Les Cévennes is a region barely known to French people and even less so to foreigners, and that's the way I like it. Even so, it would seem a tiny bit selfish to keep quiet about my latest holiday in these wild mountains between Nîmes and Montpellier, which was different but every bit as extraordinary as last year's.
Luc and Dominique have sold their gîte, which meant that we had to look for a new paradise. If it didn't involve at least 500 metres of bumpy dirt track I wasn't interested, but luckily unpaved roads are plentiful in this area. We finally settled on Mas Lou Abeilhs*, which the owners Clotilde and Julien describe as "beyond the end of the earth." Though on the map it seemed to be only a few kilometers from where we stayed last year, it turned out to be a good 45 minutes away, and a windy 15-minute drive from the nearest village, St-Germain de Calberte.
We arrived frazzled at 8pm, having endured hours of traffic jams in our adorable but non-air-conditioned Twingo on the A8. Luckily, we were just in time for the nightly apéritif. With a glass of kir made of fig liqueur and white wine in our hands, we quickly started to perk up. We had again opted to stay in a chambre d'hôte with breakfast and dinner included, and a glance at the salad made colorful with edible flowers told me that we were in good hands. That was a relief, since Dominique had set such a high standard last year.
Julien is a native of the Cévennes and Clotilde, a stylish parisienne, moved here with him 15 years ago. She has brought her own touch to the decor, creating mosaic patterns here and there among the Spanish tiles. But the house also gets its character from the carved wood furniture made by Julien's late father. Julien described how his father would instantly see a form within an old, gnarled tree trunk and coax it out within a matter of hours. He considered himself an artisan rather than an artist, but to me there was something infinitely soothing in the curved shapes that enveloped the body like a cocoon. His children inherited his talent with wood, and Julien works as a roofer on the traditional houses in the southern Cévennes - which are basically made by piling up slabs of shale. He also built the wooden bridge over the gorge that leads to a natural pool in the gîte's backyard, just across from our rooms.
Part of the fun of staying in a chambre d'hôte is meeting the other guests, and during the week we met several families who were passing through with a donkey on a four-day hike through the region. If this area is known for anything at all it's Robert Louis Stevenson's book Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, and the tradition of hiking with a sometimes-reluctant beast in tow has endured more than 100 years later. Our gîte was on the official RL Stevenson trail, and I thought it only fitting to read the book this time.
Oddly, the young writer's daily struggle with his donkey Modestine, which often left him lost and hungry in pitch darkness, made me want to try it - or maybe it was the rosy-cheeked faces of the Belgians and Parisians we met who had hiked for hours each day. We soon had the opportunity, since Julien offered to lend us his good-tempered donkey Paquerette (any self-respecting Cévennol owns at least one donkey; he has ten).
On our leisurely three-hour hike, we only encountered the donkey's legendary stubbornness once: when Paquerette, spotting some freshly watered flowers, decided they would make a great snack. She stopped in her tracks, eyeing them longingly, and wouldn't move until the three of us used all our force to pull on her rope. Julien had warned us it might be necessary to tap her on the rump with a stick; we did so a couple of times, but so gently she probably only sped up a little to humor us. Donkeys are social creatures, and if one of us was trailing behind Paquerette would stop until we were all together. No wonder we became so fond of her in the space of a few hours.
Every day we hiked to the river, with or without Paquerette, and cooled off in the ice-cold water. Only once did we venture back into the "real world," to the Bambouseraie in Anduze. This tropical garden dating from 1856 is an amazing sight, but it felt strange to suddenly be among hordes of tourists, pressing buttons to hear taped commentary in different languages.
"This is better than the Bambouseraie," I said to Sam as we hiked through the mountains the next day.
"Yes, but there could be a bit more bamboo," he replied.
If bamboo is scarce, chestnut trees are not. They produce so many spiky green fruit that the locals only bother to harvest what is easily accessible, picking up those that have falled on the ground and cracked open. Julien's brother spends each October harvesting chestnuts and turning them into sweet purées and jams. At the tiny Saturday morning market in St-Germain de Calberte I also bought some chestnut honey the color of an antique violin, which makes a perfect match for goat's cheese and figs.
As for Clotilde's and Julien's cooking, well, I hardly know where to begin. Every dinner started with a different apéritif - and an inventive fruit cocktail for the children - with snacks, maybe homemade hummous, tapenade or tarama on toasts. Once, Clotilde dipped cherry tomatoes in caramel to create what looked like mini candy apples. Green salads dotted with flowers and multicolored tomatoes came from their own vegetable garden perched above the gorge, while local farmers delivered the ingredients for the two or three vegetable dishes served with the main course every night.
We had barbecued pork, trout fished by Julien and his son from the river and, one night, stuffed quail with local cep (porcini) mushrooms and orange. For dessert there were fruit tarts with delicate homemade crust, chocolate mousse or baked apple flan. Every night I knew I was eating too much, but it was impossible not to. The kids bonded instantly and spent the time between courses drawing pictures or finding insects and toads with their flashlights (only once did a Nintendo appear).
When we left at the end of the week, I felt nearly as sorrowful as RL Stevenson when he bade farewell to Modestine. Our consolation is that we are almost sure we will see Paquerette again.
* I would recommend a stay at Mas Lou Abeilhs to anyone; however, Clotilde and Julien don't speak any English and neither do most of the guests so you will enjoy it more if you can communicate in French.
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Thank you for sharing your lovely holiday post...just having returned from a stay in a cabin in rural Missouri, I can assure you that I did not eat as well as you! Enjoy the remnants of Summer.
I'm sure Missouri had other rewards, Beth! It's always great to get away from it all - the further away the better, I say!
Another lovely travelogue, Rosa. I'd fall for Paquerette, too. Those glazed cherry tomatoes are clever and adorable - eat dessert first. : }
Your holiday sounded lovely!
I was impressed myself just seeing the photo of the salad! Caramel tomatoes looked adorable!
Thank you for your report. We stayed at "mas lou abeilh" some years ago. It was a phantastic vacation, very nice hosts, marvelous surrounding and outstanding meals in the evening. As you described, it is essential to speak a little french. But when i'm going to France, i will always stay in a "chambre d'hotes" - there's no better way to to get acquainted with french kitchen.