For those of you with a penchant for themed walking, there are few French-based experiences that can touch the excitement of discovering an ancient and forgotten route. That’s the thrill you get from trekking the Régordane Way from Pradelles in Lozère to Alès on the south-eastern foothills of The Cévennes.
The Régordane is a 100-kilometre section of the historical route that links Paris to Lower Languedoc. It forms approximately half the length of the longer Saint-Gilles Way that runs from Le Puy-en-Velay to Saint-Gilles-du-Gard, a 140-mile walk that was Christendom’s fourth major pilgrimage around the early Middle Ages.
Whilst records first mention the Regordane around the middle of the ninth century, it was the abovementioned pilgrimage that launched it as an important thoroughfare, en route to the tomb of Aegidius in St-Gilles abbey and beyond: as a point of departure for St Jacques de Compostella, the Holy Land (St Gilles was a Mediterranean Port at the time) and Rome.
The Regordane welcomed some illustrious travellers along its course: King St Louis, in 1254, who departed from Aigues-Mortes en route to the Crusades; Simon de Montfort, in order to crush the Cathars after the killing of the Pope’s emissary at St Gilles; and Louis XIV’s armies, sent to crush the Camisards in The Cevennes some 500 years later. Many a destroyed castle and church along the way bear witness to the devastation caused by these last two episodes in French history.
There were many reasons for the gradual demise of the Regordane, perhaps the key one being the eastward expansion of Gaul from 1308, which saw the Rhone Valley supplanting the Regordane Way as France’s main eastern frontier route. Nevertheless, there was a renaissance period during the early industrialisation of the ‘Alèsian Basin,’ as capitalists sought an alternative and faster route to Paris and northern markets for Languedoc’s coal, iron and steel, wine, salt and silk. Eventually, the natural geological fault-line through which the Regordane passes experienced major investments in both road and rail, and once again the original path fell into disrepair or was forgotten.
Your journey commences in Pradelles, a charming, medieval granite town on the volcanic plateau of the southern Massif Central. One of only four remaining pilgrimage “Maladreries” marks the point of departure. They were refuges that comprised a chapel on one side of the road, accommodation on the other, and a raised walkway that straddled the road and linked the two together.
You head south from the town and soon discover the first granite rocks of the sacred path just south of La Ribeyre. Part of the trail that had been lost until recently has been miraculously resuscitated after Pestel. Further on, past Lesperon, you walk the ‘Royal Route’, the name given to the 18th century paved surface. You then wade carefully across two streams and pass though several charming hamlets before arriving in La Bastide and your first overnight stay.
Your second day is a master class in hill-walking as you discover ‘montjoie’ (stone waymarks), dolmen and mule drivers’ cartwheel tracks engraved deeply into the granite rock pavement, testament to the trading importance of this route in bygone times – deep incisions are visible from both the twelfth and thirteen centuries, as well as the eighteenth, distinguishable by the differing wheel gauges of each epoch.
Thereafter the path follows the hill-crest before descending spectacularly into the Chassezac gorge. It resurfaces on the southern bank (several bridges were washed away by torrents) and heads due south across volcanic plateau into the spectacular scenery of the Gorge and the medieval village of Garde-Guerin, perched beside its steep slopes.
You are likely to catch your first site of other, ‘local walkers’ here, before you continue southwards on the remarkable ‘Bayard coast’ path to Villefort, past lake, magnificent stone railway viaduct and over dam - all under the watchful eye of Mont Lozère, the region’s most imposing mountain.
On day three, you follow the important fault-line down through low-lying Villefort, pass the source of the River Cèze and experience a change of vegetation with the presence of the Cevennes’ first green oak trees. You alternate between ancient trail and tarmac route, as you descend the valley through linear settlements towards the Huguenot stronghold of Genolhac and its mercantilist ‘Grande Rue.’
Your fourth day’s trekking takes you over the Cèze via the Pont du Mas, where the local Protestant ‘Camisard’ chief was shot in 1710. You continue through the countryside of the Cevennes' most famous writer, J-P Chabrol; pass the impressive industrial architecture of the stone viaduct at Chamborigaud; and arrive at the site of Portes Castle, whose strategic importance as the north-eastern tollgate for The Cevennes is for all to be seen.
The final day sees you descend along the watershed between the Ceze and the Gardon valleys, through villages and hamlets to the industrial heartland of The Cevennes, Alès. Your walk across the enormous open caste mine en route is a salutary reminder of the region’s industrial heritage that sadly destroyed the original path taken by The Regordane. The local tourist board plan to resuscitate it as part of a larger tourist project. Such plans are met with a certain cynicism by the local walking fraternity.
Arrival at Mas Dieu, ‘God’s House,’ saw the pilgrim or merchant leaving the chestnut, oak and pine of the Cevennes mountains and arriving at the fringes of the Garrigues and it’s unmistakably Mediterranean fauna of vine, olive and fig tree.
Walking south from Pradelles along this ancient path fills you with innumerable conflicting emotions. You commence your journey on ancient tracks and the paved ‘Royal Route’ across the splendid isolation of a granite volcanic plateau, where the only signs of human life are those of the occasional farmhand. You stumble upon your first sizeable settlement only at the end of your second day’s walking.
The dissected valley into which you plunge on Day Three is replete with the history and vestiges of France; from Roman times, through to the upheavals of the Camisard Uprising (The Cevennes own bitter chapter of the Wars of Religion) and onwards until the height of the Industrial Revolution. The linear settlements have seen no growth since. On the contrary, most have stagnated due to industrial decline and rural exodus and remain ossified in the architecture of a bygone era. It is not until you arrive at the edge of Alès that you discover what the whole ‘Idea of Progress’ was supposed to be about.
In this practical-French-history-lesson-par-excellence, you learn what it must have been like to travel on the crude surfaces of the Middle Ages, be it alone as a pilgrim, accompanied by mule and laden cart or eventually on horse back. The closer you get to modernity, the more frequently you find yourself walking on macadamised road, as ancient path has transformed itself into modern artery. Such are the ineluctable forces of human advancement. However, whether on granite path, schist stone or tarmac, the authenticity of this heritage hike is never compromised. Moreover, as modern road building has chosen to reduce the steepness of ancient slopes by the use of winding roads, the straight and southern-bound Regordane is often found parallel to, or dissecting, the main roads of today.
The story chronicled by the Regordane provides a rich and fascinating insight into the origins of Modern France. The tale so far has taken over twelve centuries to write. You can get the gist of the novel from a five-day trek, but expect to find yourself researching something that has captured your interest in a library or bookshop near you upon your return.
© Walking in Languedoc 2007