France: Exploring Cevennes Nat'l Park
A Locavore’s Tour of Cévennes National Park -- MEET offers exclusive experiences with local experts on food, wine, and culture.
By Ginger Warder
When I was invited to test an eco-tourism itinerary titled Hiking Up a Gourmet Appetite in Cevennes National Park in France I wasn’t sure what to expect.
But I was intrigued by the activities: spend a day with a local vintner, explore acenturies-old chestnut flour mill, forage for lunch with a plant expert, explore the medieval town of Florac and hike off the calories in the mountains of Lozère.
And all of these experiences took place in France’s only inhabited national park.
Cévennes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is located in the south of France in the Languedoc-Roussillon region and is home to 64,000 residents, many of whom are farmers who raise sheep and cattle, make goat cheese, harvest chestnuts, grow sweet onions or plant small production vineyards on the steep mountain slopes.
The main core of the park is uninhabited and protected by the French government environmental code to preserve the region’s 2,300 plant species and 2,410 animal species.
The residents in the outer areas of the park use sustainable and organic methods to grow their crops and still use centuries-old techniques like dry stonewalling pastures and fences to preserve the culture and the land.
Funded by the European Union, the Mediterranean Experience of Eco-Tourism Network (MEET) was created to foster the economic, social, environmental and cultural development of the Mediterranean region.
With a focus on promoting responsible tourism to protected areas in 14 countries, MEET tours use unique ecotourism itineraries to inspire conservation and sustainable development, to preserve the local culture and heritage of the regions, and to create local jobs and increased tourism revenues in off-the-beaten-path destinations.
If you like a little substance with your sightseeing, MEET trips offer travelers exclusive behind-the-scenes experiences with local residents that you can’t get anywhere else, and after all, that’s what travel is really all about for you can’t know a place without knowing its people.
High atop a mountain sits a deserted stone village with sweeping views of the valley. According to the hand-carved wooden sign that sits at its entrance, it’s called Bieisses, and it is here that we met up again with vintner Sylvain Gaschet of Domaine de Gabelie.
We had spent the morning walking his vineyards near Ispagnac and tasting the new harvest still aging in stainless steel tanks in the winery. We had come to Bieisses to see Sylvain’s Viognier vines, planted on a hillside so steeply terraced it gave me vertigo to stand near the edge.
Nimble as a goat, Sylvain descended hand-hewn stairs carved into the mountainside and walked among his vines, explaining that all of his grapes are manually harvested due to the difficult terrain.
A beautiful vegetable and herb garden just behind the vines also thrived in this high mountain village, making you wonder why its residents had abandoned it.
In fact, the population of the entire region along with its winemakers had dwindled over the years, but entrepreneurs like Sylvain have moved back to area in the past decade breathing new life into local viticulture.
The only building open in Bieisses these days is a beautifully renovated stone cottage that is used as a gîte (rental cottage). We gathered around the fireplace and shared the lunch Sylvain had brought with him: sheep’s cheese, goat cheese and cheese from cow’s milk, all made locally, accompanied by fresh baguettes, charcuterie and of course, some of Sylvain’s best wines, including a stunning Pinot Noir.
Even though Sylvain spoke little English and we spoke little French, we managed to have a wonderful conversation about food and wine with a little help from our guide, who translated as needed.
Dinosaurs and Medieval Days
On our way back to Florac after lunch, our local tourism official, Bertrand, who is also the area’s expert mountain guide and the owner of the Cevennes Evasion sports shop in Florac, took a slight detour to another mountain village.
He wanted to show us a dinosaur print that had been discovered on a rocky outcropping, illustrating the age of these stone-filled mountains. We returned to Florac to meet another local guide, Anne, who took us on a walking tour of the village that has been a marketplace for this region since medieval times.
Anne pointed out the pulleys attached to the buildings that had once hauled hay to the third floor: animals lived on the ground floor of these stone houses that are set side-by-side on the narrow and winding village streets, humans occupied the second level and the third level was used for storage.
Carvings over the lintels of the doorways indicated the resident’s trade.
Charming window boxes and pottery planters were filled with bright geraniums and cats roamed the alleys in search of a meal before heading home. We strolled the Esplanade, a street lined with hundred-year-old plane trees and local shops with a median filled with café tables that attract weekend revelers. We also visited the Castle, now home to administrative offices for the city and the national park.
Foraging for Lunch
One of my favorite activities was our afternoon on a mountain farm foraging for plants with local expert, Sophie Lemonnier.
