Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Lockdown hiking in France is an exercise in extreme proximity, in rediscovering the smaller things and local beauty, as we are only allowed to go outside within a 1 km/0.6 mile radius from home. In times of slowdown, it is also an exercise in speed or “packing the most in a short time”, as lockdown rules limit daily outings for outdoor exercise to an hour a day. The restrictions are simple and clear. Now, what would you do an hour a day very close to home? If you’re lucky like me to be confined in a rural area, it is a golden opportunity. I decided to explore my dad’s village in Occitanie, south of France, something I had never done in earnest because I thought the grass was greener (metaphorically, this is the south of France) further afield.
My first lockdown hike was pure serendipity. The mayor recently announced that the village had purchased a former winery and vineyards to turn them into a nature and recreation reserve. About time, I thought to myself. You see, urban sprawl has doubled the village’s population in the past five years, the price of agricultural land has skyrocketed as it’s become buildable, and old-school wineries have been driven out of business. For sure, this part of Occitanie used to be cheap red wine region which wasn’t great either. Imagine miles of vineyards as far as the eye could see, ugly roadside concrete shelters for workers, and tractors spraying nasty pesticides. Not any more, oh no, these days are mostly over.
The village has become the extended sleepy suburbs of Béziers (the local big town) and agriculture is no longer the main employer. In recent years, mad urbanization made the village grow without any visible environmental initiatives and it was painful to watch. What was the point in living in a small village if you were surrounded by concrete without any local businesses? Needing to drive to work, to school, to shops? As a fierce nature advocate, I’m convinced that we all need nature, that it should be a basic human right. So yes, I can’t tell you how intrigued and excited I was to learn about this new nature spot. By luck, it is just over one kilometer from my dad’s home. A sunny Sunday morning was all I needed.
I set out with just a small shoulder bag, just enough to hold my two camera lenses, and checked Google Maps for vague directions. I’m no local and don’t know the locations of all wineries around the village (there are a few). From afar, I spotted two tractors spraying something on the vineyards and it was so windy that I caught a whiff, even half a mile away. Sunday spraying, eh? No rest for this year’s wine harvest.
While crossing a recent development (as in, some neighborly walls still show bare bricks), the only sign of wildlife I found was two lizards in a loving embrace on a sidewalk (how romantic) and a massive cicada ready to jump on a metal gate. Without any trees on the street, I felt the heat of the sun a lot more than I had when I set out and took off my sweater.
A bit further, I found a roundabout with the directional clue I needed. “Farm traffic only” on a rusty metal sign. No other indication that this was it, not even the winery name, but Google Maps was affirmative. Going uphill, the paved road looked quiet and I couldn’t see tractors coming my way. Off I went.
Instantly, I stepped into another world. It’s fascinating how you can leave paved streets and humans behind, only to fall – rather than walk – into the world of quiet country lanes. As Alice fell down the rabbit hole, I fell into big skies, big fields and fresh air. Country road, take me home to the place I belong. This truly felt right. I was only minutes in, having turned my back on this artificial world of cookie-cutter homes with French blue-white-red flags (big Front National voting base here) and my lungs felt like they could breathe. It was liberating. Nature on both sides of the road, unruly weeds with, I’m sure, more medicinal and nutritional properties than most tamed plants that surround us. Literally also, my lungs breathed in a lot of fresh air because windy gusts were tousling my hair in all directions and just whipping me around. When it’s windy on a plateau, it’s windy.
So here I was, strolling down the old winery road lined on both sides by vineyards. Down in the vineyards, a guy was walking leisurely with a camera around his neck. Surely, a fellow nature lover. Might be that he would share some precious local knowledge about the area? What the heck, he was very safely socially distanced, I could risk a little chit chat.
I wanted to know about the winery, was it open to the public as I’d heard or was it not, and did he know nice walking paths around here and the such. Oh, he replied, I must be wrong, the winery is closed and off limits. Sure, there’s a chain with a “No entry” sign and I could walk past the sign if I wanted to but then, I’d have to deal with two nasty dogs that attacked a cross-country cyclist four days ago. They went for his legs, he heard.
Right, maybe not? By now the man, who was more starved for social company than I was, started sharing his hobbies. Shouting from 30 m away. He had two bikes, a road bike and a cross-country bike, but he much preferred the cross-country bike and his dream was to cycle the Roman way from Montpellier to Lyon. Not right now, mind you, after lockdown was lifted.
“The ride is 550 km long,” he pointed out, “It would be a great way to see the country. Also, I’m looking for a female partner for this trip,” implying that I should be the one.
A female partner companion. Let that sink in. First, poor guy. He clearly had no idea about my cycling skills. Also – wow. Creepy much? So here we were, shouting words to each other very far apart, and as I was not taking the bait, he insisted. Did I like cycling and wasn’t cycling such a great way to travel?
Well back off, yo.
I was really only looking for intel on this particular area, the winery with the potentially nasty dogs. Thanks but I didn’t cycle (with him), I preferred hiking (by myself) and thanks for the chat (but not really). Amazing that I felt like I had to justify myself to a total stranger. In hindsight, it was weird, I shouldn’t have done that. I finally walked away and felt better.
Man. The guy put the strange in stranger.
