A Book of the Cevennes/The Canon of the Ardèche


CHAPTER VIII


THE CANON OF THE ARDÈCHE


Ruoms—The church—Aven of Réméjadou—Sampson—Vallon—Captain—Merle—The last Marquess—Tapestries—Clotilde de Surville—Pont de l'Arc—Salavas—Slaughter of the garrison—Caves—Goule de Foussoubie—Chames—Castle of Ebbo—Pas du Mousse—Grotte of Oustalas—Rapids—La Madeleine—Tour d' Aiguilles—Aiguèze—S. Martin—The return journey—Two men in a boat—Grotte de S. Marcel—The Gours—Dolmens—The Aven of Vigneclose.


RUOMS is a quaint little town on the Ardèche, where that river issues from between parallel walls of lias, not of great elevation, laid in regular horizontal beds. The road follows the river upwards for a short way only, and then turns up the Ligne towards Argentière. Ruoms was a walled town, and a considerable portion of the fortifications remains enclosing the church, old houses, and narrow and dirty lanes. The church is interesting, very early and rude Romanesque, lofty, with three bays and side aisles. There are quasi-transepts, not extending beyond the aisles. The east end is square. The piers and arches are unmoulded. A curious feature is a window on the south, apparently to serve for a clerestory light, with pilasters and sculptured capitals, but it has never been pierced through, so that it acts merely as a relieving arcade in the wall. Another unusual feature is that the wall of the south aisle has in it narrow square-headed lights in recesses under relieving arches. The tower has a zigzag ornament above the bell windows in black lava alternating with white limestone.

The Ardèche is joined below the town by the river of La Beaume, that flows through a canon very similar to that through which the Ardèche itself has run before it reaches the bridge of Ruoms. These cañons through the lias are curious rather than picturesque, the strata lie horizontally as regularly disposed as stones in an artificial wall. On the high ground some way up the Beaume, on the plateau, or gras, is the aven or pot-hole of Réméjadou, twenty-five feet in diameter and eighty feet deep. One can hear the rush of water below, and this issues from the rock in the spring of Bourbouillet, two miles off, with sufficient volume to turn a mill. M. Janet says:—

"This aven has water flowing in its depths, filling the entire bottom. This stream issues from an arcade on one side about eighteen feet high, and disappears under a similar arch. It flows from north to south, which agrees with what the shepherd of Bourbouillet asserted, that this subterranean stream issues at the spring of that name. According to him, the inhabitants of Bourbouillet were much surprised one day to see the water of this spring charged with sawdust, and the explanation of the phenomenon was obtained only some days later, when they ascertained that some woodcutters who had been sawing up a good deal of timber had ridded themselves of the sawdust by throwing it into the aven."[1]

This pot-hole was explored in 1892 by M. Gaupillat, and he established the curious fact that the underground stream enters and leaves the aven by natural syphons, and not through galleries, so that it is not possible to track the stream up or down.

Standing high above the junction of the Chassezac and Ardèche are the mountain and rock of Sampson, supporting a little village and church with spire on a col between the mighty crest of perpendicular rock and the crag that falls abrubtly to the Chassezac. A small omnibus conveys travellers to Vallon, which is the place at which to stay, whence to make the descent of the cañon of the Ardèche. But the visitor who does this must be prepared either to return to Vallon by carriage over the Causse, some twenty miles, or he must be without luggage, and catch the train at S. Just or S. Marcel, and meet his impedimenta elsewhere, perhaps at Le Teil, for the canoes that shoot the rapids of the Ardèche are too small to accommodate baggage.

Vallon is not a town in itself of much interest, but it contains the château of the redoubtable Huguenot captain, Merle de Lagorce, who sacked Malzieu and Issoire, and burnt the cathedral at Mende. Vallon was in the hands of the Reformed, but, on the other hand, old Vallon with its castle on the height above it remained to the Catholics. Opposite that, on the further side of the river, is Salavas, where a strong and extensive castle, now in ruins, occupied the crest of a precipitous rock. These two positions Merle was determined on taking; he succeeded, and died in the castle of Salavas at the end of January, 1584, at the age of thirty-five. I have given his life in my Deserts of Central France.

