History is theatre and dramatic conflict; history hurts. Inherent in historical travel however is a redeeming feature — the enlightenment it can produce. This kind of travel engages the imagination in a powerful setting and creates an enhanced and global frame of reference.
I have travelled in France more times than I can count, but I have never felt as integrated with the landscape as I did recently — at Pont de Calmel.
A multi-purpose equestrian center and collection of beautifully restored gîtes (self-catering vacation apartments), Pont de Calmel is ideally located in the heart of a unique geographical and historic area of Western Europe. For horse lovers, hikers, or naturalists it is also the perfect point de départ for exploring one of the most dramatic landscapes in France.
This is also sublime horse country with the kind of topography and vistas that can be especially appreciated with an equine companion. The area is a hiker’s paradise as well, but given the vast sparsely populated area, the constantly changing altitudes, and the challenging terrain, I cannot imagine being able to experience fully the grandeur of this historic area of France on foot, human foot anyway. And penetrating the millennial mysteries of Languedoc aboard Listo, my noble Andalusian cross, was the most romantic journey through France I have ever taken.
Just mentioning “the south of France” will evoke sighs from anyone who has been there, however that travel envy is usually reserved for areas like Provence and the Côte d’Azur, both also among my favorites. However, it is the Languedoc-Roussillon region — nestled between the mountains and plateaus of the Massif Central to the north, the elegant Pyrénées to the southwest, and the azure Mediterranean to the south — that is the rare and relatively undiscovered treasure I revisited. This time however, I saw it from an entirely different perspective. At the core of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, there is the culture-rich département of L’Hérault in which is found an even smaller and very distinct historic area called Le Minervois. Here tucked into a valley among hills and mountains, is Pont de Calmel.
ROAD NOTES: Winding my way through the garrigues … rough and ready landscape and low mountains … olive-coloured … I sense hidden secrets here. Free and open spaces, pure, unspoiled by excess tourism. For horses and other herbivores, it is perfect grazing land year-round. I indulge in visual grazing.
This is Cathar country; a region of great historic drama and exquisite medieval towns — Minerve being the most significant. Here a religious conflict of tragic proportions occurred in the 13th-14th centuries between, on the one side the kingdom of France which was being consolidated by the king and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, and on the other the Cathars, a group with mysterious roots and what were considered politically dangerous and heretical beliefs. The drama ended in the genocide of the Cathars.
ROAD NOTES: Lunch with Susan and Tim at the Relais Chantovent in Minerve… “the windsong inn” … delightful name. Foie gras and figs. Tournedos with truffles. a faisselle with honey for dessert. The wine! I’m in gastronomic heaven.
From the heights of Minerve … the view is splendid, a sense of being above and beyond something. And then the discreet stone monument with the centre excised in the form of a dove of peace … and I remember the atrocities that happened here.
And from Pont de Calmel — the gem of an equestrian vacation spot I discovered in the Minervois — you can follow various ancient routes taken by these competing “believers” to the fortified town of Minerve which is delicately perched on the banks of deep multi-hued gorges.
Today it is a place of great beauty, profound symbolism, and terrible poignancy. And as you make your way through the mountains and along the gorges and ravines to Minerve you are also following some of the oldest trade routes in southern Europe, ancient footpaths and trails that wind through a prodigious natural environment in the “Old World.”
This singular environment evokes a visual and emotional sense of the raw power of nature, but also the peace of mind that results from successful interaction with it. The essence and great beauty of this area of Languedoc is its very wild nature, its prolific forests of soaring pines, green oaks, and plane trees, its craggy terrain — and its solitude.
From Pont de Calmel, you can trek each day through the surrounding hills and mountains, through high pastures and olive groves where flocks of sheep wander at will, across the garrigues — a unique Mediterranean eco-system of brush land and rocky terrain — and in your travels you will rarely encounter other human beings. You will however discover many subtle beauties. If you go in the spring as I did, you will see a profusion of wildflowers along the trails; the wild irises growing at the edge of mossy tracks were a special treat as were the minuscule wild orchids.
