The swallows are back on the field, swooping and diving around me as I take the dog on her afternoon walk. We’re back, too, after a short break, returning to old haunts in the Cevennes.
The return of the swallows and swifts (back, too, eternally on the wing above the gardens of our street) always fills me with pleasure. After spending the winter in South Africa, these birds have followed the same path through western France as the Ryanair plane that brought us back from Nimes.
Once upon a time, decades ago, a couple wandered through France in their red 2CV and in the far south, in a valley lying deep between the limestone plateaux they call the causses, found Arcadia. For two successive summers they camped just outside the small town of Nant in the department of Aveyron, on the southwestern fringe of the Cevennes. Twelve years later they returned with their young daughter. Last week, and this time with old friends, they went back again.
The beloved 2CV has long gone to the great scrapyard in the sky; times move on and what, in the 1970s, would have been an impossible proposition financially is now commonplace. We flew to Nimes and drove up the old N9 (now the A75 motorway) towards Millau. The climb from the Languedoc plain up onto the Causse du Larzac at the Pas de l’Escalette near le Caylar is still astonishing: in little more than 15 kilometres the road rises nearly 700 metres, today through heavily engineered curves and tunnels that have sliced through dramatic inclines and folds of limestone strata that were formed in the tertiary era on the bed of a warm, shallow sea and then twisted and broken by the formation of the Pyrenees. In the days of the old N9, this road was a straining cavalcade of lorries; now the drive is smooth and uncomplicated – but no less dramatic. Several videos of the drive have been uploaded to YouTube; here’s one of them:
We turn off before the famous bridge at Millau (another bottleneck in the old N9 days) and head across the Causse du Larzac towards Nant, through the beautiful wild landscape of the limestone plateau. Larzac is the largest, the most arid and uninhabited of the four Grands Causses of this region, with only the occasional medieval hamlet hunched on the horizon.
And then the descent towards Nant that I remember so well: situated where the valley of the Dourbie opens out into verdant meadows enfolded in a bowl of tree-clad hills, Nant is still the same picture of perfection: ‘those blue remembered hills …What spires, what farms are those? That is the land of lost content, I see it shining plain, The happy highways where I went’. We drive down and, less than five hours after leaving Liverpool, are seated outside a cafe in the main square consuming assiettes of local cheeses and charcuteries in the warm sunshine. Nant seems unchanged since we were last here in 1993.
Etymologically, Nant has no relationship with the northern city of Nantes. The name is of Celtic origin and means a place where land and water meet. In the 10th century, Benedictine monks drained the marshy soil of the Durzon valley where it joins the Dourbie, constructing a network of stone-lined canals which still run through the village. The monks’ success in developing agriculture led to Nant being called ‘the garden of Aveyron’. In 926 they built a monastery here, which became an abbey in 1135. The economy prospered, and the village of Nant grew up around the abbey.
During the wars of religion the monastic buildings were destroyed, but Nant continued to prosper – its golden age came in the second half of the 17th century when the town had 3000 inhabitants (today it’s around 800) and, after Millau, it ranked as the second most important town of the region. The abbey church of St Peter, dating from the 11th century, still stands at the centre of the village, its fortified belltower giving it the squat appearance of a medieval castle keep.
The monastic legacy can be traced, too, in several Romanesque churches that are scattered through the surrounding countryside. We walked out of Nant (past the site where we camped all those years ago) to one of them – the 12th century church of St Martin du Vican, now inaccessible on private land and being used as a barn.
The arches of the halles (market) date from the monastic times, too, and would once have hosted local fairs and a flourishing market. Now two cafes set up their tables under the arches. On one of the arches is a memorial to nine local members of the resistance movement, shot by the Nazis in August 1944.
We arrived the day after the second round of the French Presidential elections had resulted in a decisive victory for François Hollande, France’s first leftwing president in almost 20 years. I photographed these election posters on the main street.
Curiously, we were here the last time a socialist president, Francois Mitterand, was elected in 1981 and the countryside was plastered with election posters that promised his ‘quiet strength':
The next day there was a ceremony to mark the end of the Second World War outside the elegant Mairie that dates back to 1762. Several market stalls had been set up, selling local fruit, vegetables and cheeses.
In Provence last spring, climbing roses were everywhere. This year, in the valley towns, the signature plant was the wisteria.
On the last day of our short break we set off from Nant to walk through the meadows by the Dourbie towards Cantobre, the medieval village that perches on a clifftop a few kilometres further along the valley towards Millau. We crossed to the far bank of the Dourbie by the elegant 14th century La Prade bridge, another indicator of the town’s medieval prosperity.
Above us towered the Nantais Rock, a spur that juts from the causse to the north of the town.
For a few kilometres east and west of Nant the valley is broad and verdant, but upstream above St Jean du Bruel and downstream beyond Cantobre the Dourbie burrows into a ravine of sheer rock walls, slicing a path between the Causse du Larzac to the south and the Causse Noir to the north. Here, though, the path was broad and easy.
There’s a bridge at Vellas and here I crossed to the south bank again to follow the road back into Nant. The view of Cantobre, perched on its narrow rocky ledge a little further on, was spectacular. From a distance the houses appear to be part of the cliff itself, and you can understand how the place acquired its name – from ‘quant obra’, ‘what a work’. The village was abandoned after the Great War and remained in ruins until the late 1960s when it was gradually rebuilt.