His son Hérail de Merle, Baron de Lagorce, joined the Church, and entered into the service of the King.

On February 6th, 1842, died in the château of Vallon the Marquess Emmanuel de Merle de Lagorce, last male descendant of the eldest branch of the family, and left the château to his sister, married to the Count de Chapelain, who sold it to the town of Vallon in 1846. When the citizens came to take possession and convert the castle into a mairie, school, etc., they discovered in a loft a whole series of superb tapestries rolled up and forgotten. These came from the château of Montréal in L'Argentière, brought thence in 1783. They are from Aubusson looms, and are in seven panel pictures representing scenes from the "Jerusalem Delivered" of Tasso. They adorn the chamber now used by the magistracy. Very fine is the hammered ironwork of the balustrade of the great staircase.

Vallon had its hour of celebrity under the Empire and the Restoration, when Vanderbourg published the medieval poems of Clotilde de Surville, who lived at Vallon at the period when Joan of Arc was fighting against the English.

Marguerite Eléonore Clotilde de Vallon-Chalys, or de Surville, was supposed to have been a noble lady authoress of a series of sentimental poems. She was said to have been born in 1405 in the château of Vallon. Her mother, Pulchérie de Fay Collon, had lived in the court of Gaston Phoebus, Count of Foix, and had taken advantage of his library to enrich her mind by the study of Greek and Latin authors, of French and Italian poets, and she brought up the young Clotilde with the same tastes. The girl was a precocious genius, and composed verses at the age of twelve. In 1421 she married the Chevalier Béranger de Surville, who quitted her early to fight under the command of the Dauphin, afterwards Charles VII. It was then that she wrote a Héroïde, opening with the words "Clotilde au sien amy doulce mande accolade." But the composition contains allusions, and repeats ideas of a period so much later, that suspicions were aroused as to its authenticity when published in 1803. Vanderbourg, the editor, insisted on it being genuine. He had obtained the MSS. from the heirs of the Marquess Joseph Etienne de Surville, a noble who during the period of the Revolution had been executed at Le Puy in 1798. But this de Surville was himself a poet, of a mediocre quality certainly, and it was from his leavings that the editor produced Clotilde's compositions. According to the Memoir prefixed to her poems, from the pen of the Marquess, her graceful verses attracted the attention of Margaret of Scotland, who sent her a crown of golden leaves bearing the inscription: "Marguerite d'Ecosse à Marguerite d'Hélicon."

Clotilde lost her husband at the siege of Orléans after a union that had lasted but one year. About 1450 she married her son to Héloise de Goyon de Vergy. Both died in 1468, leaving to Clotilde a grandchild, Camille, who never married, and Clotilde closed a long life at the end of the fifteenth century, after having celebrated the victory of Fornoue in a poem that she dedicated to Charles VIII.

That the poems are a late fabrication by the marquess, who was shot at Le Puy, cannot be doubted. In the "Verselets a mon premier né" that begin "O cher enfantelet, vray pourtraict de ton père," there is obvious imitation of a romance by Bérguin, published in 1775. But the whole tone and character of the poems make it quite certain that they were composed in the eighteenth century, to be palmed off as the literary achievements of a lady of the forger's ancestry in the fifteenth. Villemain, after showing that they are fictions antiques, concludes: "After one has recognised that the poems of Clotilde are a modern fabrication, betraying itself by the very perfection of the artifice employed, yet the fraud once established, the merit of the fraud remains incontestable."

