A Book of the Cevennes/L’Aigoual

CHAPTER XV


L'AIGOUAL


Meteorological station—Battle of the winds—Warnings of floods—Different aspects of the Aigoual—The Garden of God—Meyrueis—Bramabiau—Exploration of—Valeraugue—Roman road—Barre—Limestone cirques—Causse de l'Hospitalet—Florac—Dirty streets—Mimente—Cassagnas—Fontaine du Pecher—The Dourbie—Trèves—Baume de S. Firmin—Prehistoric man—Nant—Source of the Durzon—Cantobre—S. Veran—Roquesaltes.


THE Aigoual is the hinge or knot of the inner range of the Cevennes, as Mézenc is that of the outer range. On one of its summits sits a meteorological observatory astride on the ridge of the watershed. Indeed, so exactly is it so placed, that the rain pouring off the roof on one side reaches the Mediterranean, whereas that off the other side goes to replenish the Atlantic.

The station is admirably calculated for the purpose, as thence can be watched the atmospheric currents as they sweep from the north or from the south, and the battle of the winds may be contemplated when the northern blast rolls back the moisture-laden currents from the south. This battle of the winds is an interesting phenomenon. Occasionally it happens that a veil of mist rising from the Mediterranean is swept forward, obscuring the landscape as it gathers density, and is propelled by the south-east wind till it reaches the
PEASANT GIRLS OF THE GAUSSES - A book of the Cevennes.jpg


Peasant Girls of the Gausses

Cevennes. It gradually becomes thicker and darker, packing in the valleys and then creeping up the heights. No sooner, however, has it reached the summit of the chain, than it is caught by the north-west wind and sent back in flying streamers, like the mare's tails we are accustomed to see in our skies presaging a change of wind, but with this difference, that these streamers are viewed from above.

The north wind gathering strength, as though mustering its forces against the audacious invasion of the southern vapours, rages and blusters for several days. Meanwhile the south-east wind is still thrusting forward volumes of vapour and compacting them in the gorges and valleys, cautiously throwing up a tentacle towards the heights, up lateral ravines, as though to feel whether the north wind is still on the alert. Should Boreas slacken his efforts, then the clouds climb the mountain sides like storming parties and reach the battlements. But their success is momentary only. The north wind has been dozing, and awakes to resume the combat. The heavily charged clouds, packed beyond endurance in the valleys, can make no progress, and the volleys of ice-cold wind overhead condense the mist and bring about torrential rains, accompanied by incessant explosions of thunder and lightning. In a few minutes the granitic or limestone cliffs are seamed with cascades. The silver thread that meandered through the meadows below is transformed into a yellow raging torrent, carrying before it masses of rock torn from the mountain side, trees, the wreckage of enclosures, houses even with their inhabitants. The rivers hitherto sliding through rubbly beds, vastly out of proportion to their diminutive size, swell to the brim and overflow, carrying devastation on every side. As in the story of Puss in Boots the magician transforms himself into a mouse at one moment and into an elephant at another, so is it with these Cevenol rivers—what is a rill to-day is like the Thames to-morrow.

Those in the Observatory on the Aigoual perform a most valuable service. They can predict the coming of a flood, and they telegraph to all villages and towns that are menaced, to be on their guard, and evacuate dwellings on low ground, and remove their cattle to heights.

The inmates of the Observatory have become very weatherwise, and note many indications of an approaching tempest. One that is infallible in summer is the conduct of the bees. These shrewd insects, that have been humming and honey-gathering among the wild thyme, fly to the Observatory and cling to the panes, darkening them, and remaining motionless till the atmospheric disturbance is over.

How furious the wind may be, and what a force it exercises on the Aigoual, may be judged by looking at the refuge of the Touring Club that is fastened to the rock by chains, like the ropes of a tent.

The Mont Lozère, though higher than the Aigoual, is not so subject to these veritable tornadoes. There the wind blows almost invariably from the north. The Cevenol peasant says:

"Se lo nibou bén de l'Oual prén tons bioous et baï o l'oustal.
Se lo nibou bén de Louzero, pén tons bioous et baï o lo rego";

which may be rendered, "If the cloud comes from the Aigoual, take your oxen and go to the stable. If the cloud comes from the Lozère, take your oxen and go to the furrow."

