Cevennes Up

Saturday 21st October 2005, Beau Séjour, La Balme les Grottes, Isère
We left Champagne around lunch time, driving to Bourg en Bresse, famed for the whiteness of its chickens and the splendour of its monastery. We saw nothing of the former but, avoiding the town centre we made straight for the monastery on the outskirts at Brou. This is a wonderful building and we spent far longer there than we had intended. Built by Margaret of Austria between 1506 and 1532 as a tribute to her late husband Philibert le Beau, it is now deconsecrated and houses both their tombs and that of Philibert’s mother, Margaret of Bourbon. Above the abbey, overlooking the various cloisters, the cells of the monks have been transformed into an art gallery displaying paintings, furnishings and ceramics by local artists. There is an entire room dedicated to the works of Gustave Doré who spent his childhood at Bourg-en-Bresse. We knew of him only as a wood engraver and book illustrator but he also undertook sculpture in stone and painting in oils with several large canvases displayed including a couple illustrating Dante’s Inferno.

Exterior of Brou abbey church


Tomb of Margaret of Austria

Tomb of Philibert le beau

We continued our travels south to Pérouges, an impressive, sympathetically restored mediaeval hilltop town with horribly difficult uncomfortable cobbled streets. It seemed charmingly unspoilt despite its popularity with tourists. Its steep narrow streets all lead up to a central square with a huge lime tree. The buildings themselves seemed often constructed from rubble or whatever stone materials were available. The overall impression of the town was of a brownish red colour with considerable use of wood in the construction of the houses. There were bright flowers at the windows and signs had been kept to a minimum. The place was very picturesque and atmospheric with its ancient walled gateway and huge unlit church where we groped around in the twilight. Candles were placed to illuminate the huge oil paintings but generally it was too dark to see much.

Pérouges street in medieval town

Pérouges Place de la Halle

It was 6.30 and already dusk by the time we left. We needed to find somewhere for the night and the nearest place still open listed in our book was 20 kilometres away. It was dark well before we arrived. It is nothing special but at least we have hot showers and a safe place for the night. To our astonishment we found the lights of a mobile charcuterie gleaming through the darkness of this near deserted site, selling all kinds of French specialities – cheeses and creams, fresh meat, langue de boeuf, vol au vents, eggs and patisseries. We bought sausages and sauerkraut and while they cooked together in Modestine we sat outside in the darkness drinking wine by candlelight. It was really very hot.

Sunday 22nd October 2005, Coubon near Le Puy-en-Velay, Haute-Loire
During the night it began to rain and by 8am it had become torrential with thunder and lightning. It looked like continuing all day. The map showed us to be very near the Rhône and we are always rather nervous camping so near to a possible flood plain. We moved off the site mid-morning and travelling along roads awash with floodwater we eventually left the rain behind to be replaced by warm sunshine.

We stopped at Vienne and found it to be a wonderful town filled with amazing Roman remains including a huge theatre – largely reconstructed but still with vestiges of the original marble decorative facings and a small temple. There is also a wonderfully intact temple complete with columns. There is a museum in the Eglise Saint Pierre of all the stone artefacts gathered from around the town. The church itself looks almost Italianate from the front. The cathedral St. Maurice is enormous with a wonderfully carved, ornate façade. Here we discovered the difference between cherubim and seraphim – the former have four wings and the latter six. (There’s a useful question for a quiz!)

Vienne, Roman theatre

Vienne, Roman arches in the Jardin Archaeologique

Vienne, Cathedral St. Maurice

Vienne, Temple of Augustus and Livia

Vienne lies in the Rhône/ Saône corridor with an intense concentration of traffic travelling north/south along the river banks. The town sits astride the Rhône which is very wide here having gathered the waters of the Saône at Lyons. Our last glimpse of the Rhône had been at its glacial source in Switzerland.

We followed the river down towards Valence passing near Annonay and Montfaucon before turning off just before Puy en Velay for Coubon where our map had marked an all year site for camping cars. We found it but there were no other vehicles there and the facilities were so appalling we decided to camp rough by the river Loire opposite the town.

