A Book of the Cevennes/The Crescent




The great central plateau—The true Cevennes—The character of the range—The watershed—The Garrigues—The Boutières—Mézenc—The Coiron—The mountains of the Vivarais—The Ardèche—Volcanoes—The Camisard country—Larzac—The Hérault—The Espinouse—The Montagne Noire—Neglect of the Cevennes—Their great interest.

THE great central plateau of France that serves as the watershed between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and severs France proper—the old medieval France—from Languedoc, is due to a mighty upheaval of granite, carrying with it aloft on its back beds of schist, Jura limestone, chalk, coal, and red sandstone. The granite has not everywhere reached the surface, it has not in all parts shaken off the burden that lay on it. The superincumbent beds do not lie in position one above another, like ranges of books on shelves. Many of them over a large tract have been carried away by denudation through the action of water.

The plateau under consideration stretches over an area of 3,000 square miles. It dies down towards the north-west, but reaches its highest elevation in the east and in the south. This great upland district had to be crossed before the peoples dwelling north and south of it could be fused into one. The plateau extends through the old provinces of Marche and Limousin, Auvergne, Forez, the Velay, the Vivarais, Rouergue, and the Gevaudan. But it was disturbed, broken up, and overlaid by volcanic eruptions at a comparatively recent date, pouring forth floods of lava and clouds of ash in Auvergne, le Velay, and le Vivarais. In its upheaval, moreover, the granite turned up, snapped, and exposed the superposed beds, and left them as bristling ridges to the east and south. It is this fringe that constitutes the Cevennes. These describe a half-moon, with its convexity towards the basin of the Rhone. Locally, indeed, the name Cevennes is limited to a tangle of schist ridges and deep-cleft ravines, constituting that portion of the arc which is between the Coiron and the limestone plateau of Larzac. But such is not the original limitation. The Romans undoubtedly, looking from the basin of the Rhone on the long purple chain, behind which set the sun in a glow of amber, as they passed up and down between Arles and Vienne—designated that range Cebennæ, and geographers still are disposed to so name the entire series, as constituting an orological entity, although the several portions have received distinguishing appellations.

They all belong to the same system, were all in their main lines thrown up at the same time, though not by any means all of the same geological formation; and they are all peopled by the same race, all speaking the Langue d'Oc.

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The Cyclopses Mourèze

It seems therefore reasonable to take the entire curve as forming the Cevennes from the depression of the Jarrêt, through which runs the line from Lyons to the coalfields of S. Etienne, as the northern limit, and the Montagne Noire, east of the gap of Revel, by which the road by which Castelnaudary and Castres are linked, as the western termination.

"The Cevennes," says Onésime Reclus, "have this striking feature, that they separate two climates, two vegetations, two natures. To the north and to the west are rain, snow, light fog silvered by the moon, and dense vapours which the sun cannot pierce; and the streams that water the smallest valleys nourish rich green meadows; to the south and east is a blazing sun, are glare, heat, drought, barrenness, dust, the vine, the olive, springs of water few and far between, but where they do issue, copious and clear; here—contrasts of colour, sharp-cut horizons, more beautiful than those of the north. What a contrast within a few leagues' distance between the verdure of Mezamet and the vari-coloured marbles of Cannes, between the Agout and the Salvetat d' Angles … between the valley of the Dourbie at Nant and the Hérault at Ganges, between the Tarn at Pont-de-Montvert and the embattled gorges of the Gardons, between the Allier at La Bastide and the ravines down which rushes the Cèze, between the young Loire and the terrible rapids of the Ardèche … on one side a French Siberia, on the other an Africa where the sirocco does not parch up the harvests, but where the mistral shrieks, itself producing a brief winter."[1]

The chain of the Cevennes, of which Mézenc may be regarded as the hinge, forms a ridge on the right bank of the Rhone, running for a while parallel to the French Alps upon the left bank. But whereas these latter turn and curve to the east, forming the Maritime Alps, the Cevennes have bent in exactly the opposite direction.

Geographically and historically the Cevennes divide into two great sections—the Cevennes Méridionales and the Cevennes Septentrionales. This continuous mountain ridge, in fact, forms a line of separation of waters very distinct, without solution of continuity, and which, in spite of the variety of its geological structure, has been determined by the same fold in the earth's crust, by one and the same act of pressure.

