War and Peace on the Corniche des Cevennes
The mild October weather in southern France has got mushroom lovers heading for the hills. From the plains of Languedoc, the Corniche des Cevennes offers them a dreamlike escape route to the rural peace of the chestnut woods. But in 1703, at this same time of year, it was blazing not with autumn leaves, but with burning villages. For the Corniche owes its solid foundations to the military needs of repression, religious persecution and war.
Winding its way up to the Col de L'Exil, the road follows the crest of the mountains, crosses the watershed and sweeps down again, to steep sided Cevenol valleys that run with streams all headed for the Gorges du Tarn.
Carving out this ancient path as a carriageway, wide and solid enough to move troops and cannons, was part of the grand design of the Intendant Basville, who was sent to Languedoc by the “Sun King” Louis XIV in 1685. In that notorious year, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes marked the formal end of religious toleration in France, and Basville was charged with bringing the region's newly proscribed but ever stubborn protestants to heel. The route he chose for his “chemin royal” cut through their mountainous heartland, along paths which crusade followers once travelled, which wool merchants had used since the Middle Ages and sheep scrambled along on the time-honoured transhumance up to summer pastures. Once Basville's engineers had done their widening, levelling and strengthening work, the occupying forces of royal dragoons could march along the new road in a powerful show of strength. They must have appreciated the splendid vantage points it afforded. Charged with compelling attendance at Catholic mass, they could now keep watch in greater comfort and safety on the comings and goings in the valleys below.
The outlook, however, soon turned more violent. In 1702, bands of protestant fighters rose up against the repression of their faith, and began a series of bloody engagements with the occupying troops. In this fiercely fought Camisard War, as in other guerrilla struggles in more recent times, those who took up arms were local people, rooted in the rural population and sustained by their families, friends and sympathisers. So the royalist forces set out to deny the fighters that sustenance – by fierce reprisals, mass deportations, and ultimately the wholesale obliteration of villages and hamlets in the “great burning of the high Cevennes”.
Nearly 500 settlements were destroyed by fire in the awful last few months of 1703. The message of terror spread across the land in flames and smoke, a dramatic sight visible all along the hilltop chemin royal. Perhaps, though, the king's troops marching their weapons along that road took some grim comfort; for they were witnessing a turning point in the war.
The fighting still dragged on for several years. And diehard protestants kept their clandestine faith alive through many more decades as the “church in the desert”, before eventually regaining the right to toleration in 1787. The peaceful coexistence which Robert Louis Stevenson witnessed on his Travels with a Donkey a century later showed how much time could heal - but some of the settlements destroyed in the great burning never recovered.
Basville's road, meanwhile, proved hard to maintain. The steep terrain it followed was unforgiving, and the local schiste rock proved less suited to the battering from carriage wheels than to the gentler footfall of shepherds and their flocks. Despite the temporary boost of classification as Imperial Route no. 127 under Napoleon, it lost out to other routes when decisions were made about providing for long distance traffic between Nimes and points north. Later in the 19th century an alternative, more easterly route (via the Vallee Borgne) was even preferred for local connections between Florac and the Gard.
Not until the 1920s did interest in the high road really revive, as the pioneering conservationists of the Club Cevenol helped raise awareness of the attractions of the area. It was they who first gave the route the name we know it by today, as the Corniche des Cevennes. Reopened to traffic in 1930, it had to wait 30 more years to get a tarmac surface along its whole length. Now, locals tend to use it whenever possible in preference to sitting behind a timber lorry on the N106.
Without stopping, you could drive the length of the Corniche des Cevennes - 50km from St-Jean-du-Gard to Florac - in under an hour. Then again, why would you not stop? In summer the woods are dotted here and there with picnickers. In autumn it can seem that every lay-by harbours the car of someone out on the search for cepes. Traces of that long-ago war can still be found in the evocative placenames, or old ruins amid the forests, but it is visitors in search of peace who are most drawn to the Corniche today. “Vaut le détour”, as the Michelin guides would say. And rightly so.