We headed in to Meyrueis to visit the TI and pick up some information on the region. We found all sorts of info on the things to see and do in the area and went back to camp with lots of reading material.
We made a stop at the boulangerie and the charcuterie which we had visited last time for its award winning rillettes (similar to pâté). We also read through the menus in town to narrow down our choices for dinner one night. We had a tasty lunch in camp before setting off in the van.
We drove up a narrow, twisty road with beautiful views. At one viewpoint, the wildflowers were amazing and we spent quite a while looking at all the different types. We then carried on up to the causse where it flattened out and the landscape changed to farms and pasture. We arrived at the Aven Armand caves and were in time for a tour a few minutes later; we were lucky since there weren't too many people in the group with us. The tour started with a short ride down in a funicular; when you arrive in the cave, you are above all the stalagmites and have a great view down on them.
You can see the original entrance hole above where Martel, who first explored the cave, descended on a rope ladder. It would have been quite something to explore the cave back then with minimal lighting and not knowing what you were descending into. We slowly worked our way down the stairs past many incredible stalagmites until we reached the ribbons. These ribbons are translucent when the light shines through them and they are amazing. The guide said that they don’t really know how fast stalagmites grow, but Martel made one mark in one stalagmite when he explored the cave and after 100 years it had grown 1 cm. They use this as a sort-of indication for how much they grow, but they aren’t really sure. The optical illusions as you walked through the cave were interesting; at one point, a stalagmite looked like it was almost going to join with the roof, but actually, it was 12 m away!
Another illusion was another huge hole, this one without access to the surface, that looked like it was going into the rock sideways from one point, but once you descended into the cave it was right above you. The tallest stalagmite in the cave was 25 m tall! We also saw lots of pancake type stalagmites which look like piles of pancakes or plates stacked on each other. These only form when there is a really high cave for the water to reach a good speed and then splatter when it hits the stalagmite. We quite enjoyed our tour and decided that is a sight you could see often and it would still be incredible.
After visiting Aven Armand, we headed over to a museum on a caussenarde farm. This was an example of what a farm would have looked like in about the 1800s. It was an actual farmstead and they had refurnished it and added information panels about life back then. We saw the areas where pigs and sheep were kept, saw the oxen shoeing area, various farm equipment as well as all the living quarters and various out-buildings. There was an oven, woodworking shop, storage for wagons and a room with photos of the farm workers which were really neat. The living quarters were quite large with the grandparents having the largest room and then the parents using the smaller room where their small kids would also have slept.
The kitchen had a large copper pot where the water for the day was stored and scooped out with a big ladle. There were plate racks with everyday settings and another with the fancier settings for company. There was a big room to the right of the main living area which was used to store potatoes, make bread and store food. Upstairs there were the quarters where the shepherd lived; the shepherd was usually between 10-12 years old or an older person. The shepherd hired himself out for several months at a time or often for the whole year. He didn’t earn much, but was fed and housed and often his boss would plant a few potatoes and he was given some wool and cheese. He didn’t get many holidays, just a few Sundays here and there to visit his family and two days in November to harvest his potatoes. The farm was quite interesting and had amazing views over the countryside. At the end, there were incredible models with santons (clay figures, or "little saints") doing traditional work.
We spent quite a while looking at them all and admiring all the work that had gone into them. We then watched a short clip that had been made by some of the last people to live and work on the farm. It was interesting to see because they were using the kitchen, shoeing oxen, baking bread, and using all of the buildings and equipment we had just seen. We quite enjoyed our visit and were impressed with how much work had gone into re-creating the farmstead.
We then returned to camp to relax a bit before heading out for dinner. We walked in to town to eat at the restaurant where we had eaten aligot for the first time in 2008. Aligot is a regional specialty made of potatoes, garlic and butter which has been mixed together until it is so sticky that you need scissors to cut it. We all started with the charcuterie plate which was made up of a delicious nettle/prune terrine, two types of sausage, prosciutto and pickles. It was delicious and we really enjoyed all the flavours. James opted for the Roquefort with puff pastry which he thought was also delicious. For the main we all had sausages which were done on the bbq (a huge treat since we have been without bbq for so long!) except for James who went for the mutton.
