It’s been a most educational leg of the trip, to be honest. It’s not that we’re exactly neophytes at this lark – bimbling along, finding our night’s accommodation as the afternoon starts to turn into evening, and figuring out day-by-day which way next. Even before the last few months, we’ve done exactly this for holidays for years.
But the last week’s been somehow different. South-West France was somewhere that we had preconceptions and expectations of, but neither of us had any prior real experience.
Let’s start with Carcassonne. It was one of the non-negotiables of the trip. Must. Go. There. Anybody who’s read Kate Mosse’s “Labyrinth” can’t fail to have a mental image of the place, both in terms of the historical framework and the present-day reality. So, when it started to fall into place that we’d arrive there the evening before Ellie’s birthday, spend the day and a second night there, it seemed like everything had lined up.
Gawd, were we in for a shock.
The Cité – the Cathar castle/fortified city – is, when you view it from a distance, exactly what you expect. Except it isn’t real. It’s a 19th Century “restoration”. We’ll come back to that later. The campsite’s very handily located for it – just a short wander along a little side stream, then up the hill. The guide book suggested we wanted to go round the back, and enter in the main entrance, rather than the riverside gate. First off, the back lane up there was just, well, a bit shabby – before taking you into the far end of the main car park. Finally, the main entrance hoves into view. In you go. Within seconds, our spirits were sinking. We’ve been in some over-touristy places, but this was rapidly heading into theme park territory. Honestly, it’s just dire. There isn’t a single square inch that isn’t aimed solely at the deep exploitation of the further reaches of the passing touron wallet. I s’pose it should have been expected, but somehow it just headed way beyond what we’d steeled ourselves for. So bad, in fact, that after a quick once round we left and headed down the hill for the Ville Basse. That went the other way. Just a bit dull and nothing much to see. By lunchtime, we’d headed back to the campsite, and were rummaging through the tourist office bumf for something, somewhere local and circular to do in the afternoon…
In a way, it’s utterly ironic. The Cathars are the whole backbone of the tourist industry of this corner of France. They were a 12th-13th century religious sect, who pointed at the established church and said “You guys, you’re just living the high life by exploiting religion”. (You have to admit, they’d probably got a point… Especially after seeing Avignon’s roughly contemporary Palais du Papes…) Of course – this aroused just a little ire. Enough to get a whole crusade (the Albigensian), which the ever-so-slightly ruthless Simon de Montfort (of the University, in Leicester) launched on them, taking the Cathars to the point of absolute extinction. Maybe they did go a bit far, in proclaiming the entire physical world the work of the devil, but one thing’s for sure – they’re spinning in their graves at the way in which they’re being exploited now.
About those “restorations”. Viollet-le-Duc is the man we’re pointing at here. He rapidly built himself a reputation as THE guy to go to for restoration projects in early-mid 19th century France, just as the whole heritage idea was starting to take off, and with the aftermath of the revolution (never mind the guillotines – cathedrals, chateaux and anything “establishment” were being plundered and demolished in the name of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité) still fairly fresh, there was a lot needing restoring. V-l-D, though, quite quickly started to move into the realms of embellishment. Whilst we’re talking about Carcassonne – those pointy towers, crenellation and arrow-slits in the walls? Nope. All his idea. It turns out that there’s barely a medieval site in France which didn’t get passed by his nose at some stage, fortunately with varying degrees of completion.
Of course, this all raises another question, one which Oradour touched upon – if you’re looking at some historical stasis, where exactly do you draw the line? Nobody ever flomped down a set of architectural drawings for any of these buildings and said “Right, lads – this is what we’re doing – get started on the foundations”. They evolved, they metamorphosed, they changed. Across centuries and centuries, styles and styles. So, just as the buildings of Oradour are propped up by steel frameworks and strappings in order to remain just-derelict-enough, is Viollet-le-Duc’s “restoration” any less “authentic” today, heading rapidly for two hundred years later, than anything else? Where IS the line in the sand to be drawn?
Again, an example. The Atelier Cezanne in Aix-en-Provence. Paul Cezanne built a house on a hillside just outside the city, as a studio. He worked there until he died of a fever gained by painting in the garden in the rain. The door was then locked for 15 years. Over the next couple of decades, it drifted in and out of the edges of preservation until it was saved from demolition in the 1950s, when the city started to seriously climb that hillside and engulf it. Now, it’s preserved “exactly as it was”. But exactly as it was when? And in a few more decades, what then? The ceiling plaster’s looking cracked. There’s alarm wiring and the like which I’m fairly certain wasn’t there back in 1906. And then there’s the expectations of modern tourism – access for the disabled, parking, lighting, information provision.
But – somehow – the Atelier Cezanne “gets it” in exactly the same way that Carcassonne doesn’t. You stand there, and you look at “Cezanne’s Easel”, “Cezanne’s Paint Pots” and “The Vase In That Still Life”. As Ellie put it, it’s kind of like seeing your favourite celeb in the street. A link.