From the main chain, like the rib of a fern, extend lateral offshoots, between which are valleys watered by the drainage of the principal spinal chain. On the east side of the Cevennes these are all approximately at right angles to the axis. But this is not the case on the west side; nor is it so on the south. On this latter, before the main range a sort of outwork has been thrown up that deflects the streams, where they have not cut through it. These bastions are the Garrigues and the Espinouse.

The eastern face of the Cevennes towards the Rhone is torn and steep. That towards the west exhibits a different aspect altogether, as there the range starts out of a high uplifted plain but little eroded.

The Garrigues above mentioned form a barren, waterless bastion, with little growing on them but the dwarf Kirmes oak (Quercus coccifera) evergreen, with spiky leaves, locally called garrus, giving the name to the range. They are full of pot-holes (avens} down which the rain that falls sinks to travel underground and reappear often at great distances in copious springs.

The northernmost portion of the Cevennes is the
Sketch Map of The Cevennes from A book of the Cevennes (-1907-).jpg
chain of the Boutières, composed of granite and gneiss, and they are the least interesting portion of the series. Few of the summits surpass 3,600 feet, but they throw out a spur that is a supreme effort, the Mont Pilat,

4,700 feet; precisely as the Pyrenees, before expiring in the east, have projected to the north-east, and tossed aloft the noble pyramid of the Canigou. The Boutières attach themselves at their southern extremity to Mézenc, the loftiest peak of the Cevennes, 5,750 feet. So also does the chain of the Mégal, separated from the Boutières by the valley of the Lignon. Seen from Le Puy, this ridge is fine, broken into peaks. The Mégal itself attains to the height of 4,345 feet. This cone formerly belched forth a torrent of lava reaching to a thickness of 450 feet, and extending to a distance of fifty miles by eight miles wide.

From the volcanic nucleus of Mézenc branches southeast the chain of the Coiron, volcanic as well, stretching to the Rhone, where its last deposits of lava are crowned by the ruins of Rochemaure. The geologist Cordier, who had travelled in Auvergne, Italy, Syria, and Egypt, declared that he had never seen a volcanic region comparable to the Coiron. This chain is of special interest to the geologist, and is full of surprises to the ordinary traveller, for the lava bed caps the mountains, composed of friable limestone, that once formed a great calcareous plain. The Rhone has lowered its bed a thousand feet since the liquid stone flowed, and torrents have cut through lava and limestone, fashioning deep and even broad valleys. Next, the weather ate into the flanks where the stone was soft, undermined the basalt, that came down for lack of support in huge masses. Not only so, but man from the remotest period has burrowed into the rock to form habitations for himself. Near S. Jean-le-Centenier are the Balmes de Montbrul, a volcanic crater 300 feet in diameter and 480 feet deep. Men have scooped out rudimentary dwelling places in the sides in fifteen to twenty stages, one above another; a chapel and a prison were among these excavations. A troglodyte family lived in one of these caves at the end of the eighteenth century.

The mountains of the Vivarais are the finest portion of the Cevennes, so noble are their outlines, so deep are the clefts that seam them, so tumbled is the aspect of range heaped on range; and they are supremely interesting on account of the volcanic vents that remain in good preservation, and the wondrous walls of prismatic basalt that line the rivers.

The Ardèche is certainly the most extraordinary river in Europe; after leaping, and burrowing, and sawing its way through basalt, it passes down a cleft of lias disposed in beds completely horizontal, and rising like the walls of houses. In fact, it traverses a long white street, many miles in length, and then enters the great ravine between lofty precipices of Dolomitic limestone, where runs no road, and where one must descend in a boat, shooting rapid after rapid in the midst of scenery only rivalled by the noted gorges of the Tarn.

It is not necessary to do more than indicate the general aspect of this portion of the Cevennes, to give an outline that may be filled in with details later on.

