of the plain any longer. The wrong path took us through the forest where we saw some interesting forked trees, foxgloves (which I noted for future reference... just in case, and if you've read Agatha Christie you'll know what I mean...), and a keen botanist who was not on his chemin, but was taking a photo of a small pink flower. I asked him what it was and he told me it was wild version of some edible plant (whose name escapes me).

Foxgloves

Frankentree

Dead tree of many stumps
Forked tree (many looked like this)
By this time, the clouds had come down over the castle so there was no point climbing the tower to admire the view. We drove off, instead, to Meyrueis where we had booked our hotel. Meyrueis is a village set on the ancient trade and transhumance route between Auvergne and Bas-Languedoc. Today, it welcomes tourists in numerous hotels, camp sites, holiday cottages and B&Bs, but it isn't a tourist trap, for all that. We found it very charming despite having so many people milling around. Our hotel room overlooked a stream which burbled noisily below our window on the other side of the not-so-main road. We were staying at Hotel d'Europe which is a 2* place, and was basic but clean. It was July 13, so you might expect the hoteliers and serving staff to be a bit grumpy but everyone we came across in this village was warm and friendly. For France, that's saying something!

View from bedroom balcony of Meyrueis main street and stream

Narrow streets in Meyrueis
After reading my Kindle on the balcony while my DB had a snooze inside, we went to have dinner at one of the few remaining tables at the restaurant of the hotel next door (Hotel Family) as ours only did breakfast, and expected to be waiting all evening to be served, but this was not the case. We were served promptly, and ate very well. The fried aubergine, in particular, was so good, my DB asked for more, and got it with a smile. Even the pichet rosé wine was a pleasure to drink. It was a Saint Saturnin from down the road, near Montpeyroux, and was much better than a lot of the rubbish that gets put in a pichet, and excellent value at €5 for half a litre! It was great value at €19.90 for the menu.

We slept with a cool breeze floating in through the open window, and the sound of the stream which penetrated even through my ear plugs!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Steam Trains and Olive Oil

The weekend of July 14th was a long one, with Monday off too. You only get the extra day if the holiday falls on a week day. If it is unfortunate to land on a weekend day, there's no extra day off. Isn't that mean?

Anyway, with the long, and busy, weekend coming up, my DB and I decided to go away again. Plan A was to go on the little steam train at Anduze, stay the night, then go up to Millau, walk, stay the night, then head back to Mont Aigoual and do some walking there. Except that, it was a very busy weekend, and there wasn't a cupboard to be booked in Anduze.

After much searching on the internet, we finally booked a hotel room in Meyrueis, about 24km from Mont Aigoual for the Sunday night. We decided to visit Anduze on Saturday, and come home because it's really not that far, and there was no point flogging a dead cat by paying to stay somewhere 10km up the road.

So on Saturday, I got a picnic together - another ploughman's, with the addition of some hummus, and we set off to catch the 11.30am steam train. We had printed off tickets beforehand (return €15 each) so didn't have to queue, but got there in such good time it wouldn't have mattered.
Gare Anduze
There I was with my cool box containing our picnic expecting to see a lot more, but I was the only one! Times have changed. The last time I did this trip, at least half the train if not more had taken a picnic but then it was probably not high season. Perhaps locals want to keep the cost down but tourists don't want the hassle of carrying a picnic box? My DB said I looked like a right Bidochon and did I want to leave it in the car?

Les Bidochon
I said I didn't care what I looked like, and the cool box was coming too!
The steam train

Really letting off steam

When we arrived at St-Jean-du-Gard station there were a lovely lot of picnic tables, but only a few ended up being used. Even the station snack bar was pretty empty. As the train was full, I suppose most people went to find a restaurant!
Gare St-Jean-du-Gard

Station restaurants at St JdG
The one on the left looked pretty tempting, with its home-made everything, including frites! We ate our lunch under a shady tree and left the box in the care of the people on the next table (grandparents looking after grandchildren - they weren't going to go far!) while we went for a mooch about. St JdG is a small place, but it feels very pleasant there. Over the river, market stall holders were packing up what looked like stalls full of lovely fresh local produce.

Back at the station, the driver was showing people inside his driver's cabin and allowing small groups to climb up and listen to him reel off in loving detail all the specs of his pride and joy. My DB went up, but I've done that already, so let the long queue proceed without me!

Diesel train at St JdG
The train set off again at 2pm (the journey takes 40 mins), with us sitting on the other side of the train to get the lovely views from that side.




The train also makes a stop at the Bambouseraie which is well worth a visit. You can make a real day of it as the train times all fit nicely to stop off, visit, and catch the last train back.

View of Bambouseraie (shop) from the train
We arrived back in Anduze and watched the engineers to their thing filling the engine with water, shovelling coal, and going over the wheels with a squirty oil can and oily rag. They looked like they were having a lovely time.

Man at work shovelling coal

Same man at work pumping water
The little steam train of the Cevennes really is a bijoux. Everyone loves a steam train, and this is a great trip for all ages. My kids loved it when I took them, as did my parents, and my DB loved it too.

From the station car park, we drove to the olive oil mill, Les Olivettes, back along the road towards St Jean. It's one of the few remaining places that grinds the olives traditionally using stone millstones. You can visit the mill and watch a video explaining the process which is fascinating. Then you can go and taste the oils produced and chat to the producer. He told us about the severe weather of the 1956 that was so cold it killed off all the olive trees in the Cevennes. Many mills were closed down or abandoned for lack of business.

Traditional millstones, photo courtesy Oléigest
After replanting, it took twenty years before the trees became productive and oil could be produced in the region again. By then, new buildings were being constructed with modern extracting techniques that could press more olives at a time, and so increase profits. Les Olivettes which was originally located in Anduze but was moved to Saint Jean du Gard by its owner, Henri Geoffray in 1985, is the last remaining Cevenol olive oil mill that uses stones.

They have a shop that sells the oil, and associated local produce - soap, sweet chestnut flour, cakes, biscuits, honey, etc. My DB bought a bottle of the Picholines oil which is very fruity, and has a definite bite. It's good on salads, not so good used for cooking.

The last time I came to the mill, the shop was twice the size and was full of decorative items - beautiful olive chopping boards, lamp stands, etc. I asked M Geoffray what had happened and he said that with the crisis, no one was buying the (pricey if lovely) decorative items, and so they decided to give that part of the business up and stick to the stuff that sold - olive oil and other edibles, plus soap. In fact, I read (here) that the shop went into receivership last October, so obviously they are still recovering by concentrating on their core business.

It's well worth a visit, anyway. Even if you don't like the "corsé" pure Picholines olive oil, they also produce a very good blend, and an oil that's being tested this year which includes some black olives. I found it very unusual, and very smooth with a definite black olive taste.

After this lovely day out, we returned to Montpellier and ruined the evening with a disagreement!