There is a deep 600 foot drop from the cliff tops in Le Thord, commune of St Haon, to the river. The Gorges are only occasionally accessible by road. They are heavily wooded with deciduous and conifer trees, and in autumn very colourful. The woods abound with wildlife and many happy hours have been passed watching soaring buzzards and hovering birds of prey; rabbits and small cats beware!
Bird watchers frequently descend the paths below the cliffs, complete with binoculars, notebooks and cameras, ...... and twitch for an hour or so and leave as silently as they arrive.
Here on the 1000 metre contour, towards the southern edge of the Massif Central, the air is clear, the wind is fresh, the temperatures range from very hot, in excess of 40 degrees without any humidity, to minus 15; crisp, dry and exceedingly beautiful. There are few people about.
The main ‘Axe’ between Lyon and Toulouse, the N88, bisects the plateau of the Haute-Loire. It affords long, wide sweeping views, initially of the ‘sucs’ (smallish rounded hills) of the Velay across to Mt Mezenc, towards the Cevennes, the Margaride and the Aubrac. In the reverse direction mountains and extinct volcanoes of the Puys, Cantal and the Massif rear skywards.
A live railway line still runs through the Gorges; originally connecting Paris with Marseille but sadly the famed ‘Cevanole’ through train ran its last trip last year; however it is still possible to travel from Clermont Ferrand to Nimes on the line through over 100 tunnels. The stretch from Langeac to Langogne through the foot of the gorge is breathtaking. Here the line runs across an 18 arch viaduct over the confluence of the rivers Allier and Chapeauroux. The viaduct is best seen from the D31 between St Haon and le Nouveau Monde.
This is agricultural country with cattle, sheep and goats, some pigs and lots of cereals and lentils. The world famed Le Puy lentils are grown here; low uninspiring looking plants, mid-green in colour yet deliciously and delicately flavoured. Like the best wines, Le Puy lentils have their own AOC classification.
In this decidedly un-Ambridge like area, one is quite likely to encounter herds of cows en route to and from the milking parlours in mornings and early evenings. Just wait for them to pass gently by, udders swaying, bells ringing, with rough looking farm dogs snapping at their heels, or follow them for as long and as far as it takes. Why hurry?
The sun goes down, the sun comes up – this is an area ‘habitude’ and neither nothing will change it. Beware though, at dusk and dawn herds can blend in with their surroundings, and they don’t have lights! The drover is usually sitting sideways on a tractor, also without lights, to the rear of the herd; if a woman is in charge she will found walking along, wellington booted, wearing an old knitted cardigan, woolly hat and a carrying a long switch. I have also followed a one-legged goat-herd, swinging along on crutches.
Driving through many of the small villages travellers may think they have arrived in Oliver Goldsmith’s deserted village, but don’t be deceived. There is vibrant life behind the shutters, with many thriving clubs and associations, Petanque, Belotte, Choirs, UT3A, Scrabble and La Chasse amongst others, although there are few bars or cafes. There are a few small Auberges providing comfortable and inexpensive accommodation and limited menus, although the Plat du Jour at Midi is always good value.
History abounds here. Julius Caesar’s legions reputedly camped on the rolling fields of Charbonnier between Cayres and Costaros during his conquest of Gau,l while Robert Louis Stevenson crossed the plateau early in his Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, passing from Goudet on the Loire, to Bouchet St Nicholas, where he stayed the night before continuing to Pradelles, Langogne and the Monastery of Notre Dame des Neiges across the border into Lozère.
At Bouchet St Nicholas (Auberge and Chambre d’hotes) he missed the picturesque Lac du Bouchet which for today’s travellers is a must. The Lac is a circular flooded cone of an extinct volcano, 90 metres deep and with no known outlet. Tree clad hills rise in an unbroken ring all round. There is a lakeside footpath all round the lake (about 1.5 km) with numerous paths higher up through the woods which, in winter provide easy cross country ski trails.
It is well worth a visit at all seasons of the year, especially in the autumn when the trees are magnificent, and in winter when the lake is frozen. The village has some interesting carved stones on 3 or 4 houses denoting RLS’s journey, together with a whimsical wooden statue of the great man with Modestine, his donkey,. The village is currently celebrating the 130th anniversary of the journey. (The book is an excellent read).
Using a good map, the voie Bollene, a Roman Road (GR40) can be followed and although parts are easy to follow, the path down to the river crossing is difficult. There are ruined fortresses overlooking the Allier at Le Thord (home of Les Seigneurs du Thord – a brigand band ) and Joncherres.
Out to the west the countryside was once terrorised by The Beast of Gevaudan. The 21st Century has arrived on the old plateau now, and the Eoliens are coming, but it will always be timeless. This then is the plateau, largely unknown, quiet, beautiful and fascinating. My home.
There are some excellent books and pamphlets on Stevenson, and there is an official Stevenson Trail , details of which can be obtained from Tourist Offices in Le Puy en Velay and Pradelles. Maps 2736 O, 2736 E, 2737 O and 2737 E in the Série Bleu, published by IGN are useful.
Author: Terry Burke