The Aigoual is a granitic mass, reaching to 5,140 feet, whereas the Roc de Malpertus, in the Mont Lozère group, rises to 5,520 feet, but this latter is far less suitable for meteorologic observation. Around the Aigoual erosion has formed a labyrinth of gorges and profound valleys, in the beds of which race torrents impatient to reach lower levels.

From the side of Merueys, the Aigoual does not present by any means an imposing appearance. It is a domed green mass, on the top of which gleam white the walls of the Observatory. From the side of La Luzette it bears some resemblance to a huge antediluvian monster in a crouching posture with fore paws extended.

On the south side the Aigoual is rugged and abrupt. Its precipices descend to great depths. The stream of the Claron there in a succession of falls drops to the depth of 3,000 feet in a very short distance.

The Aigoual has two heads, one of these, La Fayède, looking towards the sun-bathed basin of the Rhone; the other, that of the Hort Dieu, the loftiest but the least picturesque. Between these is a coombe, watered by a thousand springs that ooze from the turf and nourish a rich vegetation. It is this coombe really which is the Garden of God, as the natives term it.

On the one side the Aigoual rises out of mulberry and chestnut woods, torn and precipitous; on the other it is smooth and velvety, wooded only with distorted beech. It has been ravaged by the merciless axe of the peasant that has left it bald and desolate. From the summit a superb view is obtained of the tossed and torn ridges of schist mountain, some rounded, but furrowed like the face of one very aged, some starting up into peaks, some stretching out saw-like ridges, some flat-headed, according to the nature of the rock of which composed. To the north rises the Tarnon that passes by Florae, below which it enters the Tarn. A little to the north-east is the Signal de l'Hospitalet, and beyond Barre des Cevennes. The old Roman road ran over this latter col to penetrate into the heart of the Cevennes; it kept to the crest, commanding glorious views.

The Aigoual should be ascended from Meyrueis, a little town half the population of which is Protestant. Near it, and on the way, is the Renaissance castle of Roquedols.

Here one passes abruptly from the limestone to the granite, and at once notes a corresponding difference in the flora. Among the limestone rocks the pinks show as drops of blood. On the granite are none. The fields by Roquedols are white with narcissus poeticus, not a flower of that bulb is in the calcareous fields. The distance from Meyrueis to the Aigoual is just over nineteen miles, and a carriage should be taken at least as far as to Camprieu, where Bramabiau demands a visit. On the top of the Aigoual a dinner and a bed may be obtained at the Observatory. Bramabiau may also be visited from Le Vigan. The rivulet of the Bonheur, that descends from the Col de Séyrerède near the Aigoual, after flowing over granite and schist, encounters a mass of Dolomitic limestone, through which it has bored a channel for a distance

of 1,200 feet. The tunnel through which it flows is in one place open to the sky through the falling in of the roof. The name Bramabiau given to this cavern traversed by a stream is onomatopœic, and signifies
Bramabiau - A book of the Cevennes.jpg


Bramabiau

the bellowing of a bull, as the water in time of flood gives forth angry sounds.

Nothing surprises one more than the apparent inadequacy of the means to the end attained. The Bonheur is but a small stream, yet the work it has achieved is tremendous. But it must be borne in mind that where stands Camprieu was once a lake, the water held back by the barrier of limestone, and that the accumulated force was brought to bear on the rock to effect this tunnel of drainage. Moreover, the rock itself was full of holes like a sponge, with large vaults like huge bubbles in its interior, so that it was not a solid mass through which the stream had to bore its way. It was further aided by several springs rising within the rock, all working in their several courses to effect their escape.