Languedoc is very atmospheric in many senses of the word. The air is pure Mediterranean; soft aromas from the vegetation are released as the sun climbs in the sky, and warm breezes from the sea sweep up the rising land, creating updrafts on which royal (golden) eagles — three at one count — soar majestically against a deep blue sky.
And when we pause mid-trek to let the horses drink from a stream in the forest or to graze on a bit of grass, I hear the harmony of the land; not the cacophony of indistinguishable sounds. Instead I hear separate, distinct, and captivating sounds. At one point during a day’s ride, I hear for the first time in my life the unmistakable and teasing sound of a cuckoo. The bird however is rarely seen, preferring instead to entertain from the privacy of some wooded area. This is a land and landscape as pure and genuine as the flora, fauna, and people who inhabit it.
For me the hub of this very “value-added” getaway destination and refuge was Pont de Calmel.
ROAD NOTES: Hills covered with green oaks, the sweet smell of pines, a sense of peace and tranquillity so far removed from the sensory overload where I live. Air so pure you can smell each individual aroma quite separately, hear the song of each bird distinctly. My mind has taken leave of its sullied senses.
Pont de Calmel
Operated by Nils and Aviva Steenbergen, Pont de Calmel is a former sheep farm dating from a time when this part of France was considered of little value except strategically as a buffer zone between France and Spain; and as the kind of open space where life moved at the rhythm and pace of the sheep that wandered its hills.
One part of Pont de Calmel actually dates from the 12th century; and the rest was lovingly restored by Nils and his father in the authentic stone and timber-beamed style of subsequent centuries. When Nils’s father found the property in the 1970s, he moved his family here from Holland and the restoration began. At about the same time, Aviva’s family had moved from their hometown of Lille in northern France.
Over time, Pont de Calmel became the kind of perfect rural getaway that French families value so highly, especially in the Mediterranean hinterland. And when Nils and Aviva took over the business from Nils’s parents in 1997, they continued to make improvements and to emphasize the equestrian side of the business. As a young couple they met — as you might expect — through the horse world, and together have continued to build a holiday and equestrian business that remains true to the French tradition of respect for a simple rural life and warm village-like hospitality.
The property is a collection of 10 self-contained and very comfortable gîtes that emphasize privacy for the guests while at the same time bring ingthe families and groups and individuals who come for riding holidays together in moments of conviviality. The interaction allows for a quiet cultural exchange and a shared love of nature and animals.
Their guests come from various nations and cultures and both Nils and Aviva are very adept at creating a home-base atmosphere. This is very important to the equestrian side of Pont de Calmel because as I discovered, it is perfectly situated for horse trekking, whether it be into the enormous Regional Park of Upper Languedoc, through the rustic towns and villages in the Minervois, or along the chemins verts (specially maintained trails for hikers and equestrians) that skirt the gorges of the area.
And in terms of combining an equestrian vacation with a cultural experience, Pont de Calmel is ideal for visiting some of the most inspiring sites, cities, and towns in France: the Roman town of Nîmes, Montpellier (“Paris without the pressure”), the Mediterranean marshes and beaches, the ancient walled city of Carcassonne, the Pyrénées, Toulouse, and even Barcelona — all within easy driving distance.
ROAD NOTES: Sitting on the stone step of my gîte, glass of sparkling wine in hand, a handsome dog beside me wanting to be petted, the sun setting behind the saddle-shaped hills. Simplicity.
Nils and Aviva are also committed to the well-being of their horses and a very carefully thought-out breeding program. From their two Andalusian stallions and Andalusian-cross mares, they have produced a working group of very sure-footed and solid animals ideal for this diverse and rigorous terrain; and it is obvious from the horses’ temperaments and Aviva’s careful training of each of them that they are very much in their element.
