We often find ourselves crossing the Massif Central at this time of year en route for the gentler climes of the Midi. Probably pure coincidence, and certainly nothing to do with migration, since we're committed to a genuine winter hereabouts, but maybe something to do with the end of autumn and the last chance to get away before hibernation. Given recent global events, it seemed particularly appropriate to flee and forget about things for a few days.
Two years ago, the Good Wife and I set off on the second part of what seemed like a Jules Verne-style adventure to drive and document La Méridienne: the amazing autoroute that roughly bisects the Massif on its way south from Clermont Ferrand to Beziers. It crosses some of the wildest, most dramatic countryside in the land, and, thanks to President Giscard d'Estaing's instinct for immortality (and apart from the toll over the Millau viaduct), you get to see it all for free.
Getting there is the only drag. We followed exactly the same route as we did two years ago – in roughly the same weather conditions: wild, windy and wet. Up to Gramat and across the causse to Figeac, and then down to and alongside the river Lot to the anomalous mining town of Decazeville, and then on through the Aveyron to Rodez and beyond.
Whereas our custom is to traverse all its roundabouts and leave Rodez perched on its hill, this time we decided to stop there and visit the new museum dedicated to one of its few famous offspring: the artist, Pierre Soulages. If there's any place in this beautiful part of the world less welcoming than Rodez, it's Rodez in the rain. Rather like Tulle, the capital of the Corrèze, but without its discreet charm, Rodez is heavy, sombre and more than a little oppressive. Not unlike the canvases of Pierre Soulages, in fact: an artist now in his 90s, whose palette is mainly black and the sickly brown of walnut stain.
Actually, we didn't get to visit the collection until the return leg. By the time we'd driven round and around trying to find a way into the tantalising car park, it was 11.30. No, a ticket to the museum would not entitle us to free parking, and no, the museum would not be open between 12 and 2pm. Screw that for a game of soldiers, we decided. Good old French public hospitality. So we followed up a look at the monumental cathedral with an exceptionally good snack lunch in the new Michel Bras-serie, the famous three-star Michelin chef who has almost achieved the impossible: by making vegetarian cuisine respectable in the land of the force-fed goose.
When, finally, two years ago we joined the A75 at Sévérac-le-Château, the wind was strong enough almost to rip the door from the car on stopping to visit Les Messieurs at the service station. This time around the weather wasn't quite so dramatic, but still angry enough to transform the sublime scenery of moorland, rocky peaks and deep river gorges into a lost world, uninhabited save for a few wandering wild-eyed characters clad in tattered sack cloth.
Nothing, not even a glimpse of the lights at the top of the nine pillars of Norman Foster's architectural masterpiece, winking in the distant gloom from the top of the 900m Col d'Engayresque, prepares you for the viaduct that bestrides the valley of the Tarn high above the town of Millau. When first we came this way, one November almost 20 years ago, it was maybe not even a sketch in an architect's notepad. We missed the customary bottleneck linking the two disconnected branches of the motorway, because we hit Millau in the middle of the night on our return from a trip to Provence to meet a famous aromatherapist who would, my wife hoped, reveal the mysteries of setting up a practice in France. She didn't, and Debs ended up doing it all the hard way.
When I saw it first – three years ago, on coming south for the 60th birthday of our friend's late husband, who would die tragically of premature Alzheimer's – we got out at the adjacent visitors' centre to take it all in and shoot countless photos. I'd read all about it – and heard of its splendour from my wife, who'd been this way solo the year before that party – but seeing it in the flesh was akin to the thrill I felt of gazing on the Grand Canyon.
As we drove across the platform – under which, at its highest point, you could fit the Eiffel Tower – we speculated about the good citizens of Millau below. Do they, we wondered, wake up each morning and give thanks to the mighty edifice visible from every street corner? If not, they should. Not only has it taken away all that traffic, noise and pollution, but it has also become a landmark that puts an otherwise nondescript town firmly on the map. Here stands proof that mankind doesn't have to despoil the natural world in its relentless drive to modernise.
On the other side of the viaduct lies yet more wild terrain. Depending on the weather, the Causse du Larzac could be either the backdrop for one of those cheap Republic westerns of the 1950s or, as it was last Thursday, a kind of windswept lunar landscape fit for neither man nor beast – apart, that is, from the sheep that roam among the rocks nibbling at the scrub vegetation that presumably adds the fort to the Roque of the indigenous cheese.
Two years back, we stopped for a look at La Couvertoirade, a kind of miniaturised Carcassonne, founded and fortified by the Knights Templar. And just as it did two years ago, on emerging from the tunnel that leads motorists off the Lazarc plateau and into the Midi, the sun broke through to light up the vertiginous plunge down through the mountains towards the river valley far below and thence the Languedocian plain abutting the Med.
It's a different world down there. Even if we could afford it, I'm not sure it would suit. There's the sea of course – if you can ever penetrate the urban sprawl to get there – and the milder climate. But a denser population brings heavier traffic. And although here's little danger of sudden frosts and no need to bring in the oleanders, a Mistral blew on the Saturday and the wind-chill factor was significant. I can do without wind in any form.
That evening our friend took us to Avignon for a trip to the Utopia cinema to see a film called Captain Fantastic, in which Viggo Mortensen's character raises his six children in the dense forest of Washington State. Circumstances inevitably lead to a clash between his set of values and the 'normal' values of an overfed, processed, de-sensitised and wasteful society. It's very good: sometimes funny, sometimes sad and always poignant. And always eerily relevant in the light of current affairs.
On the return leg, we drove back along the coast towards Montpelier and some angry black clouds hanging very symbolically above the overlooking mountains. Sure enough, the weather deteriorated as we emerged at the top end of the connecting tunnel – and became increasingly spiteful the nearer we got to home. Across the Larzac plateau, my wife entertained me by reading excerpts on her phone from The Guardian's commentary on the fifth day of a gripping test between England and India – in which no less than four Anglo-Asian cricketers contrived to underline the benefits of a multi-cultural society.
But then we graduated from the comfortable world of sport to a deeply uncomfortable litany of the incoming president's stated policies: evict the immigrants, build a wall, frack the land for all it's worth, wriggle out of the Paris Treaty, punish women for having abortions... How could a sentient electorate have voted for someone even less qualified than Ronald Reagan to run the world's most powerful country? As if we aren't in enough of a mess without creating even more. No wonder I'm pessimistic about mankind's ability, for all its technological acumen, to clear it all up. A British architect and a team of French engineers and navvies can put up one of the greatest bridges ever conceived, but when it comes to putting our heads together globally to clean up the oceans or save the African elephant...
It's what remains of the environment and its wildlife that I fear for the most once the Trump troll gets to park his big butt behind the desk in the Oval Room. The idea's more depressing than Rodez in the rain. My wife turned off her phone and we soothed our souls with some unchallenging bossa nova. They say (as always) that it's going to be a hard winter. Leonard Cohen has already succumbed. One thing's for sure: it's going to be a struggle for survival and it won't be the meek who inherit the earth.
(Black and white photographs by my chumly Dan Courtice of Penn Graphics)