Post-lockdown travels in the Cevennes

France had been in lockdown for three months as Covid-19 took over normal life, with borders closed and inhabitants banned from travelling more than 1km. When restrictions finally started to lift, Cicerone author Pamela Harris hastily organised her long-planned trip to the Cévennes, a remote area south of the Massif Central.

When the Cévennes is mentioned, most people invariably think of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey. Stevenson made his journey in 1878, at the age of 27, before he wrote the novels that made him famous. He knew France well, and was attracted to the Cévennes by its similarity to his native Scotland, for both are high, hilly countries with few inhabitants, frequently lashed by rain, yet with a wild beauty.

Causse Mejean
Causse Méjean above the Jonte gorges

Another attraction for Stevenson was the stories of the Protestants with whom he had so much sympathy, the persecution of the Camisards in the Cévennes resembling that of the Covenanters in the Pentland hills south of his home town of Edinburgh.

Stevenson left Monastier near Le Puy on 22 September, along with his recalcitrant female donkey, Modestine, taking 12 days to cover the 220km to St-Jean-du-Gard near Alès. His travels took him across the high Mont Lozère, and he got lost on more than one occasion, sleeping out on several nights, mostly in dreadful weather.

Despite this, his journey has been repeated by many others, especially since its centenary in 1978, and has become even more popular with the creation in 1994 of a Stevenson Trail, the GR (Grande Randonnée) 70, complete with donkeys for hire. Cicerone's guidebook, The Robert Louis Stevenson Trail, follows in the footsteps.

One of the most moving and evocative books written about the trail is To Travel Hopefully by Christopher Rush, another Scottish author who walked it in 1994, also alone except for a donkey – although he found his male donkey marginally more amenable than Modestine!

Bridge at Le Pont de Montvert
Bridge at Le Pont-de-Montvert

But when we drove south to the Cévennes, it was not to follow the Stevenson Trail. We crossed his footsteps just once, at the small town of Le Pont-de-Montvert on the Tarn, with a picturesque hump-backed bridge across the river. The War of the Camisards had broken out here in 1702 when the Catholic Abbé du Chayla was murdered in retaliation for his torture of Calvinist prisoners, and Stevenson recounts this story in gruesome detail in his book.

We were heading for the Cévennes National Park further west, to the small town of Meyrueis in the department of Lozère. In a lovely site on the Jonte river, spanned by several bridges, its cafés were full of people enjoying the sunshine, and the pandemic seemed a world away – until we saw that the waiters were wearing masks, and we were asked to wear them too before entering the tourist office.

We had come to explore the walks on the nearby Causse Méjean, a large upland plateau rising to 1000m, with the gorges of the Jonte river forming its southern border and the better known gorges of the Tarn to its north and west. It is wild, rocky country, a seemingly endless expanse of nothingness dotted by limestone crags and jagged dolomitic outcrops.

Few trees grow here, and the land provides grazing only for sheep, sent up to pasture on the annual summer transhumance.

One of the most dramatic walks on the causse is to the east of Meyrueis, at the Chaos de Nîmes-le-Vieux, above the Col de Perjuret. Named for its resemblance to a ruined city, the Chaos is a mass of bizarrely shaped rock formations, sculpted by erosion over thousands of years.

A discovery trail of 4.5km leads between the hamlets of L’Hom and Gally, with a series of information boards describing its geology, the life of the shepherds and herdsmen who once lived here, and the birds and plants to be found. The final board is a hauntingly beautiful herdsman’s song, complete with music, entitled Quand le bouvier… (When the herdsman…).

At the edge of L’Hom we passed a ferradou, a wooden contraption used to support oxen in order to shoe them, which had been illustrated on the first information board. From here the grassy trail rose gently up through huge blocks of jumbled boulders, some as tall as 30m, to reach a high point at 1165m.

The causse stretched for miles into the distance, with no sign of any habitation: it was difficult to believe that anyone had ever made a living up here, and we encountered few other walkers.

It was an ideal spot for bird-watching, and the information boards indicated we might see kestrels, larks, wheatears, shrikes and rock-thrushes, all lovers of high open spaces. It was also an ideal spot for botanists, with myriad flowers growing amid the waving grasses.

