Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Following Stevenson through the Cévennes

The village of Le Pont-de-Montvert
In 1878, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 - 1894) left Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille for a walking tour of the Cévennes.  And in Place de la Poste in Monastier there is a small marble stone commemorating the fact that Stevenson and his donkey, Modestine, left there on September 22nd.  I have a photo of this modest record of a piece of history somewhere, I think.
I’ve spent many days and weeks in the Cévennes myself, following in RLS’ footsteps.  And with my well-thumbed copy of his book, ‘Travels with a Donkey’, I have covered the same journey on more than one occasion.
But it’s Le Pont-de-Monvert that is of interest.  Stevenson reached here on Saturday, September the 27th.  It’s a charming cévenol village on the south face of Mont Lozère with probably around 250 to 300 inhabitants.  It sits at an altitude of around 800 metres above sea level and that’s just about enough to escape the blistering heat of the plain but still enjoy the southern warmth.  The Tarn – which rises due north of here on the Col de Finiels – is a swift flowing stream in comparison with its wider, more developed self as it slices through the Episcopal town of Albi on its way to the Garonne and finally the sea in the Bay of Biscay.
In Montvert there is the one bridge with a single span to take you across the river.  And this is the same bridge Stevenson crossed and it has been here since the 17th century.  I can’t help but wonder about the owners of the other feet that were here before me.  A troubadour travelling north from Provence, perhaps.  Certainly merchants and drovers and perhaps a knight or two, in shining armour maybe, on white destriers...probably not...but I think it's a nice idea!
Le Pont!
The heart of the village is little changed from when Stevenson saw it and, although the place differed from Monastier and Langogne, he was unable to state in what way but to admit only the ‘difference existed, and spoke eloquently to the eyes.’  For Stevenson it was the town’s role in the battles between the Huguenots and the Camisards that was of most importance.  In his journal he recounts the story of abbé de Chayla and his terrible death in the village on July 24th, 1702.
For me there is an earlier connection.  In 1309, or 1310 depending upon which account you read, Guillaume de Grimoard was born in the chateau de Grizac which sits on the hillside above Montvert commanding the fiefdom.  He became the future pope, Urban V.  In Mende, some fifty kilometres from Montvert, the square in front of the cathedral is dedicated to Urban, now with an added letter 'i' to give, Urbain.  And it is in this square, Place Urbain V, that one of the missing travellers in my book, Messandrierre, is last seen alive.

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