Thu 14 Aug 2014

A Trip Along The A75: The High Road To The South of France

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RoquefortNo, this is not about the 75cl bottle, nor indeed the ghost road through Dumfriesshire. This is about the amazing and often beautiful stretch of motorway that winds its way through the centre of France.

There are a number of ways to drive to the south of France and I think I’ve done them all, including routes nationals, but the A75 is easily the most attractive, enjoyable and at times, spectacular with two of the world’s greatest bridges to admire.

Most French motorways have names. The most famous, the often overcrowded A6, is the ‘Autoroute du Sud’. The usually empty A26, incidentally which runs from Calais to Troyes, is called ‘Autoroute des Anglais’, a sort of extended Promenade des Anglais, complete with English-speaking gendarmes waiting to catch us those of us trying to speed back to the Chanel!.

I digress. The A75 is ‘La Méridienne’ and cuts an elegant swathe through the Massif Central from Clermont Ferrand to Beziers in the Languedoc. And for most of the time, it’s free, and usually free of heavy traffic.

Leaving Clermont southbound, the first point of interest, at least to historians and lovers of Asterix, is the Plateau de Gergovie, a setting for a resounding Roman defeat at the hands of the Gauls. From the road, it is difficult to see that this is also vineyard country. The Veyre-Monton turnoff quickly leads to the admirable Saint Verny Co-operative, the largest producer of wine in the Auvergne which is currently enjoying a period of real rebirth.

The Auvergne is an old wine-producing region but its size coincided with expansion of Clermont-Ferrand, and then, as with so many regions, receded after phylloxera. Traditionally the wines were light reds and at one time made from pinot noir, locally called auvernat noir. Gamay came to replace it and is now the majority variety. Others have been added including chardonnay and even syrah, but gamay still dominates for both red and rosé wine.

Not far from the co-op is the village of Corent which is especially known for its light and refreshing rosé. The 2013, which we stock (£8.50 per bottle) is absolutely delicious. The reds are almost as light and can be enjoyed cool with charcuterie, for example. And, of course, there is also cheese. Another short detour will take you to Saint Nectaire which makes a rich and creamy cheese which goes well with the red.

After a short winding passage alongside the Allier (beware of the much reduced speed limit and camera), the road starts to climb to its cruising altitude of around 800m. The remarkable thing about this motorway is that so much of it is at high altitude, twisting between the hill tops and leaping over valleys on ever more impressive bridges. About 50k of the route is over 1,000m, including two passes at around 1100m. The first of these is just before the exit to the historic medieval town of Saint Flour with its Gothic Cathedral perched high up on a volcanic spur. This is always a good place to stop over, breath the fresh mountain air, eat the local charcuterie washed down with a gamay. Should the air be not bracing enough, the road to Aurillac, capital of the Cantal Departement, crosses the Monts du Cantal, with two peaks, plomb du Cantal and Puy Mary on either side of the road and both eminently scalable. The summer months are the time for cheese making and two of France’s oldest and greatest cheeses come from around here. There is Cantal and in my view the more complex salers. Both are hard cheeses made from cow’s milk. Salers has to be made only from milk from the salers breed of cow. Both cheeses are best with age and both have a certain similarity to Cheddar.

Viaduct de GabaritA little to the south of Saint Flour is one of the two great engineering masterpieces along this route and is probably best seen from the lay by off the motorway. This is the Viaduct de Gabarit, a single track wrought iron railway bridge built in 1884 by Eiffel. Only one train a day uses it in each direction during the tourist season and going on it remains an unfulfilled ambition!

After leaving the Cantal, the road cuts through the Aubrac, home to another breed of cattle, the Aubrac, but this is now beef cattle and very fashionable too in all the top restaurants of Auvergne and the Languedoc.

And talking of animals, this is where the beast of Gévaudan used to roam. From the 1760s onwards came tales of a horrific Hound of the Baskervilles type of creature that terrorised the population, eating its victims and forcing the government to act. This is what Robert Louis Stevenson had to say in his essential book, Travels on a donkey in the Cevennes:

For this was the land of the ever memorable Beast, the Napoleon Bonaparte of wolves. What a career was his! He lived ten months at free quarters in Gévaudan and Vivarais; he ate women and children and shepherdesses celebrated for their beauty; he pursued armed horsemen; he has been seen at broad noonday chasing a post-chaise and outrider along the king’s high road, and chaise and outrider fleeing before him at the gallop. He was placarded like a political offender, and ten thousand francs were offered for his head. And yet, when he was shot and sent to Versailles, behold! A common wolf and even small for that.

Today seeking out the Beast is of course just a wonderful excuse for further exploration of the stunning countryside.

Time for more vineyards. At Séverac, there is a turn off for the town of Rodez, about an hour away and a visit to the spectacular vineyards of Marcillac. Philippe Teulier is the key man here who almost single-handedly resurrected this near-extinct appellation. Most of the wine is red made from the local fer servadou grape, and we currently stock Marcillac ‘Lo Sang del Pais’, Domaine du Cros 2013, available for £8.50 per bottle. This is a deeply coloured, gutsy red, always fresh and never high in alcohol and it goes perfectly well with the local dish which would be a slice of Aubrac steak with a spoonful of aligot. Aligot is the sort of dish made for hill walkers. Mash potato with plenty of garlic and combined with cheese to create a fondue like texture. Delicious though almost indigestible!

