along the GR653 - narrative
Montpellier to Clermont-L'Hérault

An invitation to visit his brother near Bédarieux got Jeremy scanning the maps of S W France for GRs - ah - the GR653 looked possible, going westwards from Montpellier, round some interesting-looking limestone hills. We knew that that part of the Languedoc produced good wine; so there would be plenty of vineyards, and being Spring, we also expected wild flowers and Southern warmth. Some of this route overlapped with the Chemin de St Jacques (signed by the shell on this picture) and it turned out we were sometimes thought to be pilgrims on that path. However, I didn't really find out why they pile stones as they go - something symbolic about stones and piles...

DAY 1: Montpellier to Aniane
A glorious sunny day with blue sky! But, as we've experienced before, finding the way out of town was difficult. We made an early start, with breakfast at a café in the suburbs:
'La Coquille' told us they had "the best pain au chocolat in town" - that and café au lait were an excellent start to the morning. Continuing out along the Rue Pitot, we came to the impressive series of Romanesque arches Les Arceaux. We saw signs to the Médiatèque W Shakespeare, apparently a library and computer facility (why not Racine or Molière?) The centre of town was elegant 18th century; we left via the Arc de Triomphe, honouring Louis XIV.

The suburban gardens with pretty shrubs and southern flowers softened our exit; these included cistus bushes covered in white blooms, pines, oleander, rosemary, rose bushes already flowering. Some paint flashes gave us the idea we'd found the GR, but later difficulties showed we hadn't and we were lost. A helpful girl at the Tourist Information in Juvignac gave us a local map and put us on the right road. Again we thought we'd got on to the GR, but life was not so simple among the network of paths in the garrigues west of Montpellier; it wasn't until nearly mid-day that we really knew we were on the GR653; the paths often had clumps of asphodels, with tall spires of white flowers. We asked directions from three different locals and were given three different bits of advice, leading to further mistakes - - - eventually we got to Bel Air; this was turning into a long morning. After a brief rest for recovery, it was on across the plain, frequently punctuated by tall, thin cypress trees, various pines, some oaks, lots of mauve cistus, accompanied by the enjoyable smell of herbs hot from the sun. In Montarnaud a nice local café, opposite the town's stone water fountain, provided an excellent chèvre salad, pression beer, orange juice and a bottle of whiskey (no - it was water). The local workmen were finishing their lunch too.

Again we had to search to find the route out of town; then we went up and over the Bois de la Rouvière, sometimes near the little road (D111), sometimes on it, but without much traffic. It was down towards La Boissière and we skirted it, again near or on the small road. The countryside was developing, with more different kinds of pine trees; with some views to the N W, we began to see tomorrow's terrain on the Montagne de la Séranne. When I thought we were passing some bamboos, Jeremy said 'oboe reeds' - the grass arundo donax which his reeds are made from; it likes the alkaline soil and the Southern hot weather. Being limestone all around, there were craggy cliffs, and lots of brilliant red poppies, happy in the thin soil. We passed numerous fields with vines, contrasting their gnarly bases and fresh green leaves; Jeremy's comment: 'the rite of spring'. Of course, there were several 'Domaines' with all of this - the local wine companies, plus the vintner organisation: a Cave Co-operatif. Next we passed a man sitting in a field on a camping stool; we thought he was painting, but on further inspection, saw that he was reading a paper - while guarding his sheep and goats. The entrance to Aniane advertised itself as a medieval town, but not much of this was visible from the main street, while we looked for our Hostellerie; this was a bit too up-market for us, but there are four B&Bs for those willing to search them out.

