After a day of gloom and downpour the weather became again perfect - no burning sun, no cold wind; instead, we had a pearly heaven with shifting sunlight and cloud, and the softest air.
The carriage-roads of the Lozere are a good preparation for ascending Mont Blanc or the Eiffel Tower.
Here we seem to be perpetually going up or coming down in a balloon; and to persons afflicted with giddiness, each day's excursion, however delightful, takes the form of a nightmare when one's head rests on the pillow. For days, nay, weeks after these drives on the Roof of France, my sleep was haunted with giddy climbs and still giddier descents. It was the price I had to pay for some of the most glowing experiences of my much-travelled life. The journey to Montpellier-le-Vieux formed no exception to the rule. Happy, thrice happy, those who can foot it merrily all the way!
The pedestrian has by far the easier task. Throughout the two hours' drive thither, and the somewhat shorter journey back, the horses have to crawl at a snail's pace, their hoofs being within an inch or two of the steep incline as the sharp curves of the corkscrew road are turned. The way in many places is very rough and encumbered with stones; and there is a good deal of clambering to be done at the last. Let none but robust travellers therefore undertake this expedition, whether by carriage or on foot.
Our landlord drove us, much to our satisfaction; his horses, steadiest of the steady, his little dog - a distant cousin to my own pet at home - trotting beside us, sniffing the air joyously, as if he too were a tourist in search of exhilaration and adventure.
Over against Le Rozier, towering high above Peyreleau, its twin village, rises a sharp pyramidal spur of the Causse Noir, its shelving sides running vertically down. That mountain wall, impracticable as it seems, we have to scale.
The road cut so marvellously round it is excellent, wild lavender scenting the way. As we wind slowly upwards we see an old, bent woman filling a sack with the flowery spikes for sale. Thus the Causse, not in one sense but many, is the bread-winner of the people. We follow this zig-zag path westward, leaving behind us sunny slopes covered with peach-trees, vineyards, gardens and orchards, till flourishing little Le Rozier and its neglected step-sister, Peyreleau, are hidden deep below, dropped, as it seems, into the depths of a gulf.
An hour's climb and we are on the plateau, where the good road is quitted, and we take a mere cart-track between pastures, rye-fields, and woods of Scotch fir. So uneven and blocked with stones is the way here, that the poorest walker will soon be glad to get down. The deliciousness of the air, and the freshness of the scenery, however, soon make us insensible to bodily fatigue. Every minute we obtain wider and grander horizons, the three Causses being now in view, their distant sides shining like gigantic walls of crystal; deep blue shadows here and there indicating the verdant clefts and valleys we know of. All lightness and glitter are the remoter surfaces; all warm colour and depth of tone the nearer undulations. What a wealth of colour! what incomparable effects for an artist!
The prospect now increases in wildness, and we seem gradually to leave behind the familiar world. We are again in the midst of a stony wilderness, but a wilderness transformed into a fairy region of beauty and charm.
Nothing can be softer, more harmonious, more delicate than the soft gray tints of the limestone against the pure heaven; every bit of rock tapestried with the yellowing box-leaf, or made more silvery still with the flowers of the wild lavender.
East, west, north, south, the lines of billowy curves in the far distance grow vaster, till we come in sight of what seems indeed a colossal city towering westward over the horizon; a city well built, girt round with battlements, bristling with watch-towers, outlined in gold and amethyst upon a faint azure sky.
It is our first glimpse of Montpellier-le-Vieux.
The jolting now becomes excessive; we leave our carriage, conductor and little dog to follow a traverse leading to Maubert, the farmhouse and auberge where are to be had guides, food, and bedchambers for those who want them.
We could not miss the way, our driver said, and woe betide us if we did! We seem already to have found the city of rocks, the famous Cite du Diable; so labyrinthine these streets, alleys, and impasses of natural stone, so bewildering the chaos around us. For my own part, I could not discern the vestige of a path, but my more keen-eyed companion assured me that we were on the right track, and her assertion proved to be correct. After a laborious picking of our way amid the pele-mele of jumbled stones, we did at last, and to our great joy, catch sight of a bit of wall. This was Maubert; a square, straggling congeries of buildings approached from behind, and of no inviting aspect. A dunghill stood in front of the house, and hens, pigs, and the friendliest dogs in the world disported themselves where the flower-garden ought to have been. At first the place seemed altogether deserted. We knocked, shouted, ran hither and thither in vain. By-and-by crawled forth, one after the other, three ancient, hag-like women, staring at us and mumbling words we could not understand. On nearer inspection they seemed worthy old souls enough, evidently members of the household; but as their amount of French was scant, they hurried indoors again. A few minutes later a young, handsome, untidy woman popped her head from an upper window, and seeing that we were tourists, immediately came downstairs to welcome us.
She would send for her husband to act as guide at once, she said; in the meantime, would we breakfast?