The exploration of Bramabiau was accomplished in June, 1888, by M. Martel and his guides. They attempted first to penetrate by the opening through which the Bonheur leaps into light again, but found that the gallery consisted of a series of ascents, with cascades and pools; and although by wading and with ladders they succeeded in reaching a considerable distance, they could not attain to the point where the stream begins to dive underground. On the following day these indefatigable explorers attacked the tunnel from above, where the Bonheur enters, and were able to descend to the point reached on the preceding day, and further to pursue their course till they came out where the stream issues, a distance as the crow flies of a kilometre.

In January, 1888, a man of Camprieu disappeared, and there was reason to suspect he had committed suicide. As his body could not be found, it was supposed that he had flung himself down the abyss of the Bonheur; and, in fact, when M. Martel searched the cavern he found the body wedged into a spot where, in the cave itself, the stream disappears underground for a while, to again reappear and continue its subterranean course. It goes through these vagaries twice, and perpetrates seven cascades.

"To avoid repetitions," says M. Martel in his account of the exploration, "I will say no more of the magic of magnesium light under vaults lofty as Gothic naves; I must only ask of the reader to figure, if he can in the profound night of these caverns, the deafening roar of the falling water, the dispersion of the party groping in all directions for passages, the flicker of the feeble candles, the distant calls and signals, whistles, and horns, the cords strained, and the ladders set up against steep walls, our silhouettes magnified against the walls in shadows, and profiled against the boiling torrent, all under vaults 150 feet high and at the extremity of galleries of 300 feet.

"One portion of our course was effected only by a series of gymnastics, according to the width of the gallery that varied from three feet to ten feet, according to how far the ledges were practicable—so we crept along, a few yards above the torrent, clinging to the rock with our fingers, our breasts against the wall, or else wading in the water up to our armpits. Often our candles went out, caused by our rapid movements, or by the rush of wind that swept through the tunnel; the drip of our soaked clothes, the difficulty of communication amidst the roar of the falling water, increased our difficulties tenfold."

Where the Bonheur escapes into daylight there is an immense rift in the rocks, and out of this the stream leaps in a fall of some dignity. Up to 1888 it was not thought possible that the Bonheur could be the stream that issued at Bramabiau, for anything thrown in above never issued below. But the exploration by M. Martel solved the mystery. The stream sinks, filters through the rock, leaving above that which is thrown in, and issues limpid at the cascade that rushes from the entrance.

The descent of the Aigoual on the side of Valleraugue is by a thousand steps hewn in granite and schist, and at the bottom of this is the vegetable garden of the officials of the Observatory.

Valleraugue lies at the bottom of a cirque of mountains at the confluence of the rivers of the Mallet and the Clareau, and it is after their marriage that the united streams assume the name of Hérault. The descent from the Aigoual to Valleraugue occupies two hours, the ascent by the carriage road takes seven. Valleraugue is a busy factory town; the population is mainly engaged in silk spinning and weaving. The place is almost wholly Protestant. This valley of the Hérault as far as Ganges is one of the most active in silk industry in the Cevennes. The vegetation is wholly southern; the hillsides disposed in terraces are planted with vines and mulberries; and ilexes abound, providing the tanneries with their bark. "This valley," says Ardouin Dumazet, "is a synthesis of all the somewhat severe graces of the Cevenol land." The Roman road over l'Hospitalet has been already referred to. It runs from Avignon to Anduze and then ascends the crest above the Garden, and passing under Barre stretches away to Florac. Barre itself occupies a Gallo-Roman oppidum, of which traces remain, and throughout the neighbourhood relics of the Roman tenure of the land are found. After the Col d'Aire de Côte ensues a series of frightful cirques, whose vertical walls crumble away by degrees under the action of the weather. The flanks of the mountain are profoundly breached, and form precipices. The nature of the rock contributes to augment the savagery of the region. It is composed of schists steeply inclined towards the north, and penetrated by numerous veins of porphyry that metamorphized them. Here are needles, here masses of schist support tables of limestone. A little triangular plateau, a lost islet of the Causse, succeeds to the schists. This is the Can de l'Hospitalet.

"Here, atmospheric agencies have carved the strangest edifices. Huge calcareous hats cover and overhang slender schistous supports, shaped like the tables in a glacier. Many of these gigantic mushrooms have reeled on their corroded stalks and are thrown into a sloping position like fallen dolmens. The plateau of l'Hospitalet is both picturesque and of scientific interest."