But before quitting this department, I must quote some words of Mr. Hammerton, no mean judge of landscape:—

"The department of Ardèche on the right bank of the Rhone is but little visited by tourists, and does not contain a single mountain whose name is known in England. It is natural that the hills of the Ardèche should be little known, as the fame of them is extinguished by the Alps; yet they are highly picturesque and full of geological interest. As to the altitudes, they are not considered high mountains in France, but there are twelve of them that exceed Ben Nevis."


The volcanic region of Mézenc and the Coiron to the east of the granitic plateau separates the southern from the northern Cevennes. The first volcanic cones are met with immediately north of Mont Tanargue (4,785 feet). The southernmost is the Coupe de Jaujac. There are six of these volcanoes lying at the foot of the granite plateau, but they are insignificant in comparison with those of the principal range, which forms the watershed between the Loire and the Rhone, in the centre of which range is the three-toothed Mézenc, surrounded by subsidiary cones, among which is the Gerbier de Jonc (5,090 feet), which was 5,610 feet high before a landslip occurred in 1821, that reduced its height. On the flank of this mountain rises the Loire.

The department of Gard takes it name from several Gardons, a name as common in this part of the Cevennes as Gave is in the Pyrenees.

We are now in the midst of the Camisard country, an inextricable network of mountains of lacerated schist and of deeply furrowed valleys, in which the revolted Cevenols held at bay the armies of Louis XIV. At the present day the department of Gard contains more Protestants than any other in France, and whole villages are entirely Calvinist, with scarce a Catholic in them. The Cevennes are drifting westward. In Hérault they take a definitely western direction. Here comes in the limestone plateau of Larzac, that feeds the countless flocks from which are derived Roquefort cheese. This is a barren land. It was not always so, but man has devastated it with the axe, and the sheep devour every plant that shoots, and kill the future of Larzac. Little soil now remains on this elevated white tableland; what there is is swept away by the rains and carried underground in the avens or pot-holes. M. Martel says:—

"Nowadays that atmospheric condensation is weak, the rains so soon as they touch the calcareous rock are engulfed in its thousands of fissures, at once, as if evaporated by contact with red-hot iron. The porosity of the soil is guilty of this legerdemain. Save on the morrow of great storms, drunk up thirstily by the parched causse in a few hours, there is not a drop of water on the plateau. In the stony bed of the torrents one may make almost a complete circuit of such a peninsula as that circumscribed by the Vis on the east, and the Virenque on the north, west, and south, where run their trenches, cut to the depth of 600 to 900 feet, forming tortuous chaplets of rubble beds, grey and sunburnt. Torrent beds these, sufficiently large to accommodate the Dordogne with ease, but now only rivers of ballast, where the flood of a passing storm rarely troubles the sleep of the sand and the solitary pebbles."

The river Hérault, that gives its name to the department, flows through a ravine, up which runs no road, save to S. Guilhem-le-Désert. Another river not easy to be explored is its tributary, the Vis. One can look down into the cañon from above, but not thread it. We come next to the coalfields that are more or less energetically exploited. Some talk has been about running a special line from them to Marseilles, so as to furnish the vessels with home-produced steam-coal. But the fuel here turned out has not the heating power of the anthracite of Cardiff, and it has proved cheaper to obtain a supply by water from Wales than to employ that which is dug out of the flanks of the Cevennes 150 miles distant.

The Espinouse gives birth on one slope to affluents of the Tarn, that discharges its waters into the Garonne and finally into the Atlantic. On the southern face, which is not a slope but a precipice, through chasms it sends feeders to the Orb that throws its waters into the Mediterranean. The Espinouse is composed of gneiss and schist, penetrated by veins of eruptive matter. Although the actual heights are not great, rarely exceeding 3,300 feet, yet the sheer cliffs, and the manner in which they have been cleft by torrents, gives them a grandeur which makes this portion of the Cevennes well deserving of a visit.

The Monts de Lacaune, almost wholly sterile, link the Cevennes of Hérault to those of Aveyron. The highest crest is the Pic de Montalet, 3,810 feet. They are composed of mica-schists, granite, and porphyry, and stretch in barren plateaux, or monotonous rolling ground, frozen for a great part of the year. The Montagne Noire, on the other hand, is well wooded. From its wretched hamlets come the men who help to gather in the vintage in the more fertile plains.

