|The Independent Traveler's Newsletter PAGE FIVE|
|FEATURING Languedoc-Roussillon continued . . .|
Aigues-Mortes is a 13th century fortified city at the edge of the Petite Camargue. Aigues-Mortes means 'dead waters', a name derived from the fact that this was once an important Roman port, but, due to natural changes, is now five kilometers from the sea. It has, regrettably, become a very popular tourist attraction, and with that distinction came souvenir vendors lining its narrow streets and crowded paid parking just outside the walls. Within the walls do find time to visit the lovely 12th century church of Notre Dame des Sablons, fortress towers, ramparts and the wonderful Musée Archéologique.
Nîmes - your destination for Roman treasures
Moving north it is a pleasant drive on the N113 to the city of Nîmes. Known today for its Roman buildings and relics, Nîmes was not considered an important city to the Romans themselves. This is even more interesting in that it lays claim to the most significant number of Roman buildings in existence in the entire world. At the edge of the Old Quarter of the city between boulevard des Arènes and boulevard de la Libération stands the Roman amphitheatre. Believed by many to have been built 80 years before the arena at Arles (75AD), this would date the arena at Nîmes at 5BC. Its condition is superb and it is still in use for concerts, operas and bullfights throughout the summer months. Unfortunately, from our personal viewpoint, the bullfights are the gory Spanish-style corridas, instead of the kinder and more sporting Provençal course de la cocarde practiced in the Camargue where the bulls live to fight another day.
The Arena at Nîmes built in 5BC
Nîmes' Roman Castellum is where the water from Uzès would arrive in the city via the Pont du Gard, and be distributed by a system of lead (!) pipes. A natural spring, now in the center of the Jardin de la Fontaine on Quai de la Fontaine, was the reason for Roman settlement here - a town they called Nemausus, after their god of rivers. The pools and terraces which still exist from Roman times were enhanced in the 18th century by these formal gardens. The most important Roman structure to those who live here, however, is La Maison Carée, currently a museum of antiquities, but once a Roman temple. Built in 5AD, and classically simple in design with delicate Corinthian columns, it has been admired and commented upon through the ages for its beauty. Porte Augustus, the one remaining Roman gate, was also constructed between 5 and 15 AD, and has the distinction of once being part of one of the longest city walls in all of Gaul. If you are interested in Roman artifacts, be sure to visit the Musée Archéologique within the Natural History Museum on boulevard Amiral Courbet. Nîmes also has a fine Musée des Beaux-Arts, with French, Flemish, Italian and Dutch paintings and a mosaic from Gallo-Roman times, The Marriage of Admetus, uncovered in 1882 and now on display on the ground floor.
Today's Nîmes is a sun-drenched and lively city with many restaurants and shops. The Old Quarter, much of which has been closed to automobile traffic, is filled with medieval and Renaissance buildings and its share of narrow winding streets and intimate squares. Nîmes is also famous for two other reasons, the first being denim fabric. Textile manufacture was at one time a major industry in Nîmes, and denim was created here by Levi Strauss for the manufacture of blue jeans - de nîmes became denim. A more dubious distinction held by the city is the fact that a native son, Dr. Jean Nicot, introduced tobacco to France in the 16th century - and nicotine was named for him.
The eastern border of the Gard is the Rhône River, so visitors to Nîmes in particular are within easy reach of Arles, Tarascon and Avignon in Provence, as well the banks of the Rhône itself. Further north in the département is the pleasant town of Bagnols-sur-Cèze and the Gorges de l’Ardèche. Mention of this gorge brings us to the story of the Chauvet Cave, one of the most recent prehistoric discoveries in France. In an issue of this newsletter many years ago we recommended the book Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave if you are interested in seeing the magnificent and perfectly-preserved cave paintings found by its three authors near Pont d’Arc, a natural bridge spanning the Ardèche River. Although this location is not technically in the Gard (it is just over the département border) but is in the Ardèches (70), the story is worth knowing. The three authors, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel Deschamps and Christian Hillaire, were friends who were always discovering and exploring hidden caves along the rugged walls of the Ardèche Gorges. When in December of 1994 they discovered what appeared to be a tiny opening hidden by brush, they lowered themselves into the space to find an enormous cavern. The artwork they saw there astonished them. Knowing the story of Lascaux and the damage the artwork suffered due to visitors and exposure to the elements, the three friends proceeded to have their find authenticated - all the while taking extreme measures to touch nothing and disturb nothing. The cave is still hidden, known only to a few, closed off to the world to protect it. The only way anyone can see the marvels discovered in the Chauvet Cave is through their book! We highly recommend reading this wonderful story of discovery of the art of prehistoric France.
The Parc National des Cévennes straddles the boundary between the Gard and Lozère of Languedoc. On the Gard side are the towns of Alès and Uzès, the latter quite small and the first Duchy in France. It has a 12th century tower, La Tour Fenestrelle, all that remains of its former cathedral. We drove into the Cévennes from Uzès on a beautiful day by way of the D981 to Alès, and from there the N106 all the way to Florac in the département of the Lozère. The N106 is a wonderfully scenic drive, partially following the Rivière Gardon d'Alès, climbing until you leave the Gard and enter Lozère near the little village of Sainte-Cécile-d'Andorge. We were heading for Florac, known as the 'Gateway to the Cévennes', and we were in for a very pleasant surprise.
