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.
Hiking distance : 11 km ; Hiking time : 4:00 plus 1:30 to visit the Abîme
Mount Aigoual, the second highest peak in the Cévennes, is a wet place. Annual rainfall averages around 2 m per year (yes metres – not centimeters). In an a very wet year, the total annual accumulation could reach 4 m. The name Aigoual derives from the root word “aiga” meaning “water” in a number of romance languages and dialects. No surprise there.
Local geology is complex – granite bedrock, karst topographies and schist. Several rivers arise on and around the peak. One of them is called “Le Bonheur” (Happiness) ”.
The Bonheur meanders across a flat granite plateau and filters through various bogs. At a point near the town of Camprieu, the river flows off the granite bedrock into an area of karst limestone. Soon after, the river enters a sizable cave and about 100 metres into the cave, the river disappears underground. This disappearance point is known as “la Perte” – the loss. In the picture, we see the entrance to the cave, and in the distance a sun-lit area resulting from a partial roof collapse deep in the cave.
Around 500 m away, at the bottom of an imposing limestone cliff a river emerges at the base of a huge vertical diaclase*. Same river ? The answer is yes. This was proven by some of the earliest french cave divers in the late 19th century by traversing the underground river bed from end to end.
Where the river emerges from the cliff face it is now called the “Bramabiau”, meaning the “braying of bulls” named for the noise of the surging waterfalls.
So happiness became a raging bull… It seems like the river, entering a zone of karst with its numerous underground cavities ended up by finding or creating a way through to the base of the cliff where it emerges at an altitude around 70 metres lower. The section between the perte and the emergence of the river will eventually become a ravine as the cavities grow and surface structures collapse.
This hike starts from the small town of Camprieu and heads steadily downhill into the Aigoual forest, following ancient cobbled paths through a humid valley. Eventually the path emerges near an old stone farmstead – imposing but nevertheless abandoned. A few paces further along you reach the remote and also abandoned village of Saint Sauveur. The village consists of a substantial church, a set of fortified farm buildings and a cemetery. The whole impression is strange : why such a church and village in the middle of nowhere ? The answer, it seems is that the surrounding land was very fertile, and subsistence living from agriculture was feasible.
This village, about 4 km from Camprieu and in a difficult to reach spot, was the original centre of town, but was progressively abandoned in the late 19th to early 20th century in favour of Camprieu – easier to reach by road and location of a new church. The abandoned village was eventually purchased by the French forest management authority (the ONF) and is now at the centre of a fine arboretum. From Saint Sauveur, the trail runs uphill back towards Camprieu and very close to the diaclase and the raging bull. We decided to visit. Tickets are purchased near the highway and the guide takes you down to the base of the cliff, into the diaclase and through a labyrinth of galleries, mini-canyons, waterfalls and caverns created by raging waters. Of course – visits only available when the water is not raging and this means guided tours only – no free roaming. This site – the Abîme de Bramabiau – is open to visitors from spring to autumn but closed in winter (too much water and anyway no visitors).
After the guided tour (taking about 90 minutes) the route takes us back to Camprieu passing close to the Perte du Bonheur. We make a short detour to see where the river disappears underground. The site is almost as impressive as the Diaclase.
This hike, in summary, offers the special ingredients sought by many hikers : walking, history, nature and surprises…
Diaclase : A joint or a fault line in bedrock, usually understood to be geologically inactive.
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.
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.
When our club first put a hiking track online around 2012 we used a free blogging service hosted by the Montpellier based newspaper MidiLibre. The information consisted of a picture of a base map with the circuit superimposed in jpg format. No slippy maps, no altitude profiles, just still images and a few lines of text. Those days are gone and, incidentially so is the free blogging service once hosted by MidiLibre.
Things have changed enormously since then. The “Institut national de l’information géographique et forestière” or IGN for short has moved most of its services online. The WMTS service has become ubiquitous (in the many web and mobile apps for hikers) and the service is mostly free for non commercial use. Many websites now provide access to large databases of hiking routes (VisoRando and VisuGPX to name 2). These sites are open to the public for upload of route gpx’s descriptions and comments : social networks for hikers.
Before 2015, the Parc National des Cévennes published hiking foldouts in little booklets with a green folding cover. In our hiking club we purchased several. These collections of fold outs are now mostly obsolete – primarily because – no surprise – a hiking route is a perishable commodity. Yes these routes need maintenance and sombody has to pay for it. Sometimes the maintenance is taken on by the town councils, but now mostly this devolves to the next level of local government – the Communaute de Communes – or group of municipalities. Some of the routes in these old booklets are no longer maintained, some are still maintained and some are downright dangerous.
Do not try to hike this route : not open between Le Salson and Vimbouches in Feb. 2021 due to landslip.
An example : In March of 2021 I had the misfortune to find, at the bottom of the upper Gardon valley between La Salson and Vimbouches, that a good part of the uphill trail to Vimbouches, formerly a ledge along the ravine edge, had simply disappeared under a landslip. The trail was no longer and there were only 2 choices. Backtrack and hike 6 or 8 extra kilometers to reach the car, or crawl across an unstable landslip sloped at 30 degrees, above a 4 m drop into a ravine. At 4 pm on a short winter’s day, the first option meant hiking past nightfall. The second seemed like the best of 2 poor choices. So Let’s go. It took about 40 minutes to cross a 20 metre stretch of the landslip, feet dug in at the base, hip and shoulder on the wet vertical bank most of the way. Progress was slow since any abrupt movement caused the loose materiel to slide downward. In the end there was no sudden visit to the bottom of the ravine but there were several tense moments.
So printed information and booklets of fold outs go out of date. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Parc National des Cevennes has come on strong in the past 5 years by moving much data online and curating the data so that any hiking route visible on their online service is actually maintained, safe and usable on the ground.
Printed information, better in quality and consistent with the online version, is also still available. Recently in the Tourist Office of Meyruies in the Jonte river valley, I found the ones pictured below. Ten hikes in trifold format in each booklet and, best of all, the same data is accessible online including downloadable GPX files.
Below is an example of the trifolds for a hike near Meyrueis.
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