"These mountaineers arrive," says Mme. L. Figuier, "to earn in one month enough to support them and their families all the rest of the year in their contracted valleys, rich in vegetation but very poor in products. The Languedoc peasants treat them harshly. The unfortunate mountaineers, who ought to inspire compassion, are often enough badly treated, and serve as butts for chaff to the grape gatherers of the country to which they have come as assistants. The farmer who has hired a band of these montagnards gives them a granary and some hay in and on which to rest after the fatigues of the day. Here they are huddled together, men, women, and children, living on the grapes and on a coarse soup which they cook in common in the evening, and eat together out of one porringer. But these veritable pariahs are linked together by strong ties of affection. They rise, walk, work, eat, sleep together always in herds. In the evening, on returning from the vineyards, they dance their national bourées, not so much for enjoyment, as to bring back to their minds their native country, and sometimes great tears may be seen rolling down the cheeks of the young girls, who think of the happy times when they danced so merrily on the earthen floors of their cottages. The most fertile plains, the most brilliant cities, cannot compensate, to these poor people, for the century-old nut trees and the chestnuts which nourish them in their miserable hovels. Their hearts crave for the freshness of their valleys, the fragrance of their meadows, their snowy mountains, and the distaff over the fire of the winter's evenings."}}[2]

I have not in this book included the Montagne Noire. I have not described the range beyond the Espinouse westward, nor the mountains about Annonais and Mont Pilat, as these portions of the Cevennes are less interesting than that which intervenes, and, also, lest I should unduly extend the book.

It is strange that the region of the Cevennes should have been neglected by tourists to such an extent as it has; but it is explicable.

Those who seek sunshine during the winter in the Riviera leave the Cevennes far away as a bank of cloud silver-fringed on their right hand beyond the Rhone. On their way back to England in spring they are disinclined to loiter, and break their home journey for the sake of excursions into this region, so little explored. In like manner, those who go to Pau are carried by the railway far away to the west, and see nothing of the plateau, because it slants downwards from the lofty ridge to the east.

Those who travel from Toulouse to Montpellier by the railway have their eyes attracted south to the snows and glaciers of the Pyrenees, and do not turn their heads to look north at the range that is so unassertive, sheltering itself behind the desolate Garrigues.

In 1894 I published a book, The Deserts of Central France, in which I described the great tableland high uplifted that lies in the penumbra of the great crescent, and I shall say nothing in this of the plateaux of Lot, Tarn, and Lozère, dealt with in the former work, but confine myself to the marginal range. Since M. Martel first drew attention to the gorges of the Tarn, and possibly due in a measure to my work, these gorges are becoming annually frequented more and more by tourists. However fine they may be, there are others in the departments of Ardèche, Gard, and Hérault, that fall but little, if at all, short of them in savagery and strangeness.

There are no great towns in the Cevennes. Such as there are are sleepy and stationary; but from Béziers, Montpellier, Nîmes, Le Puy, where every comfort may be found, it is easy to run into the mountains, and return from them to recruit. Hotels are vastly improved of late years owing to the insistence of the Touring Club on the sanitary arrangements being at least decent, which they were not ten years ago.

Enough has been said to show that the Cevennes abound in scenes of great beauty, and that they are of special interest to geologists. They are interesting in another way. The limestone hills are overgrown with aromatic herbs, mint, marjoram, thyme, sage, lavender, rosemary, so as to be veritable spice mountains over which the warm air wafts fragrance. The shrubs and trees present to our eyes, familiar with northern vegetation, an unfamiliar appearance. They are for the most part evergreens, where the chestnuts do not spread in forests, or the mulberry is not cultivated for silkworm culture.

For the geology of the volcanic district of Haute Loire and Ardèche, an excellent guide is Mr. Paulett Scrope's Geology and Extinct Volcanoes in Central France, London, second edition, 1858.

Lovers of the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson know his Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes–a delightful book, but dealing very little with the Cevennes proper, mainly with the Upper Gévaudan, and with that portion of Lozère threaded by the Tarn, and with neither of these do I deal in this volume.

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Le Suc De Sara

  1. France: Algérie et Colonies, Paris, Hachette et Cie.
  2. Figuier (L). Nos de Lavène, Paris, Marpon.