Middle Hérault Valley

 

“Where to go and what to see” guide

 

This guide has been compiled by Graham Tigg and is inspired by an article written for a UK national newspaper by Richard Binns in 1997.

For information about dining out in the area see Graham Tigg’s restaurant pages on the Internet at

 www.languedoc-dining.com

1.    Drives - half day

 

Use the Michelin Spiral-bound Motoring Atlas page 164 (in the pre-1998 edition page 156) or even better Map 65 “béziers montpellier” of the 1:100000 Cartes IGN series. The maps presented here have been highly simplified to highlight points of interest and are unsuitable for undertaking the drives without a road map.

 

1.1    St-Guilhem-le-Désert - medieval town and abbey

 

St-Guilhem-le-Désert is one of the most popular attractions in the immediate area. This means crowds, coaches and full car parks – even out of season. My advice is to go early morning or early evening to at least avoid coach parties.

From St-Saturnin head to Montpeyroux (via Arboras or Jonquières) and on through St-Jean-de-Fos. For a view of the Pont du Diable deviate over the bridge. This is where the River l’Hérault makes a spectacular exit from its gorges to a relatively flat course on to Agde and the Mediterranean. This is a spectacular sight after rain and a popular place for bathing.

 

St-Guilhem-le-Désert is 3 km up the gorges from the Pont hidden from sight in the Gorges du Verdus, a stream that flows into the Gorges de l’Hérault. You can either park at the bottom by the River l’Hérault or turn left to the car park at the top of the village. Expect to pay.

From the bottom a narrow street, with medieval houses on both sides, leads you to the village ‘place’ at the top of town. There you find a Romanesque abbey church with notable interior, cloisters, chevet and crypt. The 200-year-old organ, renovated in the 1980s, is a magnificent instrument. In the ‘place’ is a massive, centuries-old plane tree, sharing pride of place with a fountain. Also see the waterfall just around the corner.

South of the village is the Grotte de Clamouse that Richard Binns rates as good as any in France. A one-km long guided tour (English notes available) winds through passages and vast caverns with tens of thousands of fascinating formations - stalagmites and stalactites in endless permutations. Son et lumière is used cleverly.

 

 

1.2    Local countryside - hills, woods and winding lanes

 

For a greener, more refreshing wooded scene. From Arboras climb north west. After 5.5 km turn left to St-Privat and then west to Lodève. Extensive views predominate and the lanes wind through hillsides of holm oaks, past vineyards and, later, sweet chestnuts. Visit the 12thC priory at St-Michel-de-Grandmont with église, crypt, several splendid salles, deer park, lake, two dolmens and intriguing Neolithic sacrificial rock table.

Finish at Le Puech 5 km south of Lodève where there is a newly-created 12-acre botanical garden with a dozen differing collections of plants and trees.

If time allows take the dog-leg to St-Jean-de-la-Blanquière – try the Cooperative for olive products and everyday wine. This area has much iron oxide rich red soil.

As a detour to extend this drive take the D149E past Fozières and down to Soubès – take the right turn a couple of kms past the priory.

On the north side of Soubès is the start of a number of very pleasant easy walks in the pine forests beneath the Causse du Larzac (causse: limestone plateau). A map shows your options with the estimated time, you just follow the markers with the colour of your chosen route.

 

1.3    Villeneuvette and a rocky wonder

This time you head south-west to the tiny 17thC planned "new town" of Villeneuvette, 4 km west of Clermont l’Hérault on the D908 towards Bedarieux, originally built to house workers weaving woollen cloth for both the French army and export. A mix of plane trees, cobbled streets, houses and fountain both interest and please. There are also some interesting local pottery shops.

 

To the immediate west is the Cirque de Mourèze, an 864-acre bowl of gigantic dolomitic rocks of every size and shape.

 

Park and walk a few 100 meters behind the village to fully appreciate the scale of this surprisingly well disguised site. 

 

Walkers can ascend the Mont Liausson above the Cirque, but I would advise the use of a guide book to explain how the paths as marked - see “Drives with walks” for a recommendation.