And that’s why some of the places that have surpassed our expectations have worked. Albi – we knew from the guidebook that it was Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s home town, and had a museum dedicated to his work (but without actually containing any major paintings). But the whole way that the cathedral and the museum fitted in to the life of the real live 21st century city just worked. A 12th century cathedral, with a BMX competition – French-language rap blaring from large speakers – right outside. Sure, there were no major HT-L works – but there were a huge number of his preparatory sketches, his workings-out, and his minor stuff, across his entire life. It just gave far more of an insight. The same with Arles – never mind Van Gogh, the way in which the town just spread out around the Roman arena and amphitheatre, in which the gorgeous architecture was just in real use instead of being gently pickled in heritage aspic.
Albi’s cathedral gave a great example of the way in which modern technology could massively enhance a “sight”, but needed marketing carefully. The main body of the cathedral’s free to enter – and very impressive. But if you wanted to get access to the Grand Choir, it was €2 each – but with a free audioguide. After a bit of muttering, we decided that we would – and it transformed what would otherwise have been a pleasant 15-minute wander into an hour and a half of absolute absorption, with a few chuckles too. On the other hand, the audioguide in Avignon’s Palais du Papes was just dull. We listened raptly to every single side-track in Albi, but barely finished the main descriptions in Avignon. A story was conjured, and the historical framework was brought to life. Nime’s arena did the same – but a bit too far. Avignon? I could probably tell you exactly how many pillar stanchions were on the East Wall of any given room. If I knew – or cared – which the East Wall was.
Then there’s the little unexpected pleasures. As we headed towards Millau, we descended into a small village called Roquefort – not an uncommon name, having been through several Rocheforts and similar. The first building we came across was light-industrial, sign-written as a cave. Must be another co-op winery. Then another, then another. Then a building with a large mural of blue cheese on the end wall. Finally, light dawned – it was _THAT_ Roquefort… Similarly, heading through the Corbieres wine region, we saw a sign for a village called “Camplong”. That rang faint bells, since we’d had a supermarket wine box of “Chateau Camplong” for the big 2cv meet. At the time, we thought it was just an amusing name, since we would indeed be camping long, and assumed it was just the product of some light branding brainstorm sessions. But, no, suddenly we’re faced with tractors towing trailers laden with grapes, heading for the village co-op winery… There was that link again.
Another totally unexpected sight greeted us at the very end of the Camargue – in itself, every bit as wonderful as we expected. Wide open, flat and slightly unearthly landscapes, not unlike the fens – but with fields full of black bulls for the local fights (non-lethal, with the aim being to grab ribbons tied to the animal’s horns); with wild white horses meandering around – complete with egret riders; and also the sight we most wanted to see here – marshes of flamingos, bright pink against blue water and sky. Then we got past the salt fields of Salin de Giraud, towards the Plage de Piémanson and found the usual handful of fridge-freezer camper vans parked on the hard packed sand. Then some more, and a caravan or two – some embedded firmly into the sand with all the encumberances of permanent encampments around them, others long derelict. Then more, and more, and more.
We’d clearly stumbled along some kind of alternative town, a refuge against the world in this end-of-the-world location. As we drove around, heading towards what appeared to be the main body of the town, two sights caught us roughly simultaneously – a naked backside and a scrawled sign “Ici on vit nu” – “Here one lives nude”… Ah. According to the long standing tradition of the finest gutter journalism, your correspondents made their excuses and left. Not (honest!) out of prudishness, but just to avoid being thought of as voyeuristic gawpers – which brought us back to another one of those recurring themes. If people choose to live outside the norms of society in this way – and why on earth shouldn’t they – what motivates those around the fringes? I’m thinking here particularly of those in £50,000+ all-mod-cons campers, whose primary motivation (as presumed from some of the other overnight camping spots they choose) seems to be to avoid spending a tenner on a campsite for the night. There’s a system of Aire de Service de Camping Car throughout France and other countries. One corner of a carpark will have facilities for chemikhazis and sink waste tanks to be emptied, and for fresh water tanks to be replenished. Then there’ll be a few spaces available to park in overnight. And they’re nearly always rammed full. They really are just carparks. You can’t “camp” – open out an awning, or get your table or chairs out. You just park, in the middle of a row of other campers, squished in so tight that you can just about get to the door. We stayed in one in Leon – it was handy for the centre of town, and we weren’t going to be around the van other than to sleep – whilst the nearest campsite was a fairly desolate place in the middle of building sites for urban sprawl. But to go to one through choice? It’s not even as if the camping site cost is the greatest expense of this trip – that’s fuel, by a long chalk. Even where there are lovely campsites – you’ll find a fridge-freezer or three parked up in a layby half a mile down the road, curtains closed.
Nowt so strange as folk, eh?