slowing our fall into the bright haze: Le Puy en Velay to Isle sur la Sorgue

Coffee at a place of torrefacture, which, although it sounds like bull or some heinous process you’d subject bodies to, is coffee-roasting. A Costa-Rican. The proprietor, middle-aged, stood in front of his laptop with his banker, justifying the expenditure on green-beans. And that was Colombian… I heard him say. Not the best roast. But at least caffeinated.

Back to our lady of the fly-blown buns, whom we’d visited the night before for a loaf of bread. This time for breakfast croissants, a fougasse and sausage-meat in pastry to do the most criminal thing you can do with food in France, black looks from all directions, eat on the street.

Through the park, past the menagery in cages, goats, pigeons, wild deer native to the region, called daim, to the museum. The gruff reception guy informed us that they would be closing in 50 minutes, at midday. No need to ask why.

Le Puy is mamoth capital of the world, it seems. Even those bits, skull and other bits, found in Siberia, are shipped here for analysis. While the area has its own as well. Its own prehistory of bears, mamoths, mastadons, sabre-tooth tigers, giant hyenas, lynxs, and so on, also documented in cave-drawings. The most touching of the exhibits were those of young mamoths, seven-and-half or so months old, one with fur, thick and red, still on it, the other, trunk intact, fur-less and flat, the leathery skin turned ebony.

The other exhibitions featured bits off and discovered during renovations to the Cathedral. And a room of treasures cleared from the rooms occupied presently by the much-advertised mamoth exhibition. The Christian relics from the area, although not mamoth-aged, made you wonder at the richness of the region, material and somehow also spiritual. Upstairs this was further attested to by the giant canvases on religious themes and the models of the Black Virgin. Downstairs, attached to the mamoth exhibition, a room set aside for Venus images. Big-breasted, heavy-bellied, bubble-arsed. Fertility statuary. How the Virgin descends from these I can’t say.

We were cleared out by officious grey-coated men minutes before twelve midday telling us to hurry. Why? I asked. Is it lunchtime? Not amused, they did not relent.

Outside the familiar presence of police, shutting down roads, diverting traffic from road-blocks. Protests blocking the key intersections on the ring road. Key for us, since at the bottom of our road to the Chateau de Polignac which we’d intended to visit before heading away. This is the keep on a plateau of magma, as high as the needles we’d already climbed, a kilometre away, back around the north.

I had a halfway amusing conversation with our Hotel receptionist, who said she had no political opinion. Except at home she did. I asked if she was in agreement with the unions. She said, What do you expect? I am a directrice at the Hotel. With the strikes there are no trains, no planes, and no petrol, since transportation of petrol and gas is being targeted. The first part of this was laughing. The second was not.

As before, we were impressed with the number of youths protesting, unemployed, it seemed. And when you looked, you were struck how many floors of the buildings around were up for rent. The boys with their buzz-cuts, sitting beering at any hour, at places like the Bar des Colonnes, faintly Eastern European, a sixties building with concrete columns mimicking those of antiquity. Le Puy is depressed. On a day, grey and bone-chilling like today, depressive. You can’t help feeling sorry for it. These riches at its heart, tended night and day by nuns, priests, and various other, secular custodians, which don’t mean anything today. As they don’t draw tourists in sufficient numbers to make for an industry.

But there is also that to Le Puy which comes from being capital of a Department. Historic capital. The people are wise to it. They recognise the downside, laugh at it and are cynical, both. They understand irony.

It was sad to leave Le Puy. It is incomparable, finally. Geologically and in terms of a legacy that dates to the very earliest era of Christianity.

We squeezed our little C3 through the passageway out of the garage, onto the street, in the opposite direction to the protestors, and Polignac, noting, along the way, the Swastikas painted on a wall. The skinheads of Le Puy resemble those in the paintings of Attila Georg-Luckacs.

Not far away, after stocking up on Gasole, paid with card, we left the main route to visit La Cascade de la Beaume, by Solignac. A waterfall, far enough from the road, and far enough from the busy routes, to make us worry as we left our car to walk the 20 m, that ended up meaning 20 minutes not metres, to La Cascade, that we might return to find it without tyres, wheels, or worse. A lovely bushwalk among the nettles. A sign, when we got there, read not to pollute, water serving village.