 

1.4    A lost valley

From our several stays in the area this is one drive we have done many times.

 

Starting in Arboras take the D9 towards Montpeyroux and just past the junction with the St-Saturnin road turn left on the D122 that ultimately leads to St-Jean-de-Buèges. The sign you soon pass indicates bends for 17 Km, the road is narrow but it’s safe and little used, especially on weekdays.

Initially the route pulls up past some higher vineyards that overlook the vineyard bowl of l’Herault - do pause to look back. It then meanders right underneath Mt. Baudille past scrub heaving with rosemary. Further up the valley there is a Gîte d’Étape and a Mas or two set amongst the holm oaks.

At the col unfolds a dramatic view northeast down the whole length of a magnificent “lost” valley full of mixed woods spiked with rocky limestone outcrops.

Half way down the narrow road opens out a little and the hamlet on a small hill, Pégairolles-de-Buèges, is by-passed. Further down St-Jean gradually comes into view but for the best vantage point turn right before the village towards Causse-de-la-Selle and stop half way up the hairpin bends to look back - the road is wider here. St-Jean itself is a super village for a drink sitting outside the bar-café next to the cool stream. Just past the café is a large wine co-operative shop (nothing special about the wine) that also sells local food goodies. Return on the D4 via St-Guilhem-le-Désert or explore further.

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2.    Drives with walks

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For anyone keen to undertake several walks in the area I would recommend the good value and complete with detailed colour maps L’Hérault à pied® by the FFRP (Fédération Française de la Randonnée Pédestre) ISBN 2-85699-712-0. Most local town bookshops stock a copy.

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2.1    Pic St-Loup and Chateau d’Hortus

The drive east to St-Martin-de-Londres is relatively low key on interest with the exception of the Pont du Diable (see drive 1.1 St-Guilhem-le-Désert).

In the centre of St-Martin watch out for the right turn to St-Mathieu on the D122 and you are soon upon a super section of road in the pinewoods between the peaks and high cliffs of the Pic St-Loup and the Mgne d’Hortus. This route has just as much atmosphere on a dull wet day as a blue-sky scorcher. For wine stop off at Mas Bruguière (p.m. and early evening, above “Loup” on the map, sign posted from the D1) a neighbour to the longer established Domaine Hortus, or perhaps further on at Château La Roque (just to the right of the map below) where the wine exudes controlled rusticity. From here either return to St-Martin to see this section in reverse, or if your have a couple of hours head due west to Sommières for a wander round this attractive town by the river Vidourle.

There are two good walks. The shorter and easier is to the atmospheric ruins of the Chateau d’Hortus (actually called Chateau de Vivioures), an hour is plenty for an out and back. To scale the Pic St-Loup allow 2 ½ hours.

 The D1 between St.Martin-de-Londres and St-Mathieu-de-Treviers goes below the Chateau d’Hortus ruins. There is limited parking here and the walk is steep and somewhat of a scramble. Much easier, just as quick, and has better views is to shadow the ridge from the west.

On the D1 look out for the junction on a bend with the D122 sign posted Rouet and Les Camps. Take this and after 200m on the right some big rocks block a track - park in one of the many places near here (the top P on the map). An easy path edges right towards the ridge through holm oak trees and on to the Cathar like chateau. You come to a col beneath vertical rock below the seemingly inaccessible ruins. Take path left behind the ridge for 50 m. then sharp right (red paint C.H. mark) and easily up the good well used path and take in the wonderful views. There is also an exposed path round the south side.

The walk up the Pic St Loup is easy with sturdy shoes. Carry some water if you plan to do this in hot weather. Start from the car park at Cazevieille 6 km south east of St. Martin-de-Londres (bottom P on the map) and follow the path that goes underneath and past the summit cross before you head left and up - don’t panic and turn off too soon, it will be very steep.

The view all around is varied and well worth the effort. Allow 2 ½ hours for the round walk - it does wonders for the appetite.