It was of course served with aligot which James had never had before. Therefore, he needed to be “baptized” which meant that the lady serving it cut off a small piece of aligot and left it to cool on his head. We had been “baptized” last time and thought that it was great that they were still doing it. For dessert we all had a hot chocolate soufflé-like treat that was extremely rich while James opted for the local specialty, a Coupetade, which was sort of like bread pudding with prunes, raisins and maple syrup of all things! We left feeling quite stuffed and were glad we had at least a short walk back to camp.
Wednesday June 12
We walked in to town in the morning to check out the small market. We picked up some Roquefort for James, a local cow cheese, some cherries and grape juice. Then we headed off for a scenic drive through the Tarn gorge. We had incredible views along the way and were glad for the viewpoints along the way; if there wasn’t one, I just slowed down or stopped if I could for the photo ops out the window. We stopped off in La Malène to use the washroom and thought it looked like a cute town. We decided to wander through the few streets and passed by a restaurant where we of course, stopped to read the menu. It had a delicious looking plat du jour so we decided to continue exploring the town after lunch.
The outside patio in the shade was full and since it was roasting in the sun, we opted for the indoor room. We were the only ones there and it was a beautiful dining room. It would have been just the place to splurge for a fancy dinner and we felt rather underdressed – luckily it was lunch so it didn’t really matter… We had an incredible duck with honey sauce, side salad and fried potatoes. Everything was cooked to perfection and we ate very slowly with lots of small bites to savour every mouthful. For dessert, Anoop and I had a raspberry and red fruit pie while Mom and James went for the mixed fruit pie. They were also delicious and we were very glad that we had decided to stop in La Malène. After lunch we continued walking through the lovely cobbled streets, past stone buildings with lots of flowers growing against them.
We then continued on to the town of Sainte-Enimie a few kilometres down the road. We climbed through their steep cobbled streets and read a few of their information panels scattered throughout the town. It was a beautiful village, bigger than La Malène, with equally beautiful stone houses and flowers.
There were some great views and we quite enjoyed wandering around. It was quite hot out still so we headed off with the windows down to continue on our drive. We stopped at an incredible viewpoint which we had quite enjoyed on our previous visit because it gave you a view back down over the Tarn. We then headed back to camp so that James could pack up since he was leaving the next day.
Thursday June 13
We headed off early to allow lots of time to drive to Alès where we were dropping James off at the train station. We started off and stopped shortly thereafter to take pictures of a bunch of sheep grazing on the hillside. We continued on after that and stopped for nice views of the valley a bit further on. That was a big mistake because a semi passed us and was in front of us for the next 30 kms. The road is quite windy which means that the truck had to slow down to 10-20 km/hr on the downhill switchbacks which meant we did too. I tried to pass on the few straight stretches there were but he just sped up so that I couldn’t pass safely. Lots of French drivers went blasting by us on blind corners, but seeing as I wanted to live through the drive, decided not to. It was very frustrating seeing as there were lots of places where he could have pulled out, or at least slowed down a bit on the straighter stretches to allow the row of cars behind him to go by.
