Balazuc and Viel Audon

Hiking distance : 7.5 km ; Hiking time : 3h30

Balazuc is a picturesque village sitting on a rocky hillside on the left bank of the Ardèche river not too far from Aubenas – and about 100 km north of Nîmes.

Village de Balazuc
Village de Balazuc

This trail starts from a parking area near the high end of the village – next to the « Tour Carré ». We wander though the old village streets, trying to keep our bearings and stumble across a variety of curiosities including the reproduction of an ancient sarcophagus discovered near Balazuc. (which like most other valuable historical artifacts is stored in a big city museum somewhere).

We are headed for the (one) bridge over the Ardèche river and the best way to find it is to always head downhill. The village is very quiet in winter and picturesque under raw winter light. (provided the sun is shining). The town is much more lively in the summer.

Eventually we cross the bridge and turn left to head down a riverside path to the once silent hamlet of Viel Audon. This spot, facing the Ardèche river and nestled under a good sized cliff is not reachable by road so at some point during the 19th or early 20th century its last inhabitants left for other places. In the second half of the 20th century the hamlet was brought back to life by dedicated local citizens who created an association aimed at rebuilding the village. For around the past 40 years the village has come to life in spring time and summer with students and youth groups from around Europe and elsewhere who live and work on restoration projects.

On this winter’s day, we saw a few goats and even fewer hikers.

Then we climb the ‘calade’ pathway to the top of the plateau and start a 4 to 5 km clockwise loop leading eventually back to the Ardèche river banks. The landscape on the plateau is best described as a chaotic mess of box trees, scrub oak and limestone rock forms created by differential erosion of hard and soft limestone. This plateau extends, in fact for about 50 km in a NE-SW orientation. Nothing but rocks and trees. The land is mostly useless for cultivation but was used for grazing livestock at various times. A few houses are scattered around in the vegetation. Many of them must be ‘off the grid’ : no municipal water or power, outdoor sawdust toilets, poor road access, etc.

Partway along the plateau route we pass behind the circular lookout tower. This tower sits on the right bank of the Ardèche river and once served to watch over a main approach route to Balazuc.

Back on the river edge we cross the bridge and climb up though the village by a different route admiring the old houses, the old fortification gates and the church with a bell gable (and no bell).

Winter is best for photography as the raw angled light provides great contrast and sharp outlines. On this day we were not that lucky – some sunshine but mostly dull cloudy skies.

For this circuit – walking sticks and solid hiking boots will help you defeat the large limestone rocks littering most of the route.

The Rouveyrac trail

Hiking distance : 10 km ; Hiking time : 03:30

My first time on this trail was in 2010. The trail was in good condition passing by some beautiful viewpoints and a picturesque mountain village. The starting point, near the old train station in Thoiras, (now a restaurant), is fairly easy to find. Go around the station, cross the tracks and walk along a local road for a few hundred meters before tackling, on the left, a rocky rough climb. Presumably this was the starting point for the ‘draille’ a livestock trail used to move animals to pastures on higher ground during the summer months.

In 2022, this part of the trail is in rather poor condition, strewn with loose stones, broken rocks and scrub trees.

The old station at Thoiras-la-Plaine

A few kilometers up the trail, near the high point, things begin to look more ominous. There are signs warning not to pick plants. The site is polluted with heavy metals! Here we are near the abandoned Grande Pallieres mine (Vieille Montagne), a serious source of pollution. The mining concession concerned 4 towns including Thoiras, starting point of this circuit, and Saint-Félix de Pallières.

The mine is located on the western slope of the Grande Pallières ridge. (There is an important prehistoric site – cromlech, dolmens etc- on the eastern slope).

Lead, zinc and silver were extracted here until 1971. After closure, the place was abandoned with no rehabilitation work. For years, nothing happened while the children of the nearby village of St-Félix played in the slag heaps. Then progressively, the dangers of this site began to get noticed. In 2008 a report commissioned by the Ministry of the Environment confirmed significant levels of soil pollution in heavy metals. In 2010, an association (ADAMVM) took up the issue.

Since then there have been many twists and turns that I will not recount in detail. The mining company Umicore, owner of the site, was obliged to install a retention wall to limit the slag heap runoff into the Paleyrolle stream. But the Cévennes region is well-known for episodes of torrential rain creating sudden high volume runoff and retention walls don’t help much. If you walk this trail, take a close look at the water with its strange iridescent tones of orange, red, and rust.