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2.2    Two remote ruins and a mini Causse

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Between Montpellier and Gignac the N109 slips through a band of hills that most will pass by. To the north the land is limestone garrigue with rolling hills and valleys packed with small scrub trees - you pass though the top of this lot on the way to St.Martin-de-Londres, see 2.1 Pic St-Loup above. To the south there is a small causse (limestone plateau) that’s surprisingly devoid of habitation and more reminiscent of the Causse de Larzac that dominates to the north of St-Guiraud.

While much of this area is remote and featureless - there is only the occasional mas and flocks of ‘troupeau’ - a couple of fascinating ruins are worth seeking out if you are prepared to walk for 20 minutes or so to reach them.

From Gignac turn off the N107 after 7 Km on the D114 or from Montpellier leave the N109 immediately past St. Paul-et-Valmalle (usually called just St. Paul) and follow the old N109 towards the junction with the D114. After one Km from the N109 keep left to stay on the D114 towards Cournonterral. The road winds up the hillside through some taller trees just before the col that marks the start of the plateau. 300 m. further on is a mas close to the road on the left and a dirt track (protected by a chain) on the right. Park here (the top P on the map) unless you are lazy and your car has 34 on the number plate in which case you could slip past the chain. Walk west along the track that rises gently for 400 m and you soon join the ridge where you will first glimpse about 1 Km away the ruins of le Castellas with a chapel attached to it. The Lords of Montpellier built the castle before 1036. On the Michelin map the ruins are marked Chau with three dots. There is a splendid view to the north and west.

The second “ruin”, the church of St-Martin-de-Cardonnet, lies 4 Km. southeast. It’s near the junction of the D114 and the D114E and if you come from the north turn right onto the D114E  - the only signpost reads “Fromage de Chevre 7 Km”. After 1.5 Km you will be towards the end of a straight bit of road where a faint track goes off to the right - park here. Follow the track directly away from the road and you will soon catch glimpses of the chapel’s red roof that’s less than 1 Km away. When you get half way there the track does its best to confuse - look slightly to the right and head through some low trees.

You will soon see a round watering hole on the left and the chapel lies across a field bearing slightly right. As you approach you will notice the piles of white rubble that are what remains of a monastery. On the map the chapel is marked Cardonnet.

Afterwards the drive continuing down the D114E to the D2 near St-Pargoireis is the most interesting route off the plateau. The D2 southeast to Villeveyrac affords a super view over the Med. at a point where the road doglegs but, unfortunately, it lacks any suitable parking.

 

2.3    A chapel on the spectacular edge of the Causse du Larzac

 

Like the day long drive 3.1 below this drive and walk will introduce you to the massive Causse du Larsac - causse means limestone plateau. Use the fast toll-free A75 to head north to Le Caylar via the tunnel through the Pas de l’Escalette. To take in the view from the pass use the directions detailed in the first section of drive 3.1 that also describes le Caylar. You can also approach this area from the D9 that you can pick up in Arboras.

To reach the parking spot for this walk either pick up the D155 from the Pas de l’Escalette (it goes over the entrance to the A75 tunnel - there’s a golf ball like structure above it. From the D9 south look for the D155 as a left turn, or from le Caylar the D155E is a right turn off the D9. Follow the D155E until the end of the made up road just before a mas- you will see a P sign by a hedge in front of you. On foot follow the track to the left (paint marks the path at intervals) as it slowly curves round to head south. After a few hundred metres turn left down an avenue of high hedges before the next set of farm buildings. The track is soon in open countryside and drifts to the left of the summit hill you will see ahead to the right.

As the track reaches the shoulder of the hill you pass by a small steep gorge to the left. Soon after this you need to turn sharp right to head up the hill the track has been skirting. Only as you reach the top do you see the tiny chapel St-Vincent sheltered behind a wall and banks of grass.

Just a few steps further to the rocky top brings you to the precipitous edge of the causse with views of the valley below.

Return to the car park the way you came - an easy downhill walk with grand views.

If you keep an eye out you may come across a cardabela (a giant flat thistle) either growing or dried up lying flat on the open ground. 

