The history and fortunes of French villages are inextricably linked to their local water sources – at least in popular folklore – and this region is no different.
Writers like Marcel Pagnol in ‘Jean de Florette’ and ‘Manon des Sources’ have created something of a mystique and a romantic ideology around the important of village springs to community and livelihood, true or otherwise.
We have certainly heard many stories since arriving in Quillan, of the various local springs, and advice on which to sample depending on what you are looking for. The practice here does seem to be to prefer water direct from a source, than from a tap, or even from bought spring water.
Opinion has generally been unanimous that that the source at Axat is the one to go for, so we have been keen to test the theory. There was the just the small matter of navigating the narrowest piece of gorge road in the Haute Vallee de l’Aude to contend with.
This section of gorge road is controlled by lights that regulate the flow of cars at either end to ensure that traffic flow is only ever one way and you shouldn’t have to face the trauma of a logging truck coming at you in the other direction. The lights at the Axat end are stationed just before the Gorges de St Georges road sign, and the source is just beyond the sign on the left hand side, necessitating a tricky turn of some kind.
Advice from friends here had been to drive through the gorge, turn at the other end where space allows better for it, and drive back, pulling in to the small parking area on the correct side of the road. The dread of facing this gorge drive – twice – had been putting me off making the trip to the source, which is a little ridiculous, even for me. My younger sister claims to recall this section of road as one of her favourite to drive.
Having resolved to face my fear, we set off on a clear and chilly Sunday afternoon, during the late lunch hour, emboldened and determined just to do it, and bargaining on very little traffic at that time of day. In the event, having reached the traffic lights, green in our favour, and there being no traffic behind, I risked a quick turning manoeuvre and eased into the car park, no problem, avoiding the need for the gorge drive entirely! Anti climax.
The source is accessed via one of two pipes protruding from the hillside, bringing water down off the mountains in a seemingly endless supply. It’s cold, clear, and clean, as promised.
Tom des Sources hard at work
We have fish to provide for, as well as our own and B&B guest drinking needs, so we stocked up on two large shopping bags worth of bottles, a surprisingly quick job, with all hands to the pipe. All the while, keeping an eye on the traffic, which was surprisingly steady, for the road and the hour.
While there, a couple of other locals pulled in to fill up on water, demonstrating their parking manoeuvres to avoid the gorge.
The first guy simply pulled across the lanes and parked in the little bay facing the wrong direction. When it came time to leave, he speedily reversed across the lanes back past the road signs, checked the traffic lights, and drove off forward on green. The next woman did a quick and nifty, clearly well-practised turn in her smaller car, pulling directly alongside the source. “I wanted to do that, but was afraid of the turn,” I observed. “Oh, I’m used to it”, she replied wryly.
I got into conversation with the first guy, at his initiative. He volunteered that this source was his favourite for the softness and purity of the water, but recommended another for equal quality, further up in the Pyrenees, proceeding to explain in some detail how to find it. No evidence of Manon des Sources-style protectionism here. If I had understood half of what he said, I might be able to find it.
I will return to fill up here, and am determined to drive the gorge road one sunny, quiet day soon, as I refuse to be bested by my younger sister!