[1]

Florac hardly comes within the range that I have marked out for description, and yet some words must be given to it, as it was the centre of the Cevenol revolt, and was the scene of several conflicts and of the execution of Camisards.

It is a very dirty place, originally walled; the houses were so crowded that the streets were contracted to the narrowest possible width. One has to be careful not to walk down them before eight o'clock in the morning, as all the slops are thrown from the windows into the street, and may fall on the head of the incautious passenger; and here no warning call is given, as in the narrow lanes of old Edinburgh, to put the man in the street on his guard. What is cast forth remains where it falls till torrential rains sweep away the accumulated filth of weeks and even months. In the Languedoc towns that reek with evil odours, in a country too where the hillsides are redolent with aromatic herbs, lavender, sage, marjoram, rosemary, beds of violets, thyme in sheets, one can hardly help repeating the lines of Bishop Heber:

 
"What though the spicy breezes
      Blow sweet o'er Ceylon's isle,
 And every prospect pleases,
      Yet only man is vile."

But it is not man who is vile, that he is nowhere, it is the refuse he casts about him that is offensive, and the offensiveness is a provision of nature to instruct him to remove it beyond the reach of the nose. But familiarity must breed a liking for these disgusting odours, or women would not sit on their doorsteps all day working and chatting, and let their children play about amidst festering garbage.

Florac is, in spite of dragonades and gallows and the stake, almost entirely Protestant. The large meetinghouse contains nothing but a pulpit and bare benches. The Catholic church is a new and mean structure, the temple bare as a barn, the church ugly as a modern French architect can make one.

Florac is near the influx of the Mimente into the Tarnon. The three valleys of the Mimente, the Tarn, and the Tarnon lead into the inextricable labyrinth of defiles in which the Camisards were able to establish their arsenals, hospitals, and storehouses. The Mimente rises in the mountain of Bougès, whose summit is crowned by the forest of Altefage, where under three huge beech trees met the murderers of the Abbé du Chayla. At Cassagnas, a village near the source of the Mimente, the caverns may be inspected that served the Camisards as magazines, filled with corn, wine, oil, and above all chestnuts. Roland had established here a powder factory; the saltpetre was obtained, as later during the European wars of Bonaparte, from the numerous caverns that contained the bones of extinct beasts. Drugs were procured for the wounded from Montpellier, where there were many well-wishers ready to smuggle them into the mountains. When the watermills for grinding the corn were destroyed by the military commander of Languedoc, the Camisards reverted to the use of querns. In some of the caves whole flocks and herds were secreted; others were stored with salted meat.

Florac possesses its natural curiosity, the Fontaine du Pêcher, that discharges the water infiltrated from the plateau of Méjan. It pours forth in an abundant stream and forms a cascade, but the water is at once eagerly captured for the purpose of irrigation. During the winter and after a storm it vomits forth a torrent with a roar like that of a lion.

After a visit to the summit of the Aigoual it would be well to descend the Dourbie to Milau, reaching the Dourbie by the ravine of the Trévesel. The Pas de l'Ase is a profound gorge, 1,200 feet deep, between fiery-red dolomitic cliffs, in three stages superposed and separated by slopes of detritus. At midday, when the sun streams down on these rocks, the effect is dazzling. At Trèves, where are coal mines, is the cave called the Baume de S. Firmin, and near by the ruins of a castle.

S. Firmin was the grandson of Tonantius Ferreolus, Prefect of Gaul, who, as we have seen, was the host of Sidonius Apollinaris. He had a villa here, Trevido, as the town was then called, and in it he died in the year 470. Firminus was educated by his uncle Noricus, Bishop of Uzès, the son of Tonantius, and he in turn became bishop of the same see, and died at the early age of thirty-seven, in the year 553, and was succeeded by his nephew, Ferreolus; so that at that time it is pretty clear bishoprics had become the perquisites of members of the great families of Gallo-Roman origin. When S. Firmin visited his grandfather or his father, at Trèves, he was wont to retire to the cave that bears his name, for reading and devotion. Possibly the dampness of this grotto may have sowed the seeds of the disorder from which he died. The cave runs deep into the mountain, and is adorned with numerous white and graceful stalactites. But it is very damp; notwithstanding this, prehistoric man occupied it, for in the first two halls of the grotto have been found old hearths, remains of feasts, broken and split bones, and fragments of badly burnt pottery.

