St Jean de Buèges is a little village north of Montpellier, and the Buèges is a green, limpid river, very shady and peaceful. This is the time of year when all of the rest of France descends upon the south en masse, bringing children and camping cars and portable barbecues to sit on the beaches and eat ice-cream and get sunburnt. The south is very, very busy at this particular moment. The Buèges is one of the rare spots that nobody has quite discovered yet, unlike places like the pont du Diable and the waterfalls at Sautadet, which are currently crammed full of people.
We did this hike and stopped in the middle of it to go swimming in the river. My friend’s dog did not enjoy this part of the hike. Her dog brain decided that we were all drowning, and her dog logic told her that the best course of action was to take our clothes and shoes and throw them all in the river and wipe them back and forth in the mud. O how we laughed. (Well, we laughed more when we realised that it was only the dog mom’s clothes. Then it was fine. Then it was actually funny and we just laughed at her.)
There isn’t a lot to visit in St Jean de Buèges itself – it’s a typical little French village, fairly picturesque, in the way that they all are. You wouldn’t take a detour to see it, but if you’re already there, it’s pretty to look at. The hike also takes you up into the gorges a little.
So, yeah. This is a wonderful, shady walk to get out of the sunshine and into the water and away from the crowds. In fact I probably shouldn’t even be writing about it, because I don’t particularly want people to find out about it. It’s truly gorgeous.
When I first met my friend Ada, she lived near Perpignan. I think. Maybe she lived in Béziers and then later lived in Perpignan. Anyway, it involved a lot of travelling around from each of us, and one day we just randomly drove to Girona on the night of the Catalan elections, and another day we went up to Minerve, and we got into the habit of just pointing at the map and going places together. One of our first trips was to the Orgues at Ille-sur-Têt, which is vaunted as the French Grand Canyon, but is neither Grand nor a Canyon, as we found out.
The Orgues d’Ille are actually fairy chimneys, a protected site of ancient mineral crags. They’re one of those things that, when stumbled upon accidentally, are miraculous and majestic. When you pay €5 to go in and walk around them, expecting a grand canyon, they are a little more confusing.
The entrance to the Orgues is guarded by this horse:
And by this dinosaur:
This is all very pleasing to me. The Orgues themselves also look kind of like bones, which is interesting too. Another good thing about it is that my friendship with Ada was fairly new then, and we cemented it that day with a shared love of bitching and complaining and snarking about Grand Canyons, and also with a genuine appreciation of the fairy chimneys themselves and the view of the surrounding south of France countryside – which we’ve somehow never grown tired of, even though nowadays we wander around it most weekends.
I’ve noticed that my moods are very, extremely, very linked to the weather. Even when I’m bored and discouraged, the blue sky and sunshine helps me out of my house and into nature, and that probably does its part in keeping everything running smoothly. I’m a city dweller at heart and this hiking-around-in-nature lifestyle is new and surprising to me, and I don’t think it would go quite the same way if I were hiking around in the glorious Scottish wilderness, under the bleak Scottish rain.
This has nothing to do with the Orgues, this is just an observation. Another observation is: why are so many fun cities built in places with such terrible weather? Paris, London, New York, Hong Kong (sorry but the humidity is hell), etc. The better-weather cities seem to be a little more soulless. Maybe I just haven’t visited enough of them. I don’t really like places like Nice and Los Angeles and Marseille.
Maybe we should make a new city, somewhere with 300 days of sunshine a year. Maybe Barcelona is the answer to everyone’s problems.
Driving up to Lamalou-les-Bains is one of those drives that fills you with pure, soul-deep happiness. I am a dork who likes to listen to Strauss in the car, partly because Strauss brings me joy, and partly because listening to Strauss reminds me of this one enchanted Strauss concert I went to in Moscow once and remembering that also brings me joy (this is entirely stream-of-consciousness wild nonsense and I am sorry), and so I remember one day turning up the Strauss and heading up through the green hills and under the viaducts and thinking, This is perfect happiness.
I was visiting for work that day, so I didn’t have time to visit, but I rounded up some friends and we went back shortly after, to do this hike. Spoiler: we failed. We failed miserably. We got maybe a third of the way through the hike; then we went back ignominiously.
Lamalou-les-Bains itself is a thermal village with natural baths, as you can possibly tell from the name. I honestly haven’t had the chance to visit it thoroughly yet, but what I’ve seen of it is charming, and I keep on meaning to visit Olargues one of these days too. I can tell you for sure: In Lamalou-les-Bains, there was a lovely bar called the Maryjohn. Is it still there? I have no idea.
This entry is meandering about all over the place, which is exactly what we did when we attempted the hike near Lamalou. We started off gallantly, plowing upwards with determination and iron will. Then we stopped for a snack. Then we continued onwards and upwards – and then, just off to the right, we saw a bunch of little rock pools with waterfalls going into them.
