Tuesday, 26 June 2007
Distance 31 km
Duration 6 hours 45 minutes
Ascent 487 m, descent 355 m
Map 59 of the TOP 100 blue series (now superseded)
By rights we should have started the day with a hangover, but we were unscathed. Our muesli was all the better for the little pears we had scavenged yesterday and we left at the regulation time of 6:50 am.
As we left the slumbering camp ground, we found our old friend the GR6, that we had been on and off since the Luberon. According to the map, it would take us all the way to Saint-Jean-du-Gard, our destination for the day.
The village of Cardet, a few stony dog-legged streets, had a boulangerie, a grocer and some other shops, but unfortunately no bar.
Beyond the houses the GR went between fields of sunflowers near the river, and we got our first view of the mountain chain of the Cévennes, towards which we were heading. We made a couple of mistakes for lack of signage, but eventually got to the bridge.
We scrambled up, crossed on the D24 and plunged down the other side to continue on the GR, but found ourselves going round in circles in a morass of bike trails. After twenty minutes we were back at the bridge, hot and cross.
The only thing we could do was take to the road as far as Anduze. This was not as bad as we expected, as there was quite a wide verge and sometimes an actual footpath.
Under the frowning ruin of the château of Tornac, we began to rise towards the town and finally reconnected with the GR, just in time to get the benefit of the old road, which climbed behind the station and over the tunnel to the centre.
At the station the famous “train à vapeur” was waiting with its cargo of tourists to begin the trip to Saint-Jean-du-Gard.
It is a heavily advertised amusement – the posters show a dear little red steam engine gushing clouds of vapour – but in this case there was a diesel engine at the front. I would have asked for my money back.
The town was charming, especially after our three-hour march to get there. There were archways leading to little lanes, as well as a wide main square with a clock tower.
We bought bread, pastries, fruit, paté and Roquefort and had coffee near the fountain. We also took the precaution of buying the next map (number 58) to avoid the stress we had endured at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.
Leaving the town, we crossed the wide, gravelly river, keeping a close eye on the GR marks, and took a small road beside the railway line, past the delightfully named Bambuseraie de Prafrance. Then we parted company with the railway line, which was following the Gardon d’Anduze, and took the branch to the right, the Gardon de Mialet.
Some cyclists rode past us on the rising road, but the GR proved its worth with a short, steep path which cut off a long hairpin bend, so that the cyclists were astonished to see us in front of them again.
The country was getting remote. The road was little more than a paved lane beside the stream, with occasional clusters of houses.
At Mialet we did not even bother to go up to the village, which was above the road, calculating that the chance of finding a bar or café there was so close to zero that the effort was not worth while.
Instead we crossed the bridge called the Pont des Camisards, whose name reminded us that we were now in the wild, unruly Cévennes, where Protestantism (the religion of the Camisards) had been strongest, and in which it had been so gruesomely put down in the early eighteenth century.
The bridge was built just after the resistance had been crushed, no doubt to make access easier for royal forces, but it also improved the trade route across the region, which had previously relied on a ford to cross the river.
This ancient route, linking Mialet with Saint-Jean-du-Gard, was now the GR61. We had a strong sense of the hardship of the lives of previous travellers as we panted our way up.
It was a long climb, made more difficult by the fact that the cobbled surface had deteriorated into a mass of loose stones.
Through the forest we could see out over the valley of the Gardon de Mialet far below, and the blue ranges fading into the distance. When the ground levelled out we ate our simple lunch beside the track, on the watershed between the two Gardons.
To our surprise, a couple of parties of day-walkers appeared from the opposite direction. It is unusual for us to meet other walkers so far from civilization, but the mystery was solved when we set off again and quickly came to a small bitumen road, where their cars were parked.
This road took us down to Saint-Jean-du-Gard without trouble and we entered the bustling village, rearranging our minds with an effort from the wilderness we had just been through.
We went first to the Office of Tourism to get a list of the camping grounds in the vicinity. Then we found the Place de l’Horloge, with its lovely old tower, and sat down at a bar.
Over coffee we decided to take some liberties with retracing the steps of Robert Louis Stevenson.
On the map, the lower part of the trail looked tortuous and in parts very steep, and unlike him, we would be going in the uphill direction. Our plan was to borrow the road (as they say in French) and reconnect with the GR half-way to Saint-Germaine.
We reasoned that RLS would have taken the line of least resistance at the time, and the fact that this line now consisted of a small road did not alter the case. We were with him in spirit, we felt. That being decided, we chose a camping ground (les Sources) a little way out of town in that direction. It also happened to be the closest one, although it was a bit of a climb to get there.
It turned out to be the best camping ground we had ever been to. The shower block was new and sparkling, the showers had controllable temperature and a strong flow, the grass was thick, with beds of flowers all around, and there was a pool (not that anyone was in it today). Our enclosure had a low stone wall to sit on and, best of all, there was a pleasant-looking terrace restaurant, better than anything we had seen in the town.
After washing and repose, we went over to the terrace for a drink. It was rapidly getting chilly as the sun sank. Unfortunately for us, the interior was occupied by a private function, so the campers had to eat outside.
We went back to our tent and put on every garment we had, but we still shivered as we waited for our dinner. Looking back, I think we should have swathed ourselves in our sleeping bags.
The service was excruciatingly slow, as the stove was misbehaving, but eventually we had a delicious, substantial meal.
While we sipped our wine we remembered Robert Louis Stevenson’s experience at Saint-Jean-du-Gard at the end of his walk with a donkey in 1876. At the time, phylloxera had ravaged the vines and the locals were reduced to making cider, to their infinite disgust – “like in the North!” Fortunately those days had passed.
We only had to walk a few steps to tuck ourselves up cosily for the night.