About ninety feet above the Baume de S. Firmin is another cave forming a great vault that is filled with water during heavy rains. Nevertheless man inhabited it at a remote period; for thence also have been excavated numerous fragments of vessels, which by their paste and ornamentation show that they belonged to the age of polished stone.

How the men of that period must have suffered from rheumatism! And it has been noticed that among the bones of prehistoric man, who was a cave dweller, rheumatic swellings of the joints are common. Usually the caves in limestone and chalk are tolerably dry. France must have teemed with peoples at that early period, for not only on the Causse, but also in the chalk districts of Dordogne and Lot, and in the sandstone regions of Maine-et-Loire and Vienne, troglodite habitations abound.

After crossing the Col de la Pierre-Plantée, the road winds down into the valley of the Dourbie, which wriggles along at a great depth below between rocks of quartz and schist, then passes among chestnut trees, and reaches S. Jean-du-Bruel, when we are in the valley of the Dourbie. Here comes in the road from Saudières, where is a station on the line from Le Vigan to the junction on the main line opposite Roquefort; and the lower valley of the Dourbie can be visited from Le Vigan by taking the train to Saudières and a carriage thence to Milau.

Nant, a little town on the left bank of the Dourbie, has a Celtic name, very descriptive, for Nant signifies a valley or a river bottom. Nantes in Brittany has the same derivation, as has also Devon in Welsh, Dyffneint, the county of valleys. So also the Dourbie and the Durzon proclaim that they were named by Celts, for dour signifies water in Welsh.

The church of S. Pierre of the twelfth century is all that remains of a Benedictine abbey; the Romanesque chapel of S. Alban stands on a barren rock 2,400 feet high. But the great attraction is the source of the Durzon, as Reclus describes it:—

"A little river issuing from a deep foux some six or seven kilometres from Nant, near the Mas-de-Pommier, at the bottom of a cirque where walls, which are those of the Larzac, rise above the well to the height of 900 feet. There opens a great gulf, un dormant qui ne dort pas toujours. A slight rain on Larzac agitates it, and it begins to boil languidly in the centre of the well; but after a long rain, a storm, or the melting of the snows, the water rises in clashing floods like a cascade turned upside down; it is no longer a murmuring stream, but a growling torrent whose voice breaks the austere silence of the cirque."

Still descending the valley, we see perched high up on the right the curious village of Cantobre, on a point of the Causse Bégon, shaded by gigantic dolomitic mushrooms, and comprised within the walls of a ruined castle that was destroyed in 1660, after its owner, Jean de Fombesse, had been executed as a coiner.

But more curious even than Cantobre is the village of S. Veran, plastered against the rocks which shoot up into needles. The ravine opening behind it describes a circus bristling with pinnacles and rocks scooped out and shaped into the most fantastic forms. The whole is commanded by an immense wall of limestone on which, and intermingled with which, are the artificial structures of a castle, the cradle of the family of Montcalm, whose most illustrious member was the Marquess who fell on the heights of Abraham, 14th September, 1759, in the struggle over Quebec, that cost also the life of Wolfe. The inhabitants of this poor hamlet, in a barren and waste land, are themselves wretchedly poor. Some one said to one of them: "So, the Montcalms left this place!" "Aye! and would to God we could leave it too," was the reply.

Below this is La Roque, whence Roquesaltes may be visited, and the Rajol, extraordinary groups of rocks little less curious than those of Montpellier le Vieux, that are also reached from the valley of the Dourbie. But these I have described elsewhere, and I am not so garrulous that I care to repeat myself.

  1. Martel: Les Cevennes. Paris, 1891.