A long time ago, Paul's housemate Andrew (AIRE/PLOD) decided he wanted to go on holiday at least once in 2021. At the time, it seemed that covid might be over by the autumn, so did some searching and found out about a week of racing in Larzac - 'every French person's favourite terrain'.
Months went by and we made plans. We all really liked Andrew's car, so decided that it was a good idea to spend as much time in it as possible. This is how we found ourselves leaving Leeds on a Friday afternoon to drive to Languedoc.
The evening's drive was uneventful, except when we arrived at the French border. Due to recent geopolitical disasters Helen, Andrew and Fay (AIRE/AROS) got stamps in their passports, which was incredibly exciting. Paul was disappointed to miss out, but then remembered he's able to live anywhere he wants in Europe and it suddenly didn't seem like so much of a loss. After spending a while in a tunnel and some more driving, we arrived in a nice forest at about 90 past Bedtime. We set up camp and settled down for a good night's sleep, interrupted only by some weird wild pig noises.
The next morning we got up and left before being discovered, bought some baguettes and pain au chocolat, and drove a long way. After driving a long way, we stopped in the New bit of Old Orléans for some flunch, then drove a long way. Another long way later, we stopped off to run around a very big Virgin on a hill and ate some dinner. Then we drove a long way, found the house and went to bed. While driving down, we had lots of entertainment, including the entire soundtrack of Legally Blonde the Musical, a podcast about a man who stopped someone from shooting the USA President, and finding out to our disappointment that the region of Pas de Calais does not in fact mean Not-Calais.
Sunday morning was spent recovering, shopping and looking round the local town. We decided to have a competition to see how could cook the most French meal, which meant looking at lots of recipes in French. One of the recipes had seaweed and tofu in it, but Super-U Lodève wasn't as veg-friendly as 'Assiettes vegetariennes', so we had to get lentils instead.
In the afternoon we headed to a big hill to go for a run. Only one short walk and one run made this the one of the most restful days of the trip.
On Monday we went to pick up some training maps for the week. The first training was quite difficult, because they had forgotten to print any white or dark green on the map. It was only after racing on the adjacent area the next day that we realised just how much had been missing. The terrain was really great - fast running rough open with lots of limestone rocks. Scrubby box bushes everywhere made visibility poor, but were easy to push through so didn't slow you down much.
We stopped for lunch at the top of a cool hill, then had a look round one of the trainings for the night race, in the hope that if we saw it in the day first we'd get less lost in the dark. We went for a walk up another cool hill, and then went to see Fay's friend Audrey for dinner. We were warned in advance "I hope you like cheese", so it was just as well that Paul's veganism was also having a holiday. When we turned up to the Tous Azimuts Douai chalet, we were greeted by a big pot of potatoes, a raclette grill, and 3 tons of cheese. We melted more cheese than any of us had ever though possible onto our spuds, then washed them down with apple crumble - our best attempt at a 'British pudding' that didn't involve suet or boiling for 4 hours. The French liked our food and we liked theirs, and so we did our part in keeping international relations cordial.
Tuesday was the first race, on the adjacent area to yesterday's training - the unpronouncable Bousquetnnous. This was really good fun - more fast running with lots of tricky rocky bits. All of the colours were on the map, making things easier than yesterday in places. Helen was 1st and Paul was 7th, despite multiple mistakes related to an inability to read control descriptions.
After a nice walk round a big valley, we headed back to the night area to do some different courses, but this time at night. The area was a bit different to earlier - more open areas, less box, and much bigger rocks. As one might expect, it was more difficult in the dark.
Wednesday's training was at Sainte Eulalie de Cernon, which was thorny and seemed to have a lot of gratuitous climb. The rocks were big though, and we got to run on a railway line, so it all balanced out. Afterwards we had a look round a cool village with a castle in it, before heading off to the biggest geological highlight of the entire week.
A 350m high hill doesn't seem particularly imposing when you're beside it. There are lots of 350m high hills and we run up them all the time. A 350m hole is another matter. The Cirque de Navacelles is ginormous. There's a hill at the bottom which is at least 50m high, and it looks tiny. It took about 10 mins to drive from 'ground level' all the way into the hole, but we reckon you could easily run it faster, because straight is great. It would be an interesting race to pit road cyclists, mountain cyclists and runners against eachother in a race from one rim to the other. It would be an even more interesting race when the gendarmes turned up to ask what you were doing to their special conservation area.
We spent a while walking around the bottom of the hole, then drove up the canyon a bit to walk to some watermills. This was the first swim of the week, as limestone plateaux don't have much in the way of water. It was quite cold, but very refreshing.
After heading home for another French-style meal we went to do our second night training. This time there were loads of other people around, getting in some last minute practice for the championships tomorrow. It was more of the same - lots of big exciting rocks with fast running in between.
