Not long before we started climbing the hills of the Cévennes and sharing its gorges with dozens of effortlessly cool vultures, UNESCO declared our French hideout a World Heritage Site.
Celebrity status is not what my daughter and I look for in our landscapes. But fortunately this modest yet spectacular region at the southern end of the Massif Central wears its world-classness lightly.
The vultures help, of course. They float lazily above the deeply incised valleys of the Tarn and the Jonte, and land awkwardly on the outcropped rocks with a fresh-killed feast.
If you’re mesmerized like Liz and me, you’ll understand our complicated relationship with the modern idea of pleasure. The two of us can’t do easy hedonistic travel – and here in one of the emptiest corners of France, 120 kilometres north of Montpellier and the Mediterranean, you’re at your happiest when you make the effort.
At 8 a.m. on a cool and still shaded weekday morning, we set out to lose ourselves in vulture territory. A skeptical cab driver had dropped us off by the side of a lonely riverside road.
“Are you sure?” she asked, and for a moment we hesitated.
But then we spotted the green markers leading into the thick forest with the welcoming sign “Sentier du Bout du Monde” – the locals evidently shared our end-of-the world outlook.
Our week of walks predictably started with noisy wheezing as we made the first stiff climb up from the valley floor, drawing on the reserves we’d been storing up over dinners of beef-and-ham roulade and breakfasts of croissants slathered with homemade plum jam. Five minutes in, our intrusive breathing startled a hidden herd of curly-horned mouflon sheep, who hurled themselves in a precipitous tumble right across our narrow path.
The landscape we shared with the birds and beasts over 140 kilometres of walking is rugged, dramatically uneven and a bit unyielding. Water was always hard to find on the high arid plateaus, and France’s historical penchant for religious strife turned these uplands into a persecuted heretic’s retreat. The abandoned troglodyte villages with communal ovens that pop up out of nowhere represent a long tradition of uncomfortable escape. And the hilltop cross at the Col du Pas that memorializes the maquisards – the French Resistance movement in the Second World War – is a good reminder of how all this covert emptiness could be used against an invader.
Yes, there’s an element of seriousness in our travelling, something we have in common with the pastoralism-loving UNESCO crowd. A farmhouse in the Cévennes isn’t a tumbledown collection of rocks but a brilliant display of the ways a rural people scavenged building materials and conserved rainwater to make a life for themselves and their sheep. At the end of our morning climb, those weathered buildings provided a windbreak as we snuggled against a warming wall, chewed on a roquefort sandwich and admired Norman Foster’s far-off Millau Viaduct, which bridged a downstream meander of the river flowing 400 metres right below us.
Much of our daily pleasure in the Cévennes came from seeing this meditative landscape with an educated eye. For local knowledge and daily directions, we absorbed the wisdom of Sarah Wright, a British pentathlete-turned-mountaineer and walking-holiday facilitator who can set you straight on the geology of cave formation, tap into a network of indulgent innkeepers, and then deploy her wall-builder husband, Dan, to rescue you as you’re playing hit-and-miss with mountain-top lightning bolts.
Sarah has lived in a tiny Cévennes hamlet for 10 years, and her walking notes are seriously informative. We didn’t just power our way through a terraced grove of mulberry trees with blind indifference: We engaged with the ancient economy of the Cévennes, where mulberries fed the worms that produced the silk that was spun in the big-windowed loft factories that still dominate even small Cévenol villages. When we got conked on the head by a cascade of chestnuts while pussyfooting down a slippery slope, we didn’t complain too much because we knew we were connecting with a once-remote mountain people who savoured this essential food source – as do the wild boars who still roam these forests, to judge from the hunt we became a part of as we divvied up our duck pâté against a backdrop of dog whelps and shotgun blasts.
For more effortless pleasure, we admired the broad, continuous ridge-top trail that offered an endless mountain view – once a main road in the ancient network used by shepherds as they walked their flocks up to their summer pasturage. At this point, cruising along the path became completely serene, provided we didn’t pay too much attention to Sarah’s story about how a pretty intersection called Dead Man’s Pass got its name.
It was hard not to be exuberant in our backwoods clambering, since we knew that whatever we went through on a long day’s hike – soaking rainstorms, view-annihilating mists, doubt-inducing forks in the path – would still lead to a inquisitive host with no shortage of character, a hot shower that displaced exhaustion, and a gratin of wild mushrooms or stew of pork and eggplant. Tasty local reds such as Costières de Nîmes and Faugères did more than numb the pain, and Liz developed a taste for local kirs flavoured with chestnut and quince that UNESCO might have approved of.
Still, we noticed that Sarah’s wise annotations on the landscape paused now and then to issue reminders such as, “this is not a survival course, you are on holiday” – cautions that might have been aimed at me since I’d insisted she make her usual routes longer and harder.
I’d explained it as a Canadian wilderness thing. But then Dan turned up one stormy morning and diverted us to a bar where Sarah looked us in the eye and made us promise we would take seriously the danger of that day’s river crossing.
“What, could we die?” I said, summoning up my dismissive tough-guy side.
“Yes,” she said, lacking her usual cheeriness.
Please notice: We survived. But it says something about the Cévennes that the prospect of imminent death as we tiptoed across wet boulders while an unleashed river crashed around us was a real letdown after all the other wonders we took in.
IF YOU GO
Silver Green Walking Holidaysis a team of well-connected Cévennes specialists who offer a range of self-guided walks in the region that include all meals and baggage transfers. Accommodation and food exude local pride and a personal touch. Pickup and drop-off at the Montpellier airport or train station can be arranged, but public transport is an enjoyable option. silvergreen.co.uk
Hôtel Doussière in Le Rozier is a charming and deceptively simple riverside inn with inventive regional cooking. It’s perfectly situated for gorge aficionados at the juncture of the Jonte and Tarn rivers. Extensive networks of trails lead up to high plateaus and amazing vistas. hotel-doussiere.com
The Maison des Vautours is a gorge-side interpretative centre devoted to the vultures of the region, with a good lookout area and cameras trained on nesting sites. vautours-lozere.com
Extraordinarily elaborate caves are a hidden feature of the limestone uplands, and Aven Armand may be the most amazing – an enchanted forest of stalagmites and stalactites. The cave also hosts summer concerts. aven-armand.com