We hiked around the farm picking wild thyme, yarrow, borage, dandelions, sorrel and wild carrots gone to seed and then returned to the farmhouse B & B to prepare lunch.
We made herbed borage butter for crostini and topped them with the cerulean blue borage flowers, tossed together a salad of mixed greens, added our wild herbs to goat cheese to make pélardon and made chocolate morsels flavored with wild carrot seeds.
To accompany our appetizers, Sophie had brought some homemade elderberry wine and the innkeeper added a couple of hot dishes and a carafe of red wine to complete our feast.
The inn was filled with a group of children from a music conservatory in Switzerland who were performing a concert later in the evening for the local community.
In one of those special spontaneous moments that occur when you’re traveling, we decided to return for the show later that evening and it turned out to be one of the really special highlights of our trip to see these talented young kids playing violins and cellos.
Hiking in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Footsteps
It was a beautiful, sunny day but the temperature had taken a nosedive overnight and snow flurries were lazily making their way to earth as we headed to the mountains for a hike.
We passed several large trucks and shepherds on foot with their dogs, beginning the “transhumance”—the moving of livestock from high summer pastures to the lowland at the change of seasons—as we headed up the winding mountain roads.
In 1878, writer Robert Louis Stevenson explored this region on his donkey, Modestine, and serious hikers who want to follow his 220-kilometer trek can join a guided trip or go D.I.Y. following detailed maps and trail markers.
We headed to the less strenuous Mas Camargues Trail, an hour and a half hike around a once prosperous 17th-century estate that gives visitors an overview of the agro-pastoral landscape. The trail passes by the main house, the mill, a water-powered hydraulic machine that provided energy to a threshing machine, the family cemetery and various other points of interest.
On the way back down the mountain, we stopped at a small B & B, Maison Victoire, and had a family-style lunch with the owners in front of a cavernous stone fireplace. Jacqueline made a green salad from her garden, a pizza-like crostini and served sausages from a local butcher, while we became acquainted.
It occurred to me that the mountains and the River Tarn had forged not only this self-sufficient agrarian culture but also a spirit of community that is celebrated over convivial meals. Earlier in the week, we had visited Monique Fraissinet, whose family has owned the local chestnut flour mill for generations.
Monique showed us how her family had harnessed the power of the River Tarn for centuries to turn the giant grinding wheels of the mill, a method still used today to turn the region’s chestnut harvest into flour for cakes, bread and preserves.
A Hotel with Haute Cuisine
Located in the quaint town of Florac, two and a half hours north of Montpellier, the Hotel des Gorges du Tarn was our home base for the week. Within walking distance of the town’s shops, restaurants, and historic sites, this boutique hotel offers 19 modern guestrooms and four studios with kitchenettes, as well as handicapped-accessible rooms.
Thoughtful eco-touches include soap and shower gel made with vegetables and olive oils, while modern amenities like rain-head showers, flat-screen televisions and complimentary Wi-Fi make it easy to settle in.
The hotel is also home to Restaurant l’Adonis, a 2015 Michelin-ranked eatery that features farm-to-table gourmet dining utilizing the region’s local products from wine, truffles, and chestnuts to freshly-made cheese and local honey.
During the week I was there, I had a chance to sample a variety of pâté, fresh sheep and goat cheese, roasted duck and grouse, and decadent desserts made with local chestnuts and honey, all accompanied by wines from nearby small production vineyards. The restaurant is a destination for locals as well as travelers so reservations are de rigeur.
Baskets. Badgers and Bouffadous
As always when I travel, some of my favorite memories are of unscripted moments. I learned from Anne-Laure that tennis shoes are called “baskets” in French-English slang (referring to basketball) so from here on out, I’m putting on my baskets to go hiking.
I learned that rather than bellows, the folks in Cévennes use a bouffadou—a long tube you blow into that looks like a musical instrument— to spark the embers in their fireplaces and that the European version of Uber is called BlaBla.
I saw a huge badger in the wild, picked sweet raspberries straight from the vine for an afternoon snack and thoroughly enjoyed watching 8-year-old kids play Irish tunes on the violin in a French farmhouse.
In 1875, Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
This is as true today as it was over a century ago, and while the eco-tourism focus of the MEET trips is important, I think meeting and spending quality time with the residents of another country, another culture and another lifestyle are equally as important. Because in the end, we are all more alike than different.
If You Want to Meet the Locals with MEET:
Cévennes Evasion Voyages Nature (guided tours)
Regional Gites near the park
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Ginger Warder is a freelance writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida and a member of the Society of American Travel Writers.