On Thursday we didn't need to get up early to go orienteering, so we got up early to go to Carcassonne instead. This turned out to be a good idea, because it rained in Larzac. On the way down, we stopped off at Les Marcassins for a training in some of the weirdest terrain of the week. Red rock bare earth, cut into huge gullies by dried up streams, interspersed with the thorniest of thorny bushes. Steep, spiky, and surprisingly difficult, we spent about twice as long as we expected to, before heading off for the main event of the daytime.
Fans of walled cities or board games will know that Carcassonne is a famous walled city, named after a famous board game. In the game you place tiles with walls and roads on them to try to build walls and roads, and get points for various things. In the real life version, we came several hundred years too late, and all the tiles had already been placed, making it a less interactive visit than we might have hoped. In France, EU citizens aged 18-25 get free entrance to lots of historic places. UK citizens do not. Our token EU citizen also forgot his passport, so what was planned to be a free day out was looking quite expensive. In a stroke of genius, we booked our tickets online and assumed they wouldn't check IDs. Act of fraud committed, we headed inside. The castle was built over the course of several centuries, then fell into ruin but was restored in the 1800s, so is now mostly intact. One sign told us that when it was under siege, Lady Carcas used up all their remaining food to fatten up pigs, which they launched over the walls at the attackers. Seeing that the castle clearly had enough food to last years, the enemy gave up and went home.
We left Carcassonne, stopped off briefly at the house, and headed out again for the French Night Champs. It wasn't raining anymore, which made things a lot nicer to run in, and it was warm enough to just wear normal o-kit. Andrew's combination of wide angle headtorch for mapreading plus bike light strapped to his head for looking at the terrain did a good job. Helen's tiny petzl did even better, lighting her way to 4th, behind well-known Frenchwomen Tereza Janosikova and Eva Juřeníková. The course either tracked up or there were some big trains out there, because all the late starters had very fast times, even compared to early starters Lucas Basset (WOC silver medallist) and Paul Pružina (former East Anglian Champion).
The next morning we had a lie in, only getting up at 0830. We only had one orienteering session planned today, making this the rest day. The race was a 'forest' sprint, in similar terrain to yesterday morning. This time the gullies were less deep and the bushes less spiky, making running a lot easier and orienteering more fun. Andrew was out first, and came back telling Paul he should probably win. Helen and Paul both decided to take this advice. Afterwards, we decided we hadn't seen enough rocks this week, so went for a walk at the Cirque du Mourèze to see some more. These ones were the biggest so far, and very similar to the rock gardens of Český Raj - a paradis français.
The last day of orienteering involved an early start. We had packed and cleaned on Friday night, so just had to get up and leave the house at 0630 to head to Béziers. The French sprint champs are a little more serious than the British, with bigger fields, more good people, and quarantine before the races. We arrived in a school playground a few minutes before quarantine closed, and had a 90 minute wait before our starts. The Qualification races were good fun - starting off in a park before heading around some old town streets. The top 10 French people, and any foreigners in the top 10, qualify for the final. Andrew and Helen qualified comfortably, Fay snuck in in 10th, and Paul came 11th, cursing a 10s mistake that put him the wrong side of 10th.
As the others headed back to the school playground for several more hours of waiting, Paul got the chance to see the sites of Béziers, including an indoor market selling tasty olives, 155 steps of the Cathedral tower, a visitor leaflet written in first person by the Cathedral itself, and a cup of thé in a salon de. Eventually the wait was over. Fay was the first through, soon followed by Helen, and by Andrew half an hour later. The finals were broadcast live on Mont Blanc TV, and in total we had about 10s of coverage, mostly in the background of French runners they were trying to film. The courses this time were entirely in the old town, visiting a lot of the places Paul had been on his walk, but without being allowed to stop for thé or glace.
When everyone had finished, we stayed to watch the speediest men speeding in, before heading back to the car.
Béziers is not quite by the Mediterranean, and we thought it would be a bit silly to drive all the way here without even seeing it, so we drove about 20 mins to get to the beach and go for a swim. The waves were big and fun, but no one else around seemed to think so because they were all staying on dry land. We had a dinner of bread, cheese and houmous and then began the long trip north.
After a few hours of rain so heavy we could only drive at 80, we arrived at our luxury 1 star hotel in Clermont Ferrand. We spent the next morning driving up to Fontainebleau, where we didn't go orienteering, and instead looked at lots of cool rocks. Andrew got out his climbing shoes and did one boulder problem, but the rock was quite wet so no one else could do anything in normal shoes. We continued the drive up to Amiens, were we went to a Breton restaurant for dinner, getting galletes followed by crêpes, a highly recommended menu.
On Monday morning it was time to go. When we arrived in Calais, the French border guard made fun of the British for needing to get their passports stamped, and then the British customs queue took so long to check a caravan that we missed our boat and had to wait 90 minutes for the next one. When we eventually got to the less fun side of La Manche we drove some more, taking special care to drive on the left and go round roundabouts clockwise.
Larzac was a really amazing place to orienteer. The terrains were fantastic, the October weather was warm but not too hot, the maps were good, the competitions were great, and none of the French people laughed too much at our less-than-perfect French. Everyone should go orienteering there.