Within a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean Sea lets look for unique natural sites. Part two – Meanderings through France n° 152
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Welcome back to Herault and to the discovery of its impressive “Grand Sites of France”. In this French area close to the Mediterranean Sea nature and men have designed magnificent landscapes. After exploring the gorges of the Herault River in last week’s article let me take you to Navacelles Cirque, to Salagou Lake and to Moureze village and its spectacular rocky cirque. These protected sites provide a safe habitat to plants and wild animals as well as exciting outdoors activities for all visitors.
Navacelles Cirque, an ecological and geological marvel
Six thousands years ago the vast plateaux set at the southern foot of the Massif Central were covered with dense forests where a small river, the Vis, quietly meandered. Slowly but surely it has dug a deep valley through the plateau dividing it into two different causses, the Larzac and the Blandas Causses. Causse is the local name for a low plateau where agriculture, pastoralism and forestry have dramatically changed landscapes. A vast steppe has replaced the forest allowing a rich biodiversity to settle in this “newly” man-made landscape subject to a complex climate mixing Mediterranean, oceanic and continental influences. The causses were officially recognised by UNESCO as “living cultural landscape” in 2011. It is the largest one listed by UNESCO in all Europe.
You will get to Navacelles Cirque driving on the straight road that goes across the flat steppe of the causse and suddenly discover a 300 metres deep “hole” where a tiny village snuggles up the Vis River. The view is truly impressive and quite unique. One of the river’s meander took the shape of a big omega and created this huge cirque, but about 6,000 years ago the river took the short way linking the two bases of the omega and deserted its initial round bed! A 12-metre high waterfall now connects the upper riverbed to the lower one and it’s one of the loveliest spot of the village. A graceful bridge built in the 18th century span over the river where trout and crayfish abound.
A steep and narrow road will take you down to the village making you slow down but giving you plenty of time to enjoy the view. The abandoned meander centred with a low hill, has been turned into fields while traditional terracing tillage allowed fruit trees, vines and olive trees to grow on the slopes of the cirque. Unfortunately all farmers have left the village, looking for easier lands to work on, and this bucolic landscape is slowly fading away. The village, dating way back in the 10th century, is a small one but absolutely charming, with narrow and picturesque streets. Thanks to tourism the village has not been completely abandoned and there are several B&B and restaurants that keep it alive. At the “Café du Mas Guilhou”, Rachele and Pierre-Yves will welcome you on the outdoor terrace of an ancient house and you will be served a simple yet tasty Mediterranean style cuisine. (www.masguilhou.wixsite.come/home)
After visiting the village drive up the road that will take you back to the top of the cirque and to “La Baume Auriol” a former farm that has been turned into a touristic centre where you will get plenty of information about the cirque and its interesting fauna and flora. It also is a perfect base for walking, cycling or horseback tours. Florence Heim will welcome you in her restaurant, the Auberge de la Baume Auriol, where she proposes a inventive cuisine made with local produce including the tasty wines from Larzac, a small vineyards area producing mostly red wines full of character. Whether for breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea you will enjoy a stunning view over the cirque but you can also ask for a picnic basket and enjoy your meal during your stroll in the cirque. Navacelles definitely is a great place to discover for all kinds of reasons!
Mourèze, a chaos of natural rocks
When you first get to Moureze Cirque and discover the heaps of white rocks that look like the ruins of a titan’s castle, it will take you a “little” imagination to understand that they once were the limestone bottom of a sea that disappeared dozens of million years ago. Once the tectonic forces had raised a mountain, time, wind, rain and torrents sculpted the soft rock creating this phantasmagorical world. There are countless rocky pillars of all sizes and shapes looking like huge statues. For years on end archaeologists have been wondering if prehistoric men who lived in local caverns, had had a role in this sculpting creation. There still is no answer to that question, but, inspired by the suggestive shapes of the “statues”, men have always given them names. If you visit the site with a guide, he will show you the 7-metre high skull, the sphinx, the fairies, the lion, the turtle, the lovers, the mermaid… and even Quasimodo!
For centuries the cirque has been a secure place for shepherds to herd their goats that ate anything they could. When pastoralism came to an end in the middle of the 20th century, nature took back its rights and where there was only meagre vegetation, there now is a flourishing scrubland and trees are beginning to grow again. Little by little, all this vegetation is hiding the lunar landscape, depriving us of spectacular views. But in the same time a rich biodiversity settles in this semi-desert area. An attentive walker will be able to watch protected bird species such as grand dukes, kestrels, Pitchou warblers, Ortolan buntings… There are several hiking tour going through the whole site but you can simply take the easy 30-minute long marked path and get to a high belvedere from where you will see Moureze medieval village and beautiful views over the cirque.
On your way back don’t miss to stop at “L’Ami Paradis”, a great restaurant lost in the middle of nowhere just by the entrance of the Moureze Cirque . The cook, Pervenche Lamy, restored a small old farm built right up against the rocks, and created this unusual restaurant. Depending on the market’s produce of the day and on her inspiration, every day she creates new menus mixing local products, spices from the whole world and Mediterranean herbs. Whether for lunch, afternoon tea or dinner you will enjoy a delightful moment on one of the outside terraces, lulled by the song of the cicadas… Good food, good price and unique setting, who could ask for more?
The Salagou Lake, as colourful as a painter’s palette
It will take you a few minutes drive to reach the Salagou Lake from Moureze Cirque. The Salagou River was well known for its disastrous floods and ever since the 19th century many plans to build a dam were drawn up. It was finally built in the 1960’s creating a totally new landscape with stunning contrasts of colours. The deep blue lake’s water is like a mirror reflecting the black and red hills that surround it. The hills are made of black basalt and red ferrous clay that allow only a sparse vegetation to grow.
This Martian landscape is quite unique in France and is now bikers’, paragliders’ or hikers’ favourite playground. You can also go to one of the water sports centre and sail, canoe, windsurf… or simply swim in the warm water. A campsite right on the lake’s bank welcomes tourists who feel like spending a few days in this unique setting.
For more information about the outdoor activities in the Moureze Cirque and in the Salagou Lake area go to: http://www.clermontais-tourisme.fr/-English-version-
More about Herault: http://www.destination-languedoc.co.uk/index-1-2.html
Next week we will end our trip through Herault and it “Grand Sites”, and visit Lodéve. Be Seeing You!
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny & Annick Dournes