The legend of La Beaume has it that in feudal times, the daughter of the Lord of La Beaume wandered so long in the forest that she went mad. She glimpsed a devil in the trees and was about to leap into the Loire ‘when neighbours founded her.’

The devil she thought she’d seen was a young goatherd sent to find her. He fell in love with her. Her madness not abated, word circulated that an amount of cold water on the head of a lunatic might cure him.

The young goatherd contrived to bring her to the edge of the waterfall. He had her look over its edge, telling her she would receive a vision of the Virgin if she did. Together they leapt off.

The Virgin slowed their fall. (This is like another story we heard about the needle of St. Michel, wherefrom a young girl leapt and was miraculously saved; leapt again, and was likewise saved; tried a third time, and, pushing it, crashed into the ground in front of the crowd who’d gathered to witness the miracle.) She slowed their fall.

Quite cured, the daughter of the Lord of La Beaume married the goatherd. How could her father stand in the way of a miracle? And this is the story of how a lowly goatherd became the Lord of La Beaume.

We regained the main road. Passed from Auvergne to Ardeche Departments. The temperature fell to six degrees celsius. We came to the Ardeche gorge and the road told us we were descending a gradient of ten degrees. Ten degrees. Down and down we went. The sun searing away the cloud, the hills hazy with light. A bright sea light around us. The temperature rose from six to sixteen degrees, making up the same amount as the gradient we were descending.

When finally we were at the river Ardeche, it was eighteen degrees. The trees gave way to scrublands.

Leaving the gorge at Aubenas, the landscape took on a dry and Southern aspect, such as you might expect of Spain. And the light changed again. Bright AND hazy.

We stopped outside Montelimar to buy some of its famous nougat. Fresh, deliciously soft, and flavoured with local honey.

L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue was full of traffic, full of life, as unlike Le Puy as you could imagine, hot despite the Mistral. My cellphone service had decided to be difficult so I had to rely on the kindness of a local ladies’ fashion outlet to make the call to M.-C., from whom we are letting our accommodation. C., her husband I presumed, answered and told me that in the time it took us to find the address, he would be able to contact her to meet us there.

It took hours. The map was useless. I harassed a number of locals. But eventually we found it. Further locals were coopted into playing a role in the narrative. But it came down to us not being able to contact them and them not being able to contact us. All we could do was hope we were in the right place.

A false start, arms raised in exaggerated welcome, when the bemused cardriver happened to be merely passing through, past us, to a house at the back of the cul-de-sac. Finally, C. arrived. Mme M.-C. had had to work. He let us in to the place we’d gathered from long minutes staring at it was our so-called ‘Loft,’ a studio outbuilding, behind a locked gate and wall, beside which we’d parked the car, on the ground floor. It looked like a sort of breeze-block motel-unit from the outside, except unloved, the garden rough and untended.

Inside, it proved to be enormous. The metal-frame frontdoor opening up on a living-room possibly ten by ten metres, beside it the breakfast bar, beyond that, the kitchen, and further beyond both, the kingsize bedroom, dressing-room corridor, with built-in washing-machine, and Turkish-styled bathroom. Or is it, Turkish-style? There’s a fireplace, the opening of which is roughly three-by-five feet, to confuse the standards of measurement. A massive sofa, with hardly room to sit, covered in so many cushions. Balinese screen. Sidelamp in shape of Buddha-head. Modern canvases, one with Amities on it, the other reading, Bonjour Vous! The kitchen has a zinc bench. Slate tiles beside stove. All usable surfaces and things but every thing and surface covered with things that have no function except as decoration. Barstools that no human could sit on, backs in the shape of flames. It’s like a Bond fantasy love retreat. For show. But useful for some lateral purpose, which we have not yet ascertained.

Leading to the obligatory visit to the supermarket. An excellent marinara with beetroot and lettuce salad. (You buy the former boiled here, not skinned. It’s always sweet and never woody.) A wine around 5 Euros: Vignoble Eyport, Bourgogne Chardonnay, 2008.

It may seem bourgeois naming the wine, but, since Moulins, I’ve realised I love the bourgeois. They can be happy. Quite apart from being complacent. Le Puy really misses them. In this, perhaps it is more like a New Zealand town. Not necessarily simply poor and depressed, but also poor and uncultured and depressed. Of course, in Le Puy religion compensates for the lack of culture. For everything that is lacking in fact. Is this the meaning of religious solace?