A good road leads down the Ardèche to the Pont de l'Arc, one of the great natural curiosities of the south of France. The river in descending the ravine between walls of Jura limestone encountered a long spur that barred its way, and drove it to describe a great loop. But the limestone is full of holes, caves, and cracks, and the torrent rushing down and beating against the great escarpment, impatient to get through and resenting the detour, bored till at last it burst a way through, and having once penetrated proceeded to enlarge the portal, till the river even in its greatest floods can rush through. The measurements are 193 feet from side to side, 110 feet to the crown of the arch, and to the summit of the rock 215 feet. Formerly the people of the country used this natural bridge to pass from one side of the river to the other. In the sixteenth century a fortress was erected on it, the possession of which was sharply contested by Catholics and Protestants, and Louis XIII. had it destroyed. The passage can still be made by means of a very narrow path cut in a ledge of the rock, but only one person, and he with a steady head, can traverse it. Louis XIII. had this path broken down, but the gap has been bridged over by poles.

The descent of the cañon is made from Vallon to S. Martin, and takes from five to eight hours according to the amount of water in the river, and costs 30 francs. Rapids are numerous, and some not a little dangerous. The gorge, cut through the lower cretaceous limestone, has not its walls as lofty as those of the famous canon of the Tarn, but the scenery in it is more varied, and it is of the wildest beauty.

Opposite old Vallon, as already mentioned, is Salavas. Hérail de Merle, son of the great Huguenot captain, abjured Protestantism, and married the daughter of Montréal, chief of the Catholics of the Vivarais. Profiting by his absence, his Huguenot vassals in Vallon revolted, and aided by a locksmith of Salavas entered the castle and butchered all the garrison. They captured the baroness and her children. But as Salavas was unimportant as a stronghold without the Tour du Moulin in the river, the Calvinists brought the Baroness Lagorce and the children under its walls in a boat, drew their long knives and threatened to cut all their throats unless the tower surrendered.

Salavas again fell into the hands of the Catholics, and was held by M. de la Chadenède in 1628, with forty-five men against the Duke de Rohan, head of the Calvinists, at the head of 500 men, 200 cavalry, two cannon, and a body of sappers and miners. Salavas was not taken till 200 of the assailants were killed and wounded. The castle, though in ruins, still has portions of its walls and a gate intact. Le Tour du Moulin, mentioned above, is built on a rock in the middle of the river, and was the key of the passage. It was captured by the Huguenots in 1570 by artifice. The small Catholic garrison one evening saw a train of women leading mules with sacks of corn come down to the waterside.

The garrison at once went over to assist them in unloading. But scarcely had they left their boat than they were fallen upon. The women were, in fact, Huguenot men disguised in female attire. They shot down every one of the soldiers and took possession of the tower.

Before reaching the Pont de l'Arc the cañon begins; rocky walls, grey, yellow, and fawn colour, stand up above the river, leaving no space between them but for the river; the road has been cut in cornice in the rock above it. The caves of the Bear, the Temple, and the Pulpit are but some of the thousands that open in cliffs that are honeycombed with them. The two latter were employed for meetings during the time of the revolt of the Camisards. The Prophetess Isabeau, clothed in white and wearing a gold circlet on her head, here went into ecstasies and harangued the insurgents, bidding them slay and spare none of the Philistines, and promising to them invulnerability.

A little further down is the Goule de Foussoubie, a stream that issues from the rocks just above the level of the Ardèche. The water that feeds it consists of seven rills on the Causse, three miles distant, that plunge into a pot-hole and disappear. Various attempts have been made to follow the underground course, but all have failed and one ended fatally. In dry weather very little water issues from the Goule, but it comes forth in volumes after a storm.

