Day 15: Avèze to Navacelles

Monday, 7 June 2004
Distance 22 km
Duration 5 hours 15 minutes
Ascent 570 m, descent 475 m
Map 65 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
Topoguide (ref 716) Traversée du Haut-Languedoc – GR7, GR71

Walking in France: A drink of water amongst the roses in Montardier
A drink of water amongst the roses in Montardier

After our not very luxurious night on the ground, we had the compensation of being able to go back for coffee to the bar, where the china doll was already serving her early morning customers. She explained through gritted teeth that she would normally be sleeping in, but her husband was away being nice to his mother for the Fête des Mères.

We got croissants from the baker opposite and sat in the bar with the sun streaming through the glass, looking out at the ancient château and reading the Midi Libre. We read that Reagan had died at last.

From Avèze every way is up, except the way we had come, so we found ourselves climbing through a forest on a track that was both slimy and rocky. At long last we came out into a valley and passed through a deserted hamlet, silent and sad, then on to the flat land of the causse.

A starved, stony landscape of dry grass and stunted oaks stretched before us and we took the little road into Montardier, which was a village with great civic pride, although no bar. There was a fine château in the trees and a well-tended flower garden, with seats and drinking water for travellers like us, beside the church. Sprinklers were playing on an emerald-green semicircle of grass.

We had a snack in a bower of roses, then set off. As we left the village we saw several people working in their gardens, as if the enveloping presence of the causse brought out a desire for greenery.

To get to Blandas we had to walk to an abandoned quarry on the side of a low rise,
at which point we left the GR as we had seen a better way on the map, around the rise to a small road, which took us to our destination without trouble.

Walking in France: A circle of prehistoric standing stones on the causse of Blandas
A circle of prehistoric standing stones on the causse of Blandas

Along the way, in a dry field, we saw a circle of prehistoric stones standing around a large central block, which set us to speculating what it had meant to the inhabitants of the time.

It did not seem an auspicious place for a settlement so much as a ceremonial site.

Walking in France: Lunch in Blandas
Lunch in Blandas

After the hot, glaring walk across the causse, it was good to get to the village of Blandas, which, like Montardier, compensated for its arid surroundings with a delightful green park.

This one had picnic tables under arching trees and we ate our lunch there in our bare feet. We even had a handful of cherries that we had picked nearby.

As soon as we started walking, we came to a thriving hotel-café, not mentioned in our edition of the Topoguide. However, we knew there was a another café on the lip of the Cirque of Navacelles, not far away, so we pressed on.

Walking in France: Looking down into the Cirque of Navacelles
Looking down into the Cirque of Navacelles

As we drank our coffee on the terrace, surrounded by tourists having lunch, we looked with trepidation over the parapet at the yawning hole that was the Cirque.

It seemed impossible that we could get into it with any degree of comfort. It looked as though ropes and pitons would be in order.

Walking in France: The gorge of the Viz river below the Cirque, our route for tomorrow
The gorge of the Viz river below the Cirque, our route for tomorrow

For the first kilometre we followed it, with a few cars creeping past gingerly, then the GR signs pointed over the edge in a suicidal way.

Eventually we forced ourselves to make a start. A steep, heavily engineered bitumen road circles its way around the walls and into the canyon, with many embankments and hairpin bends.

Keith flatly refused to go, so we walked on down the road, only to realise soon afterwards that it was going to take us hours, so we turned back and fearfully took the GR.

Walking in France: Going down the old road to Navacelles
Going down the old road to Navacelles

Once over the edge it did not seem as bad, and after 50m of sharp descent we arrived on the ancient cobbled way, as wide as a cart and beautifully graded.

We zig-zagged down easily and soon reached the narrow hump-backed bridge that took us into another world.

Walking in France: The narrow bridge over the Vis
The narrow bridge over the Vis

The floor of the cirque is a little land of plenty with the river leaping along one side. In former times there was a big loop in the river, which broke through about 6000 years ago, leaving a strange triangular hill, the remnant of the promontory, in the centre of the circular valley.

Walking in France: A beer and coffee at a long table on the terrace outside the gîte, Navacelles
A beer and coffee at a long table on the terrace outside the gîte

A community of monks lived there in the ninth century, but it was occupied much earlier than that, perhaps by the people responsible for the stone circle near Blandas. There are two settlements, each of a dozen mediaeval houses, separated by a few hundred metres of green field. In the first one we found the gîte and booked ourselves in to the dormitory, which was empty.

A couple of Parisian cyclists were expected later. We had beer and coffee at a long table on the terrace outside the gîte, then showers and a short sleep.

On our exploratory walk later, we passed a wide cascade in the river as it plunged away down the gorge, then came to the other settlement and strolled about its narrow lanes, newly paved and very picturesque.

There was a hotel, so we sat down under a wisteria trellis and had apéritifs. We probably should have had dinner there too, but we had already arranged to be fed at the gîte.

Walking in France: Apéritifs at the hotel, Navacelles
Apéritifs at the hotel

Dinner confirmed our opinion of gîte food – stodgy and uninteresting – but it had compensations in the pleasant terrace and the company of the two cyclists from Paris. They were taking a week off from their wives and children to explore the gorges of the Vis and other things.

They laughed when I asked them which arrondissement they were from. “No arrondissement, we are from the suburbs”, they said ruefully.

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