Epicurean + curious. How about photographing more than landscapes or street, while travelling ?
I was going to call this “Terroir Photography”. Terroir is a French word that describes an area of common culture and environmental factors (such as terrain and weather) that determine the quality of local produce. In many ways, Terroir denotes a kind of unity in agricultural practices that usually leads to interesting visual commonalities as well as pleasant tasting sessions. It is what we found in Aubrac and Aveyron, during a recent road trip / hiking holiday.
But “Terroir” somehow felt a little too restrictive. A little too French, a little too foodie.
So how about an alternative term indicating a sensorial experience, but not necessarily related to vine or cattle? What I wanted is a blend of sensuous enjoyment and a bit of background on the local culture, customs, know-how, traditions … that all create a very specific experience. Hence … Epicurious 🙂
Here’s my first attempt at epicurious photography, then. It’s revealed quite a few shortcomings in my technique, if I’m honest, but also provided a tremendous amount of fun and satisfaction. So let’s dig in …
Before digging deeper into the concept of epicurious photography, let’s set the scene for this first attempt.
Averyron is a French department (roughly equivalent to a county in the UK and in the US ?) in South Central France. The Aubrac, on the other hand isn’t a department or region. It’s a rural area that straddles parts of 3 departments (Aveyron, Cantal and Lozère) over a surface of about 1 500 square kilometers. It is plateau sitting at an altitude of approximately 1 200 m (4 000 feet) and made largely of volcanic granite eroded by glaciers over the centuries prior to global warming and surrounded by deep gorges.
Coming from the South East of France, via Lozere and Aveyron, we’ll call the beginning of our little adventure the pont de Millau (see above) a Norman Foster cable-stayed bridge opened to great fanfare in 2004 and for which you are charged more than 11 €, each way 😉 It does make for quite a sight, particularly in the golden evening light, as illustrated by my b&w shot 😉
But, back to the Aubrac, and to what is epicurean about it, and what makes it a worthy photographic destination.
In a word, cattle. That means farms, meat and cheese, and we could end the post right there, with a couple of links to food websites. But let’s get back to that idea of terroir for a while. First of all, the words evokes quality. It’s not always the case but, more often that not, it signifies more natural farming practices and more respect for the environment than the heavily subsidised and destructive mass farming seen elsewhere. The Aubrac is part of the Natura 2000 EU habitats and wildlife protection program. And it shows. In the astounding richness of bird life, in the loveliness of the landscapes and in the general quality of life – and doing business, for farmers – we experienced during an all too short 7 days. Not to mention the night sky, or the scrumptiousness of food. All of which we’ll get back to later, in greater detail.
What can Epicurious photography be, then ?
I like to think that, everywhere a strong sense of quality lifestyle – including the food and drink potentially at the center of the epicurean part – exists, a positive ecosystem has developed around it. Or, more often, it has developed around a positive ecosystem, the terroir. And the photographic exploration of that ecosystem is what is of interest to me here.
In this instance, cattle is the main resource in the Aubrac and the whole area has a strong consistency that made me want to describe it as a whole rather than photograph only the landscapes and famous landmarks. But you could be interested in any other type of sensorial experience – say, a music festival – and photograph all that revolves around that.
We’ve written about undestinations before : places unknown to the general public but conducive to great photography. We’ve written about backyard gems : locations, famous or not, close to our homes and again very likely to lead to great shots. Epicurious photography is all about trying to photograph an ecosystem rather than just a specific aspect of it. It’s about trying to discover a bit more than meets the eye and communicating it to others so they can benefit from more than pretty photographs of nice buildings or forests. But it’s still all a budding idea in my mind. So, not only would I like you to post your own Epicurious Photo articles, I’d love it if you helped us all understand how to best convey the ecosystem to others 🙂 Who’s in?
While our visit was essentially a hiking holliday, there was also a fair bit of to and thro-ing between locations, as well as a long-ish (4h) drive in and out.
So, our vehicle was a large part of the holiday. And, if there’s something useful to be remembered from Top Gear, it’s that every perfect road trip requires a specific type of vehicle to become truly memorable 😉 😉 😉 After all, most of us find epicurean qualities in automobiles, trucks and vans.
So let me start the description of this inaugural Epicurious Photography post with a brief presentation of our proud steed of the week: The Millenium Dodo.
This requires double clarification. First of all, why a van at all, rather than a car and hotels? Secondly, why this particular van?
