Up in the Air

IMG_5111What is it about humans that we love to look down on everything? To get up high, for a better view? The chill of vertige with the thrill of omniscience.IMG_5092On a balmy February day, a friend and I went to the Passerelle of Mazamet, which has been on my bucket list for a moment. One of those things that’s too nearby to miss, but far enough that I never got around to it. The drive from Carcassonne to Mazamet takes nearly an hour. Longer if a nervous retiree from a distant department is ahead of you and slowing to a crawl around the curves but, with a bigger engine, speeding like an idiot on the rare straightaways, as if that makes up for anything. IMG_5151The $*%&ing driver ahead of us aside, the route was absolutely gorgeous. It goes up and up and up, and the vegetation changes to dense forest. There were signs about the pass being open, snow markers on the sides of the road, but we were in fleece jackets and during our hike had to take those off. A weird winter. It was 70 F here yesterday.IMG_5129

Lush February forest.

IMG_5117The passerelle was inaugurated in 2018. It’s 140 meters (460 feet) long over the Arnette river and 70 meters (230 feet) above the ground. It’s free and open 24/7, but you’d be crazy to go after dark. We were glad to be there in February–plus it was lunch time and the French do one thing during lunch time: eat. So we had the place almost to ourselves. It would be much less fun in the heat of summer with a gazillion people on the narrow path. Even worse, a gazillion people on the passerelle. It can hold 42 tons, which is a lot of people, but even a couple of other people walking made it bounce such that I was glad I hadn’t eaten.

Into the void.

The only other people were grandparents with three girls. One was maybe two or three years old, and she galloped up and down the passerelle fearlessly. One was maybe 12 and she clung to her grandmother for dear life. We passed them in the middle of the passerelle on their way back. And we discovered another girl, maybe 7 or 8, on the other side, steadfastly refusing to budge.

Looking down.

We saw the grandfather start back and figured he was coming to the aid of the middle girl. He stopped and took photos. Lots of photos. The littlest girl came tearing down toward him. She passed him, then turned around and came back to him. He never stopped taking photos.

Going back.

We started back and were about halfway when the grandmother and the oldest girl, still clinging and looking like she was going to puke, came back. Grandpa wanted to film them. As if the granddaughter would want to remember this moment. Who was the middle girl supposed to hold onto? Grandma was taken, and grandpa was filming. Nobody seemed worried about the middle girl or even the little one. Yes, the passerelle had no holes where the little one could fall through, but she was at that nimble age where she could climb the chain link side, which came up to my armpit, and be over it in a flash, and grandpa still wouldn’t stop filming. His obliviousness reminded me of a type: “I’m doing this for you! You’re going to do it and enjoy it whether you like it or not!”


On the way down, we passed other grandparents out with the grandkids, starting to show up once it was 2 p.m. And more retirees. A lady with very inappropriate shoes (ballerinas with wedge heels…what are those called?).

La Voie Romaine.

To go up, we took the steep route, called the Voie Romaine, or Roman Way, which was the ancient salt route, and partly paved with stones. It had a heart-pounding 19% grade, but I’d rather take that going up than down.

Stone walls of the former gardens.
This seems to have been a protohistoric home, naturally protected from the wind and rain on the south side of the slope. But I’m not sure. The gardens also had little towers.
On the wall of the circular structure. Looks like a donkey to me.

IMG_5124IMG_5142IMG_5138The descent, on a path with an 8% grade, was via the Jardins Cormouls Houlès, which date to the middle of the 19th century, with interesting towers and stone walls. First we checked out the ruins of the church of Saint-Saveur, which dates to the 1100s. IMG_5099IMG_5101IMG_5098IMG_5113The church was built on a hilltop, for views. Up in the air. Like life right now, waiting to see where things will land, trying not to fall.

A little shrine at the start of the path.
Interesting plastic bottle for holy water. What will they think of next?
Another bustling shrine.
Am haunted by the possible meaning of that doll.

I’m leaving you with these ghostly images. I couldn’t pick one, so you get three.IMG_5130IMG_5131IMG_5132



Sunny South of France

view garrigueBefore the cassoulet dinner, there was a 2.5-hour hike in the garrigue. (1) It’s a good idea to burn off some calories before indulging in cassoulet. (2) It’s a good idea to hike in the garrigue with a guide who knows all the paths well.

Our guide, M., grew up in the village. M. could be retired but works at the maternelle, or preschool, as an assistant, mostly wiping little ones’ butts and noses. Once I was having a hard time fixing something, and my kid, then under M.’s charge on weekdays, informed me, “You should ask M. She can fix anything.” Another time, I got a cut, and my kid said, “M. can fix it. She’s a doctor.” Which she isn’t. However, my kid is right that M. is superwoman.

dry rapids
What would be rapids in a stream bed, completely dry.

The randonnée, or hike, drew only three people, plus M. She considered the possibilities, then asked whether we’d be interested in seeing something whose name I didn’t catch but it involved something volcanic. I said sure.

bridgeWe quickly left the road to walk along little tracks along a trickle of a river. I’ve walked along there, but on the road, without ever spying this path. How is this possible?

We soon came to a clearing where the trickle traversed a rock basin: “la gourde de la dame,” or the lady’s gourd or water jug. M. informed us that the lady of the local château would come here to bathe, and that usually the basin was fed by a spring. However, this August, it’s too hot and dry and water levels are extremely low.

gourde de la dame
La gourde de la dame

M. and another hiker, also a native of the village, talked about old times, like when they had races through the garrigue for gym class. They also said they had washed at our house, which used to be a municipal shower before the town got running water in individual homes in the mid-1960s. The showers operated only on Saturday–the whole village came once a week.

