La Grotte de Dargilan

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The purpose of our journey to the Jonte valley was to visit a show cave, la Grotte de Dargilan. Both the Dordogne and the Cévennes, being limestone regions, are dotted with caves, including many show caves. In fact, we’d driven almost directly past another show cave to get to this one, having decided that, from the leaflets we’d seen, this one looked the better bet. We lunched on a sunny terrace with a great view of the gorge and then joined our group to pass through an unprepossessing doorway in the hillside.

The cave was discovered, I think, by someone following a fox. Similar stories are told about Victoria Cave in the Dales and the famous Lascaux cave in the Dordogne. The huntsman will certainly have had a surprise when they found themselves in a vast cavern, stuffed full of amazing stalagmites, stalactites and flowstone features.

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As a boy, family visits to show caves in the Peak District were a favourite treat of mine. I’ve since done a little bit of caving and have also visited most, I think, of the show caves in the Dales, but I’ve never seen anything half as spectacular as this.

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There was so much to see that features which might have been considered highlights elsewhere were passed without comment by the guide.

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I took no end of photos, but, in the strongly contrasting light, the results were a bit hit and miss. I’m glad to have the mementoes, however.

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The huge scale, variety and sheer number of features was breath-taking.

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The tour took over an hour, and in truth I would have appreciated a little longer to take it all in.

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Mostly the tour guide spoke only in French and we were happy to ignore him and just look about us, but at one point he switched to English to explain that we would now be descending to ‘the best part’ of the cave. I was a bit sceptical about the claim that things could be any more impressive.

But he was absolutely right.

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We came to a long, high and relatively narrow passage where one wall was completely covered in tiers and tiers of flowstone.

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It was huge.

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And absolutely astonishing.

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Dargilan is known, apparently, for it’s coloured limestones. Minerals in the flowstone have dyed the rock in a variety of pinks, corals, yellows, white and cream. Here…

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…the dividing line between two different colours was amazingly sharp.

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The cave had one final surprise, a column, 17 metres tall I think, again covered with intricate flowstone features…

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I think most of the party enjoyed it immensely. B claimed to be underwhelmed:

“It’s just rocks though, isn’t it?”

But he’s a wind-up merchant and you have to take the things he says with a pinch of salt.

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La Grotte de Dargilan

An Excursion to the Jonte Valley.

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We didn’t travel away from the campsite often when we were in the Cévennes, but we did have one grand day out. The journey itself was interesting, giving us another opportunity to look down into the Tarn Gorge.

And also to enjoy some more roadside entomology.

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It seems that as well as a bewildering variety of Grayling butterflies, the Continent is also home to several similar species of Ringlets. This is one of those. It looks very like a Marbled Ringlet, but online sources refer to that as an Alpine species. I remember seeing something similar when we visited the Vosges, although revisiting my post from the time I can see that it was perhaps slightly different. And also, to my surprise, a photo of what looks very like a Silver-washed Fritillary, so that I may have been wrong about never having seen one before.

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I can’t find this tiny moth, either in my field guide or online, so I don’t know what it’s called, but I do know that it’s stunningly patterned.

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This is a Red-winged Grasshopper, similar to the Blue-winged variety which featured in a recent post. You can’t see the bright red flashes which appear, to startling affect, when the insect hops into flight, but you can see the red hind-legs…

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Marbled Ringlet?

The drive over the higher ground was pleasant without being spectacular. It brought us to Meyrueis…

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In the valley of the Jonte, a tributary of the Tarn.

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Above Meyrueis, we stopped again briefly at a small hillside chapel – Notre-Dame du-Rocher…

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I enjoyed the contrasting colours of these flowers…

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And have included this second photo because of the tiny, pale Ladybird in the top left corner of the white flower.

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Gatekeeper.

We were soon underway again, heading for the excellent Grotte de Dargilan, of which more to follow…(eventually).

An Excursion to the Jonte Valley.

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This, I hope, is Sainte-Enimie*, a small village upriver from our campsite which we drove to in an absolute downpour. (*I’m relying on Andy to correct me if I’m wrong.)

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It was a fetching little place, very charming, and I took lots of photographs, which, in the gloomy conditions, was probably a little optimistic on my part.

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When we returned to the campsite, it was to find that, if anything, the weather had been even worse there, with hail as well as rain, and that the cloudburst had left everything liberally spattered with mud, and our event shelter looking like a fully-furnished paddling pool. A few days later, when we were leaving for the long haul home, this area of France had terrible floods, so I suppose we were lucky really.

