“They don’t seem to know we are coming” says Isa as she steps out of the phone box.”But they seemed friendly and gave us directions.” We are in the ex mining town of Ales, about to drive the last few kilometres to La Vieille Vallette, a squatted hamlet hidden deep in the Cevennes hills. We’ve been in email contact with someone called Clement, who answers the messages sent to their web site, but seeing as the site hasn’t been updated since 2000, maybe there’s been a breakdown in communication.
We drive into the night, a full moon makes the deep valley sides swell into huge menacing silhouettes black against a star speckled sky. Eventually we find the tiny village of Rochessadoule next to a fast flowing torrent, “turn right at the camp site” they told us, we follow the instructions and drive off the main road, a small stone track runs up the hillside in front of us leading into the darkness. We decide to park the van beside the campsite and explore on foot armed with a single headlamp, between three of us. Jack my twelve year old son has joined us for a few weeks whilst he is on half term.
The track winds up through woodland , eventually we see a hand painted road sign nailed to a tree “La Vieille Vallette: Commune Libre.” We must be getting near. The track turns to earth and opens up to a plateau, out of the darkness looms a huge shape, large arms outstretched above us, it turns out to be a giant metallic robot, 5metres high made of recycled gas cylinders painted in flaming orange and red. The surrounding plateau is filled with old trucks, abandoned buses, colourful caravans, live in vehicles with a few dim lights showing signs of life and a crane from which hangs the skeleton of a large mammal swinging in the wind, it feels like an abandoned set from a Mad Max movie, a bit spooky, but still no hamlet.
We keep climbing up the valley assuming we will eventually reach La Vieille Vallette. Passing through a gate, we are suddenly confronted by two colossal figures, tall, as black as the night and very much alive, they move menacingly towards us. One of them releases a high pitched breathy nasal grunt. It’s a pair of heavy work horses. They stop in the middle of the track, their breath steaming in the torch light. Between grunts long strings of saliva fall from their chomping mouths, their metal shoes clash against the stones. Like guardians of Hades they stand staring at us blocking the way.
Jack is terrified and runs up the side of the hill. We freeze. He refuses to come down. Tears and a teenage tantrum follow. After a lot of shouting and coaxing he clambers back down onto the track and we inch past the horses, all as petrified as each other. We keep going, up and up the valley. Still no lights in the distance just another gate and a bend in the track. And then another guardian dashes out of the night howling at us, a black dog this time. It charges forward barking, white teeth flashing in the moonlight. We inch forward, half expecting to have our ankles bitten off, the dog doesn’t stop howling and then another one joins in a chorus of howls just as we reach another bend and finally see lights in the distance.
At last we reach an old stone building and push open the door into a long cavern like room,dominated by an enormous wooden table and loud punk music. The dirty white walls are covered with spray painted murals, blue monsters spitting fire, strange hellish animals swallowing bodies. Six people huddle around a wood burning stove in the adjacent kitchen, drinking. They look up at us with slight suspicion but more nonchalance as we introduce ourselves sheepishly. Their hands clasping beer bottles show signs of hard work, some stained black with diesel others with earth. Clement had not told any one we were coming and I feel squeaky clean, painfully middle class and uncomfortably urban trying to explain that we are here to make a film and a book about the them.
No one budges, except Stephanie, a slightly jumpy young woman, who is painting bits of the kitchen orange. She offers us food, a delicious couscous salad, pancakes and chocolate sauce which is laid out on the huge table. We eat alone in the large common room, feeling extremely edgy and wondering how the hell we are going to manage to work here.We return to the van and sleep in the campsite parking. I have anxiety dreams all night about being judged, and not fitting into social situations.
In the morning Isa and I are both terrified about going back up, but neither of us admits it to each other. We are worried that by talking about our fears we might manage to persuade one another to make a runner and not give la Vieille Vallete a go. So we drive up the track and park on the vehicle laden plateau which in the morning light turns out to be an old slag heap, the ground is covered in a pitch black dust. As we walk up the valley it feels like we’re in a completely different place from last night. The sun is creeping over the crest of the hillsides which are covered in gorgeous green oak and dotted with bursts of autumnal orange chestnut. Ranks of ancient grey stone terraces follow the valley contours and at the top lies the squatted hamlet, a handful of beautiful beige limestone buildings, complete with fortified towers, gargoyles and a carved gateway with dragons and African goddesses holding a carved lintel inscribed with the classic anarchist slogan: “Ni dieu Ni Maitre” (Neither God nor Master).
People have live in this secluded valley for thousands of years. The hamlet itself with its spring and deep position is somewhat protected from the hot dry summers that blight the South of France. For hundreds of years it had small holdings including silk spinning, the only traces of which are the Myrtle trees, whose leaves fed the worms, that still grow. Around the turn of the century coal mining took over the area but only lasted till the 50’s after which the hamlet fell into gradual disuse, with fewer and fewer inhabitants. When the squatters arrived it had mostly fallen into ruin and the terraces had become overgrown with trees and brambles.
In 199X a handful of artists who had squatted a building in Paris were given a surprisingly good deal by the landlord who wanted to get the building back but did not want to go through a long and expensive eviction. He offered them money if they left without trouble. They took the money, decided to leave the city and bought the main building of the hamlet for peanuts. With materials reclaimed from their Parisian squat they built a massive circus tent and pitched it on the plateau that is now the traveller’s site. The arrival of brightly painted trucks, a circus tent, and a dozen or so Parisian punks in this secluded wooded valley certainly turned local heads. And when they squatted the rest of the hamlet and the land around it hunters arrived and fired their guns in the air, but they were not deterred and began clearing and planting the terraces and rebuilding the ruins. Calling themselves “Articulteur”, a merging of artists and farmer (agriculteur), they brought a very different life back into the valley.
Normally there are around 25 people living here, but it happens that the week we are visiting 15 of them have gone on a trip with their bus, kitted out with a wood burning Pizza oven and bar. They’re selling pizzas for “prix Libre” (Pay what you can) at a technival rave and a 10th anniversary celebrations of a squat in Rennes, Brittany. As a result we don’t really get the full Vieille Vallette experience, we get a semi deserted hamlet where the only sounds apart from the punk music that is turned on at night whilst people cook for the collective, are the sheep bells and the occasional donkey bray which echoes and bounces off the hillsides. “When every one is here, it’s so different, it can get really trash,” Julian tells us. In his mid twenties with stunning dark eyes, framed by chisel cheekbones and a short Mohawk , Julian arrived a year ago with his work horse ‘Osaka’, he is totally welcoming and we spend much of the week with him.He works the terraces with a horse drawn plough and seems to never stop running around the hamlet doing everything; baking bread, mending and sorting things. “Sometimes visitors come here and treat us like a zoo” he continues “constantly asking questions, once things got really crazy up in the common space, people were completely trashed and someone’s note books got thrown in the fire.”