The boat shoots under the Pont de l'Arc; the rock that has been pierced is ninety feet thick. As already said, a fortress stood above, destroyed by Louis XIII., on a bit of rising ground on the left bank. There are still remains of the octagonal tower and enclosing wall and of some of the chambers tenanted by the garrison. But it was an oppidum, a place of refuge from
Le Pont de L’Arc - A book of the Cevennes.jpg


Le Pont de L’Arc

pre-historic times, as early stone weapons, and later Gallo-Roman ware, have been found there, as well as accumulations of pebbles to serve as sling-stones. The road down the river ends at Chames, where is a boatman, who lives by fishing and ferrying over any of the inhabitants of S. Remèze or la Bastide de Verac, who desire to cross. A stream issues from a grotto; it is the Fontaine de Vamale. The cave is apparently closed at the end, but on entering one finds on the right hand an opening into a valley, giving access to a terrace above the river, lighted by the setting sun, in which luxuriate lavender, Judas trees, evergreen dwarf oaks, juniper, and wild asparagus. This tiny valley is bounded on the west by a lofty calcareous wall in which is a rent, and a narrow path leads up this gap among bushes to the top of the plateau. It is by this track that the inhabitants of Vic descend and ascend before or after crossing the river.

Hard by is a natural cave on the right bank, partly closed by a wall, so overgrown with ivy that were it not pointed out one might pass without discovering that man built himself a residence here. This is called the Castle of Ebbo, and the tradition is current that the Templars of La Madeleine fled to it and hid there when sentence had gone forth against them by Philip the Fair in 1312; but it was probably a post that belonged to the Seigneur of Verac to watch his fisheries.

Chames is a little hamlet on the left bank of the Ardèche, where the rocks fall back and allow of slopes on which can grow olive trees, vines, plums, and almonds. The water is here still and seems transformed to a mirror, so that from the opposite side, that of the Castle of Ebbo, when the sun is full on the white cottages and gleaming limestone rocks, they as well as the fruit trees are reflected with intensity in the glassy surface.

The Rock of the Five Windows seems to block the way. Below Chames the river bends around a peninsula which is called the Pas du Mousse, so called in satire, for no moss grows there or can grow; it is all rubble brought down and deposited there by the river. A rock shooting up some eighty or ninety feet to a sharp point and pierced at bottom is called the Needle, and the cave is its eye. A little further down is the Grotto of Oustalas in the face of a cliff above a narrow meadow, with trees and a farmhouse and sheds. In order to reach the entry, that is like a giant's mouth yawning, steps have been cut in the rock; so also within to reach portions of the cave that have been employed as chambers. There are remains of a wall that formerly closed the mouth, and this cave was undoubtedly inhabited at some time, but when cannot be said. One can see the notches in the wall for beams of a roof, and recesses employed as cupboards.

As we continue our descent, the heights of the sheer walls full of holes are as slices of Gruyère cheese, streaked here black, there flaming red, then of a ghastly white, now forming into needles, then with their crests

riddled as though the walls of a ruined castle pierced with windows. Evergreen oaks, the spiky-leafed kermes, bursts of flame from yellow broom, flashes of pink when the Judas tree is in bloom; not a house, not a field—all silent, the only sound the roar of the water over a rapid. The canoe dances, bounds, shoots; by a skilful turn of the oar avoids a fang of rock, escapes a huge boulder, darts into still water, where the boatman bails
THE CATHEDRAL - A book of the Cevennes.jpg


"The Cathedral"

out that which has poured over the gunwale, for it is over your ankles. Then, again, the growl of another rapid, more swinging down between rocks in races of water green as grass, then gliding over shallow portions where we can see the stones and gravel at the bottom and the fish darting; then over a depression, the water bottle-green, too deep for the sunlight to

penetrate, close under an overhanging cliff.

A long green tongue of land shoots out with ruins on the summit, La Madeleine, a leper-hospital, where these unfortunates were nursed and kept in seclusion under the Templars. Again, huge fawn-coloured precipices, caves out of which the drip of water has hung stalactitic deposits like dropping veils, one in which it has built up a huge finger; and then, right before one, a Gothic cathedral with spires—Le Tour des Aiguilles. We are carried round, and the forms have completely changed.

