Causses and Cévennes From the easy life to vertigo in the land of cheese and hiking

Causses and Cévennes From the easy life to vertigo in the land of cheese and hiking

From the easy life to vertigo in the land of cheese and hiking

Young Parisians travel around the Causses and the Cevennes in search of wide open spaces. Families look for a certain quality of life. This is how holidays are spent in the land of cheese and hiking.

Montpellier-le-Vieux, 2pm. Here we find two young couples with backpacks and walking shoes, sunglasses and hiking sticks. The foursome come from Paris: "We wanted to discover the real Causses and Cévennes. The fact that the region has a UNESCO rating helped us decide to do this hike and to be honest, we don’t regret it. The weather is lovely and there are some fascinating landscapes sculpted by the elements." After a little outing on the shady path between Scots pine and oak trees to admire the uneven landscape, the small group leaves in the direction of Camprieu, then onto l'Espérou and Mount Aigoual.

Magnificent landscapes and weather-peeled plateaux
A week's holiday amongst magnificent landscapes and weather-peeled plateaux, overnight stays in farms and camping in the wild, tasting lamb and meeting shepherds. "It was the shepherds who shaped this landscape for thousands of years," explains a guide from the Great Causses Regional Park. "Here, you travel ten kilometres and you pass from one country into another," adds an employee of the Cevennes Mountains National Park. The steppe landscape of the Causses is similar to that of Mongolia. The Cévennes valleys give you the impression of being in Corsica. On the Causses are the grey stone Templar commanderies. A little further away the rivers sink into the earth’s crevisses. In the gorges of the Tarn, vertical cliffs rise above the river. "It's dizzying," exclaims a holiday-maker more accustomed to the plains of Burgundy.

500 events
"Between the Causses and Cevennes, you find not only the famous landscapes," the Camprieu tourist office assures us. "The bonus, for me, is the exceptional quality of life, far away from the crowds," explains this holiday-maker from Toulouse, who, at Florac market, is choosing his goats’ cheeses. He is spending his holiday in a bed and breakfast at Barre des Cevennes with his wife and two children. On his list of things to do: reading, hiking, fishing and many other activities. "There are more than 500 events taking place in the surrounding area," he says with a wide smile. "We won’t have time to do everything, which is a good excuse to come back!"

Ancestral practices and green tourism

For thousands of years, men have shaped the landscape of the Causses and Cevennes. Pastoral practices in this land of sheep paths mean that these lands are now classified by UNESCO as a world heritage site.

United here by man are two very different lands. The Cévennes is a mid-mountain region with deep gorges, green shale valleys and ragged ridges. Two granite mountains stand out: Mont Lozère and Mont Aigoual. Nothing like the Causses, these huge expanses of battered weather-peeled rocks lie beyond the limestone plateaus which have deeply cut by the waters of the Tarn, Dourbie and Jonte, forming towering cliffs there.

Wonders of the bedrock

The Grands Causses is separated into Causse Méjean, Causse Noir, Causse de Sauveterre and Causse du Larzac. These geologically-varied places leave you speechless: wherever you look there are canyons, sinkholes and scattered piles of rocks such as those of Montpellier-le-Vieux. Here, the rivers showed their independence, leaving their beds like at the Cirque de Navacelles where the River Vis has abandoned its meandering to plunge deeply at the Navacelles waterfall. The bedrock hides many wonders: the Armand cave on the Causse Méjean has the only forest of stalagmite formations like it in the world. It’s called the Dargilan cave, known as the ‘pink cave’, and located on the Causse Noir. It is impressive by its size, its amazing concretions and their stunning colour. Then there is the Bramabiau abyss and its underground river, known as the ‘River of Happiness’, which is simply breath-taking.

4 000 years ago

Man arrived very early in these more or less hospitable lands. The presence of dolmens, menhirs and flint tools confirm man’s time of arrival in the region. This was approximately 4,000 years ago and these early humans were hunters and gatherers. The Celts and the Romans came next, followed by the Visigoths, the Franks and the Saracens who fought for the territory.

The arrival of the Middle Ages saw see the development of the cultivation of the chestnut tree, the feeding tree or ‘breadfruit tree’. This type of cultivation meant more intensive use of the land, such as the creation of terraces with dry stone walls, the construction of irrigation systems and tancats across the water channels.