Fortunately, he was the only weirdo I met during that walk and the sights more than made up for the encounter.
The closer I got to the buildings of the winery, the wilder the road became. In a way, nature was thicker, closer to me. Poppies, daisies, columbine, thistle, malva – I was surrounded by riots of spring wildflowers and it was wonderful.
Spring flowers are not the type of vegetation I associate with my dad’s village as I usually visit in the summer or in the winter when nature is either crispy yellow or bare and grey. But these bright flowers, these shades of green, the mild temperature — this could have been Kent on a spring sunny day. With so much rain as of late, nature has been transformed, lush and green, which oddly enough here is seen as an anomaly. In his evening Facebook messages, the village mayor recently reminded his voters that “overcast and rainy weather does not suit us, people from the south of France who cherish sunny days” and though he might be right for voters, nature might beg to differ. A few rainy days are good for the land and wine growers and farmers would no doubt agree.
Where vineyards had been uprooted, wheat and cattle feed grass had been planted. Again, windy gusts carved elongated green waves in this field of tall grass, a small sea of green. As our former landlord in Pacifica would say, the corduroy effect. He was an old-school surfer dude and told me how when the sea swells are close enough and you can see parallel lines form from the horizon to the shore, it’s called a corduroy effect.
The closer I got to the winery building, the slower I walked. I kept thinking about the weirdo’s warning. Would I encounter nasty dogs? Would my legs end up in pizza? Without knowing the lay of the land, I was hesitant to keep going.
A rusty sign did it. Privé. Interdit. That was my clue (read excuse) to retreat and find another hiking loop. I did muster some courage to see if I could sneak in the property, should I walk over the sign, but it was challenging. The whole winery looked abandoned and overgrown vegetation had reclaimed its rights, filling wall cracks with thorny brambles and spilling tightly knit branches over the wall. In shorts, there was no way I was getting out of there without a few serious scratches — if not snake, scorpion or dog bites.
Almost relieved, I turned around and took the next right, a path going up hill. If I could not enter the winery enclosure, I could at least walk around it.
From the top of the hill, I got a better view of the winery. It was massive. Typical architecture for the south of France, with orange tiled roofs and beige walls. The central square tower may have been part of the lodgings – just guessing here. At some point in history, it must have been a really big local winery, given how many large warehouses I could see. They would be used to house concrete or metal tanks to store the freshly-pressed grape juice, where it matured into wine. There might be a bottling line – or not. And unless they sold wholesale, they would be cellars for bottled wines too. The stories this winery could tell.
Soon the road gave way to a dirt path which gave way to more wildflowers. Where once tractors would have been busy along this road, nature had reclaimed its rights. Again. It was marvellous to see. I’m told that honeybees can fly within a 3 to 5 km range to collect pollen for the beehive. What bees wouldn’t love this type of landscape? And it’s not only bees, mind you. Another human stood still on the path a ways ahead of me and I realized that it was a female runner checking her phone. I didn’t want to come from behind and startle her so I ventured a “Bonjour” that I thought was loud enough, when she started dancing on the spot looking at her screen. Turning her back on me. Not loud enough, then. I made a great show of walking slowly with exaggerated movements until she finally saw me, stopped dancing, and started to run again.
I was only glad that she wasn’t freaked out when she saw me. You never know, when people are so deeply immersed in their earphones, music and phones. Beyond the last of the grassy fields and wildflowers, vineyards. These looked like old plantations. Others I saw later were younger.
Did you know that these vineyards were some of the oldest in France? Maybe not specifically my dad’s village, but Occitanie in general. Growing wine was already an industry when the Gauls populated France and Romans kept the tradition very much alive. At some point, Occitanie produced 40% of all French wine which is a lot. That’s how many vineyards there were in the area but now, as I said, many have been uprooted so farmers could receive subsidies (for uprooting). When you’ve got a monoculture thing going on, it’s not good for biodiversity, it’s not good for quality, it’s not good for anything. That’s why I was glad during this hike to see the variety of crops along the road. Though I could not tell you exactly what they were, they were definitely not all grapes.
Talking about grapes.
At this point along my hike, I was surrounded by vineyards on all sides and met a couple of hikers. With a backpack and good walking shoes, they were most definitely hikers. Again, I struck up a conversation with them and was delighted I did so. They were a treasure trove of information on local walks, pointed to other parts of the plateau I might want to explore and shared useful tidbits of advice.
In France, lockdown outings mean you have to fill in a paper that justifies your outing, showing what time you went out (to keep track of the hour of exercise). The couple explained that this was the point in their hikes when they modified the departure time on their paper as it allowed them for a longer hike in the boundaries of lockdown restrictions.
I did exactly the same minutes later, only the pen I had was blue instead the black one I’d used to fill in my paper and it spilled ink everywhere on my fingers. I would be a very bad criminal.
Minutes later, I was lost. How can you get lost so close to home? You ask me. All vineyards looked the same. Fortunately, the landscape allowed for clear 360 views and I quickly used waymark points to make it back home almost within the “hour” I was allowed.
What a trip. I loved it.
This made me look forward to more hikes, lockdown or no lockdown, closer to home. There’s much to be discovered and appreciated in the area closer to your home when you might suspect.