We are now in the region of Volcanoes which stretches northwards to the Auvergne. They are very spectacular with endless conical mountains rising forever towards the blue horizon. A number of volcanic stacks rise out of the landscape. These are the harder rock of the volcanic chimneys through which lava, ash and steam erupted. The sides have eroded away leaving vertical stacks upon which it has been the fashion to construct churches, chateaux and even ancient temples. We have already seen several in the region and Le Puy-en-Velay has additional, more spectacular ones which we have visited on an earlier occasion.

Monday 24 October 2005, Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille, Haute-Loire

Coubon – riverside, where we camped for the night

We were early to sleep as we did not wish to attract unwanted attention by using our lights in our isolated location near the river. We awoke before dawn, breakfasted and were off and away to Le Puy-en-Velay. Parking above the town, we walked down and spent most of the morning exploring the old town below the Cathedral. Le Puy was established in Roman times and fragments of their stonework can be found in later buildings, including the Cathedral. The town is dominated by two volcanic stacks. One, the Aiguilhe, or needle, is also known as the Rocher St Michel with a Romanesque church dedicated to St Michael perched on its summit. This was built by Bishop Gothescalk in 962 after a pilgrimage to St James of Compostella. We had climbed to the summit on a previous visit and wondered at the Spanish and Moorish influence in the use of contrasting colours of stone work which is also to be seen in the Cathedral.

Aiguilhe with chapel of St Michel

The Cathedral dominates the other stack which is incongruously crowned by the pink cast-iron figure of the Virgin and Child, constructed in 1860 from cannons captured at Sebastopol. This is hollow, containing a winding staircase up to the Virgin’s head illuminated by tiny windows in her anatomy. We had climbed this massive statue on our previous visit. It is unkindly said that the advantage of doing this it that when peering out through the hole under her armpit, it is the only place in the city where the statue cannot be seen.

The Iron Maiden – Notre Dame de France

Bishop Gothescalk obviously started a fashion for pilgrimages. Today the cathedral has been declared a World Heritage Site, in part because it starts one of the pilgrim routes to Compostella. Already in the 12th century the Cathedral had to be enlarged to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims and this was daringly achieved by building out the west front on arcades above the slope of the ground so that the main entrance emerged in the middle of the nave.

The main approach to the Cathedral up the Rue des Tables

There are jubilee years every time the Annunciation coincides with Good Friday, which happens approximately three times each century. The year 2005 is such a year and the Black Virgin, Notre-Dame de Puy, had had a new robe made especially for her. The original statue had been brought back from the Holy Land of Egypt in the 13th century. It was burned in the French Revolution, when it was declared to be a statue of the goddess Isis, but was replaced by a rather hideous 17th century version in the 1850s. Its pride of place is on the altar of the cathedral, but today there was a handwritten note propped on the altar rail to inform us that the statue would be “Back in thirty minutes” and that she had “Popped out to the sacristy for a robbing session, please pray to my son while I am away”. On entering the sacristy we found two nuns happily engaged in trying all the different robes on the statue and taking digital photographs. Ian asked whether this was permitted to lay persons. A little confusion on the part of the nun who said “En principe non” pointing out that there were coloured postcards available. They were soon joined by several more diminutive nuns and a very tall and jolly priest in a cassock several inches too short, who whistled and exclaimed “Ooh la la, comme elle est belle” as each new robe was tried on. He even put some on the statue himself, carefully making sure that the Christ Child’s head poke out through the seam in front. The gilt crowns were taken off and replaced, there was much jollity and it was difficult to believe that the statue was normally such a revered object. They were all bubbling with delight and happily opened the drawers of the special chest to show us the Virgin’s entire collection of 20 different copes each hand-made by the nuns in the adjoining convent.

The Barbie-doll Madonna

Buildings in the high town are mainly associated with the Cathedral, the diocese, the church and the pilgrims and are in a variety of mainly volcanic rocks, black basalt, a brown pumice-like stone and pinkish granite. On the streets these are carefully arranged in bands of cobbles. Everywhere Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance fragments are incorporated into houses along the narrow streets, which open into small squares, where fountains often play. It is all the more unfortunate in this historic town that the streets reek of dogs’ excrement and one spends more time looking down at the pavement than up at the architecture.