Add this to the fact that I was really starting to need a bathroom after my morning cup of tea and looking at our watches wondering what time we were finally going to get to the train station. Eventually we arrived at the other end of the scenic drive only to have the truck pull over at the very bottom for a break! Anyhow, the drive was lovely despite the frustration and need of a washroom. We stopped at the TI to use the WC and had to go downstairs, nearly in the dark, and use an old key to open a metal gate which let us in to area with the washroom. I’m just glad they had one! Feeling much relieved we continued on for another 30 minutes or so to arrive in Alès at the train station. We dropped Mom and James off with the luggage while we found parking and then wandered over to meet them. There we found out that the train employees were on strike and there were no trains operating from there! Luckily they had arranged for a bus to transfer the passengers to the station in Nîmes (where the local train was supposed to go) and where there were a few TGVs still running in the afternoon. We read the schedule several times and made sure that James would be able to make it to Charles de Gaulle and not end up at a different Paris station. There was a train at 6:30 pm which meant he arrived around 10 instead of 6 as originally planned. At least there was a train! We had a café while we waited for the bus to arrive and as soon as it did, we headed out to put his luggage on the bus. Luckily it was a nice big bus with luggage storage underneath and lots of space. It only made one stop on the way to Nîmes which was also good and then James had to wait for a few hours before catching the train. After waving goodbye, we headed off back to camp via the slightly less twisty route. We stopped on the way to pick up a few groceries and mint magnums, a new flavour for us. I thought they were delicious although Anoop didn’t enjoy them as much since he’s not a mint chocolate fan. This worked for me since Mom was full and it meant that I got to eat two magnums since they come in a four pack. The drive back was quite nice and we arrived in camp in time for a swim.
Friday June 14
We set off to Mont Aigoual to see the view from the top and visit the weather station. It is the last weather station in France which still has someone living at it year round.
There was a lot of information on the different types of clouds and which ones bring what kind of weather. There were also lots of amazing pictures taken from the top in various conditions with the most incredible being of sunsets, sunrises and huge amounts of snow. We learned some interesting statistics, such as:
- Max windspeed: 335 km/hr
- Max temp: 28.7 C
- Min temp: -28 C
- Max visibility: 300 km
- Max rainfall in 24 hrs: 607 mm
- Max depth of fresh snow in one year: 10 m 24
We didn’t read a lot of the information since it went in to quite a bit of detail, but it was well presented if you were interested in learning more about weather. Outside, we could see many of the different types of equipment used to measure the weather info such as a laser which measured the depth of cloud cover. The views all around were quite incredible, and we were glad that we weren’t there on one of their 241 days with fog. We had a picnic lunch at the top which was made all the more wonderful by the views.
After lunch we drove down by another scenic route and arrived at the Abime de Bramabiau. After getting our tickets, we walked downhill for a fairly steep 1 km to arrive at the bottom. It was quite warm out so we found a spot in the shade on a bench where we could wait for the tour to start. The abime is an underground river which enters the ground at the plateau and emerges in a splendid waterfall down in the valley. As we passed over the bridge before entering the cave, the cold air blowing out of the crevice was enough to make us quickly put on our sweatshirts while we looked at the water rushing below.
The first part of the cave was fairly dark since the lights weren’t working. We walked past the river and the guide pointed out the various levels where the water had been during various floods. After seeing the water at the bottom level, we worked our way up through the cave until we were above it. The guide pointed out various rock formations and explained about how the cave had been formed. It was quite incredible walking in the cave, some parts narrow and others quite large with the sound of the river rushing below. The full length of the river had been explored first in 1888; the first day that they tried to see how far it went in the rock, they brought their canoe with them… Only making it a few metres, they returned the next day, without the canoe, and explored the full length of the underground river in about 6 hours. The guide said that it can now be fully explored in 30 minutes at the fastest, but normally takes about 1 hour. A few years ago they blasted a new tunnel to make an exit higher up so that tourists didn’t have to walk all the way back down and then return via the steep path. When they were making the tunnel, they discovered reverse dinosaur footprints which had been left in the soft clay layer all those years ago. When they cleared away the clay, there was a bulging footprint as if seen from underneath. The guide said that it was the toes of a raptor-like dinosaur, but we were a bit skeptical. We quite enjoyed our tour and thought that it wasn’t like anything we had seen before.
We returned to Meyrueis and had a swim before pondering dinner. We decided that we were all quite hungry and didn’t feel like cooking so we walked back in to town to read menus. We didn’t find anything that looked better than the one we had eaten at with James so returned for a repeat of charcuterie plate followed by sausages and aligot. For dessert I opted for the two scoops of ice cream while Mom and Anoop went for the regional coupetade that James had chosen before. It was a delicious meal once again and it was great to not have to cook!