Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Following Stevenson through the Cévennes

Florac, a gathering of motorbikes
I’m travelling the Corniche des Cévennes for this post.  And yes, I do know that wasn’t Stevenson’s route from Florac to St-Jean-du-Gard.  But there’s a very specific reason for this, so read on…
A few centuries ago Florac - around 2000 inhabitants now, so small by our standards - was the capital of the one of the eight baronnies of the Gévaudan and therefore under direct control of the Bishop of Mende.  The area of the Gévaudan was known for the harshness of its landscape and the cruelty of its fuedal rule, giving rise to the proverb ‘pays de Gévaudan, pays de tyrans’.  The countryside of Gévaudan is the countryside of tyrants!  
But let's put the history aside for a moment and consider the geography.  Flanked by the Causses Méjean on the west and the Cévennes and Mont Lozère to the north, east and south.  Florac sits at around 550m above sea level.  Yet another charming little place, worth a languid visit, for the park that flanks the chateau alone, before setting out along the D907 and then the D9 to drive along the roof of the world!
I was last here one Sunday morning in September a few years ago and, on the outskirts of town I happened upon ‘Le Tour de France’ for old motorbikes.  I had to stop and stroll around these beautiful machines.  There were BSA’s BMW’s, Mobecane, Motoguzzi and a particularly nice BSA Bantam, I think.  All in stunning condition.  I watched as they started to leave in a steady, timed stream of thrumming engines and exhaust fumes.  RLS missed that, I thought!
Stevenson headed east to Cassagnas using drover’s tracks signposted by stones.  I cut south along the Corniche (D9) and towards St-Jean-du-Gard.  The road runs between two river valleys – Les Gardons Ste Croix and St Jean - and rises to around 1000m.  The highest point was for lunch, to enjoy the view, watch a very large bird of prey slipping from thermal to thermal above and to wonder about the Dutchman who had disturbed my solitude on a previous visit.  I recalled that, after noting the plates on the car, he had said he thought the scenery was as beautiful as that in England.  I remember having to disagree.  Then he pulled up a picnic chair and started chatting, eventually telling me about his home in Freisland, the medals he had won in the annual ice skating marathon along the canals and finally, his work for the resistance during the war.  His parting comment being, that of all the medals he owned, he was most proud of those for his skating.  As I ran over the conversation I wondered if his wife had recovered from the illness that had caused her absence, that day, and if both of them were still around, I wished them well.
Bridge and river near Florac
The sun was encouraging new freckles to develop and my skin to complain so I decided to move on.  The road twists and turns through rocky outcrops, parched course grass and sweet chestnut trees growing wherever they can find a foothold.  Seeing a local lady harvesting the chestnuts, I decided to follow suit.  ‘They won’t be quite ready to eat yet,’ she said.  I nodded and thanked her but decided against telling her I’d done this before!  On that previous visit there had been an elderly couple collecting the chestnuts and it was Madame who shared with me her recipe for flan aux marrons.  As a small and grateful tribute to her for introducing me to yet another amazing taste of France I decided to put flan aux marrons on the Sunday lunch menu at the fictional restaurant in my novel, Messandrierre.
Stevenson made it to St-Jean-du-Gard, as did I, but I took the high road and I know what he missed!  There will be more from Stevenson and I in a couple of weeks. 

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