Now that seeing dinosaur footprints was crossed off both our bucket lists, we moved on to another item on Chris’s: visiting a lava cave.
The only place you’ll find lava caves in metropolitan France is at Monistrol d’Allier in Haute Loire. (They’re ten a penny in some regions of France d’Outre Mer (= overseas France), especially in Réunion). Lava caves form when, due to cooling because of contact with the air, the surface of a lava flow solidifies but the underneath doesn’t and continues to flow. A diminishing supply of lava means that eventually there’s nothing left to flow out from under the crust, leaving a cylindrical tunnel.
So, banished by unfriendly, anti-campervan sentiment at Saint Laurent de Trèves, we set off to Monistrol on Monday evening. However, we began to run out of daylight and, at least in my case, energy, so we took a break en route and went online to look up about nearby overnight venues. Chris found details of a Park4Night site not too far away at Antrenas, and so we diverted there. We spent a restful night next to a small cemetery, amidst fields and trees and with the added benefit of very quiet neighbours.
As soon as it was light enough, and the windscreen finally clear of condensation (a lot tends to build up overnight in a motorhome), we continued our northwards journey to Monistrol. After missing our narrow and precipitous turning the first time and fortifying ourselves with coffee and cake before trying again, we arrived at a parking area next to the River Allier. The site was pleasant, but the attitude was not: again there was a notice forbidding campervans from loitering between 10 pm and 7 am. This was one was rather vague. At least at Saint Laurent they’d gone to the trouble of establishing an arrêté (decree) to enact their antipathy, however unlawful it actually was. I can only assume that the locals in Lozère and Haute Loire imagine that campervanners travel around with portable discos or loud machinery that they unload every evening and operate all night long. It might interest them to know that a survey in 2017 determined that 56% of camping-caristes in France are aged over 60. This demographic is much more likely to be found tucked up in bed for the whole of that forbidden nine-hour period than causing a nuisance of any sort. But I digress. We pottered round Monistrol, briefly. There’s not a lot to see, apart from a large EDF station and some more Gustave Eiffel infrastructure in the form of a bridge, and even the bakery was shut.
Then we set off for the lava caves, striding energetically up a steep road and following the yellow blazes that marked the way. Suddenly, the sporadic yellow blazes stopped, to be replaced by a yellow cross. This means ‘do not pass’ in public footpath terminology. We hunted around but couldn’t find any missed turnings. We pushed on a little more and soon discovered that our path had collapsed into a quarry. That explained the yellow cross. So back downhill we went, and this time walked up the main road towards our destination. What pavement there was soon disappeared so we had to trudge warily along the roadside, there being next to no verge, the rest of the way. But it was well worth it.
The lava cave opens onto the road. It’s about twenty metres long, and formed during the Villafranchian era 3.5-1 MYA. (If you’re interested, there’s a lot more about its formation and lava caves in general here, in French: http://www.volcanogeol.com/tunnel_lave/ )
We had a good poke about and marvelled at it for a while, and, because one isn’t enough, set off for another lava cave a kilometre or so away. This one, fortunately, was off the road and along a footpath. It’s also much, much bigger than the first one.
Retracing our steps back to the road, we encountered, as in nearly trod on, this hawfinch. He was sitting amidst the leaves on the path. Obviously something wasn’t quite right, but when I tried to move him off the ground to a branch for safety, he livened up considerably, swore at me and hop-fluttered out of reach.
Since we didn’t want to walk down the main road again, Chris found an alternative route along more footpaths for us. It was longer, but infinitely more enjoyable. We found ourselves joining that ill-fated road with yellow blazes again, making this our third journey along it in one day!
Staying overnight at Monistrol wasn’t an option, so we located another, welcoming site around half an hour away at Chaspuzac, which is set on a high plain. The place is dominated by the huge, green Sabarot factory which processes and packages pulses, mushrooms, seeds and snails. We parked up next to an airfield and conveniently close to a bakery. Not quite as picturesque as Monstriol but much more friendly. We slept like logs.