During our recent short break in the Cevennes we were based in the village of St Jean du Bruel, about 7 kilometres east of Nant and marking the point where the valley of the Dourbie narrows to a steep-sided gorge. The village is smaller than Nant (population 690), 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: 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. In 2005, as The Observer noted, the hotel is one of ‘those individually owned and run hotels that offer the unique French values of bonhomie, good value and seriously good food’.
After we had checked in at the hotel we called at the tourist information bureau to enquire about local footpaths where an advisor recommended a walk that took about two hours on a path that led up from St Jean to Le Sentinel, a crag from which a statue of the Virgin overlooks the village (top).
It was a great start to the holiday, the path winding up through woodland and eventually emerging at the lookout point which provided great views of the village and the Dourbie gorge to the east. The chap in the tourist office also suggested that we go in search of the orchids and asphodels that flower in profusion on the nearby causses at this time of year – but more of that quest in the next post.
Saint Jean du Bruel gained its name during the Middle Ages but, I discovered, during the Revolution, they renamed the village La Sentinelle, after this lookout point which marked the borders of two old provinces. The village name was restored under the First Empire.
In my previous post I compared Nant, the neighbouring village down the valley, to Arcadia. But it was not always so: this now-peaceful valley was torn apart by the 16th century wars of religion, and the Camisard Rebellion of the late 17th century.
In 1560, the majority of the villagers of St Jean adopted the Calvinist Reformation, while neighbouring Nant remained Catholic. A bitter war broke out between the two villages, War breaks out between the two towns, with reicprocal looting and massacres occurring until the Edict of Nantes in 1598 brought the wars of religion to a close. However, the political freedoms the Edict granted to the Huguenots (seen by Catholic nationalists as ‘a state within the state’) became an increasing source of conflict during the 17th century. The decision by Louis XIV to revoke the Edict of Nantes and strip Huguenots of their freedom of worship led some Protestant families to convert to Catholicism and others to flee abroad. But when the persecution intensified and Catholicism was imposed on southwestern France, the Huguenots took to arms in the revolt known as the Camisard Rebellion. Hundreds of villages were destroyed by fire during ‘the great conflagration of the Cevennes’.
Nant was one of them. At this time, the population of St Jean consisted largely of Protestant Huguenots and the village had become more prosperous than Nant thanks to the presence of the manor and its administration, and the quality and diversity of its crafts, fairs and markets. There was a bitter enmity between the two villages which culminated in the citizens of St Jean burning down the monastery in Nant and driving the villagers out. It was only with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789 that Protestants gained full security and equal rights as citizens.
Two bridges cross the Dourbie in St Jean, the Old Bridge of the thirteenth century and the Pont Neuf dating from the eighteenth century. The Old Bridge (above), located in the oldest part of town, spans the Dourbie in a Roman single arch.
This old inn sign (above) is a reminder of St Jean’s former renown for its metalwork. The Rue de la Coutellerie (below) was once the location of cutlery-makers.
Several industries developed in St Jean that depended upon the Dourbie as a resource or for water power. A pottery industry (manufacturing cheese moulds and glazed tiles) once existed, and from the new bridge you can see on the river bank a chimney (below) – all that now remains of the old pottery kilns. To the right of the pottery chimney is the weir, built to regulate the flow of water to the 13th century mill which still stands on the other side of the bridge.
Other trades that developed in the past included woodworking (making use of chestnut trees which cover the hillsides around about), clog-making, weaving, hat-making, and watchmaking. In 1800 the village had four times the number of inhabitants than today. A sense of the former prosperity of the village can be inferred from these roofscapes.
Each morning I would stroll out of the village in one direction or another. The mist would be rising from the valley as the day warmed up. One morning I turned across the old bridge and walked along the valley in the direction of Nant.
Finally… the nightlife in St Jean: two photos taken around 10:15 outside the main cafe in the old market place.
The market place (Les Halles) dates in its present form from 1845, when it was rebuilt after being destroyed during the French Revolution. This where fairs, markets and meetings of the village council would be held. The wooden beams which you can just see in my photo are made of chestnut.
Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was living it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.
– ‘The Vacation’, Wendell Berry