Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Florac Railway Banquet

The Florac Railway Banquet
The Cevennes area, in the Massif Central, is one of the more inhospitable, poorer areas of France, famous for its importance in the Resistance movement, for its goats cheeses and dairy produce. Its soil is poor and it is sparsely populated. Tourists come here mainly because of its impressive, limestone gorges, through which the Tarn River flows.
We camped near a pretty, little town, called Florac, which got a favourable write-up in the Lonely Planet guide, as being “real”, and under-developed.
We had a lazier day today, just cycling to Florac and back, about 6km.
Experience has told us that, generally, it’s best to head straight for the tourist information centre, where we found out about and reserved two places at the “Banquet” in Florac that evening. All we knew was that there was going to be a banquet with live music. Ian did slightly have his arm wrenched up his back, as I’d just been moaning about the fact that we always seemed to be arriving outside the dates of well-advertised and exciting-looking fetes, in all the towns and villages we drove and cycled through! So here we were, going to our very own banquet, along with an expected 1400 others! We paid but were told to turn up at about 8pm to receive a seat number at the Guichet!
To fill you in, the banquet was a centenary celebration, for the railway line that was built to connect Florac with Saint Cecile, bringing with it all the workforce and skills, and subsequent wealth to the locality. It actually only survived for about sixty years, when the advent of the motor-car dispensed with its usefulness.
We walked into Florac, arriving uncustomarily early. The tables were in the process of being laid, set in the beautifully shaded surroundings of the old Esplanade. Either side of this street were beautiful little, old shops, butchers and bakery. Lovely old buildings with old, painted signs ageing and fading on the sides of slightly flaky, “lived-in” three and four storey buildings, some with severe structural damage, but standing in spite of it.
A fantastically intoxicating drumming group about 20 strong entertained the crowd with their rhythm.
There was a worryingly large crowd developing at the “ticket office”, everything having taken on a railway theme, down to the waiters and waitresses, dressed as engine drivers, complete with smutty faces. 8pm came and went and no sign of food, which was being provided by the local restaurateurs and wine merchants. People were starting to get edgy, with words like mal-organise being bandied about! I was starting to get a sinking feeling. How many times had I drawn Ian into some enthusiastic project, only to find that it had been organised by people who couldn’t tell their derriere from their coude! The ticket collector, panic-stricken, started taking individual names and trying to marry them up with tables, checking whether they had paid or not! With the prospect of not getting the banquet going until midnight, some independent monsieur marched forward and took command! He shouted out the table number and the list of names who were to sit at it. Fighting against the disdainful interruptions of the women, who weren’t pleased at having their painstaking system ruined, and were concerned about how they were going to find out who’d paid and who hadn’t, the monsieur struggled on, and people happily strained to hear their names and move to their tables! The band started up and still the man bellowed names and table numbers over the top of drums and trumpets.
What could have taken hours, took about 30minutes to get everyone seated. It was beginning to grow dark, and thankfully quite chilly. That’s the beauty of this area. Very hot during the day. Very cool night-time and morning.
The banquet was great. Local saucisses provided by local producers, leg of lamb and vegetables, local cheeses and fruit salad, and local wine and water bottled just up the valley. We were sitting next to a local lady who had lived in the Florac area all her life, and she had brought her husband, Michel, and friends, Corrine and Thierry and their son, with them. For two hours we managed to have a conversation about the area and their experiences. She was very impressed that we had chosen the Lozere area to stay in, and was very proud of her home town! She spoke with a very strong southern accent, which made it even more difficult to understand sometimes, but she was a helpful and encouraging listener. She said that this was a very special area because of the local peoples’ personalities, collection of skills, artistically and practically, independence of thought etc Thierry explained that, although he was quite young, he had never been to most of France, outside maybe 100 mls radius. I explained that I had an aunt in Brittany. He had never been to Brittany or even Paris!
A fantastic night. Thierry said he had learnt a new English word-“amazing”! Tap-dancing waiters and waitresses, dressed in 1940s outfits, singing and live music, culminating in a torch-lit (lampion) procession following the drummers to a firework display with accompanying train-themed music.
We kissed our new friends three times, as they do, and set off on our hour long walk back in total darkness, apart from the starlight. What a night!

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