On the drive up to the col we had seen tall purple foxgloves and gigantic lizard orchids at the side of the road, but here the flowers at the foot of the boulders were smaller: pale blue harebells, bright yellow rock-roses, white flax, purple vetch and alpine asters, while tiny white arenaria and saxifrages endemic to the Cévennes had managed to find root even in the rocks themselves.

But best of all, as we walked higher, the ground between the rocks was pink with brightly coloured pyramidal orchids, a glorious sight. It was an idyllic spot, and it was easy to spend several hours up here, wandering among the gigantic boulders.

Here we were on the southern edge of the Causse Méjean, and instead of driving directly back to Meyrueis, we set off to explore its vast expanse to the north. We first headed to Florac, site of the head office of the national park, and then followed the Tarn river as it wound its way westwards through rocky gorges to Ste-Enimie.

In summer this is a busy little town, a centre for canoeists and kayakers on the fast-flowing river. From there we drove back south, straight across the centre of this huge upland plateau, so wild and sparsely populated.

We had hoped to see the famed Przejwalski horses, originally from Mongolia, which are bred here and now roam in the wild. They eluded us, but the drive made us aware of the immensity of this grandiose landscape, stretching away on all sides as far as the eye could see.

The following day we drove west along the gorge of the Jonte river towards its confluence with the Tarn at Le Rozier. The gorge was hemmed in by tall limestone cliffs, the haunt of griffon vultures, re-introduced here in the 1970s. At the side of the road were several lookout points for viewing them, and we could just make out out a few specks circling in the thermals high above.

We arrived at Le Rozier just as the local tourist office bus pulled in, and the two girls in charge recommended that we take the path up onto the causse for a walk high above the gorge. They directed us to steps that led steeply up from the main street onto a paved road, bordered by bushes of bright yellow broom.

Ahead was the Rocher du Capluc, a huge rock with a metal cross on top, and directly below was the Jonte gorge and the medieval town of Peyreleau, perched on a bluff. Behind us to the west was a gentler aspect, with the Tarn river now flowing quietly through cultivated fields and houses after spilling out of the dramatic gorges further north.

But as we gained height further along the gorge of the Jonte, the Tarn was lost to view and we entered a world of rocks and crags. The last sign of habitation along the trail was the hamlet of Capluc, but even this was now abandoned and in ruins. We could have taken a steep path up to a viewpoint at the top of the rock above, but decided that the views along our path were spectacular enough.

Soon after Capluc the path became wooded, with juniper bushes, boxwood and pine, and then turned to climb into a steep gully, up 22 zigzags to reach the Col de Francbouteille. We were now 400m above the gorge, and the views became more and more magnificent.

This was a world of incredible landscapes, the high rocks above the gorge sculpted by erosion and wind into strange shapes, like gigantic stone towers. The most spectacular were the two vase-shaped monoliths of the Vase de Sèvre and Vase de Chine, seemingly suspended in mid-air.

It was a favourite spot for rock-climbers, and when we reached an enormous rocky tower standing completely detached from the cliff, we could see why. Voices floated down from high above, and we looked up to see a group busy attaching a rope on either side for what looked like a Tyrolean traverse. We watched them for a while, hoping to see some dramatic action, but in the end assumed they must be setting it up for the following day.

As we stood gazing up, a French hiker stopped to chat. He told us he was a reporter for the newspaper Midi Libre, and was preparing weekly articles on places to visit in the region of Montpellier.

One of these would be on the Causse Méjean, and he was returning from a much longer walk from Le Rozier, which had taken him north along the Tarn gorges before turning south to join our path along the Jonte.

He had found it tough going and had got lost more than once, but was enthusiastic about the beauty of the area and its fascinating rock formations.

His article was published soon after, and we were thrilled to see that we appeared in it as 'deux retraités britanniques', with our comments on the incredible landscape quoted!

We ended our Cévennes exploration by driving south to Mont Aigoual, at 1565m its second highest peak, near the town of Vallerauge on the Hérault river. This is another walking centre, one of its best known footpaths being the Path of 4000 steps, which leads straight up to the summit of the mountain. We left this for another visit, however, for we are already planning our next walking holiday to this wild and beautiful area.

Photos by Pamela Harris and Alan Norton.

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