Squeezed in between the French Mediterranean lowland and the south-eastern ridge of the Massif Central, the spectacular Cévennes mountains is a wild brooding landscape, yet is just an 80-minute drive north of Nimes, a small city renowned for its Roman architecture.
A dense network of narrow roads and trails runs through the area. The best way to get a feel for it is through a combination of driving, cycling or walking where the fragrance of thyme percolates the hillsides and ancient drove roads known as drailles.
Swathes of common French broom, locally called genet, is prominent on the roadsides amidst jungles of fern and bracken. A network of zigzag roads passes the slopes along the scenic hairpins of La Grand Combe road where hillsides are dark green with holm oak, beech and mulberry. But it is the enormous chestnut trees which steal the show and which have long fed the population. You will come across orchards of them conquering the slopes dotted with thousands of candelabras of the ‘bread tree’ as it is known, which is also a strong wood for making houses. In some places the trees are thick, swollen and deeply lined resembling the skin of an old elephant.
A Cévennes lunch specialty is a delicious and nourishing bowl of sweet chestnut soup with a baguette accompanied by local crumbly and tangy Roquefort cheese. It is made from the milk of ewes who graze on the plateau of the causses, a series of undulating uplands, divided by deep river gorges. There is a long history of human habitation in the towns, some of which cling to the steep slopes and have an easy-going feel. Several are worth visiting to capture a flavour of local life. Le Pont-de-Montvert is a friendly town where the River Tarn rushes under a 17th century Gothic bridge beside an historic clock tower.
Village life centres on the riverside embankment where shops and cafés huddle under the leafy branches of multi-limbed plane trees with stall holders selling their fruit and veg. Towering over Florac is the Causse Méjean, one of the least populated areas of France and primarily used for grazing sheep. While the Cévennes remains a largely unknown region, it has one historic claim to literary fame.
In September 1878, the Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson travelled through the region with his donkey, Modestine, on a journey which has entered part of French mythology. He is now immortalised in the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail which has become a classic route across the hills and valleys of this part of rural France. It runs along the Grande Randonnée (GR70) from Le Puy to St Jean-du Gard and is one of the most popular long-distance trails. The social history of this area is also fascinating. Some 20 years before Stevenson’s visit, the spinning mills that were still operating employed 1,200 women and 150 men. The last silk mill in France, the Maison Rouge in St Jean-du-Gard, closed its doors in 1965 and has now been repurposed as an excellent museum housing the collections of the Musée des Vallées Cévenoles.
Here you can see the traditional ways of life and a range of exhibits including tools, farming equipment and clothing which give an insight into the history and savoir faire of the region. The Cévennes National Park, which covers three départements, Lozère, Gard and Ardèche, contains two high peaks, Mont Lozère and Mont Aigoual which dominate the landscape. The most densely wooded of all France’s national parks, it is also the only inhabited one. Mont Lozère is made up of granite and schist peaks, as well as large boulders, and is exhilarating walking territory with green valleys, reminiscent of parts of Ireland. It is an ever-changing scene of woodlands, ravines, limestone pavement, rock and tree-dappled pasture.
Few places in Europe can match the diversity of the Cévennes and its sites. Still largely cut off from the mainstream, it is a fascinating backwater in which to submerge yourself in an authentic landscape. For a contrasting flavour of French life take the road south through Alès to Nîmes, the capital of the Department of Gard and a place renowned for its antiquity. During the summer of 2018 a new star attraction – a £52 million Musée de la Romanité, or Museum of Roman Civilisation, greatly enhanced its standing. It is being seen as the French cultural event of last summer on a par with the opening of the Caves of Lascaux Centre in the Dordogne in 2017 or the Cité du Vin in Bordeaux in 2016. The eye-catching museum is next door to the 2,000-year-old arena regarded as the world’s best-preserved amphitheatre modelled on the Colosseum in Rome and now home to concerts and occasional bullfights.
The old and the new buildings complement each other and are said to be in an ‘architectural dialogue’. The new museum incorporates concrete, aluminium, wood and glass into its three rectangular buildings. The largest of them is swathed in a light drapery effect that brings to mind a huge Roman toga of glass tiles. Flooded with light, it comes to life through 21st century computer gadgetry including 3D recreations, virtual reality, interactive panoramas, immersive projections and holograms. The museum facts speak for themselves: 5,000 pieces of artwork, 65 multimedia devices and no fewer than 25 centuries of history. When fatigue threatens to overwhelm you, plunge into the narrow cobblestoned streets where some buildings date back to the Middle Ages. Chain stores rub shoulders with boutiques and fabric shops selling cottons and lavender. History is around every corner and ancient treasures are hidden to shoppers behind heavy wooden doors. But the Maison Carrée is an open temple and former forum rich in décor in the middle of a busy square.
It is modelled on the Temple of the Apollo in Rome and regarded as one of the most noble surviving structures of ancient Roman civilization. Other enigmatic monuments include the shattered Roman ruin known as the Temple of Diana, dating from the 2nd century BC, while the Magne Tower, the remains of a watchtower that the emperor Augustus had built on Gallic foundations, guards the town from a hilltop on the walls. The Fountain Gardens is an elaborate formal garden and a shady haven of mature trees landscaped on the site of the Roman baths in the 18th century. A Roman coin minted in Nîmes commemorates the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. It was a victory that saw Octavian take control of the Roman Empire and assume the name Caesar Augustus. The coin used a crocodile tied to a palm to represent Egypt and the animal remains the coat of arms and symbol of the city. When you are ready for a break, Nîmes, like most French cities, is a place where you will never be short of dining options.
The Vintage Café, a popular and friendly old town wine bar, is a good place to enjoy a glass of the local Cévennes rosé or a café gourmand, an espresso served with dessert. Restaurants specialise in local dishes such as brandade du morue (salt cod, milk and olive oil), herb-roasted lamb cooked in wild mint or a simple and tasty beef stew.
FACTFILE on Nimes and The Cevennes
FLIGHTS: The writer flew from George Best Belfast City Airport to London-Stansted with Flybe (flybe.com) and onward with Ryanair (ryanair.com) to Nîmes (flight no longer available) or fly from Dublin to Montpellier with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) and train to Nimes. Prices vary according to the time of the year.
ACCOMMODATION: La Donzelenche, 48220 Vialas, a two-night weekend stay in the low season costs from €275 for two, www.donzelenche.com/en La Source de Castagnols, 48200 Vialas, restored 17th century farmhouse, double rooms from €100 in low season, www.castagnols.com.en Appart’City Nîmes Arènes, 1 Boulevard de Bruxelles, 30000, doubles from €88 appartcity.com/en Dining: Wine Bar, 1 Place des Arènes, 30000 Nîmes, winebar-lechevalblanc.com Musée des Vallées Cévenoles, 5 Rue de L’Industrie, 30270 St Jean-du-Gard maisonrouge-musee.fr, adults €8, children 12-18 €4, under 12 free, opening times vary according to season. Musée de la Romanité, Nîmes, museedelaromanite.fr/en adults €8, children 7-17 €3, under 7 free, family pass €19, closed Tuesday, Nov-March.
TOURIST INFO: nimes-tourisme.com/en; tourism-www.occitania.co.uk; gardtourism.com; lozere-tourisme.com