Wednesday, May 20, 2009

An Outing to the Cévennes

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

Off the west, and not particularly far, are the Cévennes hills. This part of France is riddled with small villages, teeny hamlets, groupings of stone homes perched on high, and one street towns edged by the Gardon River to one side, and stone cliffs to the other. House after house, with windows only on the wall facing the street.

This is a land rich in history. At the time of the Wars of Religion, many Protestant communities found a semblance of peace in these hard to reach areas. And more recently, the silk industry made of many of the towns, wealthy centers of the bourgeoisie. The remains of the mulberry trees dot the landscape, as do long three story stone buildings in which the silk worms were raised and where their spun silk was transformed into valuable threads for the clothes of Europeans far and wide.

The silk industry left behind tasteful and elegant architecture. The Protestant influence is far more durably felt in the discreet inhabitants, sturdy and self-reliant, minimalist in their needs, restrained in their demeanor. Red and dark gray stones, plentiful in the soil, are the material of choice for all the homes. The windows are small, the doors often quite old and hand-built.

The Cévennes, inexpensive and out of the way, was a haven of choice for the "soixante-huitards" or flower children as we'd call them in the US. The back to the country trend that swept up many a baby boomer in France helped re-populate the region with organic farmers, goatcheese makers, potters, alternative educators, active Green party members and others who prefer long hair, beards, natural childbirth, vegetarian diets and harem pants in ochre, preferably from India. These relatively new arrivals have enriched the social life immeasurably. To someone like myself that is. On the doors of the Mairie/Town hall you can find posters announcing hikes to discover medicinal plants, projects to build eco-conscious houses, pottery classes, and informational debates on the environment, the Green Party, the European Union projects and more.

To get there, we left Vauvert and drove towards Alès and then went straight west, winding our way up and up into the hills. The roads are tight and filled with curves. Rivers flow below, clear as a bell, tumbling over stones and sharp drop-offs. Driving fast is both impossible and terribly dangerous should you attempt to do so. So, simply take it easy, and wind your way to your chosen village and one of the many bed and breakfast in the area. Bring your hiking shoes along as every village has beautiful hikes branching off from it into the hills. Once away from the bustling cities of Nîmes and Avignon, revel in the slower pace and say hello to the grandfathers tending their kitchen gardens. Potatoes were the plant of choice in most of what I saw. A staple for the year to come.

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