We forgot about the hike. We headed off the path and stripped off and sunbathed and jumped in and out of the pools and walked under the waterfalls and fell over in the mud, and by the time we were done doing that, we’d used up all of our energy and couldn’t face another four hours of hiking upwards.
You know what? It was entirely worth it. Maybe one day I will go back and try to do the real hike again, but sometimes jumping off course to follow something beautiful is just the way things go in life.
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the Drôme is a place called Hauterives, and in this place, in the 1800s, lived a postman called Ferdinand Cheval. In the daytime he delivered the letters by foot, and dreamed about an ideal, fairylike, beautiful palace. In the nighttime, he built it.
He had already been building his “palace, castle, a type of grotto” in his head for years when one day a weirdly shaped stone rolled into his path. He picked it up and put it in his pocket and everything started from there. For the next thirty-three years he constructed his Ideal Palace, collecting strange stones and sculpting his edifice.
I visited this on a wandering cowboy day. I used to be a travelling sales rep, and I described it as being a “wandering drunk cowboy” – I sold beer, and therefore spent most of my life in bars, and was pretty much always on the road. I can’t remember where the “cowboy” part came from. It just seemed kind of apt; and sometimes on my way around France I would take little detours on the road. After all, I was already in the area, would be unlikely to be in that area again for any other reason, and as long as I did my work and paid my own petrol for the detours, my boss was cool with it.
One of those detours took me to the palace. I visited on, I think, a midweek afternoon. There was nobody else there, and I took my time walking around. Every tiny part of the palace is worth examining; everything contains a story, a poem, a sculpture, a religious reference, a grotesque figure from the postman’s imagination.
He wrote about himself and about God and about Allah; he wrote about his palace and the world and about life. He turned his dream into a reality, and when he was done building his palace, he then spent eight years constructing his own tomb.
As it speaks so firmly for itself, I don’t really need to say anything about the Palace itself. Before I made this post, I opened WordPress and was looking at the stats, which as you can imagine are pretty tiny, seeing as I have been writing this blog for about two weeks without any real purpose. I don’t know if I’m writing it for an audience exactly. I think it’s more about wanting to share beautiful things I see, and if someone happens to come across this and see them then that’s great and I’ve shared it, but even if they don’t, at least I’ve put it out there into the world somehow.
That train of thought led me onto Facteur Cheval, and got me thinking (as I often do) about how extraordinary he was. So I made this post.
Imagine giving birth to that, though. Imagine leaving such a mark on the world.
I really don’t need to put words, I think. So here are more pictures.
I think a lot of people, me included, very much enjoy having some kind of purpose. That can be anything you make of it. But God. Imagine if it were this.
A few years ago, I was out with a couple of friends. They had to drive to near Aix-en-Provence because one of them was registered to vote there, and so we’d decided to make a day of it and go visiting places in the region.
Before we set off, one of my friends had an idea. “You know how Camargue produces rice?” she said, but in French. Please imagine all of this in French. “That means there must be rice fields! We should go find them. That would be a fun adventure.”
I think she was imagining vast swathes of lush green loops, like the majestic terraced rice paddies found in eastern Asia. We drove through the Camargue, and after a while I pointed out of the window and said, “I think that’s a rice field.”
She pulled the car over to the side of the road. We looked out of the window. It was a normal flat brown field, just wet. “That’s what rice fields look like?”
To soothe her disappointment, I pulled out my phone and bust out Google Maps. I have a habit of adding little stars to places I want to visit, which means that my Google Map app is thick with stars all over the globe. Zooming into near Aix-en-Provence, I considered a few of the To Do stars, and said “The Provençal Colorado might be cool.”
And so it was.
Situated by Rustrel in the heart of the Luberon, the Provençal Colorado is a natural formation of beautiful red and ochre rocks, complete with light hiking trails. I must add a preface here: it’s nothing like as big as it seems in photos. From the images, it looks like a vast landscape of copper mountains and valleys. It’s not. It’s a small area. You park your car, pay the entrance fee (I think it was €5 when we were there, but it might have changed since then), then take a pretty little path through the woods to arrive at the part with the colourful rocks.
This photo gives you some idea – without the person, it would be more deceptive, but he gives you a better impression of its actual size. It’s still pretty damn gorgeous, though. The colours are incredible and combined with the heat of the day and the chalk floating everywhere, it made for a lovely, dusty wander.
The visit itself doesn’t take too long. I think we probably spent an hour to an hour and a half there, exploring at snail-like speeds, taking in the sunshine and the colours and still occasionally complaining about the rice fields from earlier. Perfect for those among us who enjoy hiking but get tired of, you know, walking.
I mean, I’ve since been to Colorado, and I can confirm that… this is not at all like Colorado. But it’s a beautiful spot, and you could do a day trip around the rest of the Luberon while you’re at it, visiting Gordes and the lavender fields, or Avignon, or Aix-en-Provence.
