‘Hands off our footbridge!’ Vieussan is in the midst of a slow-moving political crisis over the right balance between tourism and the local community, and between ‘quiet tourism’ and commercialised river sports. And the concrete footbridge which connects the village, on the left bank of the River Orb, to the hamlet of Boissezon, on the right bank, is at the centre of this crisis. The footbridge, which has served the community for half a century (its predecessor was swept away in a flood, probably the great flood of 1953), is so low that canoeists have to haul their boats around it. They have been doing this happily for the last 25 years, but now the local canoe rental firms (who have long had this and another local footbridge in their sights) have made a new push to try and remove this obstacle to increasing the daily through-put of canoes. With support from officials in the Departmental office for youth and sport, who see tourism (and especially canoeing) as offsetting the decline of winemaking in the local economy, they have proposed a rehaussement, or raising of the level, of the bridge. Fine, you might think, but the force of the river in winter means that anything but a very low concrete structure (or a very big, expensive bridge) risks being washed away. And in any case Vieussan, a small commune of 250 people, cannot afford to pay for any such works.
No wonder then, that most people understand rehaussement to mean demolition, and a strong local campaign through the association Lo Rajol (Occitan for ‘current’) has grown up to protect the passerelle. Almost 60 people attended the inaugural meeting. People are not against canoeing as such (indeed many of us enjoy it) but they don’t want canoeing to have priority over other uses of the river (bathing, fishing, etc.) or over community needs. Over the year as a whole, more people – both locals and tourists – almost certainly use the footbridge than the number of canoeists who have to go round it.
At the most recent meeting in the Mairie, M. Guiter of the Communaute des Communes, a local authority body representing 13 communes including Vieussan, presented a study which they are undertaking to members of Lo Rajol. We challenged the assumptions of the study which seemed to favour the canoeing lobby, although M. Guiter claimed that it did not prejudge the issue. After more than an hour’s debate, the mayor, M. Giles Pla, brought out a bottle of wine which quickly led to a discussion of the state of winegrowing in the area. Shockingly, some 200 out of 480 hectares of vines in the Berlou area have been pulled up; Roquebrun has fared much better, which, it was suggested, is not because they have better wine but because they are better at ‘business’ (the English word was used).