Then after five hours or more the walls begin to sink, a stream breaks in through a doorway on the left, and we issue through a portal. The river runs more smoothly, and on the summit of the rock, creeping down its side, studded with ruins, is the imposing dead town of Aiguèze, long a subject of dispute between the counts of Toulouse and the bishops of Viviers. There were houses near the river bank, but all are now in ruins, destroyed by the great floods of 1890 and 1895. On the left bank is the little village of S. Martin, where we disembark, and think we have seen a succession of marvels the like of which are not to be seen elsewhere save—with a difference—on the Tarn. But just here, to spoil the last tableau, a company has erected huge and hideous factories for silk-weaving on the top of the rock opposite S. Martin, to disfigure the last spur of crag on the Ardéche. Failure has attended the attempt, and the factories are abandoned. Even if they fall into ruins, their ruins cannot possibly become picturesque.

Below is a light and graceful suspension bridge flung across the river to take the place of a stone bridge, swept away by the great flood of 1895, that rose halfway up the church of S. Martin and filled most of the houses.

And now, to conclude this chapter, I must give my personal experiences, which I am usually unwilling to obtrude, but which I give as they may be valuable to others who descend the cañon.

There are humours in travelling; some make you laugh out at once, others only after the experience is past. To this latter belong mine on the day I descended the Ardèche.

The beginning of the trouble was this. I had arranged that the hotel keeper at Vallon should furnish me and my wife and the boatmen with a sound lunch, to be taken on our way down, and when we arrived at the place where the boat was to attend to us we found that neither the garçon of the inn who guided us had brought the food, nor had the boatmen fetched it from the hotel. Time was precious, the distance was considerable, and we could not wait to send back for it. Any one who knows what a French café au lait means will understand how internally unprovided we were for many hours without food. We started, and for five hours were descending the rapids. When we reached S. Martin there was no carriage, but after an hour we obtained at five o'clock an excellent déjeuné, having eaten nothing since 8 a.m.; but we had hardly felt hunger, so gorgeous had been the scenery through which we had passed. At 6 p.m. the carriage from Vallon arrived, and the horses had to be baited for two hours. At 7 p.m. we started. Now the high road to Vallon makes a long detour; it passes by S. Just and S. Marcel, and crawls slowly up to the causse. The horses were put in at 7 p.m., and we departed. As it happened, I had tipped the boatmen at S. Martin, thinking I had seen the last of them, and they were flush of money. They had thirty francs, plus the tips to both of them, and during three hours they had been imbibing absinthe, cognac, and wine.

We had not proceeded far before I heard voices behind the carriage in lively conversation, not to say in altercation, and standing up and looking back I saw that we were dragging behind the carriage a cart laden with the canoe and the two men in the boat.

I stopped the carriage and inquired the meaning of this, and the driver informed me that he had drawn the cart behind him from Vallon to S. Martin for the express purpose of bringing back the boat and the men, as it was not possible for the canoe to make its way up the rapid on the return journey. Twenty miles uphill with a trailer behind and dark night setting in was a serious prospect, especially after the horses had already done all the miles from Vallon to S. Martin. When we reached S. Just, but a few miles out of S. Martin, the bright light from a tavern and the voices of happy men within were too much for the two men in a boat behind; they unhitched the cart and dropped into the cabaret to recruit. As we drove on our coachman found that the horses went freer. He looked behind and saw that the cart and boat were not attached. He swore freely and copiously, but drove into the next village, S. Marcel, where he halted in front of a public-house, and no words of mine could induce him to proceed till he knew what had become of the trailer. After a while up came the cart and the boat. One of the men had a cousin at S. Just, and he had cajoled him into lending his horse to draw the cart so as to catch us up. Our coachman, with a volley of expletives not worth recording, bade them hitch on again. And he drove forward. I, sitting back in the carriage, heard a dialogue proceed behind.

