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Losing Buzz of Modern Life in a French Hamlet

<i> Dirlam is a Santa Barbara free-lance writer. </i>

The first night here is so quiet that the beat of your own heart dominates. By the second night, you begin to realize that the silence contains a dozen little sounds. And by the third night, all that is completely natural surrounds you, and you begin to forget the constant buzz of the modern life you left behind.

Bardou is what remains of a medieval village in the Cevennes mountains of southern France; its stone cottages date back to the 17th Century. Nearby, Roman ruins tumble you centuries further back into time. Artifacts 4,000 years old have been uncovered in the surrounding hills, so you are conscious of walking the same ground as prehistoric tribes.

And there seems to be little chance of Bardou “upgrading” to modern standards. Its owners like the old ways, and their life’s passion has been to restore the hamlet to its prime time--around 1784, when the census-takers of the Diocese of St. Pons counted 79 inhabitants.

The place is heaven on earth for hikers, as Bardou is surrounded by a wilderness as benign as it is beautiful. There are trails over craggy peaks and through high meadows and to hidden pools for swimming. There’s a trail to the ruins of an ancient chapel, another beside a stream, others to breathtaking mountain views. Wildflowers and blackberries line your path. Kindling and dry branches are abundant; you’ll need to gather wood for cooking or if you want to cozy up by the fireplace in the evening.

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We stayed a week in a two-room stone cottage at the edge of the village, slept on primitive wood-slab beds topped with mattresses, heated simple meals out of cans on a propane burner or cooked over the fireplace, which was also our source of warmth. Bathing was accomplished in cold water from a pipe protruding from the wall in a tiny shower room attached to the cottage. We spent our days hiking in the hills, swimming, reading and writing, collecting firewood and making friends.

Guests in the town’s 15 cottages, which have been restored for visitors, must bring their own sleeping bags, food, matches, toilet paper, soap and other supplies; a few cooking and eating utensils are provided.

One afternoon, following vague directions from someone, we set out to find “Paradise,” one of the swimming holes fed by a waterfall. We hiked to the bottom of a valley and back up to the top of a ridge and down again, beginning to despair of finding our destination. But just a little further on, there it was below us: a glittering green jewel at the end of a long, thin cascade of water that spilled down the hillside like a silver chain.

When we got to the pool, we were greeted by Julie, a young Englishwoman who was spending several weeks at Bardou. We told her we had been anxious about finding the pool.

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“Now that I’ve been here awhile, I don’t worry too much about whether I’ll get to a particular place or not, as long as I’m enjoying the hike,” she said. “Every time I miss a turn, I discover another place I like.”

To get to Bardou from Paris, you take the overnight train from the Gare de Lyon to the town of Bedarieux, between Montpellier and Beziers. At Bedarieux, a public bus picks up passengers about five minutes after the train arrives. You take this bus to Mons-la-Trivalle. From there, it’s a three-mile uphill walk to Bardou. You need to pick up provisions before you start hiking.

Mons-la-Trivalle has a friendly cafe at the edge of town, a place to buy your last cup of delicious French coffee before you start climbing the road to Bardou. You walk past a few more houses, then the road winds by cornfields and grape vineyards, until finally these give way to high meadows, forests and rocky fields. The road narrows, and the sound of cars and trucks is an occasional interruption rather than a constant. You realize that the scenery is getting ever grander, the distant mountains a soft purple, the road in front of you even steeper. Behind you, the villages and plowed fields fade in the haze given off by the mountain pines.

At the last turn of the road and just down the hill you see Bardou, a cluster of sand-colored stone cottages surrounded by rocky hills and sheltered by chestnut trees. You gaze down at low stone walls, stone paths worn smooth by generations, fruit trees and a well-tended vegetable garden.

There is a telephone wire that leads into the hamlet, so you are not completely shut off from the modern world (the phone is in the owners’ home), and a primitive water distribution system has been installed, but that’s it for modern conveniences. Bring candles to read by, and a flashlight to make your way to the outhouse.

When night falls, darkness descends like an impenetrable blanket, but it is really just a backdrop for the dazzling display of stars that can only be seen far away from city lights. The Milky Way splashes across the top of the sky like a spill from a heavenly paintbrush. The loudest noise is the sound of your pen scratching on the paper.

Bardou is owned, lock, stock and barrel, by Jean and Klaus Erhardt. Jean (formerly Jean Kendall of Indianapolis, Ind.) moved to Europe three decades ago with four small children. Klaus grew up in Germany during World War II and spent his young adulthood traveling around the world, paying his way with odd jobs. They met in Florence, Italy--he was hitchhiking and she gave him a ride. They married, bought a van, continued traveling, had another child and started looking for a place to settle down. They bought Bardou in 1967 and moved there the next spring, first renovating the only house that still had a roof. Their original plan was to restore two or three houses, plant a garden and simply raise their family.

The hamlet was in ruins, with stone walls of houses still standing here and there, piles of rocks and rubble all around, the ruins overgrown with vines and thorns. Before they could buy Bardou, it took the Erhardts two years to track down all the owners, most of whom had inherited a house (or what was left of one) and a plot of land, but had never lived here. Six families comprised the village as recently as the 1920s, but by the late 1960s, the sole inhabitant was a 75-year-old peasant who stood guard over the crumbling remains.

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“Although it was a village of ruins, Bardou seemed like a paradise to us,” Klaus said. “It was beautiful, romantic, peaceful. But no one wanted to live in these remote mountains anymore. When word got around that we wanted to buy Bardou, which the locals thought was worthless, we were considered very eccentric. We were even pitied.”