As a dressage rider used to a quite different breed and style of horse, I find it delightful experiencing the unique gaits of these sturdy animals and to learn once again why good horse breeding must incorporate environmental factors. I also appreciate the fact that these horses live a life in synch with their natural rhythms. The climate of course allows them to live outdoors all year round and to be the natural grazing animals they are. What is especially wonderful at Pont de Calmel is to be able to go on long treks on my buddy Listo and then release him back into his extensive mountain grazing area that rises to a height of 850 meters above sea level.
Well-trained, disciplined, and caring equestrians themselves, Nils and Aviva take great care to assure that all the periphéries of their equestrian business suit both rider and horse. They work with a talented saddler who designs special saddles appropriate to an Andalusian cross and a trekking horse.
The first all-day trek is a sensory feast. We begin by casually making our way through the nearby town of Rieussec, meeting and greeting the locals, stopping for a brief chat with the baker and indulging in part one of what will be a non-stop photo op. Almost without realizing it however, I seem to find myself in the middle of a forest and climbing ever so gradually. (We will eventually rise from 400 to 850 meters.) As the trail emerges every now and then from a canopy of trees, the low mountains and hills extend in layered rows as far as the eye can see. Occasionally I catch a glimpse of a white mass in the distance. On reaching the summit of a particular mountain,where we stop for a delicious picnic lunch, the white mass comes into full view; it is the snow-capped Pyrénées. When I dismount, unsaddle, and tether Listo in the shade for a snooze, I take a few moments to drink it all in; a generous panoramic vista. Far off to the left I also see the unmistakable blue of the Mediterranean.
The return trip to Pont de Calmel (and to my evening glass — or two — of locally-produced sparkling wine) is equally endorphin-producing. The next day’s trek will take us through a quite different but equally engaging terrain, along a chemin vert that clings breathlessly to the edge of a deep gorge. From the fast-flowing river “way down there ” rises a cool breeze and the sound of the rushing water. Grateful for Listo’s even tempo, inbred sense of balance, and that amazing ability of spatial relationships horses have, I enjoy the Zen of the moment.
ROAD NOTES: Listo. Son of Delicado, or was it Hidalgo? A gelding with Andalusian, Arab, and Camarguais bloodlines. The breeds themselves are stories in themselves.
Listo: skillful, smart, clever, ready, shrewd, cunning. Vif in French. ¿Estás listo? (Are you ready?) You bet.
Time and Space
On the last morning of my stay at Pont de Calmel, I awake early in order to climb up to the pasture on the mountainside where the herd is quietly doing what horses do when they are content. I wander among them listening to the reassuring sounds of their grazing in the still morning air. From somewhere below a cuckoo calls. Above me a royal eagle drifts in lazy circles.
Recommended reading on the Cathars
The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars by Stephen O’Shea ISBN: 0802799124
For more information:
- Visit the Pont de Calmel website by clicking on the preceding link.
- For more information on Minerve, click on the preceding link.
- Pont de Calmel, Minerve, and other destinations mentioned here are in the the Départment de l’Hérault. Visit this département‘s website by clicking on the preceding link.
- Montpellier is the capital of Languedoc-Roussillon and a city in the region well worth visiting. For more information, click on the preceding link.
- Toulouse, France’s fourth largest city is rich in art, history, and culture. It is also within easy driving distance. Depending on where you are coming from. this may be a good entry point by air. If you are coming from Britain, be sure to check out Ryan Air’s flights to Carcassonne (the ancient walled city also within easy driving distance).
- If you are an oenophile and want to know more about the wines of Languedoc visit Les Vins de pays d’Oc.
- Nîmes and Arles, two cities well-known for their well-preserved Roman ruins, are also within easy reach.
- For more information on the Canal du Midi, click on the link.
To read “Once Upon a Gîte in Languedoc,” a story which takes place in the village of Oupia not far from Pont de Calmel, click on the link.