In 2016 a complaint was filed for the endangerment of life and poisoning of water. In 2020 after long deliberations, the courts dismissed the case. This despite the fact that the French government had already confirmed the presence of significant pollution, and had and forced Umicore to build the retaining wall . Also despite the fact that residents living nearby, when tested, showed significant contamination of urine with heavy metals (cadmium, arsenic and lead).

a makeshift bar in the travelers camp

And don’t remind the locals that they can’t sell their houses (no value) or grow vegetables in the back garden…

The saddest part? The former mine site is used as a camp by nomadic families. In 2010, I saw a lot of children. There were fewer in 2022, but people still live there and, it seems, have rave parties from time to time.

Hiking in the Cevennes: it’s almost always beautiful. Not this time.

Abandoned rail lines in the Uzège district

Hiking distance : 10-12 km ; Hiking time : from 3 to 4 hrs

The group of trails described in this article allow interested walkers to see a number of places where remnants of 19th century railroad lines are still visible, sometimes abandoned, but often reused as roads, storage depots and private houses.

abandoned guard house
bridge deck no longer

Three rail lines crossed the Uzège district in the 19th and early 20th century. These were :

  • A line from Beaucaire to Le Martinet. This one was built to transport coal from the Auzonnet valley to the Rhône river port at Beaucaire. Authorised in 1875, the line opened two sections in 1880 – one from Uzès to Remoulins and a second from Le Martinet to Les Fumades. These lines could immediately function as branches on pre-existing services. In 1883, the remaining sections were opened. Passenger traffic was suspended in 1938 and sections were progressively closed up to 2006. In 2018 after final administrative closures, several sections of the line – in particular from Beaucaire to Uzès – have been converted to bike and pedestrian walkways. The sections of this line explored in the following walking routes, all to the west of Uzès, have yet to be rehabilitated. Major engineering works still visible on this route include the viaducts in Euzet and the 400 m rail tunnel in Celas, both of which are visited by the walking routes below.
  • A line from Laudun-L’Ardoise to Alès : Contrary to the other 2 lines, both granted to the Paris-Lyon-Mediterrannee rail operator, this concession was granted to ARM (Alais-Rhône-Mediterranee). Ostensibly this would be to compete with the PLM operation in transporting freight to the Rhône via an alternate, quicker route. But the line may have been unsuccessful from the start as the terminus in Alès was not that close to coal mines. In fact the terminal station was in the Conilhères area of Alès, near the main PLM station, but due to commercial disagreements this line was not interconnected with the Cévennes mainline. Ultimately, like the others, the line was closed to passengers in 1938 and totqlly closed to freight by 1954. Some references say this line was never profitable. The modern highway between Bagnols and Alès uses a substantial portion of this line between Seynes and Brouzet. Visible remains of this line include the Saint-Laurent station – now a private home.
  • An 18.9 km line from Uzès station to Nozières connecting Uzes to the main Cévennes route (Nîmes through Alès to Clermont-Ferrand). Construction of the line was authorised in 1875 and it was opened in 1883. The line was closed to passengers in 1930 and steel rails were removed from the line during the second world war for other uses. The early closing of this line suggests that it was never particularly profitable. Major engineering works included a viaduct over the road from Uzès to Arpaillargues – still visible today – and a bridge over the Gardon river near Moussac. The Moussac bridge foundation was re-used in the late 20th century to build a new highway bridge over the Gardon river.

The interactive map below displays the approximate route of each of these 3 lines in the western Uzège district. The altitude profiles are approximate only.

Approximate rail routes

Section of line from Laudun to Alès

Complete route Uzès to Nozières

Section of Beaucaire-Martinet line

The walking routes

Exploring the line from Beaucaire to Le Martinet :

These 3 walking routes explore sections of the line from Beaucaire to Le Martinet. West of Uzès, the line traverses Montaren, Serviers, Foissac, Saint-Maurice, Euzet and Saint Just. The major civil engineering sites are the viaducs in Euzet and the tunnel in Celas. The walking trail in the Bouscarasse area follows the old rail route for several km through a wet forest where it is possible to observe the numerous cuts and embankments needed to cross this wet area. The tunnel in Celas can be traversed on foot (rechecked in 2021) but the poor light in the center of the tunnel means a flashlight or forehead lamp is advisable.

Exploring the Uzès to Nozières line

The loop below starts in the small hamlet of Aureillac and after passing a section of forest, reaches a foot bridge over a deep cut used by the line to limit roadbed slopes. Further along this walk it is possible to see a significant viaduct over the main Uzès-Arpaillargues highway (slightly off the walking route). Both this structure and the preceding deep cut trench allowed the track to maintain a fairly uniform slope as it climbed out of the Uzès station to the higher ground around Arpaillargues.

