Driving on mountain roads, much like the 30, ‘can be hazardous’. People come here to enjoy the scenery, swim in the rivers and generally get lost in a National Park the size of Wales, frequently with insouciant disregard for the rules of the road, like driving on the right side of it. There’s a refreshing absence of public misbehaviour, probably because there aren’t very many Brits, a British accent speaking bad French causes a curious uplifting of the eyes in some of the smaller, more out-of-the-way places. An upside is that even with large numbers, population density is often quite thin, so a river swimming hole can be relatively tourist-free. The French keep the best secrets for themselves, however. I have seen more narrow streets, twelfth century churches and Crusader staging posts than most people get to see in a lifetime, I imagine.
In 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson undertook a kind of vagabond walkabout in these hills. Apart from a few motor vehicles, not a lot seems to have changed. The granite rock formations are now as they were then, the cavernous gorges cut deep by flowing rivers. He stood on the same plateaux and smelled the heather reminding him of his Scottish homeland. Perhaps the quality of the coffee has improved.
But the spirit has not left, even without Stevenson to document it, it would still be here.
This, from ‘Travels With a Donkey in the Cevennes’.
In a little place called Le Monastier, in a pleasant highland valley fifteen miles from Le Puy, I spent about a month of fine days. Monastier is notable for the making of lace, for drunkenness, for freedom of language, and for unparalleled political dissension. There are adherents of each of the four French parties—Legitimists, Orleanists, Imperialists, and Republicans—in this little mountain-town; and they all hate, loathe, decry, and calumniate each other.
No change there, then. French table-thumping is legendary.
Except for business purposes, or to give each other the lie in a tavern brawl, they have laid aside even the civility of speech. ’Tis a mere mountain Poland. In the midst of this Babylon I found myself a rallying-point; every one was anxious to be kind and helpful to the stranger. This was not merely from the natural hospitality of mountain people, nor even from the surprise with which I was regarded as a man living of his own free will in Le Monastier, when he might just as well have lived anywhere else in this big world; it arose a good deal from my projected excursion southward through the Cevennes. A traveller of my sort was a thing hitherto unheard of in that district. I was looked upon with contempt, like a man who should project a journey to the moon, but yet with a respectful interest, like one setting forth for the inclement Pole. All were ready to help in my preparations; a crowd of sympathisers supported me at the critical moment of a bargain; not a step was taken but was heralded by glasses round and celebrated by a dinner or a breakfast.
If you need a donkey, one can be found for you. Tavern brawls do, however, seem to be a thing of the past, not least for myself.