Holidays in the Cevennes
Calm and serene, the Cevennes region and its National Park is a hiker’s paradise, with unspoilt natural scenery stretching as far as the eye can see. As one of the most compelling and picturesque regions in southern France, the uplands form part of the Massif Central and offer dramatic landscapes comprising cascading streams, rocky valleys, and tree-lined hilltops. As a result, walking holidays in the Cevennes are moderately challenging, offering both physical and scenic rewards.
Sparsely populated, the overwhelming appeal of the Cevennes lies in its peace and tranquillity. Whether strolling through granite-hewn towns or tackling plunging valleys, walkers will be struck by the sense of calm that pervades the region and quells the tensions of modern living. Panoramic views stretch far into the distance and picturesque hamlets perch on hilltops, their welcoming characters contrasting the boulder strewn terrain that surrounds them.
The remote, mountainous location of Cevennes presents plenty of more demanding walking routes for visitors with a passion for adventure. The soaring peak of Mont Lozere in particular offers a tantalising challenge, with its 1,699m elevation – the highest in Cevennes – which can be scaled comfortably by those of moderate fitness and experience. Sparse and rocky as it may be, the mountain is the source of the beautiful River Tam, a sign that there’s more to this hilltop region than meets the eye. Indeed, Mont Lozere encapsulates the entire Cevennes region in microcosm: a region where even remote isolation cannot hinder the flourishing of life.
History of the Cevennes
While nature has shaped the Cevennes over millions of years into the majestic mountainous region we find today, the influence of human history on this fascinating region of southern France has been altogether slight.
Embracing the peaks and foothills of the Massif Central, the earliest visitors to the Cevennes are thought to have appeared during Neolithic times, with Nomadic animal herders forging tracks that wind their way through the hillsides. These early trade routes would set a precedent for what would follow, with the Celtic tribes of ancient Gaul using the pathways to transport livestock across the verdant region, establishing basic settlements along the way that would slowly grow into communities.
For centuries, the anonymity of the Cevennes was preserved by its hilltop setting, leaving only sparsely inhabited regions untouched by outsiders, and preserving the natural charm of the mountainous area.
With the onset of the 16th century, more and more travellers would find themselves heading towards the Cevennes region, with the set of French Protestants known as the Huguenots calling the region home. As the Huguenots, whose numbers across southern France reached in excess of two million by the mid 16th century, became more open about their faith, so the Catholic church became more vigorous in its opposition.
With the publication of the Edict of Nantes declaring France a wholly Catholic nation, the Protestant Huguenots were, for a time, appeased through certain political freedoms. The situation gradually deteriorated in the decades that followed, however, causing more and more Huguenots to flee southern France. The reign of Louis XIV ultimately declared Protestantism illegal, with the remaining Huguenots taking refuge among the hills and valleys of Cevennes.
End of persecution
As the years passed and the modernisation of France gathered pace, persecution of the French Protestants – not least those resident in the Cevennes hills – dwindled, with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen affording them equal rights in totality. As such, the freedom of religious practice saw many return to the region without fear of discovery, and the mountainside communities continued to live among the peaceful surroundings.
Throughout the 20th century, Cevennes has enjoyed a sedate existence, yet still managed to play an important part during the events of the Second World War. Having experienced religious persecution throughout its own history, the Protestant community was selfless in sheltering many Jews in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, saving the lives of a number of those victimised for their faith.
The Cevennes’ stunning panoramas, coupled with its intriguing human and religious history, has ensured a wealth of discoveries are ready to be made by walkers in the region.
Cuisine of the Cevennes
French cuisine enjoys a prestige and reverence typically only reserved for works of art. Such is the rich array of flavours, dishes, and specialities available across the nation, plus an abundance of local produce of international acclaim, diners are never found stuck for gastronomic choice. Cevennes fare, though simpler than in other regions, sees local produce cooked to perfection making for homely yet delicious dishes.
With its remote setting high among the Massif Central in southern France, much of the cuisine of Cevennes is crafted around the produce grown and reared in the area. Among the most widely used ingredients in dishes from the region is the Oignon Doux des Cevennes – the sweet onion of the Cevennes. With AOC certification, the sweet onion cultivated in the Gard is classed as a premium category onion, adding a soft, subtle, and delicious flavour to any dish.
The thick forestry of Cevennes represents the breeding ground for one of the region’s foremost treats – sweet chestnuts. The traditional Bajana soup dish of Cevennes, for example, is the ideal winter warmer, with the addition of vegetables and milk making it a rich and hearty meal. Chestnuts are also ground to make flour, which is used in traditional chestnut bread.
A suitable for topping for chestnut bread is the honey of Cevennes. Beekeeping in the region has been and integral part of life over the years, and Cevennes honey is distinct in both appearance and flavour. Its dark colouring gives way to a strong flavour and intense aroma, while the chestnut honey that’s also available is a local speciality much sought after around the world.
Cheese and wine
A selection of cheese and wine provides a full flavoured and unique climax to dining in the region. The Cevennes Pelardon goat’s cheese is produced exclusively in the area, with tradition stating that the goats used for production must be fed on land surrounding chestnut trees to provide the distinctive taste. For wine, locally produced Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Grenache prove the perfect accompaniment to any dining experience.
On the trail of Robert Louis Stevenson
As one of the most renowned novelists in British literature – penning such enduring masterpieces as Treasure Island and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson’s reputation for possessing an exceptional imagination means he is often touted as one of the most influential fiction writers of the 19th century. Less known, however, are his travel writings.
Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes
One of the earliest examples of Stevenson’s writing, and among the first published works of his career, was Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. Still in his 20s at the time, Stevenson embarked on a solo hike around this now beautiful, tranquil area of southern France, covering 120 miles in 12 days.
It was in pursuit of adventure – and, as is so often the case, to overcome unrequited love – that Stevenson set out on his journey, accompanied only by a stubborn donkey named Modestine. The resulting hike would take the pair through what was an impoverished region, but one from which Stevenson was able to convey the sparse, rugged charm of the terrain. It also recounted tales of the characters they met along the route, as well as detailed descriptions of villages and towns, such as Pont-de-Montvert.
The entertaining journal, which features a number of amusing passages detailing the author’s relationship with Modestine, has gone down in history as a revolutionary work of travel writing and is considering a pioneering piece of outdoor literature. The plaudits reserved for Travels… are afforded to its accounts of camping and hiking as recreational pursuits, and also the details given to commissioning one of the very first sleeping bags.
Following publication of Travels… in 1879, Stevenson would continue his passion for documenting his travels, before achieving greater success with his works of fiction. The legacy of his work, however, has given travel writing the humorous, anecdotal formula that was so unique to Stevenson at the time and is now a renowned travel writing technique.
Thanks to the success of Travels... and Stevenson’s major works, the writer is inextricably linked to Cevennes, with tourists following the route taken in the book and experiencing the natural wonders of Cevennes themselves. Whether travelling in a group, alone or with a donkey, there is much to intrigue in this delightful region.