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Jumping off France’s ‘Pont du Diable’

The road to St. Guilhem le Desert is lined with lush, mature trees. Bright yellow sunflower fields dapple the landscape; vineyards, olive groves and rolling green hills stretch as far as the eye can see. The air is fresh and clear – the sky, the clearest blue. Up ahead, one can see stone-colored villages, complete with structures reminiscent of a medieval past. Proud castles (châteaux) loom behind ancient ramparts at every twist and turn on this sinuous two-lane road in Languedoc-Roussillon, a region in Southernmost France that stretches from the foothills of the Pyrenees on the Spanish border to the mouth of the Rhône.

It’s picturesque, really; and except for the few cars we pass along our journey, it’s a quiet, peaceful ride. Even viewed from the windows of our little silver Fiat rental, sans air conditioning, it’s absolutely breathtaking.

Welcome to a little place we now call hell.

The sweat streamed down, and pooled at the small of my back as we set up camp on the shore of les gorges d l’Hérault River – a popular swimming hole in the area. After sacrificing one toe to the water, we found it too cold to be refreshing – serving more as a heart-jolting shock than leisure activity on this 90-something degree day. There we sat, amidst the svelte au natural women sunbathers; among the hairy-and-equally-as-hefty-as-the-women-were-svelte men in their revealing black Speedos. Little children splashed and screamed, a barrage of French commands and squeals around us. They ran on the shore, kicking up the same rocky beach that now pierced through our thin towels, digging into our legs and backs. We tried to lay still so as not to upset the gravel equilibrium beneath us.

This was our St. Guilhem. Our own personal purgatory. And this was only the beginning.

Trying to remain positive, my companion Jeff, and I turned our attention to more important matters – making plans for the remainder of our trip. We had three more days of our two-week adventure yet to explore. We had mastered the train system and had visited six countries in two weeks. What hadn’t we done? What was next? Europe was our oyster!

We looked around and decided to make the most of this special little nook – taking it all in: the scenery, the experience. Trying desperately to ignore the intense heat, the screaming kids, the people that really should have been wearing more clothes….

Sitting on the shore, we found ourselves facing one of the oldest Romanesque bridges in France, le Pont Du Diable – “The Devil’s Bridge” – a commanding 60-foot high structure that presided ominously over the gorge. This was the very bridge Jeff’s friend, Steve, jumped from some 15 years earlier as a child growing up in a nearby village, Castelnau du Guers. Kids today were still jumping.

After an hour or so of enduring the beach scene, we packed up our meager belongings and made our way towards our car. We climbed the hill and once atop the bridge, Jeff contemplated whether or not “the jump” was right for him as a six-foot inch, mid-twenties, (as he put it) “slightly out-of-shape” guy.

“I can’t come all this way and not jump,” he said, convincing himself. “I’ll regret it later.”

He had a point. I, like a good girlfriend should – encouraged his ambitions. “It’s just water below,” I remember saying. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Apparently – a lot.

Apparently, from a height of 60 feet, jumping off a bridge into water is similar to jumping off a bridge onto concrete – especially if you land incorrectly. Had I know this, I’d like to believe I wouldn’t have encouraged the activity.

We walked to the center of the bridge and watched intently as children of all sizes and ages (none as old or as big as Jeff) jumped from the wall of the bridge and surrounding rock cliffs jutting out on all sides. Jeff finally mustered up the courage to take the plunge. All the other kids were doing it – and all of them had survived and were climbing back for more. Kids yelling “Gee-ro-nemo,” in thick German accents plunged into the water. Belgian kids screaming “Look out below,” before cannonballing inches away from the kayaks that glided beneath the bridge below.

Jeff would show those kids who still “had it,” and thanks to his supportive tourist girlfriend, armed with only beach gear and a camera, he’d get that snapshot to show his friends back home. Jeff, too, would brave le Pont Du Diable and live to tell the tale.

I held his belongings as he readied himself for the descent. A natural athlete and pretty fearless guy, I knew this would be a piece of cake. Heck, maybe I’d even do it next!

He hoisted himself effortlessly on to the low ledge of the bridge. He looked at me, looked down to make sure no kayaks were floating beneath, held his breath and stepped off.

Down he plunged. I snapped two photos just before he smacked the water like a grenade hitting its target. I looked down, watched the rings of water float outward, and waited for him to surface.

