Saturday, September 08, 2012

Les causses

Oak trees, short, strong and spindly, gather on the land like flocks of sheep, and between them is a sparse brown grass on rocky ground. A checkerboard of irregular stone walls, built both (one assumes) to improve the soil and claim human order in a mineral landscape.  Houses made of the same stone, cut in large and even blocks to frame windows, doors and corners, left small and irregular for the rest.  Small flat red roof tiles on high roofs that start out steep, then bend and meet the edges of barns and farmhouses at a gentler angle.  High roofs that hide ample attics.  In this land of livestock and poor cultivated land, it is best to store plenty for the times when plenty wants.

I'm on the causses, the limestone plateaus which tumble down from the Massif Central in the east to the plains of the Garonne in the west.  The plateaus are cut into steep valleys by the network of tributaries of the Garonne: the Dordogne, the Lot, the Célé, the Tarn.  Following a river, you look up sometimes at castles that hang from cliffs, or at improbable suspended villages.  Other villages cling to the narrow strip of bright green in the bottom of the valley.  Corn and tobacco grow in little green oases, and train tracks, some abandoned, snake along beside the river.  So does the road, filled at this time of year with RVs and bicycles and foreign-registered cars.  Choosing a smaller road, we start to turn and climb and now we're looking down, down at the valley -- the bottom is hidden -- part of me expects to see mountain tops after such a climb, but no, we've simply reached the top of the causse.  And the valley disappears.

The land was once rich, and though I can't help but doubt it when I look at the poor rocky soil, the cities of Figeac and Cahors prove it beyond any question.  Medieval hôtels particuliers, the city residences of wealthy merchants, dealing in transport, wine, wool, lumber, and later steel and coal.  The causses hide their wealth now, but once it ran down the hills with the water, down the wider waterways on barges, on to Bordeaux and points beyond.  The causses are a crossroads now and always have been, linking east to west, the Cévennes almost to the Atlantic.  Pilgrims to Rocamadour there cross pilgrims to Compostelle.

In Assier, the village where we're staying, stands the one remaining wing of a Renaissance château, built by Galiot de Genoullac, François I's artillery master.  The facade of the village church, the site of his tomb, is decorated with scenes of bas-relief cannons.  On a solo run through the causse one morning I find an old stone marker that delimited his domain, with a coat of arms worn away to nothing.

The palette in August begins in the dark sober green of the oak, contrasted with ochre stone, and faded into dry grass gold.  By the time we leave the first of the oak leaves are painted with the rust orange of fall.

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