I sleep for nine hours. I wake to a noisy aluminium ladder being shifted: a man with a cigarette stuck to his lip, hanging out of his mouth (how long since I’ve seen that?) is cleaning the gutter, shuffling the high ladder along without climbing down. It is Monday.
Breakfast is adequate and well presented: yoghurt in a glass pot, juice, 3 small pastries, three pieces of the hard toasted bread the French insist is food, black coffee, one spoon for yoghurt and coffee. Presentation and portion control. I’d give anything for a full English, or even just a bowl of porridge.
I cycle to Bort-les-Orgues. The road rises and falls, tracking the quiet reservoir whose edge follows the sinuous contour. I pass through a village of oddly-shaped ecohouses. Past a girl training a horse on a long leading rein. It circles, between nothingness and the flicking whip, searching for the intentions of the girl turning at the centre of its new world.
The dam is 120m high. Above it, half a billion cubic metres of bland water bury and weigh down what was. Below it, the valley continues, busily various, the town going about its business. I descend. At the top, the dam is both scientifically and aesthetically elegant. From below, the stepped mass (700,000 cubic metres of concrete) looks as authoritarian, even totalitarian, as the ziggurats and pyramids of the Middle East and Central America, or Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.
The dam is not visible from the town – how terrifying it would be if it were! – but in the village there is a display of photographs of the dam being built. It must have been strange, just after the war, after the Occupation, the Resistance, the harshness of reprisals – 99 young men strung up like crows a few miles from here – hoping to return to its peacetime ways, a quiet rural area far from industry, to watch it being built, the scale of it, rising ever higher, blocking off the valley. And then, as the water rose, to watch the familiar slowly disappear, the fine texture, nuances of surface, the memories, of woods, pasture, roads, villages disappear beneath the placid, bland, unreadable surface.
I remember the James Thurber story, ‘The Day the Dam Broke’, and wonder if a similar panic ever occurred. Or if there is a perpetual unease at that half a billion tonnes of water behind 1,750,000 tonnes of concrete. Does the solid, falling water, creating the mysterious will o’ the wisp, electricity, (I remember the Thurber character convinced that electricity leaked from light sockets if there was no bulb), the hum of the turbines, the crackle of the electricity, do they ripple, like low-level fracking, and subconsciously disturb, make strange dreams? A curious place to live.
I ask at the pharmacy for Nivea cream. Oh no, she says, with the ghost of a superior smile, we don’t sell Nivea cream, they sell that in supermarkets.
In the square is an unexpectedly elegant hexagonal, domed building, with an elaborate stone double staircase up to the door, the Grain Exchange. What sudden wealth paid for it? But what draws my attention is the war memorial. The population of Bort in 1910 was 3,800. The military-age population would have been about a sixth, perhaps 700 men. There are 152 names on the memorial. Almost a quarter of the men, speaking a different language, who had never been ten miles from their home, dying hundreds of miles away in an incomprehensible war in a strange land, and buried there. No wonder France surrendered in 1940. There are 36 names from the second war.
Where, I ask at the tourist office, are les orgues? Up, she says. Everything is up from Bort, she says, with the ghost of a smile. Bort became Bort-les-Orgues in 1919, a response to the growing tourist industry, as the motor car brought the adventurous into the previously inaccessible. It now claims to be ‘at the heart of the Massif Central’, which is pushing it. It is on the ancient road from Clermont to Limoges, and the Tour de France passed through in 1996.
Les Orgues It is a long climb, out of Bort, then up and up, from 330 to 850m. But the sun has come out, and it’s a clear day. There are steep-roofed houses slated with round-edged slates. Some are the houses of the wealthy, seeking panoramas and views. Some of incomers, marginaux, scratching a cheap living.
It is a long climb but – what a view. I park my bike and walk to the edge. Facing east, the whole of the Massif is laid out in a vast panorama, limitless until softening and lost in blue distance. The blue mountains of the Auvergne. A woman walks to the edge, whispers ‘magnifique!’ ardently, thrusts herself out like the figurehead of a ship over the blue emptiness. I imagine the first map-makers in the eighteenth century, having triangulated their way from the Meridian 10km away, climbing up here, looking out at what they were going to have to enter and survey, a limitless terra incognita, and saying ‘what the f…!’ as they see laid out before them the scale of their task. A few miles east of here one of the surveyors was hacked to death by the locals. A few miles south, one was so badly beaten up that he had to be retired on a pension. Another ‘went native’, married a local girl, and reappeared in Paris in his nineties with a new, improved theodolite he had invented. How well Robb evokes their heroic eighteenth-century journeys into lands of incomprehensible languages and strange ways, as alien as America, or even Africa. And they did it, not to make money, but to bring a new rationalism. They were making a geometric net with which to capture, definitively, the various land of France.
But up here, in this place, there is some place faraway that is nudging at the edge of my memory. And when I walk round to view les orgues, I remember. Les orgues are phonolithic volcanic rocks, an eighty-metre vertical face of ‘organ pipes’ that look like the basalt columns of the Giant’s Causeway, fancifully a giant’s xylophone, but are in fact the result of erosion. And I remember the view from Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. How similar, the Three Sisters rock formation and the view across the endless blue plateau, where I spent a memorable day with my son six months ago. The Blue Mountains, uncrossable because every valley route ended in an impasse. Only when one explorer kept to the ridges did he succeed. As the French surveyors would keep to the heights, sighting from high point to high point. There is now a telecommunications mast up here, where the survey point was.