Industrial revolution

These techniques endured over the centuries and allowed the planting of vineyards and olive groves on this hostile land. They were intensified in the sixteenth century, the most important period of the chestnut culture, and a drainage system was implemented. But the farmer’s work was hard, with heavy rains causing the earth to crumble and break away down the mountainside, enforcing constant rehabilitation of the land.

A massive land clearing mission occurred, incurring the loss of several local species such as beeches and oaks, which returned when the breadfruit tree finally lost its honoured status. It was decimated by disease and something more lucrative followed in its place – it was, in fact, gradually replaced by the mulberry tree. In the 18th century, the culture of the mulberry tree was widespread, enabling the breeding of the silkworms that would lead to the prosperity of the Cévennes. The landscape therefore becomes punctuated by big silk cultures and mills that still remain today despite the end of the sericulture industry.

Goats and sheep

In addition to these cultures, men were engaged in rearing livestock: goats and cattle in the Cévennes and sheep on the Causses where caves were carved into the rock to refine the Roquefort cheese. The shepherds still use the old sheep paths, carved out of the hillsides over thousands of years by the sheep, and lavognes, dugouts where animals drank during the transhumance. These are rarer, but remain spectacular as do those which are still used on Mont Lozère.

Agriculture and livestock faming have helped man live here, an outdoor work that was maybe enviable by those who, during this period, were extracting coal from the Cévennes mines. Miners toiling in the bowels of the Earth yet so close to these farmers - rough, tough and freedom-loving men who have so often in the past, suffered to defend themselves or defend their ideas.

Fragile environment

This courage is exemplified during the hostilities which arose from the reforms of the 18th century, by Protestants who did not want to submit or give up their faith. They fought the forces of Louis XIV for three years. They had the advantage of having a perfect knowledge of the land, setting ambushes and holding back the Royal troops.

The troops arrived by the royal road created between Saint-Jean-du-Gard and Florac, called ‘the Cévennes corniche’. Harassed, imprisoned and sent to the galleys, the Cévennes Protestants resisted, meeting in secret to worship and listen to their ministers. Exasperated, the King decided to destroy the region and many villages are burned. Violence reigned. It would take the ascension of Louis XVI to the throne before the liberty of the religion would be re-established.

Today the inhabitants of these lands still live as close as possible to nature, trying to conserve certain ancestral practices like intensive farming. Green tourism has developed thanks to these two national parks. The National Park of the Cevennes and the Regional Park of the Grands Causses both protect a fragile environment, rich with extraordinary fauna and flora.

The Causses-Cévennes region covers 302,000 hectares from Mount Lozere to Causse du Larzac, through the Aigoual massive, straddling the Lozere, Gard, Herault and Aveyron. This UNESCO area includes, to the north, the Cevennes National Park. To the west, it covers part of the Regional Natural Park of the Grands Causses. It hosts, to the northwest, the mass of land incorporating the gorges of the Tarn, of the Jonte and of the Causses and to the south it borders the large area including Saint-Guilhem-le-Desert and the gorges of the Herault.

Meet

Eric Martin, shepherd in the Valley of Happiness

Every summer for 40 years, Eric Martin Berger has watched over a herd of more than a thousand sheep in the mountain pastures of the Devois Mountain on theborders of the Gard, Lozère and Aveyron.

It is noon. Happily ensconced in the shade of a pine forest, the sheep are relaxing near a former swamp which is almost dry. The shepherd will let them go at around 5pm. The flock, which is being raised for meat, will then go up to the pastures of the Devois Mountain, at an altitude of 1,100 metres.

Every spring, Eric Martin’s sheep take the migrationary mountain paths up to Camprieu-Saint-Sauveur, a village on a limestone plateau, surrounded by beech and coniferous forests.

To reach the home of Eric Martin you have to leave the tarmac road and take a dirt track, alongside which flows the ‘River of Happiness’. He lives in a valley frequented by hikers and holiday-makers who stop at his house to taste his roasted lambs’ meat. "It's a way to promote our products," explains Eric Martin.

His face is weathered by the sun, his voice gravelly. Eric Martin has spent almost six months out of every year in this valley for almost 40 years. "I started keeping the animals at the age of 14," he says.

Today, together with another shepherd, he watches over a flock of 1,200 animals. In September, the sheep will give birth to 300 lambs. And in November, with the first cold spells, it will be time to come back down to Valleraugue.

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