Enamored of our driver’s licenses and motivated by a sense of the clock ticking down on our time here in Montpellier, not to mention the impending threat of confinement 3.0, we rented a car to get out and explore places not accessible by train. Curfew is at 18h and much is closed up, so with that in mind we arm ourselves with sandwiches and a thermos of coffee and head for the hills. Sometimes we have a plan, sometimes we go just to see what happens.
The Cévennes mountains are north of Montpellier. The area is rocky, towns are small and built of stone, the streets are narrow. This area is infamous for the war/insurrection of the Camisards, the Protestants who rose up to protest their persecution after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes after 87 years. (In 1598 Edict of Nantes gave Protestants the right to exist, ending the 36 year War of Religion.) Montpellier had been a Protestant stronghold, there are plaques around town commemorating hangings that took place after the edict was revoked. The Camisards had no military training, their leaders and pastors had all been murdered, so their insurrection was in the form of skirmishes: strike at the king’s troops and Catholic strongholds and then disappear into the mountains. They held out for 3 years.
These are places with long and deep history, staggering to think about. (Cue the standard-issue mind blown feeling of an American lost in that kind of history.) The most obvious monuments are churches and castle towers, some dating from the 11th century. These are towns with over 1000 years of continuous contemporary history, not the mention their hidden Roman and prehistoric roots. What were people’s day to day lives like? And what are they like now? Small towns in France have been gutted, depopulated over the last 100 years as transportation got easier and more widespread, the cities sucking in the young people in search of a better life from the countryside.
When I was a kid, we’d drive through rural and small town Wisconsin to visit relatives. I would look at those towns with dread. I would ask my mom, what do these people do all day? What do they do with their time? These were towns with no there there. She gave me the standard answer, they go to work and school, they raise children, they live there. My dread was from a sense of being cut off from a larger world. Towns without libraries or bookstores, no way to escape either literally or figuratively. Some of these towns that we visited gave me that same feeling, others not. What is the difference?
Is it the people who give a place its energy, its vibe, or are people drawn to places whose energy matches theirs? Economics plays a big role. It’s not for nothing that depression is the same word for an economic and an emotional state. It’s hard to judge places in winter, and Covid winter at that. Early signs are that Covid and telecommuting are reversing the depopulation trend, we’ll see if it’s enough.
I have a short definition of a living town. It has at least a boulangerie, a newsstand, one or two cafes, a grocery store, and a hardware store. A couple of doctors and dentists, a pharmacy. Public benches, I like the idea of being invited to sit in a public place. Once this basic social scaffolding is gone, what does it take to bring it back ? Artists can turn things around, in search of cheap living and working space, they move in and start making things interesting and attractive. My definition of a living town also includes signs of a spark of creativity of those who live there. (Best not to get me started on car-oriented bedroom community suburbs where conformity is valued and there are no businesses in walking distance at all. Shudder. Towns for the incurious.)
Mourèze and Sauve are two towns we visited that seemed quirky and fun. Both warrant return trips when things open up again.
Mourèze, with its limestone outcroppings, and a hiking trail known as the Cirque de Mourèze.
Sauve is another town that has a great creative feel. The American cartoonist R. Crumb has lived here since the early 90s.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Laroque. It’s a beautiful town along a river that attracts kayakers, but the town itself feels menacing. Instead of plants, decorations, and art, the exterior of houses featured Beware of Dog signs. We heard no bonjours from passersby, but it could just be a bad Covid vibe. Maybe this town is wonderful in the summer.
Another lovely town is St. Jean du Gard. Known as the Jewel of the Cévennes, it is the place where in 1879, Robert Louis Stevenson ended his 12 day solo hike which he memorialized in his 1879 book Travels in Cévennes with a Donkey. Stevenson was raised Protestant and in his book he recounts visiting the major Camisard sites. He says that although Protestants and Catholics now live side by side (some 200 years after the rebellion), intermarriage is rare and frowned upon, and there was still resentment for the suppression and suffering.
For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move…Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in Cévennes
Thankfully, at the end of these excursions we won’t have a donkey to sell. We’ll drop the car off and be on our merry way. Ease of transportation is a beautiful thing.