There is a refreshments caravan. I wonder how he makes a living; even in the middle of June, there are few tourists around. I have coffee and a chocolate bar. He asks where I’m heading, I tell him south, not sure where I’ll camp. He says he likes Entraygues, on the Lot. I take this as a sign, make a note as a place to camp tomorrow night. I say goodbye to the Blue Mountains, French and Australian, my son far away. I’ve spent far too long on this pilgrimage up to one of the surveyors’ high points. But it’s been worth it. Now I freewheel down the hill, and then up towards Mauriac; I want to get as far south, as near to Aurillac as I can today.
It’s a long day of hard cycling, the road snaking to ease the ups and downs in classic Trésaguet road-building. Mostly over 700m, in places 800m, long sweeping roads tough even when the gears aren’t playing up, what with the weight of the bike and my lack of strength.
Even so, it’s a fascinating day, cycling through a curiously fairy-tale world of houses tall-roofed with scalloped slates, avenues of trees, woodland among the pasture, long green hills, distant blue mountains, paths off to who knows what mystery places, a sort of enchantment, even on a windy, cool, grey day. The cow bells, the first I’ve heard this time, add to the sense of enchantment. The Limousins have lustrous brown hides, small shapely heads, large dark eyes, delicate feet. The Charolais are sturdier, but of a startling whiteness that makes them other-worldly, descendants of the Zeus who carried off Europa. I have just passed La Vallée du Mars.
They are both popular beef breeds across the world, and were both developed from the meaty breeds bred for oxen. It was because the French never turned to horses as draught animals, and because of the late industrialising of French agriculture, that they survived, and were available to be introduced into breeding programmes. Every farm in our part of the Aveyron still had one of the sturdy wooden frames needed when the oxen were being shod; they can’t stand on three legs.
Our neighbours still had two oxen when we arrived. The neighbour’s brother-in-law, a live-in farm hand, loved to take them out, to plough the more difficult areas inaccessible to the tractor, or to earth up the potatoes, the rows of which the great beasts used to step between with an unlikely care and grace. I wrote this, in Diggers and Dreamers: ‘Gaston returns to the cowshed. I wait expectantly. The first ox emerges, then the second. They stand, unmoving, huge brown creatures with massive shoulders, but smooth and rounded, and somehow daintily proportioned. Eunuch cousins of great strength and placid disposition. Kleobis and Biton. They stand patiently as Gaston locks their heads together in the wooden yoke, tightens the strap across their brows, their long horns interlocked. He puts the light wooden plough over his shoulder and leads them away making chucking noises. They lean together, strange twins, balanced, separate but coordinated, their steps surprisingly delicate, but plodding nevertheless. He is going to earth-up the potatoes. He whistles as he goes.’
When we returned from a trip away, the oxen were gone. Where are they, Gaston? In the deep freeze, he said, a so-it-goes smile masking his grief. Another of the old ways gone. The neighbour had decided they were too expensive to feed, didn’t pay their way, the son wanted a new Lamborghini tractor, they had to go. But they weren’t going to waste them.
I make decent progress, on a snaking parallel to the Meridian close by. I note that many places here are twinned not with foreign towns, but with places in Brittany. It seems odd, but it’s a sign of the size and variety of France. In the Massif, the coast is another country, and it’s a chance for local children to be by the sea, and their children to experience the mountains.
I make it through Saint-Martin and Saint-Cernin, pressing on. I think I might even get to Aurillac when I reach Jussac. I stop at the supermarket, and feeling cold I put on a jersey. But now I’m shivering. I pass a camp site and then go back to it and get off my bike, shaking. I’m all in.
Jussac The bright woman with sharp eyes in the office says, I saw you pass, then come back. It is a private camp site. And €10! And always the local tax of 20c added. It’s always irritating. The commune demands its tax. The businesses refuse to include it. Provincial France at its most self-justifyingly pernickety.
Are there places to eat here, I ask? She talks vaguely of restaurants. And you can always get a pizza, she assures me, gesturing down the main street.
I pitch near the toilet block, which itself is beside a deep, running stream. As so often I am the only camper. There are a couple of motorhomes. They fascinate me. I arrive to find them parked up. I see no sign of life. They are still there when I leave. The campsites aren’t cheap, and the motorhomes seem to make little use of the facilities. They are self-contained, self-sufficient. So why don’t they park by the roadside? Security, perhaps. I feel they are people who would fear the worst in any situation, in cities expect to be mugged, in the country to be attacked by local deviants or roaming maniacs. And, too, the comfort of drawing up among the similar. It is like a bungalow easing itself into a space in a cul-de-sac. The campsites are like suburban closes. Home from home. And of course there is the power point. I imagine they never miss their favourite TV shows. But it seems odd, leaving home without leaving it. I imagine the interiors are miniature versions of their houses, with every picture and nicknack an analogue. And yet driving to a different place, and parking between different, if identical, motorhomes, makes a difference. Self-sufficiency, yes, but it feels like the petty bourgeois self-sufficiency of ‘neither a borrower nor a lender be’, a wall-in, wall-out world.
I go in search of food. The office is closed, the woman gone, so I wander round the village. There is one closed-down restaurant, and another closed on Mondays. The pizza place is open Wednesday to Sunday. Surely she knew all this? It’s curious, this lack of honesty. As if, once she’s gone, she’s ‘got away with it’ – after all, it’s not her fault that nowhere is open. I return to the campsite and eat what I have, sardines, bread, rice pudding.
It rains. I sleep.
Robb, The Discovery of France chapters 1 and 9.
Keith Walton, Diggers and Dreamers pp 173-4.