"But, Jean, my cousin lent me his horse."

"That is certain."

"But I cannot let him return to S. Just without refreshment. I must assuredly give him a glass of something to warm him."

"That is reasonable."

"Then let us unhitch."

So again the trailer was unfastened, and the cart, boat, and men in the boat fell away into the darkness behind.

After a while the coachman rose from his seat, and looking back saw that the trailer was no longer in its place. He exploded east, he exploded west, also to north and south; and would have halted again, but that I interfered and insisted that he should proceed. After some demur he did so. We reached Vallon at midnight. The night was pitch dark and cold; the month was March. When we would have reached the town had we been encumbered with the trailer, goodness only knows. We left Vallon next day at 11 a.m., and the two boatmen had not arrived by that time, nor do I know when they did arrive, and what is more, I do not care.

This I relate as a caution to future visitors to the cañon of the Ardèche. If they intend to return by carriage to Vallon, let them remember that they will have to drag back with them the boat en queue.

At S. Marcel is a notable cavern that may be visited from the village or from the river, near the bank of which is a lodge for the man who undertakes to act as guide through its halls and galleries, and illumine them with Bengal lights. The grotto was discovered in 1838 by a man in pursuit of a rabbit. The cavern extends for several kilometres underground, and is rich in stalactites and stalagmites. The main gallery was the channel of an ancient river formed by the drainage of the fissured causse of Bidon and S. Remèze. This corridor, which is without incrustations, leads to le Balcon, a vertical wall thirty feet high, over which the ancient river fell in cascade. This is surmounted by an iron ladder. The second portion of the cavern consists of another long gallery conducting to the Forêt-Noire, a stone cascade of sixty feet, up which one mounts by a second iron ladder, to attain to the third portion of the cave, the Cathedral, where is the finest group of stalagmites in the whole grotto. Two more ladders lead to the Catacombs, a chaos of blocks fallen from the roof, and remarkable for its "bassins de dentelles," or "gours"—that is to say, a series of basins as holy-water stoups, formed by incrustations. I will let M. Martel describe them:—

"Here begins one of the most curious and admirable stalagmitic formations to be found in these caverns. Imagine if you can a series of irregular basins set in the wall and superposed in retreat one above the other, forming steps—they are of various widths and depths, from a few décimètres to several metrès—their walls so transparent that they allow the light of the candles put in them to shine through. Their lips are capriciously twisted like writhing serpents, and they are lined with minute needles and tiny prisms of carbonate of lime, as delicate in their details as the antennae of polypi, all either white, yellow, or rose colour, forming all together a vast pyramid of water-basins in onyx set with diamonds."[2]

Further ladders and galleries are traversed, and more splendid masses of stalactite and stalagmite are seen.

Formerly there were collections of these in the outer galleries, but they were wantonly destroyed by the peasants and by visitors.

This cavern was anciently occupied by man not only in the prehistoric age, but later, for Gaulish black pottery has been found in it. I may add that on the Causse Grand Champ and on the Champ Vermeil are dolmens.

An aven of a really appalling character is that of Vigne Close, near the hamlet of Fontlongue. It was explored by M. Martel in 1892, and descends 575 feet into the bowels of the causse, or grasse, as the limestone plateau is here called.

A well had to be descended 165 feet deep. Then came a redan, a slope, and this had to be gone down and a second ladder of ropes attached. The second well was 135 feet. Then a second inclined plain or redan, and a third well 60 feet; after that a succession of slides and drops in stages for another 60 feet. Then a well of 150 feet. It demands no little daring to descend into such an abyss entirely shut off from the light of day, and where a few falling stones caused by the vibration of the ladder might prove fatal.

PAÏOLIVE - THE LION AND THE BEAR - A book of the Cevennes.jpg


Païolive: The Lion and the Bear

  1. A. Janet, Annuaire du Club Alpin, 1891.
  2. Les Abîmes, Paris, 1894.