Black magic

The Mon­tagne Noire in Langue­doc may not be a well-known part of France, but it’s well worth con­sid­er­ing if you’re look­ing for a ru­ral hide­away that’s not too cut off,

Living France - - Contents - says Robin Gauldie

If you’re look­ing for a ru­ral hide­away that’s not too cut off, Langue­doc’s Mon­tagne Noire is worth con­sid­er­ing

Fly­ing into Car­cas­sonne, you no­tice a long ridge of darkly wooded slopes on the town’s north­ern hori­zon. Th­ese are the south­ern ram­parts of the aptly named Mon­tagne Noire – the ‘Black Moun­tain’. They don’t look for­mi­da­ble, but the red-and-white tele­coms tower that’s vis­i­ble from miles around marks the sum­mit of the re­gion’s high­est point, the Pic de Nore. At 1,211m, it’s 126m higher than Snow­don and only 133m lower than Ben Ne­vis. Com­pared to the Pyrénées, loom­ing on the south­ern hori­zon, though, it’s a mere pimple.

The Mon­tagne Noire is a gen­tle cres­cent of hills, ap­prox­i­mately 100km long, near the bor­ders of Aude, Tarn and Hérault, stretch­ing roughly from the east of Castel­naudary on the Canal du Midi to­wards St-Pons-de-Thomières, gate­way to the Parc Na­turel Ré­gional du Haut Langue­doc.

The D612 runs along its north­ern edge, from the sleepy mar­ket town of Maza­met through St-Pons and on to Béziers. Its south­ern fringes reach Aude and the vine­yards of Min­er­vois. Only a few roads cut through the hills, fol­low­ing the course of lit­tle rivers and trout streams like the Or­biel and the Ar­nette that rush down its steep-sided val­leys to meet Aude.

Look­ing at th­ese thickly forested ram­parts from the low­lands, it can be hard to be­lieve any­one lives up there, but tucked away in lit­tle glens house-hun­ters will dis­cover vil­lages of sturdy stone houses built and some­times roofed with the char­ac­ter­is­tic grey schist of the re­gion. Few, if any, are home to more than a thou­sand in­hab­i­tants.

UNAS­SUM­ING TOWNS

Maza­met, on the Mon­tagne Noire’s north­ern edge, is the near­est thing the re­gion has to a real town. With a pop­u­la­tion of around 10,000, it’s a pleas­ant, unas­sum­ing place, with a lively Satur­day mar­ket and the full range of com­merces, in­clud­ing trades­peo­ple, hy­per­mar­kets, a rail­way sta­tion and an air­port with flights to Paris (Orly) and Cor­sica. It was once a cen­tre of the wool and sheep­skin trade, and you can still shop for a lamb­skin coat or sheep­skin rug at the out­let stores along Rue de la Richarde. There’s shop­ping of a dif­fer­ent kind in Mon­tolieu, on the south­ern slopes

which bills it­self (rather am­bi­tiously) as Langue­doc’s ‘book vil­lage’. Its dozen or so book­shops trade mainly in French works, but Li­brairie Abe­lard, on Rue de la Paix, de­votes a floor to English-lan­guage ti­tles.

North of Las­tours, the Or­biel winds its way along its nar­row val­ley to the range’s wa­ter­shed, pass­ing through tiny Ro­que­fère, a vil­lage fleuri that is the venue for a rather ex­cel­lent sum­mer jazz fes­ti­val. Carry on for a few kilo­me­tres to reach Labastide-Es­par­bairenque, the tiny vil­lage where I bought a ram­shackle house in 2001. In spring, the loud­est sounds around here are wood­peck­ers drum­ming, cuck­oos call­ing, and the six-note shrill of black red­starts. Sum­mer evenings are loud with shriek­ing swifts. Au­tumn is her­alded at week­ends by bu­gles, bea­gles and the crash of gun­fire as boar-hunt­ing sea­son gets un­der way, and by the dis­tant scream of the chain­saw as my neigh­bours pre­pare their win­ter fire­wood. Win­ter nights are qui­etest of all, with only the oc­ca­sional owl call and the sough­ing of wind in the leaf­less Span­ish chest­nuts.

It’s hard to be­lieve that this ru­ral idyll is only half an hour from one of France’s three busiest visi­tor at­trac­tions: Car­cas­sonne’s Cité Médié­vale is only half an hour away. I can drive to the near­est hy­per­marchés just out­side Car­cas­sonne in 25 min­utes and be at the air­port in 30-40 min­utes. Toulouse, with all its big-city at­trac­tions, is around 90 min­utes away on the au­toroute. Head­ing east, the sands of Nar­bonne Plage and the oys­ter beds of the Bassin de Thau are a sim­i­lar dis­tance. For a sum­mer dip closer to home there are lake­side beaches, life­guards, snack-bars and ped­a­los to rent at Lac de Pradelles, di­rectly be­neath the Pic de Nore, or Lac des Mon­tagnes, near Maza­met. For fam­i­lies with kids, they are a boon on hot sum­mer days.

In sum­mer, it’s a cou­ple of de­grees cooler up here than on the scorch­ing flat­lands of Aude, but still plenty hot enough for swim­ming. The down­side of that is that win­ter tem­per­a­tures are cooler by the same mar­gin. That’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween chilly and truly freez­ing, as I dis­cov­ered to my cost when all my plumb­ing froze solid one win­ter. Sub-zero tem­per­a­tures aren’t un­com­mon be­tween late De­cem­ber and early Fe­bru­ary, when the Pic de Nore is of­ten snow-cov­ered, but win­ters are hap­pily brief. Spring flow­ers are out in Fe­bru­ary and cuck­oos are call­ing and wood­peck­ers peck­ing by March. In sum­mer, this is a land­scape so lushly ver­dant that it looks al­most trop­i­cal. In sum­mer, there are oc­ca­sional spec­tac­u­lar thun­der­storms and mon­soon-like del­uges on the high slopes of the Mon­tagne Noire. Hap­pily, th­ese rarely last more than a day.

Be­low left: The pa­per mill in Brousses is the last work­ing mill in Langue­doc Be­low: La rigole de la Mon­tagne Noire sup­plies water to the Canal du Midi

Above: The view from Sais­sac is spec­tac­u­lar

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