Les Causses and Les Cevennes
By Lucy Daltroff
It may be our nearest neighbour, but France still has some undiscovered gems, often neglected by the average British tourist. Take Les Causses and Les Cevennes. A remote area, but one that has much dramatic scenery included within its 3000 square kilometres - all of which has recently been granted UNESCO World Heritage status for “continuing evolving cultural landscapes”. The largest area ever to be added to the list.
Remote, and historically too poor to host many cities, there is real beauty in the natural parks and valleys in this territory which stretches all the way from the Lozere, down to the area just north of Montpellier, embracing the 4 counties of Aveyron, Gard Herault and Lozere.
Entering the region is stunning in itself, if approached, as I did, via the tallest bridge in the world and the marvellous engineering achievement known as the Millau Viaduct. Designed by our own Norman Foster and opened in 2004 it is elegant as well as useful - spanning the large Tarn valley and providing a direct route for visitors travelling from Paris to Spain. It cost £272 million and was entirely privately financed. Although taller that the Eiffel tower and 1.5 miles long, -when I saw it first on a cloudy day it appeared ethereal and delicate - a sort of sculpture, floating overhead.
The sheep grazing grasslands of the surrounding countryside have for 11 centuries supported a thriving lambskin glove trade, which has historically given employment to many local Jewish people over the years. It was one of the few trades which was allowed to be followed when there was heavy discrimination elsewhere. Wandering through the small historic village of Meyrueis to the east of Millau, I saw a plaque commemorating the Jewish quarter, confirming that the people that lived there worked as glove makers - and money changers - and rather ominously, that they stayed until the end of the Middle Ages.
Spurred on by this notice I decided to visit the famous Causee Glove Factory in the centre of the town of Millau, to watch the gloves being made by hand for top international fashion houses. The specialisation of each of the 42 workers was intriguing whether it was the cutting of the leather or the sewing on of the decorations. It takes four hours to produce each pair and an on-site exhibition shows the many celebrity end-users, who include both Madonna and Kylie Minogue
Nearby is a completely different tourist attraction. The Chaos (meaning heap of Rocks) at Montpellier Le Vieux is one of the most phenomenal block fields in the world. It’s a strange collection of varied shaped dolomite slabs extending over 120 hectares. The whole area was once covered with a vast shallow sea and enjoyed a tropical climate. Then a hundred million years ago the thrust resulting from the formation of the Alps and the Pyrenees gradually lifted the young rock which resulted in the high plateaux of the Causses - and replaced the sea.
Since then years of erosion and rain have made some of the ruins look like ancient cities - complete with pillars and arches, while other rocks take the form of human or animal faces. So it was no surprise to hear that for hundreds of years local villagers were frightened to visit and it was just inhabited by wild animals. Even now, local shepherds tell the story that the fairies founded this ancient city, then got tired of it and went away, leaving it to fall in ruins. Today it can be discovered by a selection of walking paths or a dramatic zip line. I took the popular, specialised train, and found that although it was really crowded this did not detract from the extraordinary surroundings.
Visiting Cirque de Navacelles, was another wonderful spectacle of nature. It is the largest canyon in Europe carved out of the limestone thousands of years ago by the river Vis. Viewing it from a newly built viewing platform and looking at the fantastic panorama is both remarkable and unexpected. Right at the bottom of the canyon is a waterfall and one of the most beautiful medieval hamlets in France.
The lack of large conurbations mean that conventional hotels make way for more unusual and interesting places to stay. In the Causses the architecture is mainly stone built while the Cevennes has more organised buildings, intertwined with narrow alleyways. Accommodation ranges from castles to country house bed and breakfasts, and most are quirky, fun and full of character.
There is another story to this remote area. It has long been a refuge for the Hugenots who practised religious tolerance. During the Second World War “Le Juste de Cevennes” were the brave inhabitants, many of them Hugenots, who risked their lives sheltering Jewish children and so defying the Vichy Government that had power over this part of France. Evidence of these selfless acts are now to be found some way away, in the village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, where a small, new glass museum contains more information of the individual intriguing wartime stories of courage and subterfuge.
Lucy flew to Rodez from Stansted Airport