If you ski, hike in the mountains or enjoy sports such as rock climbing, the Pyrénées of Roussillon offer you both opportunities and location. But further north in Languedoc, in the département of the Lozère (48) you will find yourself at the southern rim of the Massif Central and the Cévennes mountains where both winter and summer sports abound. Although not as high as the Pyrénées, altitudes as high as 1650 meters provide visitors with many popular ski resorts and an abundance of skiing schools. And, if nothing else, the Lozère is definitely as rugged as any place we've seen in France. In warmer months activities such as kayaking, white-water rafting, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, cycling, golf and tennis are available throughout the region.
There is a connection between the well-known author, Robert Louis Stevenson and the Languedoc region of France. A little-known work by Stevenson documented his journey from the Haute-Loire through the Lozère to the Gard in September and October, 1878 - a walking journey with his female companion, a donkey named Modestine. Although everyone knows of Stevenson's famous literary contributions such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, fewer people are familiar with Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, written well before the books that gave him fame. Robert Louis Stevenson spent twelve days with Modestine walking from Monastier in the Auvergne to Saint-Jean du Gard in the heart of the Cévennes. Today, an entire industry is built around Stevenson's adventure with his donkey. Their route is sign-posted and you can find accommodations at several dozen hôtels, chambres d'hôtes, campsites, etc., that not only will provide you with a donkey, but will board you and your donkey along the route: Chemin Stevenson! There are even recommended restaurants that are donkey-friendly!
If you visit this beautiful region of France with its dramatic scenery, you may want to drive the Cévennes Corniche, between Florac in the Lozère (the D9) to Saint-Jean-du-Gard in the Gard (the D260). This amazing road along the mountains with the Gardon River valley below is spectacular. Today's visitor owes it all to the armies of Louis XIV who, in the 17th century, rebuilt it from a rather poor road.
But, we mustn't forget that our destination was Florac, not only the Gateway to the Cévennes as one approaches from the west, but a joyful discovery for us as we emerged from the Cévennes in the east along the N106. We suddenly found ourselves in a mountain village of incredible charm. Located at the meeting place of the spectacular Gorges du Tarn, the Corniche des Cévennes and the Parc National des Cévennes, Florac belies the geological drama that surrounds it. Instead, it appears as a quiet, orderly and pleasant little town with a rural hospital, a small college and a simple church. Despite our arrival in town at two in the afternoon, we were not too late to be served a light lunch at La Source du Pêcher. Our unique meal was a salad of small chunks of potatoes covered in melted goat cheese on a bed of lettuce. Accompanied by a glass of rosé wine, it was perfect! Making the experience all the more enjoyable was dining outdoors on the terrace at a table overlooking the River Tarnon as it drifted by, spilling into occasional little waterfalls as it made its way through the village. La Source du Pêcher, actually named for and offering a view of the town's main attraction (La Source du Pêcher!) can be found at 1, rue de Remuret, Florac. To telephone inside France for reservations, dial 04.66.45.03.01.
A Walk Across
Art: The Chauvet Cave
with a Donkey in the Cévennes
STAY in the AUDE
to use Map of Languedoc-Roussillon from France Keys.
Walking with the Camisards
The Protestant Uprising in the Cévennes
by Scott Anderson
Three centuries ago, the rugged and isolated Cévennes in south-central France was the venue for a bitter conflict, the severity of which raised eyebrows among the landed classes and nascent bourgeoisie of Northern Europe and beyond.
What manifested itself as a religious war between French Calvinist Protestants or Huguenots and their Catholic persecutors was really a fight for economic and political power between two opposing ethnic groups and their corresponding world views and lifestyles. In many ways, then, it can be seen as a precursor to the American Civil War, for in each case the new ‘Spirit of Capitalism’ came into conflict with reactionary forces seeking to maintain a feudal way of life. As Time magazine opined in a September 1960 article entitled 'Camisards Revisited', while Protestants are massively outnumbered by Catholics in modern-day France, in 1560 they were four million strong, or twenty-five percent of the population.
The article continues, "for nearly 40 years the two faiths were embroiled in bloody conflict, symbolized by the infamous St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of August 1572, during which perhaps as many as 10,000 Huguenots were murdered." The events were well documented by writers such as Christopher Marlowe in 'The Massacre at Paris' and Alexandre Dumas in his 1845 novel, 'La Reine Margot', recently popularized in the 1994 French film of the same name that starred Isabelle Adjani.
That slaughter was restricted mainly to Paris and a few larger provincial cities. The origin of the 'Cévenol' struggle was the 1598 Edict of Nantes passed by the French Protestant King Henri IV. This not only restored internal peace, but gave the French Protestants a virtual state within a state, legitimizing Protestant control over some 200 cities. His successor after 1665, the Sun King himself, Louis XIV, was persuaded by his Roman Catholic advisers to embark on a policy of persecuting the Protestants. The Peace of Alais (sic), signed in 1629, (now spelt Alès, the gateway to the Cévennes) marked the end of Huguenot political privileges. When the Edict of Nantes was finally revoked in 1685, the policy of forcibly converting Protestants to Catholicism by the 'Dragonades' commenced. This took the form of an officially sanctioned repression, the forced clearings from some villages of all men and the billeting of soldiers from the King's army of 'Black Dragons' inside Protestant homes.
became known as the 'Camisard Revolt' or 'War' began with the assassination
at Pont-de-Montvert in July 1702 of a local personification of Royal repression,
the Abbot of Chaïla, who had imprisoned a group of Huguenots caught
attempting to flee France. It was the spark that lit the blue touch paper
for the Cévenol Protestants or 'Camisards' - an epithet believed
to originate from the Occitan word for shirt, 'camisa', the dark uniform
worn by the rebels during night raids. This regional Occitan language,
experiencing something of a rebirth today, gave Protestants some freedom
of thought and expression vis-à-vis the central authorities, although
they wrote and prayed in French.