We came to the barrage, or dam, built by the château’s owner to provide irrigation. Usually the water is much higher. A few boys were fishing.

The very old dam
barrage water
The water behind the dam

We went up and down hills, but mostly up. M. is part of the VTT club, or all-terrain bikes. They also do hiking, and M. leads groups twice a week. She also maintains the paths, many of which are barely visible, especially if you step to the side a bit. Rocks and trees are painted with indicators.

A path

Finally, M. announced we were nearly at the top. We climbed a steep bit, turned around and saw:

solar panels 1
Clean energy: solar in the foreground, wind on the mountaintop.

“Voilà, les photo-volcaniques!” M. exclaimed. I had to be careful not to fall on the ground laughing. After all, M. knows a million things. If we both were stuck in the wilderness, she would be able to survive. Not me. I respect that knowledge. She can be forgiven for a malaprop like photo-volcanique instead of photovoltaic.

solar panels 3

The panels were impressive in their quantity. The site previously had housed some windmills, but they were of an earlier generation and the owners, a Spanish company, had removed them. I had no idea they’d been replaced by solar panels. You could see the windmills from la Cité, but you can’t see the solar panels until you’re right next to them.

solar panels 2
Almost like rows of grapevines

From the hilltop, we had amazing views. To the north, la Montagne Noire, the Black Mountains. Including a gold mine that’s been closed for over a decade, having gained notoriety as the most polluted site in France.

The mine pit

It’s really so sad. The place is so bucolic. We didn’t hear anything, not a single motor. Just birds, wind and of course cigales.

A ruin nestled in the mountains

viewview 2

view 3

And to the south, Carcassonne and the Pyrénées in the distance.

view cite
Can you make out la Cité of Carcassonne? Look for towers, right in the middle of the photo.

It will be a while before I venture into the garrigue again. M. warned us that hunting season started Aug. 15 for sanglier, or boar. She urged us to wear fluorescent vests and orange caps and to make plenty of noise. I’ll just wait until hunting season ends Feb. 28.

A man, a plan, a canal

The Canal du Midi by Carcassonne's train station.
The Canal du Midi by Carcassonne’s train station.

Carcassonne is home to two Unesco World Heritage sites: la Cité and the Canal du Midi.

The Canal du Midi stretches 150 miles from near Sète on the Mediterranean, to Toulouse, where it meets the Canal de Garonne, which goes to the Atlantic.

Unesco says the canal, which was built between 1667 and 1694, is one of the greatest engineering achievements of the Modern Age, and that it laid groundwork for the Industrial Revolution.

Pierre-Paul Riquet
Pierre-Paul Riquet

It was the brainchild of Pierre-Paul Riquet, who started out as a tax collector and who not only came up with the idea for a canal (well, the Romans thought of it first but couldn’t figure out how to carry it out), he also was the engineer for it.

It was no small feat. Although the canal travels across a plain, it’s flat only in comparison with the Black Mountains to the north and the Pyrenees to the south. There are plenty of hills (ask any bicyclist). Riquet also had to build a reservoir, the Lac de Saint-Ferréol near Revel, to feed the canal with water from the Black Mountains.

One of the locks
One of the locks
waiting for locks
Waiting for the lock to fill

There are 53 locks, or écluses, to accommodate the changes in elevation, which used to be operated by men and/or donkeys but now are electric. As many as 10,000 workers were engaged at a time, making it one of the big infrastructure projects of its time. Support for it was high because it would cut the trip between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and also avoid the piracy around southern Spain at that time. (More locks shown below.)

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Riquet paid for it partly with taxes that he was empowered to collect and partly through his own fortune, which he exhausted. Carcassonne originally had been bypassed, not wanting to pay up; the canal got a detour through Carcassonne that opened in 1810.

Riquet died in 1680, just a few months before the major part of the canal was finished.

Of course, when there’s lots of rain, the canal risks overflowing, so Riquet devised basins (called épanchoirs) to divert the excess.

The canal even goes through a tunnel (the Malpas tunnel), built in 1670 in Hérault, and over a river (the Orb in Béziers).

Canal 6The barges, carrying wheat, wine, fabric and other goods, were pulled by men and donkeys, and fruit trees were planted along the banks to provide food. As the traffic made the banks erode, the platanes that are so typical of the south of France were planted instead. However, the platanes are under attack from an untreatable fungus, and are themselves being replaced by oaks.

Canal 5
The Black Mountains in the distance

The last commercial barge passed in 1980. The only traffic since then has been touristic.

Around November, segments of the canal are drained to allow for dredging and repairs to the locks. It’s a sad time of year, seeing the mud bottom exposed. When the canal is refilled later in winter, it feels as if spring is already around the corner.

The canal is great for hiking and biking—it’s flat and mostly shady. It’s impossible to get lost.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

You also can go for boat rides (or you can rent houseboats (le Boat, Canalous) that you pilot yourself if you want to stay on the water that long). A boat ride is a perfect inactivity for a hot summer day. Just get your tickets in advance–if a busload of tourists arrives ahead of you, you’ll have to wait for the next departure.

A leisurely promenade on the water

Lou Gabaret, le Cocagne and le Defi offer cruises along the canal, with different lengths and starting times. There also are evening dinner cruises. Even if it’s hot, take a sweater, because you get a nice breeze off the water. The starting point is the Port of Carcassonne, in front of the train station. The cruises usually include a historic commentary, given in as many languages as needed. The guides are really amazing linguists.