What they purchased (for 60,000 francs, at that time worth about $20,000) was 750 acres of rocks, fields, oak and chestnut forests, and the ruins of the village, located at the edge of a national forest. Streams run through the property and there are at least two waterfalls within hiking distance, both providing natural pools with clear water for swimming and rocky ledges for sunning.

As people heard about the Erhardts’ restoration project, they wrote to ask whether they could come and help or just come to stay awhile. The work goes on to this day; at any time there are several helpers who put in 20 hours a week in trade for their accommodations at Bardou. Most of the inhabitants, however, are paying guests, some of whom return year after year and some who stay for months at a time. Books have been written here. Painters have created art works here. And several films have been shot on location here. The first film, an Italian production, paid for the water pipes that Klaus installed.

One tradition that has endured over the years is a weekly play reading. “We usually read Shakespeare,” Jean said. “Not only is he our personal favorite, but we have enough books to go around for everyone who wants to play a part.”

Jean and Klaus give expert performances, having read their favorite plays so many times, and sometimes guests turn out to be surprisingly talented thespians as well. We read “The Tempest” with a cast of 11, including Julie, who was an assistant stage manager for Cameron (“Miss Saigon,” “Cats”) Mackintosh’s first production; David, a retired New York stockbroker-turned-groundskeeper; Verena, a former Connecticut housewife and resident of a Dutch commune, now living in Switzerland; and Oliver, a Canadian who has worked at hotels around the world and who returns to Bardou every year.

When the weather is fair, the play reading takes place on the large shaded patio in the center of the village. Children wander through, the resident geese waddle by and a kitten may curl up in a spot of sun. In late afternoon, at the end of the reading, Jean serves wine, tea and cookies, and people linger for conversation in what must be one of the most relaxed of all possible settings.

One of the coziest village houses that is rented to visitors is “Church House.” Its fireplace is equipped with a spit for turning a leg of lamb or a chicken. But it has a modern kitchen sink as well. The rooms are small and dark. Not being a complete stickler for medieval authenticity, Klaus has installed skylights and a few other modern touches in the tourist cottages. Some retain the original hand-hollowed stone sinks and time-worn stone doorsills. Others have modern screens, tile showers (cold water only and stainless steel faucets). But the accommodations are definitely rustic and would not appeal to everyone.

The money from vacationing guests buys building materials and supplies. Although the Erhardts said they had not planned to make a living from Bardou, it has worked out so that the place not only provides a home for them, but also a modest income. To help pay their taxes and other costs, they began raising sheep in the early 1970s and now have a flock of 200. The breed, Bizet, was a nearly extinct type of mountain sheep suited to the terrain. They’ve won prizes at agricultural fairs in Toulouse and Paris.

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Two or three times a week, the Erhardts’ son, Pan, 27, cooks up an evening meal at the village “taverna,” and guests who have signed up earlier in the day gather there for dinner by candlelight. One evening he served huge quantities of green salad and fondue, with plenty of local wine and apple cider to drink. When the spirit moves him, Pan also fires up the ancient oven and bakes bread, which visitors can buy at the village store. The store is open three times a week from 5 to 6 p.m., offering for sale a small supply of canned goods, good local wine, preserves and a few postcards.

When musicians stay at Bardou--a fine place to practice or compose--there may be concerts along with the weekly play readings. Sometimes teachers arrive with groups of artists, writers or singers, even yoga classes, but the Erhardts said they try never to have the entire village filled with a single group. They like a mixed crowd.

The majority of guests used to be Americans, Klaus said, but not anymore. “Young Americans don’t travel around Europe for two or three years like they used to,” Klaus said. “Now many of our guests are Germans, Swiss, other Europeans.” But seldom French he said, maybe because the French have their own inherited country places where the generations regularly congregate.

Although all but the youngest son have left the nest, two to America and two to Paris, Jean said they come back at least once a year. The five offspring are all fluent in French, German and English, she said.

People who visit Bardou with their families, according to Jean, “arrive and the children are gone, and three weeks later they collect them again and they all go home.” In the city, she said, children have too much artificial stimulation, but here, “They’re happy, they’re off collecting snakes, or swimming, or catching butterflies.”

To some people, the Erhardts’ lives look difficult at best, with few modern conveniences and being well removed from the nearest city. But they said they have never regretted their path.

“We lead the life people dream about,” Klaus said. “I traveled about, looking at the marvels of the world, at what other people were doing. I slept in a Greek temple, touched the stones of Roman buildings. But now, the world comes to us.”

There are accommodations for up to 51 people in the 15 stone cottages, and places for a few more to pitch tents. The cost is about $5 to $8 a night per person, less per night if you stay longer.

As the Erhardts say in a flyer, Bardou is: “For travelers on a limited budget, looking for a Europe of the past. No comforts except open fireplaces, wood stoves, clean air and tranquillity, a meeting point for world travelers.”

You may stay a few days, or a few weeks, or you may find yourself returning year after year, in reality or in your imagination.

GUIDEBOOK

Getting in Touch With Bardou

Contacting Bardou: Jean and Klaus Erhardt, Bardou, Mons-la-Trivalle, F34390, Olargues, France; telephone 011-33-67-97-72-43.

For further information: French Government Tourist Office, 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, Beverly hills 90212; (213) 271-6665 or (213) 272-2661.


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