Le Puy-en-Velay, view up to cathedral

Le Puy-en-Velay, medieval hostel for pilgrims

Le Puy-en-Velay, old cobbled street

In the afternoon we left Puy for Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille about twenty kilometres to the south, the sleepy little town where Robert Louis Stevenson purchased his donkey Modestine for 65 francs and a glass of brandy, before starting his famous twelve day journey through the Cevennes in 1878. In contrast to Coubon, we found a designated area for camping cars by the little medieval church of St. Jean on the Esplanade Sevenson, together with extremely clean facilities and a well-stocked Huit-à-Huit supermarket.

Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille, Stevenson Plaque in Place de la Poste

Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille, View from parking place

Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille, Church of St Jean

We are not the first to follow in RLS’s footsteps. In the Place de la Poste is a monument, given to the town by American pilgrims and in the town hall is a detailed exhibition on RLS, his time in Le Monastier, those who have followed in his tracks, the recently designated long-distance footpath, the TV programmes that have been made, the bande dessinée etc etc. There is also a Stevenson gallery in the museum, which is impressively housed in the abbey castle with its sturdy round towers at each corner. The abbey church, built during the eleventh century in a similar Romanesque style to Le Puy cathedral with Hispano-Moorish influences in the use of alternating coloured stones, was part of one of the largest Benedictine foundations in the Velay area with some 235 dependent houses.

Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille, Abbey Church

There are also several other early buildings in the town, but what attracted our attention was a more modern structure. There were photographs in the town hall of the construction of the Recoumène Viaduct during the 1920s, with hair-raising pictures of the arches being put in place. As it was less than two miles from the town, we decided to walk there before dusk fell. When we reached it we found - indignity of indignities – that the magnificent feat of engineering with its eight slender arches was now the National Bungee Jumping Centre! The railway line it was intended for never seems to have come into service – such a waste of effort and so many lives put at risk. As it was never designed as a road bridge, there are no parapets, but we cautiously ventured across and admired extensive views of the valley more than 65 metres below and of the distant hills.

Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille, Viaduc de La Recoumène

Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille, view from the viaduct

On our return we found that Modestine had been joined by another camper van and a fellow retiree, a jolly Frenchman who informed us “La mort n’est rien qu’une manqué de savoir-vivre”. We proved that we knew how to live by consuming a glass of wine on a public bench near to Modestine until the evening chill at a height of 900 meters drove us inside.

Tuesday 25 October 2005, Mende
In the morning there was a minor crisis. Modestine’s battery registered flat.
However the engine started with no problem. The helpful staff in the post office at Le Monastier directed us to the nearest service station on the outskirts of the town where the mechanic tested the battery and pronounced it healthy. The fault was with Modestine’s caravan electrics rather than the engine. Partially relieved, we parked near the service station and visited the weekly market in the convent square where we bumped into the cheerful retired couple from the neighbouring camper van selecting a live trout for lunch to accompany the wild blue mushrooms they had collected near Béziers.

We crossed to the castle to visit the Stevenson exhibition in the museum. Once inside the castle we found the museum did not open until mid-afternoon and the door was locked. Turning to leave we found that the outer door had fallen shut, locking us in the castle tower on a spiral staircase! There was nobody else anywhere in the castle so we were effectively trapped for four hours until 2.30pm! We opened a window on the staircase speculating how long it might take for Jill’s hair to grow like Rapunzel’s so that Ian could lower himself down and summon help! The boules pitch in front of the castle was deserted but eventually we managed to hail a passer-by and persuade him to ask at the town hall if they held a key. Fortunately they did and with a mixture of amusement and consternation we were eventually released back into the community! Even RLS never encountered such an adventure during his travels. We crossed paths yet again with the camper van couple who were most amused by our adventure and finished viewing the RLS exhibition in the town hall before finally setting off in the hoofsteps of Modestine.

Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille, Abbey Castle - temporary prison for Ian and Jill