Either return to St Saturnin via the fast A75 or the D9. You can also take in parts of drives 1.2 or the end section of 3.1.

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3.    A day long drive

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3.1    Causse du Larzac and the Cirque de Navacelles

 

This daylong drive is a mixture of rare scenic treats. Use the fast toll-free A75 to head north to Le Caylar on the high Causse du Larzac (causse: limestone plateau) via the tunnel through the Pas de l’Escalette.

A detour back to the where the original N9 snaked up onto the causse offers a magnificent view back down the long valley - see 2.3 above for a map. Exit the A75 soon after emerging from the tunnel and head left to the hamlet of St-Félix-de-l’Héras and then out along the D155. The old N9 is to the right immediately before the D155 skirts over the entrance to the two tunnels. It’s now a dead end just after the narrow gap in the limestone cliffs - there is plenty of space to park and turn. Take in a piece of history. Return following the D155 east over the tunnel entrance is a pleasant route that soon leads on to Le Caylar. If you have the time (an hour and a half) and the energy consider taking in the walk over the causse just to the south - see 2.3 above.

The village (caylar: "rock") sits literally under a pyramid of weirdly shaped rocks - from afar resembling castle ruins. In the village place the first eye-catching oddity is a dead elm tree, over 100 years old, which has been sculptured into a work of art by Michel Chevray: dozens of images - a shepherd, his dog, an eagle, a horse and others - evoke the harsh life on the causses. Alongside the elm is a tourist information bureau and a splendid information board: follow the marked trail with further notice boards along the way, climbing to the summit of the rocky hill where there are two excellent observation tables.

Five miles further north is medieval La Couvertoirade, once a Templar staging post. The tiny fortified hamlet features stone used in many ways: in ramparts, towers, exterior staircases, church, and varying roof tiles. Take care on the high ramparts; there's no guard-rail on the inside of the narrow walkways. There's also a great crêperie among the inevitable tourist shops.

Backtrack to Le Caylar and head northeast to Vissec (164-A1 or 156-Al on the Michelin Spiral-bound Atlas). The stones in the dry riverbed are an eye-piercing white; the River Vis disappeared underground miles upstream. As you climb the cirque (amphitheatre) note that part of Vissec is on a promontory, almost ringed by the dry Vis.

Approach the Cirque de Navacelles from Blandas. An extraordinary scene awaits you on the northern edge: 1,000ft below, an almost vertical drop, is a massive cirque. Note the huge meander (now a green pasture), the heavily wooded valley bottom and the Vis cascade (the river resurfaced two km upstream).

Descend to the bottom and relish the refreshing sight and sound of the 100ft cascade with its emerald pools. Who cuts the hundreds of box hedges on the four-mile drive south to St-Maurice?

If time allows, head down the wooded Gorges de la Vis to Ganges and on to the Grotte des Demoiselles. The grotte is almost at the top of a high wooded limestone mountain; a funicular carries you even higher into the interior. In a series of stupendous caverns limestone, water and both metallic and carbonate oxides have created myriad shapes and shades. One cavern is over 50m high - with one stalagmite "sculpture" resembling the form of The Virgin and Child.

From the Grotte the quickest way back is via St-Martin-de-Londres (see drive 2.1 Pic St-Loup) and then southwest through Puéchabon. An alternative that takes an hour longer is to wind your way past Brissac to St-Jean- de-Buèges and do drive 1.4 above (A Lost Valley) in reverse.

The direct route back from St-Maurice is via la Vacquerie-et-St-Martin-de-Castries and takes around 40 minutes. If you want to pick up some fine goats cheese then further along the D9 between St-Martin-de-Castries and la Vacquerie is a super producer of Fromage de Chevre - watch out for the white and green sign.

After la Vacquerie the radio mast of the Mont St-Baudille dominates the scrub landscape to the left. The detour to the summit is worth it for the view south in clear weather, but otherwise the immediate vicinity is unfortunately a tatty eyesore. You leave the causse on the D9 to Arboras down a narrow limestone funnel - a mini version of the Pas de l’Escalette. Just as the road emerges on the escarpment the view west is divine, especially towards sunset. There is a parking space for one or two cars here - do stop to take it all in.