A short walk near the line from Laudun to Alès

On this walk, it’s possible to see a large former rail station now converted to a private home. Near the station a number of barns, garages and sheds seem to hark back to the railroad days. It looks like there was a substantial freight operation around this station near Saint-Laurent-la-Vernède. There is an abandoned ocre quarry along the route. Perhaps freight from this quarry was shipped via the Saint-Laurent station .

Walk and look

Celas tunnel – Alès side
Celas tunnel – Uzès side

In many cases, the former rail route has been converted to road or track, sometimes to bicycle paths. Old stations, identifiable by their distinct 19th century “railroad” style are still in use almost everywhere – as private dwellings. Apart from stations, there were various technical buildings along these tracks – some served as residences for barrier guards. Some of these are ruined – an example is visible in the Bouscarrasse area. Bridge foundations have been reused for roadway. A substantial section of the D6 from Bagnols to Alès reuses the old track bed near the Seyne cliffs. In other cases, for example near Maruejols-les-Bois, the ballast has been removed and the track right of way is now a muddy mess. In a number of cases the rail road passes over other roads or tracks. In many cases the abutments are present but the bridge deck has disappeared. The viaducts in Euzet are large and apparently unmaintained. Sooner or later walking across these viaducts will become impossible for safety reasons. The rail tunnel in Celas is quite passable (with a flash light) but also apparently unmaintained. If a section of the tunnel roof were to collapse, the tunnel will certainly be closed. It is a testimony to the solid engineering works of the 1880’s that these things are still standing. Remember that most of these structures would have been built without mechanical digging, lifting, or earth moving equipment.

The pictures in this article were mostly taken between 2020 and 2021. The author personally walked these routes in 2021. Never-the-less, a walking route is never permanent. Routes can be closed, re-routed. Tunnels and bridges may become unsafe and impassable etc. Use the data with care.

Vineyards and Camisards

Hiking distance : 11 km ; Hiking time : 4 hrs

The little town of Castelnau-Valence is surrounded by many hectares of vineyards sometimes seeming to fill the horizon. An autumn walk on a sunny day provides a stunning display of contrasts and colors.

But there is history here too. The castle on a hill at Castelnau – about 1.5 km from the town centre was involved in a famous but tragic episode during Camisard wars of the early 18th century.

In 1685, Louis XIV decided that he’d had enough of the Calvinist Protestants (known as Huguenots). He issued a decree forbidding the practice of the Calvinist religion and providing for the destruction of Calvinist churches and closure of schools. Huguenots caught secretly practicing their religion were subject to persecution, confiscation, imprisonment and execution.

Around 1700, in the Cévennes hills, long a Huguenot stronghold, groups of young men (the so called Camisards) entered into guerrilla style armed resistance, banding together to attack Catholic villages and churches, royal troops and other symbols of the repressive state. Their raids tool place all though the Cévennes including the high plateaus, the foothills and the garrigue areas around Uzès, Aigaliers, Alès, and Castelnau-Valence.

Pierre Laporte was a Camisard, a preacher and a good fighter. Born in Mialet, he was involved in many skirmishes and attacks between 1699 and 1704. But by mid 1704 a number of the Camisard chiefs had decided to give up the fight and leave France in exile. Not Pierre Laporte. He was to fight on until, on a day in August 1704, someone tipped off the royal troops that he was hiding out in the castle at Castelnau. Laporte was able to flee just before the arrival of the troops but, with no lead time on his pursuers, he was caught and killed in a valley nearby. A memorial now stands near the site.

This walk starts at the playground in Valence and passes by a large 19th century windmill, recently renovated. The windmill was built in the 19th century to pump water from a local well and supply fountains in the nearby towns of Saint-Dezery and Valence. Around 1940, wind power was replaced by electrical power and by 1956 the pumps were no longer needed. The windmill remains in good shape due to renovations in the early 21st century.

After the windmill, there are hectares of vineyards until reaching the Pierre Laporte Memorial. After the memorial, south of the Castelnau grounds there is a remarkable tree – a prickly juniper. This species is very common in the Mediterranean region and is usually a shrub or a small tree, The specimen at this way-point is 13 metres tall with a 4-5 metre trunk. The tree is thought to be up to 1000 years old.

Finally reaching a hilltop on the highway there is a closer view of the Castelnau castle (now private), site of the historical incident mentioned above.

The Pierre Laporte Memorial