The first part is easy. Just a few photographs will explain it all. The second, well, has nothing to do with me. In fact, I fought it all the way (and lost, what else is new? 😉 )
So, why would you consider a van rather than comfy hotels, while visiting a new area? Here’s why 🙂 (Health Warning: mostly smartphone pics ahead)
For a photographer, a van can be a dream come true. While the closest hotels were a long drive away, we were just there, where the sunset was, where the cattle was. Where the stone walls were. Most of the photographs on this page were made on this first evening or the next morning, from or very near a grassy car park at Cascade Deroc. It’s just a heck of a lot easier. And someone as lazy as me wouldn’t get up at sparrow and drive 40 minutes from the hotel to make that sort of images.
Also, it’s fun! Over the past 2 decades, I have spent almost 3 years in hotels for my work! 3 years! One thousand nights, two or three a week, in Paris, for many, many years. Cheap rooms, expensive rooms, modern rooms, historical rooms, depending on the client paying for them. Today, I’m all to happy to consider any other option 🙂
What hotel room, whatever its price, gives you this much fun and freedom? None that I recall. I’ve seen the Higashiyama hills of Kyoto blaze up in the morning sun from an 8 meter wall to wall bay window, suffered the neighbours’ TV in Amelie Poulain type bedrooms with paper thin walls, I’ve been driven potty by the noise of cicadas around the pools of luxurious Provençal lodges, banged my head on the amazing, centuries old, beams of huge rooms in the Marais, marvelled at snowy peaks from chalet spas in the Alps, enjoyed the simplicity and quiet of monastic bedrooms in convents, nothing quite matches the raw existential thrill of this sort of “accomodation”. It’s almost like wild camping in a tent, but with the luxury and comfort of a nice hotel.
Now, the ugly truth is I didn’t want to … T’was my wife’s idea. Those little vans have so much that went against the grain of my biased opinion. First, I’ll be honest, VW is far from my fave brand. It has little to do with the brand itself, but in my neck of the woods, they are mostly driven dangerously by arrogant yobs (to make my point, 2 previous temporary owners had rammed the car, this summer only, driving at insane speeds in what is basically a tent on wheels. The rear was still damaged when we took “ownership”). In other parts of France, that’s absolutely not the case, so it’s purely a local thing but has tainted my opinion to the point that when any rental turns out to be a VW, it’s hard for me to hide my disappointment. Not this time.
Secondly, I’m used to larger vans, the sort delivery guys belt down narrow lanes mowing down kittens (R.I.P. Biskit). Those are tough, will take any reasonable terrain with ease and I feel very safe sleeping in one. Compared to those, this Barbie Girl toy seemed claustrophobic, fragile and exposed. It’s just because my wife’s been through a lot recently (as a doctor) that I wanted to be nice to her. But I really really wasn’t looking forward to it. How wrong can you be? 😉
That thing is as luxurious inside as 90% of the rooms I’ve slept in (as well it should, costing 90% of the price of the hotel …) It’s jam-packed with fun little features such as an overhead panel displaying all sorts of menus and diagrams such as pitch & yaw. Very fun. And the quality of the lifting roof mechanism floored me. We slept in very strong winds that rocked the van harder than a pornstar audition, and it didn’t bat an eyelid. The rental guy told me manual roofs are nowhere near as strong, but this electric one would probably qualify as a 4-season tent. Truly amazing! Battery autonomy was excellent, allowing 3 straight days off the grid without driving easily (with a fridge and a laptop running) and possibly more. Add the lifting roof that eliminated all risk of claustrophobia in a package that’s small enough to park as a car in tight spaces, the extraordinary packaging hiding tables, chairs and much more in places you’d never think of, without so much as a squeak or rattle, and the remarkable 40mpg we got from it in spite of a ton of steep climbing … it’s a brilliant package, really. Now, if only it had true 4WD and larger tanks, that would be quite the overlander for Europe !!
Enough with the free advertising and propaganda 😉 I consider the previous paragraphs and photographs an ample apology to VW that more than makes up for any previous criticisms 😉 This is a smashing car for what it was designed for. One of the memorable drives of my life, if not in a sporty or fashionable manner.
I’ll get back to vehicles later, as they do make up an important part of any human ecosystem and occupy a large portion of the male fantasy when it comes to travelling. Since cars are damageable to the planet, we should all strive to drive much less and drive much funner!
And the next posts in this series will also take a look at local food, local architecture, local art, local geology and local wildlife. Stay tuned! And please let me know if you’d like to share your experiences of a similar area what you feel the best way of presenting such topics is: sequentially, as a travelogue, as documentary … ? All ideas are welcome 🙂
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