On the return to Nant I passed the hamlet of les Cuns, little more than a couple of houses and one of those 12th century Romanesque churches mentioned earlier – only this time it was possible to go inside.
Romanesque churches were the first buildings since Roman times to use a stone vault instead of a wooden roof. Other characteristics of Romanesque architecture visible here include round arches, thick walls, small windows, and decorative details inside and out (see the little man carved into the base of an arch, below, which reminded me of the Kilpeck church carvings . When they were first built, Romanesque churches would have been bright with colour and imagery, with murals that served as a visual Bible to a mostly illiterate congregation.There’s nothing now but the bare stone.
On our second day, the afternoon turned dull with occasional rain. We drove down the Dourbie towards Millau, stopping first to look around Cantobre. Most of the houses date from the 14th century when the fortified village of houses clustered around the church was developed by the Knights Templar. It’s likely that the inhabitants were engaged in silver mining.
Towns and villages huddled behind defensive walls in the turbulent centuries that culminated with the religious wars and the Hundred Years War – built to protect the villagers from marauding soldiers, both French and British (Rouergue, the former provincial name for Aveyron, changed hands several times, even falling to British rule for 17 years after 1360).
A little further down the gorge is Moulin de Corp, a 15th century water mill and rather lovely humpback bridge.
On the far side of Millau is another bridge that takes your breath away with its daring engineering and elegant beauty. Opened in December 2004 , it is the highest bridge in the world, standing 270 meters (890 feet) over the Tarn River. That makes it slightly taller than the Eiffel Tower and only a hundred feet shorter than the Empire State Building. It was designed by engineer Michel Virlogeux (working for the same company that built the Eiffel Tower) and British architect Norman Foster.
We parked at the Viaduct Information Centre at the base of the bridge on the RD 992 outside Millau. It was dull and wet when I took the photo above; the official one below shows the structure to best effect. The Millau Viaduct was conceived as a way of alleviating the huge traffic jams that would form every summer as tourists made their way south, descending the valley into the town of Millau which became a notorious bottleneck on the A75 autoroute.
In its pure simplicity the bridge, consisting of a very thin slightly curved steel roadway supported by pylons and resting on seven very slender pillars, blends seamlessly into the grandeur of the surrounding landscape. The route selected, and the method of construction were chosen to minimise impact on the environment. Construction took four years – from October 2001 to its opening in December 2005. There’s a remarkable video in the Information Centre that shows how the bridge was built: after the concrete pylons had been erected, the roadway was slowly pushed out across the gorge from each side, eventually meeting (and crushing a bottle of champagne) in May 2004.
For the four night we were away we stayed at St Jean du Bruel, seven kilometres up the Dourbie from Nant where the valley narrows to a steep-sided gorge. The village is smaller than Nant, and also seems little changed from last time we were here. The first sight that met our eyes as we stepped out from our hotel onto the main street was of a group of locals sitting outside a cafe with a goat.
We stayed at the Hotel du Midi Papillon, that has been managed by the Papillon family for 150 years. I would recommend the place highly: though the rooms are small and fairly basic, ours had balconies overlooking the Dourbie and the rates are very reasonable. But what really makes a stay here truly memorable are the breakfasts and evening meals in the restaurant. The Papillons raise their own chickens, make charcuterie from local pork and jams from the fruit in the hotel garden, and the cheeseboard is to die for.
We had returned to our ‘land of lost content’. This valley, from Nant to St Jean, remains one of those places that seem most precious to those of us who live in cities. It’s more than likely that, with our city ways and city needs, we couldn’t abide here for long. Yet, to return here and linger awhile refreshes the spirit. While away I was reading Oliver Twist, and there I encountered this heartfelt passage:
Who can tell how scenes of peace and quietude sink into the minds of pain-worn dwellers in close and noisy places, and carry their own freshness, deep into their jaded hearts! Men who have lived in crowded, pent-up streets, through lives of toil, and who have never wished for change; men, to whom custom has indeed been second nature, and who have come almost to love each brick and stone that formed the narrow boundaries of their daily walks; even they, with the hand of death upon them, have been known to yearn at last for one short glimpse of Nature’s face; and, carried far from the scenes of their old pains and pleasures, have seemed to pass at once into a new state of being. Crawling forth, from day to day, to some green sunny spot, they have had such memories wakened up within them by the sight of sky, and hill and plain, and glistening water, that the foretaste of heaven itself has soothed their quick decline, and they have sunk into their tombs, as peacefully as the sun whose setting they watched from their lonely chamber window but a few hours before, faded from their dim and feeble sight! The memories which peaceful country scenes call up, are not of this world, nor of its thoughts and hopes. Their gentle influence may teach us how to weave fresh garlands for the graves of those we loved: may purify our thoughts, and bear down before it old enmity and hatred; but beneath all this, there lingers, in the least reflective mind, a vague and half-formed consciousness of having held such feelings long before, in some remote and distant time, which calls upon solemn thoughts of distant times to come, and bends down pride and worldliness beneath it.
And then it was back to an unseasonably cold, wet and windswept Liverpool. And a Europe in crisis, with attempts to form a government in Greece collapsing, the prospect of the breakup of the eurozone, and an economic hurricane heading our way.
- Les Causses et les Cevennes: site documenting the successful bid for UNESCO World Heritage status
- Hotel du Midi