Orchids in June

Hiking distance : 7 km ; Hiking time : 02:30

The Clos Gaillard, near the French administrative town of Nimes has a story to tell. As early as the third millenium before the Christian era, the area was occupied – perhaps by hunter-gatherers, perhaps by farmers. Traces of human occupation remain from most subsequent periods of history. Fast forward to circa AD 1400 and the area, all 240 hectares of it, was ceded by the local village of La Calmette to the town of Nimes in exchange for a livestock market. The limestone landscape could not support intensive farming but there are fertile depressions among the limestone outcrops allowing for orchards and cereal production. Stone cabins in dome shapes attest to human occupation.

lizard orchid

Modern farming developments and related population shifts to urban areas left the area mostly abandoned to scrub forest by the mid 20th century. Then came the fires – here and there – intermittent. After a major fire in 1974 the municipality of Nimes decided to reforest the area. This might have been a mistake because in 1989 a huge fire destroyed about half of the Clos Gaillard forest and many, many hectares beyond (over 600 in total).

This time the reconstruction of the area required a rethink and the result is a modern landscape park, less prone to fire, with more open spaces and many ethnobotanical features. The area contains rehabilitated stone cabins (known as capitelles), several waymarked walking routes, mini arboretums including a substantial collection of almonds and oak varieties, lookout points, educational exhibits etc. Much has been done to keep the site open with firebreaks and thereby favour the return of natural endemic flora (ex corn cockles, wild snapdragon, plantain etc) to an open milieu.

(The above notes about the history of the site are excerpted from this reference).

On this day in June, we were not expecting to see much novelty. It was just a stroll to take advantage of a beautiful spring day. We usually walked these routes in winter, but this was the first time in June. We were surprised, primarily by the numerous stations along the route where magnificent lizard orchids stood up to 80 cm tall. The rest of the flora sparkled as well (all pictures taken in Clos Gaillard, June 2021).


Here are the route details and some observation spots.

The pond at La Capelle

Hiking distance : 8 km ; Hiking time : 2:00
château, La Capelle

Contrary to places like Canada or Sweden, there are very few natural lakes in the Gard department. The number wavers between zero and very few. However, there are many other hydrological phenomenon just as interesting as natural lakes. For example, there are numerous springs (called “fonts” or “resurgences”) where substantial rivers emerge from under the ground and “pertes” where these same rivers disappear underground. All of this is due to the prevailing karstic limestone bedrock that favours the formation of grottos, caverns, avens and underground rivers.

Another less frequent phenomenon is the natural pond, usually quite small. Near the village of La Capelle however, there is a natural pond that swells to considerable size (up to 60 hectares) in the rainy season and ebbs back to a bed of reeds in dry seasons. The pond is in a low lying natural depression or “impluvium” with several obvious inflows from the surrounding hills and no surface outflow.

This curious situation results from geological movements that allowed the formation of a basin on hard limestone bedrock backfilled with semi-impermeable clay. Water flowing into the basin never leaves except by seepage into the water table. Experts believe that this pond supplies water for a number of “resurgences” in the area. Whatever the theories, this pond is an exceptional site and a rarity in the surrounding garrigues terrain.

La Capelle pond in January 2015 after heavy autumn rains

Over time it has also taken some vigorous action by local people to safeguard the site. Among development projects was the idea to build a drainage canal and convert 40 or 50 hectares of pond into arable land – fertility guaranteed of course. It didn’t happen and now the pond is a protected Natura 2000 site.

This walk takes us from a starting point next to La Capelle castle directly to the pond where there are signposted pathways and several information panels. After the pond, the track circles back through numerous apricot orchards and vinyards to Masmolene. The final section traverses the villages, first Masmolene and then La Capelle. At the top of the hill in Masmolene, the chapel of St Pierre is worth a look. And to finish, the track from the chapel to La Capelle runs through and area of rocky outcrops (known in french as a “chaos rocheux”).


The Villaret Trail

Hiking distance : 5.5 km ; Hiking time : 2

Doorway in Massufret (1769)

The Luech river starts at the foot of the “Signal du Ventalon” (a 1300 m summit in the Bougès range) and runs through a steeply banked upper valley past Vialas and on to Chamborigaud to eventually join the river Cèze. The upper reaches of the river are fairly wild and remote, formerly a land of subsistence agriculture and small scale mining. On this hot morning in August, we decide to walk the 5 or 6 kilometers starting from the Col de la Baraquette (alt 1000m) on the D35 ridge road (La Tavernole to Pont de Montvert). We started the drive in the industrial town of Alès. The road from Alès to the Tavernole intersection is in good shape and fairly interesting passing through old mining villages and near the Portes chateau. The D35, starting at la Tavernole, is an experience however. Too narrow for 2 good sized vehicles to cross, too winding to allow any speed and lots of “vistas” (otherwise known as steep cliffs much too close to the road’s edge).
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Easy walking around Villeneuve-les-Avignon

Hiking distance : km ; Hiking time :

Le prieuré de Villeneuve-lez-Avignon

Villeneuve-les-Avignon is located on the right bank of the Rhone river, right across from Avignon. In 1292, thanks to the politics and land swaps of the time, the position became a post on the frontier of the royal domains of France. To the east, on the left bank of the Rhone, barons and kings pledged allegiance to the Holy Roman Empire, not to France. So in 1292, Philippe-le-Bel, king of France, agreed to the construction of defensive fortifications including the Philippe-le-Bel tower (what else?) and the Saint-André fortress. Not long after, Avignon became the home of the Catholic pope giving the French king even more reason to watch his neigbours. These defensive constructions, preserved to the present day, are landmarks of the modern city and visible from multiple angles along this route.
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