DAY 2: Aniane to Montpeyroux
Yesterday and today were like chalk and cheese in the weather and the terrain, though we ate cheese both days and walked through chalk too. We opened the curtain to grey skies; it rained through breakfast and was spitting as we set off; through the day the rain drifted past, but never seriously wet us. It was a gentle morning, along a pretty route through the vineyards and oliviers, the products of this area. There were good views of the splendidly fertile plain. Over the main river here, the Herault, there was a fine old stone bridge, le Pont du Diable, with an accompanying story about beating the devil. At the big expanse of sand on a bend in the river, there was a group of school children gathering by the water's edge. Northwards was an impressive, dramatic, rocky limestone gorge, gouged by the water. Our route went alongside, first on the little road, then nearer the river, accompanied by the rushing water and birdsong. We passed the Abbaye de Gellone, founded in the 9th century by the chap who'd tricked the devil. St Guilhem-le-Désert was pretty and full of tourists - rather too bijou and soignée for our tastes. But we had an enjoyable cheese galette near the Square, before setting off on the climb.

The afternoon was bracing; a well-engineered path zig-zagged up for about an hour, towards the impressive wall of the Cirque de l'infernet, with increasingly strong winds. The rocks became craggier; the trees were thick with loads of pine cones on the branches and the ground. After about an hour and a quarter we arrived at the top, glad for a bit of level, balcony path. We were surrounded by the many greys of limestone, a multitude of greens, the pale blues of wild thyme and rosemary, and bright yellow vetch. While the level path was welcome, the wind blew in ever stronger gusts, literally pushing us about; even sauntering down was surprisingly hard work.

We left the GR653, to take a more direct cycle route towards Montpeyroux and were pleased to be back among the local farms and their patterned vine fields. Montpeyroux turned out to combine some old-world charm with being a contemporary working town; our hostal was a very acceptable converted 18th century building. Looking into the Bistro on the Square for a place to eat, we stumbled into a dégustation - a promotion by one of the local Domaines: Villa Symposia. We enjoyed small glasses of a couple of their reds, while chatting with an English violinist, who'd settled nearby; then tapas, upstairs - all very pleasant.

DAY 3: Montpeyroux to Lodève
Despite a prediction that the wind might continue for another four days, we woke to blue sky and little wind. We were staying at L'Ostal del Poëta, and at the breakfast table there, sure enough, was a poem for each of us from the landlord. Jeremy's read "La vinha es un còs / Que l'òme n'es lo cap / E lo vin, l'èime" - in Languedoc, followed by the French translation: "La vigne est un corps / dont l'homme est la tête / et le vin l'esprit". It was a good choice, even though he is more a beer man. Languedoc reminded us a little of Catalan, and also how minority languages struggle to survive against globalisation.

Passing pretty tamarisk in flower, we took the little road to Arboras, and then the high route through the mountains. As before, finding the GR proved difficult. Several times today we had trouble locating the GR from town; Jeremy said 'it's coy - hiding at first, then showing the way, once you've set out and committed'. This time we were on the GR74, which climbed steadily through the Forêt Domainiale de Notre Dame de Parlatges. Once up at about 400m, we did a series of horse-shoe balcony paths, around four cirques of different sizes, with grand views over the plains below; the sequence of hills in waves of blue-green colours bringing my phrase 'the heaving seas' to mind. We had a little rest at Le Pouget, where we reckoned the lines of snow on the hills of the Pyrénées were visible to the West. We zig-zagged down to Les Salces and discovered no café or shop there or in the next village Le Privat. It felt like another soignée village with no heart.We sat on a bench for a rest, with a drink from the fountain and some pontefract cakes.

After the various path-finding challenges of the morning, we decided on the simple route for the afternoon and set off on the D153, with almost no traffic for an hour, and then just a few cars and cyclists. At Prieuré de Grandmont we rejoined forest paths, some with rounded stones underfoot, like ex-streams. Then we were on big slabs of rocks; Jeremy called them limestone pavements, with a long cliff edge at Dolmen de Coste Rouge. Here our path was part of the Route St Jacques, with the accompanying piles of stones, (they seemed like offerings of thanks from the pilgrims) and once a huge arrangement in a spiral, like a big amonite tracing. The Balcon de Saumont had another grand view all around. Despite thinking that we were near our destination, the GR decided at this point to take us 'the pretty way' into Lodève. We were weary from about 8 hours walking, and though it was nice not to be on a road, the route went South of where we were expecting, adding maybe another two kilometres to our journey. Even though it was through forest paths, I was too tired really to appreciate it. We found our chambres d'hôtes, showered and went looking for a meal: no cafés or restaurants open, only rather impersonal hotel dining rooms, which we didn't fancy. So we bought a picnic at the supermarket and took it 'home'.

