Wednesday, 2 June 2004
Distance 21 kms, time 6 hours
Ascent 777 m, descent 949 m
Map 59 in the
Topoguide (Ref. 700) le Chemin de Stevenson
We were apprehensive about the task ahead, the scaling of Mont Lozère. The sky was full of clouds, but an old fellow passing our tent on his way to the showers said that the forecast was for clearing weather.
So did the manager of the camping ground when she drove up to receive her tiny fee of €6. So did the baker, plump and smiling, when we bought one of his special heavy walker’s loaves. “Il va faire beau” was the chorus.
Our first mistake for the day was made as soon as we left the village. Somehow we ended up on the road instead of on the GR, but the thought of going back to start again did not appeal, even though the road was much longer.
My blisters were agonising and I hobbled along as if I had two wooden legs. Keith had to wait and wait for me at every bend.
Near the top of the 5km climb, a gnarled mountain man with a dog showed Keith a short-cut to the chalet. The word “raccourci” (short-cut) is part of Keith’s small, specialised French vocabulary, so he was pleased. The way was steep and stony, but it shortened the agony and we soon got to the large modern stone chalet.
Outside, a couple of donkeys were being loaded, and presently they set off in the company of four burly German women. Inside, a cavernous restaurant and bar overlooked the view, and we sat there to have morning coffee.
Tears of relief spilled from my eyes as I took off my boots. Looking at my feet, Keith was terribly worried that the expedition was about to come to an ignominious end.
However, after this interlude, I found I could go much better. The GR rose towards the denuded hump of the mountain but once again we missed the sign and found ourselves on the road, wandering off to the left.
Luckily, we saw two women in shorts labouring above us, and scrambled up over low spiky bushes and daffodils till we joined the path. This was a so-called “draille”, one of the ancient stock routes of the Cévennes, hardly used these days since the loss of the transhumance. It was marked by a line of gaunt stone poles known locally as montjoies, some carved with a Maltese Cross to indicate the limits of ownership of the knights of Saint John of Jerusalem in a former age.
Snow grass and flowers were the only vegetation and the wind was keen and cold. We caught up with the two women, no longer in shorts, who turned out to be Americans sampling the pleasures of the Cévennes.
The final pull to the summit of Finiels was a wild battle with the wind, exhilarating but not to be prolonged. We scuttled off the bald top, where the word FINIELS had been laid out in large white stones, down a meadow of daffodils, into a pine forest.
By some botanical oddity the daffodils on this side were yellow instead of white.
Still descending fast on a scoured-out stream bed that used to be a track, we reached a forestry road and a small stone refuge, ideal for a sheltered lunch on the grass.
Further down the road we came to the village of Finiels, where we saw the two donkeys in a field with one of the women, the other three lunching nearby.
There was a weedy Protestant cemetery, the first sign that we were approaching the land of the Camisards.
Below this, the GR degenerated into a trench of loose boulders, freshly spattered with the deposits of some incontinent calves.
Keith’s trouser legs were soon coated in this stuff, adding to the woes of rock-hopping, which he hates.
At long last we crossed two streams on stepping stones and gained the road, blessedly smooth and predictable, for the remaining distance into Pont de Montvert.
This dear little town on the banks of the Tarn is famous for its terrible history of slaughter.
It was a Protestant enclave at the end of the seventeenth century, suffering under the bloody persecutions of the Archpriest, François du Cheyla, and his men.
The end came one night when the enraged population, led by a charismatic peasant called Spirit Séguier, broke into his house, freed his prisoners and set the house on fire.
Du Cheyla, trying to escape from an upper window on knotted bedsheets, fell and broke his thigh, and was stabbed by a line of fifty-two townspeople, each one giving their reason as they struck him – for their father, or sister, or son tortured and killed for their religion.
Spirit Séguier was subsequently captured and burned alive, but remained serene to the last.
Our first interest, when we arrived, was not in the history so much as in the Café du Commerce, where we sat in pleased comfort over our coffee. After that we crossed the bridge and went up to the camping ground, past the hotel where Robert Louis had dined.
He, stalwart Protestant that he was, had commented on the unusual liveliness and intelligence of the population, and on the beauty of the women. He particularly admired the plump serving-maid Clarisse, although “her figure was unworthy of her face. Hers was a case for stays.”
At the camping it was the usual deserted scene, the only people in sight being some elderly locals playing petanque in the dust.
We pitched our tent and stretched out for a sleep. Keith tried the showers and reported that were not quite cold. Before dinner we strolled around the three bridges of the town, across the rocky, willowy expanse of the Tarn, then had a drink at the café. We had to go inside to keep out of the cold evening air.
Dinner at the Hotel des Cévennes was presided over by a tall, forbidding figure by the name of Camus, who looked like the original Outsider. On the other hand, perhaps he was a descendant of the prophetical Spirit Séguier.
He was a chilling presence in the otherwise convivial room, well filled with hearty people, including some middle-aged British cyclists and the four Brunhildes, whose donkey was also staying the night at the hotel. They had changed for dinner into semi-military garb.
We ordered the €15 menu, beginning with a bowl of soup as big as a chamber pot, too much even for us to finish. Our cadaverous host said it was made of radish leaves. This was followed by a dish of radishes themselves, oddly accompanied by butter. “Are we meant to eat these?”, one Englishman asked the other.
The main course was a pork steak with ratatouille, delicious, then a large cheese board made the rounds of the tables and we finished with clafouti, the cherry pie that we had first met last year in the Dordogne. Well satisfied, we walked up the road a short way and collapsed into bed.