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Sainte-Enimie

Cirque des Baumes.

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Whilst we were camping in the Tarn Gorge, I’d mooted the idea of a walk from the rim of the gorge back down to the campsite, hopefully, by walking downhill, mitigating the worst effects of the heat; but when most of our party completed a walk, TBH and I had driven B to the hospital in the town of Millau instead, to get a painful ear checked out. (He’s okay now, although the problems continued for quite some time after our holiday ended.) That trip was not without it’s own interest – when we drove out of the town, onto the hillside above, we saw a great host of circling Red Kites – but I was extremely disappointed to have missed out on the walk, and so was very pleased when TBH and J agreed to an early morning foray, in J’s case for a second time.

We parked at Point Sublime, with fine views into a misty gorge.

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There were plenty of distractions on hand too, with both butterflies and Wall Lizards about to keep me and my camera occupied.

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Wall Brown.

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I think that this is a Silver-washed Fritillary, you can perhaps see why its called that in the photo below.

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Five-spot Burnet Moth.

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We passed no end of these silken tents, apparently constructed by the caterpillars of the Pine Processionary Moth.

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Another Blue-winged Grasshopper. I think.

The path was steep and narrow, but well worth the effort as it descended past a series of huge rock towers and cliffs.

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J, you will notice, is wearing a shocking pink hat. She has pink Crocs too. Her children are appalled by both, which is, of course, entirely the point. She is making up for the sobriety of her youth. I’m sure she completely sympathises with Jenny Joseph’s poem ‘Warning’ which begins…

“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.”

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Wall Lizard.

I thought I saw a bird of prey alight on top of a distant tower and the amazing zoom on my camera helped to confirm that fact.

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It was exhilarating to watch the raptor soaring above the hillside, in and out between the karst features, eventually landing not too far above us…

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I have quite a few photos of the bird in flight, none, sadly, very sharp, but I think they show enough detail to suggest that it was a Rough-legged Buzzard, not something that I’ve seen before.

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Wall Lizard.

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Karst scenery.

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This was a terrific walk for butterfly spotting and on this steep hillside section there were a great deal of quite dark butterflies flitting through the trees. They were hard to catch in repose and generally, I think, belonged to species not found in Britain. Frankly, I’m not sure what this is; continental Europe seems to have numerous types of Grayling – I wonder whether this is one of those?

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It was J’s turn to pick out a large bird on a distant rock tower – this time on the one seen ahead in the photo above.

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A Griffon Vulture; soon joined by a companion….

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They didn’t seem to be very busy and I continued to take occasional photos as we descended past the tower.

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A Dusky Heath?

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Another Grayling of some description?

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Looking back up into the Cirque des Baumes.

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Striped Shield Bug – less prevalent , it seemed, than in the Dordogne, but still around.

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The Dryad? Love the eye-spot.

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This small butterfly led me a merry dance and I only managed to photograph it from some considerable distance. Could it be a Glanville Fritillary?

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Having reached the bottom of the valley, we climbed a little way back up to a point under the cliffs…

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Wall Lizard.

Where there was a tiny chapel…

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La Chapelle Saint-Hillaire.

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Sadly, the chapel was locked, but I managed to get an image of the interior through a small hole in the door…

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One final look back up into Cirque des Baumes.

We were down in the valley now and walking along the road, which for me was saved by the butterflies and flowers along the roadside. We passed a garden where a Buddleia was festooned with butterflies and moths, particularly fritillaries which I took to be more Silver-washed.

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Clouded Yellow.

When we were almost back at the campsite we paused by the ‘Mushroom Rock’ to take in the view and wave to friends and family below, then J and TBH rushed ahead to get out of the full glare of the sun and to get a cool drink, but I was distracted again by more butterflies and moths…

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This is a new species to me, a Jersey Tiger Moth, there had been several on the Buddleia earlier, but they were a bit too far away to be photographed very successfully. Unfortunately, you can’t see the stunning red underwings in this photo.

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When I took this shot of another Five-spot Burnet Moth I didn’t even see the two rather striking shield bugs nearby. I wish I had; the purple one in particular looks like it was stunningly patterned.

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Small Skipper.

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Perhaps not surprisingly, this striking insect is not in my ‘Complete Mediterranean Wildlife’. It will have remain a mystery.

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The underside of a Jersey Tiger Moth.

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Small Skipper and Silver-washed Fritillary.

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Jersey Tiger Moth.