The world is terrifying lately. Here in France, confinement was pretty strict. We couldn’t leave our homes without a permit, and it was being enforced – a police helicopter was flying over my house, shouting at people on the beach to go back inside, and there were checks and roadblocks. The first time I went out to the supermarket, it felt like a ghost world. It was kind of nice, in a very peaceful way, but then going into the supermarket and seeing everyone so sad and scared was, you know, kind of a downer.
I lost my job and my whole industry shut down during coronavirus, and I live alone, so I got very used to my own house for two months. The cat was my primary source of conversation, which she actually seemed to weirdly enjoy. I went to the supermarket four times in all, and went jogging three times in the very early morning when nobody was around, but the third time a random dude stopped his car and got out and chased me and I had to hide underneath a boat to escape being raped and murdered or whatever he was after, so that kind of put me off jogging afterwards. Also, jogging just generally is terrible.
The second day of deconfinement, we went out walking for the first time. It was the first time I’d seen anyone I knew in a couple of months – aside from having run into a friend at the supermarket and almost cried of joy. Everything seemed especially beautiful on that first day of freedom. We were like moronic aliens, walking around saying “Look at the colours!” and “The world is so pretty!” – at least, for the first half of the hike. By the time we got to the second half, we’d settled back into our old ways and were complaining about walking so far, and about how we should have brought the food with us instead of leaving it in the car (ALWAYS leave it in the car; not only is that less to carry, but also it’s an incentive to keep walking).
The waterfalls at the Vis (les cascades de la Vis) are immensely popular here in the summertime, but out of season they’re pretty quiet. The river is icy cold, and the surrounding mountains and gorges are just so breathtakingly beautiful – especially when you haven’t seen outside in a long time. The waterfall fills the air with mist, and on a day when it’s empty – or very early in the morning – it’s indescribably gorgeous.
This is on the edge of a little village called St-Laurent-le-Minier, which is an absolute cliché. I mean, type “charming French village” into Google images, and that’s what’s going to come up. (In all fairness, and I say this with love – most of these villages look pretty much the same as each other.) We explored around the village – there are all these little archways and passages, and a river with tiny waterfalls running through it.
We also attempted this hike, but honestly, after two months of basically zero exercise (I tried doing CrossFit alone in my house, but as well as being the world’s worst hiker, I am also the world’s worst CrossFitter) it wasn’t going to happen. I was very relieved that my friend gave up before I did, because that way all I had to do was act concerned about her health and go back down the slope, for her own good, and definitely not because I am a lazy bastard.
Not being able to go outside and see these places and walk around in the air and green outdoors was really one of the hardest parts of confinement. It also felt kind of unfair – solo hiking didn’t seem to be a health risk in any way, and other countries were doing it, but we weren’t allowed.
But that’s the way it goes, with a global pandemic. There are more important things than getting to go outside, so you do what you can.
When you finally do get to go out again, it’s fucking glorious.
Yes, they live here. Yes, they start off white and then turn pink from eating shrimp and algae in the lagoon. Yes, they make an entertaining croaky honky sound, as if frogs could quack.
When I first moved to near Montpellier, I didn’t know about the flamingos. Nobody had really mentioned to me that there were these hordes of pink flamingos who just lived here, chilling out, doing their flamingo thing. I was enchanted, to say the least.
I’ve always felt an affinity with flamingos. They’re tall and ungainly and slightly ludicrous; overly decorative and unnecessarily pink. I am all of these things too, and feel a sense of solidarity and affection towards the flamingos. Nowadays I am a lot more used to seeing a flock of them fly overhead (they look so laboured, as though flying is such hard work for them – do they really migrate?) but it’s still always a great pleasure. Like seeing a cat in the road – it’s as though I’d never seen a cat before and it’s this magic miracle and I have to stop and stare in awe at the cat, before attempting to bug it into coming to see me, whereupon it generally leaves.
Anyway. We did this hike near Mireval, which is about a twenty minute drive from Montpellier, between Villeneuve-lès-Maguelone and Frontignan. This region is full of lagoons and salt flats, and is home to many pink flamingos of the Camargue. This particular spot is absolutely full of them – it’s actually a nature reserve, and part of the hike is blocked off for certain months of the year, so that the flamingos can nest and lay eggs and do all their private stuff in peace.
I’m going to be honest with you – I’m about as good at taking photos as I am at hiking. But being cheerfully pretty shitty at something isn’t the worst thing in the world. I think there’s a rush towards being professionally amazing at every single thing you undertake, and if you can’t reach that level, there’s no point in doing it at all.
But I say, let’s be happy and dumb and bad at things and full of enjoyment. This hike is entirely flat and also entirely uncovered, meaning that you’re very likely to come out of it with your skin on fire. The flamingos are also cheerful and dumb and easily confused. We’re all in this together.