Friday, 25 June 2010

What's in a name

How did Aspiran get its name? In the village library I borrowed a short booklet "Travers le Temps" which consists of notes made from the work of local historian François Bonnéry. It was published back in 1995 by the village projects group "L’Amical Laïque d’Aspiran".

The 2nd to 5th century AD was the Gallo-Roman period which finally broke down with barbarian invasions dawning the so called dark ages. The centre of village as we know it today didn't really exist, the area would have been a collection of small holdings sited where water was available. During that time one of the village inhabitants was called either ASPER or SPIRIUS and he had a small holding by the Croix du Coq (cross of the cockerel). This exists today and is by the raised junction on the way out of the village 100m past the cave coopérative - rather sadly next to recycling bins and wedged between a lamppost and give-way sign. At one time the river Garelle forded the road here, today it flows underneath.

The Latin suffix “ANUM” indicates ownership and this resulted in the name “ASPIRANUM” or “SPIRANUM”. As the “UM” is nearly silent this presumably evolved at some stage to “SPIRIAN”. The Occitan name for the village is “ESPIAN” – apparently in Occitan the “r” between the vowels is suppressed which supports the name being derived from “ESPIRAN”. In French it is of course “ASPIRAN”.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010


Caper bushes (Capparis spinosa in Latin and Capres in French) are native to the Mediterranean but seem relatively rare in this area. Now, thanks to neighbours in the village, I have been alerted to some growing by a chemin (country lane). The plants like to grow on walls, and while there are plenty of those, few sport capers. They're also hard to spot, except in June when the delicate short lived and highly attractive flowers flourish.
The khaki green buds are of course the caper most of us know pickled in tiny jars and dumped on pizzas or skate. One can be seen in the top-left of the above picture. A branch will have small buds forming near the tip that get progressively larger until flowering buds are reached towards the base. Small is best. Those less than 7 mm wide are classed as non pareil (literally unequalled) and the French capers, presumably as the climate is caper marginal, are small. I have some peppercorn to petite pois sized ones maturing in sherry vinegar and another batch in sea salt. Time will tell, but for now they're seriously potent.

Friday, 18 June 2010


Volcanism in the Hérault dates back at least 30 million years. The most recent active volcano was by the coast at Agde, today a familiar rounded hill topped with a fat transmitter tower, that finished erupting a relatively recent 0.5 million years ago. Agde marks the southern end of a line of volcanoes that started some 2.5 million years ago in the Larzac and Lodèvois. Less than 30 Km north of Agde around Aspiran the last eruptions have been dated at 0.7 million years ago.

Making a point. Philippe Martin of the Association of Ecologistes de l'Euzière and author of La nature méditerranéenne en France (see here on Amazon).

In his hand is a piece each of basalt and limestone.
On the left in the background is the Roc du Caylar.

Perhaps surprisingly, what remains from this activity is relatively unspectacular scenery for the area. The cliffs of the Roc du Caylar above Nebian (see picture above) and the tooth like Pic de Vissou above Cabrières are eye grabbing rocky landmarks, but were never volcanoes. All erosion has left is a couple of rounded hilltops 5 Km from Aspiran above Lieuran-Cabrières towards Peret.

Maluber (also known as Malhubert) is on the left and Maugno on the far right. The hill between them in the centre is unnamed. Aspiran is behind the camera.

Same view taken from the pine trees south of Aspiran.

Pic de Vissou from Maluber. Vissou is not a volcano but was formed by folding of the land - rather like a swiss roll bursting open when the sponge won't flex.

Maugno viewed from near the col between Maluber and Maugno.

In their day these were what are known as Strombolian volcanoes, picture postcard cone shaped and complete with craters. This type produce lava flows that cool to give relatively pure dark basalt rock. One particularly large flow went as far as the Hérault valley (5 Kms). Today it’s a mainly wooded whaleback ridge that can be seen on the left after one passes the cemetery on leaving Aspiran en route to the main road - the top ends near the water tower. During the eruption the lava would have flowed down the valley of the river Dourbie, but subsequent erosion has left the harder basalt rock as a ridge and the Dourbie now flows to the north east.

Aspiran from the 316m summit of Maugno. The lava flow is out of picture to the left.

The edge of an ancient quarry with Aspiran in the background.
Basalt is more durable stone than limestone, but for most less attractive. Buildings in the area are constructed using a mixture of both giving a speckled appearance, although much of Agde, including the large church, are entirely basalt giving the town a somewhat gloomy feel on dark wet days.

Further down the Hérault valley there’s a large working quarry at Lézignan-la-Cèbe where an even larger and longer 10 Km lava flow ends having emerged from the volcano Les Baumes above Fontès.

These vines are on the basalt lava flow about 500m from the end of the flow at the old quarry. Large boulders of basalt can be seen forming a bank at the back having been removed from the vineyard as they would wreck a plough. Sites like this are being sought after by modern wine makers as the basalt gives the grapes and resulting wine a refreshing acidity.

Close up these ancient volcanoes are more spectacular. There are areas with boulders of basalt like the vineyard picture above. In places volcanic “bombs” of rock are spewed all over the land like natural litter – the result of molten rock meeting water under the volcano. Elsewhere the basalt has weathered and been coated with attractive orange/yellow lichens, there are some specs on the quarry picture.

Botanically this is known as garrigue and is packed with herbs and flowers such as thyme, mint, camomile along with less well known Mediterranean species like thé de garrigue (Sideritis romana). A massive subject.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

On the Bus

Buses have always served outlying villages with school commuting based schedules. Back around the millennium time in London, the then Mayor Ken Livingstone revolutionised London's bus network by upping services, investing in new vehicles, introducing swipe cards for faster boarding and slashing fares.

Having previously researched buses as an option for airport or station transport it was possible if an early start, some waiting time and hardly bargain fares were accepted - around €6 plus per person just to get to Montpellier for example.

A bus revolution of perhaps equivalent proportions to London's happened in the Hérault this May. The buses have always been more like coaches, air conditioned and comfortable bar the cosy legroom in quite a few seats. Finding anything out about schedules was seriously challenging with fares treated like military secrets. Now timetables are available in tourist offices, posted on bus stops and are on-line at a new and informative Herault Transport website. The well advertised headline grabber is the €1 fare, including transfers to connecting services, for a carnet of 10 tickets (€1,50 for a single fare).

This made a day in Montpellier for two €4. This is less than the Mosson Parking Tramway deal we usually use and saves 80Km of car costs. OK, the journey takes 30 mins longer and you get to see quite a few villages and towns on the way, but otherwise well worth doing for a full day out.