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When we’d been kayaking on the Tarn and had pulled our boats onto a shingle beach to jump into the river and swim, a Scarce Swallowtail landed on the end of one of the kayaks. I managed to get very close to it with my phone, but none of my photos came out well. I was really pleased, then, to get another chance for some photos.

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Large Skipper.

Only a mornings stroll, but the views and the wildlife will stick with me for a long time I suspect.

Cirque des Baumes.

Kayaking Down the Tarn.

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Another excursion, this time on the River Tarn, which was faster flowing than the Dordogne, less busy and more dramatic, especially in Les Détroits, ‘the straits’, where the ravine narrows and is closed in by cliffs on either side…

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Once again, we stopped regularly to swim, including a stop at the campsite which was conveniently situated for lunch.

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This time the younger members of the party each had their own boat, which was definitely a better arrangement, and they enjoyed larking about standing in their kayaks and rafting up to traverse across the front of each others boats.

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If anything, this was even more enjoyable than the Dordogne paddle and unlike that trip, when I was tuckered out by the time we finished, I would have liked to continue, although that’s not possible because the river enters a dangerous jumble of boulders downstream.

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Once again, I only took photos when we stopped, whereas Andy has more photos, including many excellent ones of our respective kids. You can find his post here.

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Kayaking Down the Tarn.

Tarn Gorge: Griffon Vultures.

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The Cevenne is noted for it’s raptors, perhaps particularly Griffon Vultures, which were successfully reintroduced, starting in the nearby Jonta Gorge. In the late afternoons there could be large numbers of birds circling on thermals overhead. I spent a lot of time watching them, counting them, trying to work out where they had landed, high on the valley sides, and, rather fruitlessly, photographing them.

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Although they are large birds, with a wingspan typically of around 2.8m, they were just too high overhead for the photographs to work well.

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Still, it kept me busy (and I do have some slightly better photos from some of our outings).

Of course, they may not all have been Griffon Vultures (although I suspect that the ones in these photographs are) since several other species of vulture have also been reintroduced and eagles and other birds of prey also frequent the area.

Tarn Gorge: Griffon Vultures.

The Kleiner Schillerfalter and Other Beautiful Bugs.

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One of the things which I really enjoyed in France was the abundance and variety of the butterflies. They were everywhere; although, often quite difficult to photograph. Whilst the Dordogne had been impressive in that regard, the Tarn Gorge area was better yet. What follows then is a collection of photographs of some of the butterflies, and other insects, which I saw in and around the campsite. (There will be even more butterflies to come, from various days out.)

First up, the Lesser Purple Emperor, in German the Kleiner Schillerfalter, or Smaller Shimmer Butterfly. Like many of the other insects here, I spotted this during a short afternoon wander a little way upriver. Here are the underside of the wings…

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And here when they are slightly open…

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Brown, orange and white you’ll notice, but when opened a fraction more…

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Bright, iridescent blue! Absolutely stunning. I’ve been wondering how the wings could  change colour like that and eventually tracked down an explanation: apparently the scales on the wings have tiny structures on them which diffract light waves and subsequently cause interference which gives the iridescent colour.

That was the first and, so far at least, only Lesser Purple Emperor I’ve ever seen; but there were some more familiar species about too.

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Large Skipper.

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A very tatty Peacock.

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Common Blue(?)

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Comma (Robert le Diable to the French).

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This is another species which was new to me, although they can be found in England. It’s a Marbled White.

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Dragonflies like this one…

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…were extremely common along the river’s edge. I’m pretty confident that it’s Onychogomphus uncatus, the Large Pincertail Dragonfly.

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There were more Beautiful Demoiselles…

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Although the related Banded Demoiselle…

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…seemed to be more prevalent. I think that this…

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…female is a Banded Demoiselle, because they are apparently brighter than female Beautiful Demoiselles.

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A Blue-winged Grasshopper. I wish I could show you what it looked like in flight, when those blue wings were on show. It’s not only Schillerfalters which can undergo a startling transformation of colour.

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Another female Great Green Bush-cricket, this time in our Kubb set.

Finally, back to butterflies and one that got away, just about. I saw lots of Swallowtails during our trip, but this is the only one I managed to photograph*.

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This was in the village of Les Vignes and taken from a considerable distance. Oh well, you can’t win them all.

(*The photograph in a previous post was of a Scarce Swallowtail, a similar and related species.)

The Kleiner Schillerfalter and Other Beautiful Bugs.