Back to Séverac and the A75. The road now climbs back to over 800m with another pass before giving the option of going down into the town of Millau or continuing on. Millau itself is attractive enough with plenty of options for staying the night and good places to eat too. There is a local wine called Côtes de Millau and I’ve tasted one or two good examples. Personally, I believe Marcillac is the better buy.

Millau viaductMillau used to be famous as a centre for glove making, especially from sheepskin, and nearby is where Roquefort cheese is made. The cheese remains world famous but Millau itself has become world famous for the eponymous viaduct. This was designed by Norman Foster and opened in 2004. It is 2,460m in length and crosses the Tarn River, some 200m below. The highest pier is 343m tall, 19m more than the Eiffel Tower and the whole thing looks like a magical silvery sailing ship, often cutting through mists and clouds.

The A75 goes over it and there are plenty of places where one can stop and admire its beauty, either from a lay-by off the motorway or from below.

With the bridge behind, the landscape changes to one of arid scrubland. This is the plateau of the Larzac, known for its sheep, Roquefort cheese, Templar fortress and the activist José Bové who challenged the government over the extension of a military base and who was more famously still among those who set fire to a McDonalds restaurant in Millau.

Service stations on the Larzac are a good place to stock up on cheese and honey, and maybe a pair of sheepskin gloves, and then comes the great descent. Suddenly, the speed limit is reduced. They’re cameras everywhere; the road starts to twist and turn and plunge quite steeply. This was the hardest section of the A75 to build and it collapsed once during its construction. The pass is called Pas de l’Escalette and it marks the separation between the Massif Central and the plane of the Languedoc. The road goes through a tunnel at that point and very soon reaches down to the plain.

Vineyards in LimouxThe landscape changes completely and often too does the weather. So often the Larzac is crossed in mist or drizzle which suddenly clears to blazing sunshine down in the plain. Now of course there is vineyard everywhere but for a final stop, the village of Montpeyroux lies just off the motorway.

Montpeyroux is a vigneron village with a growing reputation for its wines and especially for its reds. Sylvain Fadat of Domaine Aupilhac is the leading light in the area but there are others too like Pascale Riviere and Alain Chabanon which we also buy from. All the growers are busy working on turning Montpeyroux into a cru, which would be well deserved.

The A75 carries on past the town of Pezenas, with its link to Molière and Clive of India who gave it his recipe for mince pies, known locally as petit pâtés de Pezenas, and which actually does contain meat as mince pies used to.

The beautiful Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian with its Australian winemaker, Karen Turner, is nearby as is the Chartreuse de Mougeres where the excellent wines are made by Nicolas de Saint Exupéry. Peter and Deborah Core, two expatriates from the City make excellent wines at their bijoux winery, Mas Gabriel in the village of Caux.

Soon, the journey is over and the A75 merges with the A9 to go either towards the Rhône Valley or Toulouse, or indeed, the Spanish border. Gone is the peace and quiet and welcome instead three lanes of incessant traffic, trucks and caravans!

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer

Comments

  1. David Ling says:

    Brilliant Marcel, most evocative…

  2. Roger Straiton says:

    I cannot believe that the Pont de Millau has been open for 10 years.
    We always try to drive over it when we are in that part of France and always are thrilled by it – truly an amazing feat of engineering.
    Excellent article which has whetted our appetite for our annual September visit to France from Sydney.

  3. Hugh says:

    Thank you for that, I’m on my morning commute, but dreaming of French cafes and French cheese washed down Marcillac.

  4. Paul says:

    A couple of suggestions.

    While in the Montpeyroux area, you are only a short distance from the deservedly famous Mas de Daumas Gassac at Aniane. (www.daumas-gassac.com)

    On the other (west) side of the motorway, it doesn’t take long to reach the village of Octon on Lac de Salagou where, in the summer months, you will find the wines of Le Mas des Chimeres(www.masdeschimeres.com) for sale in the village square.

  5. James Garrett says:

    Marcel, thank you for evoking so delightfully so many memories of past journeys, lunches and glasses of wine. You have a great job!

  6. Peter Kirwan says:

    As a long-time resident, I have watched Montpeyroux evolve from a peasant village of rough, old vigneron (grape farmers) into a vibrant village of younger, dedicated growers, producing quality grapes and with the skills to create great wines – a Cooperative, considered by many to be the best in the Languedoc and with 20 independents. Sylvain Fadat of D’Auphilac (which you carry) was the first and deserves particular credit for kick-starting that change.

    Each year the second Sunday in April now has the village en fête for its Toutes Caves Ouvertes when clowns, jugglers and bands add to a day when a Euro 6, dated glass is a passport to a free tasting at any or all of the producers.

  7. John Walker says:

    Very informative article. The Salers cheese, especially aged is very complex indeed. Very hospitable tastings at Mas de Daumas Gassac, Ch a Capion and St Jean de Bebian. Long live Languedoc.

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