The Cévennes National Park lies in the southern reaches of France’s mountainous heartland, the Massif Central. The park’s heath-covered plateaus, deep gorges, boulder-strewn rivers and lush woodlands are home to such a rich and diverse range of flora and fauna that it has been listed as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
The gorges created by the Tarn and Jontes rivers carve their way into the western borders of the park. Here at Sainte-Énimie, nestled within the steep sides of the Gorges du Tarn, granite and schist are the traditional building materials, giving many of the towns and villages their distinctive beauty.
Rocks are everywhere in the Cévennes! This monster overhangs the road leading out of Sainte-Énemie heading into the park.
Further along the Tarn, at Florac, the administrative center of the park, the dramatic cliff-face of the Cévennes ledge looms over the town. The fort-like silhouette of the limestone outcrops known as the Rocher de Rochefort dominate the skyline.
Travelling up the sides of the ledge, Florac starts to look very small. And we're not even at the top yet!
This is the landscape which greets you when you reach the top – the broad heathland of the vast plateau known as the Causse Méjean.
Dotted across the Causse Méjean, and other highland areas of the Cévennes, are boulder fields known locally as chaos. This granite boulder field is at Finiels, in the foothills of Mont Lozère, Cévenne’s highest peak at 1699 m (5574 ft).
France’s last surviving mountain weather station sits at the top of Mont Aigoual. Built to resemble a castle, the station’s towers offer wonderful views. From here, some of the parks’ many rare birds of prey might be spotted wheeling overhead. These include Royal, Booted and Golden Eagles as well as other raptors, including recently re-introduced Bearded Vultures!
From the heights to the depths! The Cévennes not only has limestone caves to explore, but deep fissures such as this one – the Abîme de Bramabiau.
But it’s not all geology. There’s rich history too. The bastions of the ruined 13th-century Chateau de Tournel still perch high above the Lot valley. Occupying an almost perfect defensive site, with sheer cliffs on three sides, the castle offered protection to the little village that once clung to its walls.
The theme of protection is an important part of the Cévennes’ history. For centuries the region was home to many Huguenots (French Protestants) seeking refuge from persecution elsewhere in Catholic France. But at the beginning of the 1700s, when King Louis XIV pursued an active policy of harassment and the destruction of Protestant churches across the nation, a group of local Protestant rebels, known as the Camisards, fought back. This Protestant temple at Saint-André-de-Lancize stands at the heart of what was once Camisard territory.
In the 19th century the coming of the railroad to the Cévennes brought an engineering wonder. This astonishing railway viaduct crossing at Chamborigaud was completed in 1867 and is still in use today. Its arches stand 43 m (141 ft) high above the River Luech.
The railway helped transport coal, the region’s famous chestnuts, and first-season tomatoes to the rest of France. It also brought tourism to the region. In the Autumn of 1878 a young Scottish writer called Robert Louis Stevenson (later the author of the world-famous Treasure Island) travelled through Cévennes in the company of his temperamental donkey, Modestine. One of their stops was at Pont-de-Montvert. Today this granite-built town lies on the popular hiking trail, Le route Stevenson, named in his honour.
Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879) is one of the first books to write about hiking and camping as purely recreational activities. And it contains a line that might well sum up the uncomplicated pleasure of rambling through a place as beautiful and unspoilt as the Cévennes National Park:
‘For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go.’