Florac to Mende - In Céventh Heaven - CycleBlaze

September 11, 2011

Florac to Mende

We left Florac late in the afternoon, a tired donkey and tired donkey-driver. A little way up the Tarnon, a covered bridge of wood introduced us into the valley of the Mimente. Steep rocky red mountains overhung the stream; great oaks and chestnuts grew upon the slopes or in stony terraces; here and there was a red field of millet or a few apple-trees studded with red apples; and the road passed hard by two black hamlets, one with an old castle atop to please the heart of the tourist.

STEVENSON CAME THIS WAY in the afternoon. I set off early. I suppose I remembered the last time I was here, when we planned to ride the Tarn gorges in mid-summer. Then it seemed a good idea to leave before people had breakfast and to ride down the gorge before the world came to the same idea.

Of course, if I hadn't set off when I did, I wouldn't have seen what I did. It was just outside Ispagnac, where I could leave the almost deserted main road that ran north and turn on to something still quieter. There are two ways out of the village, one down the gentle descent of the gorge and the other up in a zigzag to a plateau to the north. I was taking the climb, which didn't look insignificant on either the map or in real life, and girding of loins seemed appropriate.

I drank the coffee where it was made and rode on a little further to eat my chocolatine. That is the name here in the south for what northerners call a pain au chocolat. And it's not just the name that changes but the gender, because a choco is feminine - une choco - and a pain au chocolat is masculine. There is absolutely no reason why that should be the case but it does add to the gaiety of nations. I sat on a stone bench, my back against a shallow wall, looking at everything but seeing nothing in the manner of the absent-minded. I was aware, I think, of a small brown bird sitting on a telephone wire, chirping occasionally and looking forward to whatever choco crumbs I dropped. As birds go, it was just another bird.

And then in a second, it was gone. It hadn't flown away. A buzzard, I suppose it was, had dropped on it with silent, gliding wings. The only noise came from a couple of wing beats as it turned the way it had come, heavier now for the small brown bird clenched in its claws. It was just the everyday cruelty of nature, no more than I cause to happen to sheep and cows when I settle down for a meal. But I felt sorry for it. One second it had been licking its beak in the hope of sweet crumbs and the next it was itself providing another creature's breakfast.

There were signs across the road in Ispagnac for the European horse endurance trials. The arrows I'd seen beside the road said nothing about nags but did specify 160km, which is most of 100 miles. Not being of the horse world, I assumed the race was for runners. I know now that the trials at Florac - Ispagnac is too small to get a mention -are what propelled the perzic horse to glory. But I know that only because I picked up a leaflet. I still couldn't tell you what a perzik looked like, although I must have seen dozens among the community camped beside the road.

The clutter of horse boxes as another world prepares for an endurance trial of its own.
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I stood to gaze at the horse boxes, the tents, the caravans and the general clutter of any sports event. A few horses were in small open enclosures. In one two men were dozing in the early sun. I wondered who they were. If these are world-class horses then I suppose they'd have night watchmen, perhaps, and that's what these two slumberers were.

Horses snort, men snore...
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The plateau road parted to the right and climbed straight away. It rose in straights with tight bends to send it back the other way. The valley was sunny but the plateau was in light mist. All around were scattered low stone walls, just knee height, sometimes in lines but often in squares, as though a hundred families had started to build houses and then lost interest.

The road from Ispagnac rose in straights with tight bends to send it back in the other direction.
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I was in the land of the caussards, men who once lived in this curious wilderness, the causse. It was long enough ago that the word is Occitan rather than French, from when only those within a day's ride of Paris by horse spoke French and the rest of the country had languages of its own. Here in the south, the language was Occitan, so called because oc was the word for "yes." People still speak it - friends of mine talk mainly in Occitan when they're at home - and there are revival groups to keep it alive. But, in the way of most languages, by the time people seek to protect it, it is effectively dead.

The causse - a strange land of crumbling walls and abandoned trails
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Causse means "limestone plateau." What look like houses abandoned before they were finished are actually old enclosures for animals, or perhaps walls around a depression which collected water. The traces of sunken roads showed where shepherds once moved sheep, for this high there was need for a transhumance at the onset of winter.

A few animals still munched idly up here, held in now not by walls but single strands of electric fence. I watched them and they watched me. Neither of us had anything better to do.

And then the causse was over. The soil must have changed because now there were tall, green trees, a descent through a small wood. I dropped to Balsièges and collected the main road for the last half a dozen kilometres to Mende. And there, with luck, my new friends from Cyclo-Camping International would be enjoying their rest day.

They were out having lunch when I got to the rendezvous. Which served me right for getting up so early for such a short day.

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