DAY 4: Lodève to Octon
At breakfast I was struck by two things: our landlard's southern accent, and being greeted by his grandchildren with kisses in the French tradition, on '3' cheeks. We stepped out to see a rainbow landing on the Cathedral and ambled through town, buying a baguette on the way. Then the-now-familiar search for the GR, even though it was located on our town map. Through sheer determination, Jeremy found a '653' on a lamp post down a road where he thought we should turn right. In the suburbs we passed some animal statuettes, including a life-sized elephant, with ears spread wide and trunk pointing skywards, and nearby, a little one made of stones - sweet.

We climbed up through the woods to more, lovely balcony paths overlooking the Lac du Salagou, with all its surrounding lumps and bumps. The clouds were shifting quite fast, with lots of wind; again, we were buffeted around. The wind made beautiful ripples through the grasses and wheat fields, and there were some wild flower meadows with pink thrift and all sorts of yellow flowers; we'd seen loads of glorious bushes of vibrant yellow broom. There were fewer vines up here, as they don't like the cold; there were some cows and green fields, some ploughed-but-not-planted ground. This was often deep red-brown earth, as we were now on red Permian clay. It was not as bracing as yesterday and we had a splendid overview of the land. The little Chapelle de Saint Amans was perched on the ridge; we found a place to shelter from the wind to have our picnic, and then made a steady descent to Valquières, an hour further on - another sweet village set in the hillside, with a Gite but no café. We walked through forestry commission woods, with tall trunks growing close, like bar-codes; there were some orchid spires of an intense purple-mauve; wild flower fields included white-pink-red clovers; all through the walk, we'd seen frilly, colourful irises in purple and light blues. The warm redness of the different (Permian) geology gave the land a new feeling. There were horses in the fields, and red sandstone around.

As we were visiting Jeremy's brother, we didn't walk all of the recommended route; however, we did do the section from Lavalette to Octon. Lavalette was another sweet hill village, surrounded by pine trees, and their tangy aroma. We went down the D157E towards Le Mas Caudou, with more woods, snaking along to Les Valarèdes and St Martin des Combes. Taking the second track on the left on the road out of town, the main interest of this route is the path down the side of La Selva; it's a lovely farm track, first through the fields and then the woods: chestnuts (used for flour and roasting) and oaks. We came along very pretty wooded slopes, emerging to see the ruins of the 13th century Chateau de Lauzière it's poetic crumbling atmosphere looking like something out of a Tim Burton movie. We passed Les Moulins and more fields, to get back among the vines around Octon, and once again, the disappointment of no café being open in mid-afternoon.

DAY 5: Octon to Clermont-L'Hérault
Our Practicalities page gives an idea for this route; so, here are my concluding thoughts. We enjoyed the wide open views of much of this walk, across the massifs, with charming villages, and bright wild flowers. Although it's mostly on limestone, the terrain changes and there are some volcanic bits towards the end. We saw lots of different scenery - the walk gave us the pleasures of progressing through a landscape; up the hills, with the broad panoramas of the balcony paths and cirques. Sometimes the villages seemed to be a small collection of family buildings and I was surprised at the lack of cafés; the farms were frequently surrounded by vineyards and other fields, with their aesthetically pleasing curves. Of course this meant the pleasure of local wines, and of course we enjoyed the breads, croissants and cheeses. Less enjoyable was the amount that the French smoke - noticeably more than the English! But the delights of the Southern sun, the wide vistas, all the colourful flowers, and consuming local produce more than made up for that.

© Diana Ambache 2014