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4.    Local walks

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4.1    Le Rocher des Vierges

 

Le Rocher des Vierges is the small volcanic plug that’s just 2 Km to the north behind St-Saturnin. You can drive most of the way in distance to leave a 25 to 35 minute easy walk to the top for the panoramic views and the tiny chapel wedged in the summit rocks.

Set off driving towards St-Guiraud. While still in the village and just before the road forks to Jonquières take a right turn. A broken sign on the wall has a few letters of “Rocher” remaining. Follow this winding climbing road for 2 Km or so until the surfaced road ends by a row of trees and a run down vineyard on the left - this is directly below Le Rocher. Walk up the track (although some do drive up here) taking a left turn up to the ridge south of the top. The last bit to the top is a clever but easy path that initially traverses just below the summit.

 

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4.2    Castellas de Montperoux

These ruins sit above Montperoux and have impressive walls that blend well into the limestone and scrub hillside – they’re quite hard to spot until you get close. First drive to Montperoux. When you reach the five-road junction in the centre take the road between the Arboras and St-Jean-de-Fos routes - it goes by the small village parking area. This heads for Le Barry, an attractive hamlet above Montperoux. Park below Le Barry and walk through it - the Castellas is directly above.

The easiest route up is to follow the track to the right (east) that eventually doubles back, an easy 20 minute walk. You can explore inside the walls - there are a few ruins and pine trees - but best of all is the fine view south over the valley of the Herault.

 

5.    Local Produce

Some of the best spots to taste and/or buy local produce. The treasure trove Pioch shop (D27 north exit from Aniane, near Mobil garage); scores of tempting bottled goodies, fresh produce and wines - they had Domaine d’Auphilac on our last visit. For olive oil at the Huilerie Cooperative, Av. Wilson, Clermont-l’Hérault produces bottlings based on individual olive varieties. The unique green regional olives (lucques) can be bought at the Confiserie d'Olives at St-Jean-de-la-Blaquière along with their oil - see drive 1.2 on page 3.

For quality wines at fair prices nose out Olivier Jullien at Jonquières but note that his wines sell out very quickly. His father, Jean-Pierre, now has his own business next door to his son and being less well know is more likely to have wine available. Sylvain Fadat at the Domaine d'Aupilhac at Montpeyroux is also well worth visiting. All three are open p.m. only.

The world renowned Mas de Daumas Gassac (closed Sun) is east of the D32, south of Aniane and they do tours but note that there is little if any saving on UK prices for the renowned Daumas Gassac wine itself. Better to investigate some of their more everyday wines made by the pioneering Aimé Guibert.

The best of the co-ops is at St Félix de Lodez and the more attractive one at Montpeyroux (on the east side of the town). Check out the smarter wines that are well worth lugging back home. Also don’t miss the fine producers around the Pic St. Loup - three are mentioned in Drive 2.1 on page 5.

See also the goats cheese farm on Drive 3.1 on page 8 and the wine co-op at St-Jean-de-Buèges on Drive 1.4 on page 4 (but probably not for their wine).

Super local morning markets are held at Clermont-l’Hérault (Wed); Lodève (Sat); and Gignac (Sat).

 

 

6.    Acknowledgements

 

This guide has been compiled by Graham Tigg and is based around an article written for a UK national newspaper by Richard Binns in 1997.

For information about dining out in the area see Graham Tigg’s restaurant pages on the Internet at www.languedoc-dining.com

 

Richard Binns has written a number of tremendous guides to eating out and touring in France. His most recent two are French Leave Finesse (for eating out) ISBN 0-9516930-8-5 (paperback) -9-3 (hardback) and Allez France (includes Mapaholics’ France for seeking out scenic and man-made delights) ISBN 0-9516930-3-4. Available from all good travel book shops, Richards web site at http://www.richar-binns.co.uk, or by mail order from the author at Chiltern House Publishers, 6 Chandlers House, The Moorings, Myton Road, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, England CV31 3QD.

 

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