It seemed too long. He was still underwater.

Finally, he emerged and slowly made his way to the rocky shore below. I walked to the far side of the bridge, atop the rock cliff, to meet him. His pace was relaxed, deliberate.

After several moments, I yelled down. “Jeff, what are you doing?”

Maybe he was winded, I thought. Maybe he was getting tips from the local kids on the rocks regarding how to “do it better next time?”

He stood on the beach, gingerly took a step or two, and placed his hand on his hip, resting his weight very carefully, it seemed, on his left leg.

It was then I knew something was wrong. I began to scurry down the cliff face to meet him – the rocks of purgatory slashing at the flesh of my feet through the minimal protection of my flip flops – as if to say, “Go home already.”

“What’s wrong?” I asked as I got closer.

“It’s my knee,” he said. “I think I twisted it.”

We found some ice (not an easy feat in France, as anyone will tell) in the rental unit we called home during this stretch of the trip – a centuries-old home built in the ramparts of the city. We fashioned a compress of plastic bags and towels and placed it on Jeff’s knee. We elevated it using pillows from the couch.

The pain continued into the evening. It started to swell. “I really think I tore something,” Jeff declared.

We decided to go to the emergency room the next day.

At the break of dawn, I inquired door-to-door in hopes of finding a neighbor who could direct us to a nearby hospital. No one spoke a bit of English, but the nice French families tried, and I tried, to communicate in broken sentences and attempts at talking slower, then louder, in hopes something would get through. (“Là où est l’hôpital…?” “Mon genou est blessé!”) It seemed hopeless.

Finally, an English-speaking houseguest emerged from one of the maisons. She informed me – in perfect English – that the nearest hospital was in Pezenas, the next town over. “But,” she said, “today is a holiday.”

August 15. Assomption, or “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” I learned. A national French holiday.

With this newfound knowledge, I ran to the house and prepared for our journey into Pezenas. Hopefully the ERs in France weren’t closed on holidays. I grabbed Jeff, a few things and we ascended the small, narrow sidewalk outside of our maison. Slow and painful were the steps – the only goal was to place one foot in front of the other – eventually, reaching the car. To complicate matters, along the way, Jeff managed to step in a pile of dog droppings, clearly recognizable by the dark brown hue on the chalk-colored ancient brick sidewalk. He’d claim later he “hadn’t seen it” and was “preoccupied” at the time. He lost his footing a bit on contact, and I thought for a second he was a goner.

At that moment, his anger and frustration hit a boiling point. He yanked off the soiled shoe and threw it violently on the ground. We left it in the dust.

Three miles and two round-a-bouts later, we found the clearly marked emergency room (or “clinique”) in the town of Pezenas.

We spent most of the morning and early afternoon in the clinique. Jeff hobbled about helplessly with his bum knee and one sock-foot. We were one of two patients in the hospital that day. A small boy came in for a finger he had sprained after jumping on a trampoline and landing on it. Lucky for us, his mom was from Virginia and spoke both perfect French and English. If it wasn’t for her, we never would have gotten past filling out the really tough questions on the clinique application. (Like, “What is your date of birth?”)

After two hours, 130 EURO and a slight language barrier with the physician later, it was loosely determined that Jeff had suffered a tear, though the severity couldn’t be pinpointed.  Though his legs were together on the decent, Jeff surmised, the force of the impact seemed to have tweaked his right foot out slightly. This resulted in – what would later be diagnosed in the States as – a grade-2 MCL tear.

Jeff hobbled out of the emergency room with a knee brace as tall as me and as thick, if not thicker, than a cast. The perfect accessory for the 90-degree heat we had to endure for the remainder of the trip – not to mention,the 14 hour flight home.

In light of developments, we decided to take it easy the rest of the trip. No more train trips or bridge jumping. No more exploring.

Self-medication: winding down with wine

Jeff ascended the old stairs of our rental by hopping on his one good leg, and set up shop on the large patio off the kitchen. We were in luck. There were fireworks that evening – probably to celebrate the holiday. We watched the glorious explosions in the distance.

We recounted the events of the last two days, as we drank every last bit of wine in the place. Our version, we rationalized, of painkillers. We’d replenish the supply when the markets opened again tomorrow – after the Assomption holiday.

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