Lac Du Salagou
As you exit the last village before Lac du Salagou, the first thing you notice is the rock. The change is immediate: all the multicoloured abundance of southern French vegetation gives way to a new landscape of monochrome red. In contrast to the vineyards very little grows here. Greenery is sporadic, pockets of life extracting what little sustenance they can from the inhospitable ground. Some plants appear to have given up, losing their colour and vitality to undernourishment. They protrude from the ground like the crooked hands of a witch, their stems as brittle as uncooked spaghetti.
The rock is known as la ruffe (or ruffian), and is as characteristic of Lac du Salagou as sand is of the Sahara. For this reason it is a welcoming sight. Formed of sediment clay and iron oxide, its name is derived from the Occitan word rufa, which filtered the word from Latin (rufus, meaning red) through to present day French. (Even rock of no visible use to anybody earns a place in the geological nomenclature.) When picked up it crumbles easily. Left alone, it seems neither to flourish nor suffer. It just sits. Rock older than any human ever lived to be, dominating a landscape where earth triumphs by default in the near-absence of the other elements.
The lake looks dead, too. Dead and cool, stagnant, placid. First you see it from above, as to drive there means coming over the hills which surround the lake on all sides. From here people are formless shapes, scuttling towards the lake with all the delirious intensity of desert wanderers to an oasis. Down at the shore the rock burns your feet, and those brave enough to go barefoot are soon compelled into a sprint. The water soothes their searing soles on impact. On all sides are steep hills, still and gentle like the heaving breasts of sleeping goddesses. Pushed up against a cloudless sky they protect you from the world. A sanctuary where you are free to bathe in the cool water, away from the trials of civilized life.
Though there are many people it is quiet. The lake is vast, and with no enclosed spaces to trap voices they simply escape, drifting over the water and around the rocks until they are reduced to murmurs on the breeze. There is movement all around. Healthy foliage grows wild on the hillsides. Tiny fish glide between your ankles. Birds fly high above, blotched partially out of sight by brilliant sunshine. The water is flowing, making ripples and waves. It is clear, drinkable, comforting against the skin. The lake is not dead at all. It is just as alive as any other place on Earth.