Tour du Haut Vivarais
Four days in the Volcano Country of the Ardeche
The Ardèche is a region of high hills and ancient volcanoes to the west of the Rhône. It is the watershed of central France and the source of the rivers that flow north and west to the Atlantic and south to the Mediterranean. A more ancient name for the region is the Vivarais.

The walk known as the Tour de Haut Vivarais is a circuit can be undertaken in ten days of easy walking. However, as it can be accessed at several points it can be adapted to suit the time you have available or your stamina. We chose to walk a circuit of 75 km over four days, setting out in St Agrève and finishing in le Cheylard. This was in the early summer of 1991.

Access to the walk from the east is possible from Valence or Tournon, both of which are on the main train line that runs down the Rhône Valley. From either of these the walker can take a minor variante to join the main route or catch a bus to any of the towns along the route. From the west access is from Le Puy.

The walk presents no great physical challenges though it does gradually climb to an altitude of 1753m at the summit of Mt Mézenc and 1551m at le Gerbier des Joncs.
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Prelude - Reaching St Agrève
We arrived in St Agrève by way of a fortuitous coincidence of opportunities. Plan A had been to catch a bus from Valence to Tournon and then another to St Agrève, but the start of the summer holidays had left the timetables in disarray and a resourceful ticket seller came up with Plan B. This involved taking a bus, which was on the point of departure, to Tournon and then, with 10 minutes to make the connection, catching a special steam train to Lamastre and then taking another bus to St Agrève.

In spite of the risky connection and some doubt about whether reservations were necessary, it seemed worth giving it a go. A nail biting journey had us at the terminal of the Chemin de Fer de Vivarais with 2 minutes to spare. Then, tickets in hand, we joined a milling crowd dressed in period costumes, waving flags and drinking champagne. There was just time to leap onto the last carriage of the second of two trains which pulled out to the accompaniment of a jazz band and a wildly waving crowd. Today was the centenary of the line, so it was fun and games for all - flag waving, champagne, and greetings by bands and crowds at each small station along the way.

The rail line was constructed between 1886 and 1891 as part of a network which ferried passengers and freight between different points of the hilly and relatively inaccessible départements of the Ardèche and Haute Loire. The network was closed in 1968 but soon afterwards this sector was reopened by a group of enthusiasts. It now operates a regular timetable during holiday times.

The route is spectacular, first passing through vineyards, crossing old bridges and viaducts, running through tunnels and climbing through the Gorge de Mordane, so called because even donkeys died trying to negotiate the difficult terrain.

After about two hours the train arrived at Lamastre and we connected with a bus to the attractive small town of St Agrève. Here, the comfortable Hotel Cevennes faced the central square of the town and had an interesting menu for dinner.
Fountain, Lamastre
Company brochure 1991
The Walk

Day 1: St Agrève - Fay sur Lignon 17 km
Day 2 : Fay sur Lignon - Les Estables. 20km
Day 3 : Les Estables - La Coutelle. 20km
Day 4: La Coutelle - Le Cheylard. 20km
St Agrève to Fay sur Lignon
On a beautiful clear sunny day with a little cool breeze, a panorama of the walk was spread out ahead. In the distance were the mountains to be encountered in a couple of days, particularly Mt Mézenc and the Le Gerbier de Jonc which were clearly visible as extinct volcanic cones standing above the plateau.

Along this first part of the route we followed the GR 420 which doubles up with the GR 7, the one that runs from the North to South of France, from the Vosges to the Pyrenees. It was easy walking through fields full of flowers and wheat and then through a pine forest.

Along the way we crossed paths with a group of four French ladies doing a 10 day walk from Le Puy, following in the footsteps of a saint. We never knew the saint's name but shortly afterwards, in the middle of nowhere, there was a display of religious books with a sign inviting passersby to take a bible if they didn't have one. Perhaps this was something to do with the saint?
The track wound down to the River Lignon and then up a steep hill, through the outer streets of the town and through a tall archway into the main square of Fay sur Lignon. From down in the valley the sound of animated, chattering, laughing and clattering of plates and glasses had been intriguing. Sunday lunch was clearly an event in Fay sur Lignon and indeed, at 3.00 pm, lunch was still in full swing at the Hotel des Négotiants. Agreement was reached with the rather flustered patronne to let the dust from lunch settle and return later when things were plus calme.

A short stroll took in all the familiar sights of a small rural village - the town square with a few kids hanging around, old men sitting outside a bar and, always in a central place, the war memorial. By 4pm a light, airy room overlooking the market square had been made ready. The final lunchtime farewells continued till well after 5pm.
At dinner time the dining room had been totally re-arranged, this time for a function. Food and wine were all laid out on the tables for a large party. On enquiry it turned out that an ordination was to be celebrated.

A little table had been set up in a corner for the unexpected hotel guests - along with the children. Then course after wonderful course arrived on the table without any consultation - soup in a tureen for us to take as much as we wanted; a dish of paté maison, again to help ourselves; a huge steak with delicious little round fried potatoes; a large bowl of salad; a cheese platter; desert; and a carafe of good red wine.
The new priest, called Jean Paul, was a handsome, though serious, young man. The party was distinctly different to the abandonment of lunch time - the ladies were grim and unsmiling, the older men wore suits and casquettes and talked among themselves, the young people were pretty casual, but no-one seemed to be enjoying themselves very much.

After a glass of verveine, the local very powerful digestif, a polite retreat seemed appropriate. The party must have lightened up because we drifted off to sleep to the sound of laughing and singing.
Fay sur Lignon to Les Estables
Next morning it was non-stop action in Fay sur Lignon. By 6.30 sleep had become impossible due to the sound of horses clip-clopping down the street, the clanging of metal and busy hammering. The weekly market was in full swing in the square outside the hotel and the dining room and bar were again transformed - this time to serve breakfast and drinks to les négotiants.
Yummy lunch things were plentiful in the market - cheese, paté, bread and fruit. Clearly we had no need for the chickens, ducks, calves or two beautiful black and white rabbits awaiting their fate but we did acquire the makings of a lunchtime feast.

Leaving Fay sur Lignon, a long, gradual climb took us past Mt Signon, through the village of Chaudeyrolles and then up a valley dotted with fantastic rocky formations, the most dominating called La Roche Pointue and La Grosse Roche. After lunch among the rocks there was more climbing up to a parking area at the foot of Mt Mézenc and a steep pathway climbed to the summit - actually two adjacent summits. It was very windy but a spectacular view opened up of the routes behind and ahead.
From the summit the GR descended steeply down the other side and a small road led to Les Estables, just a short way off the GR. Once a quiet little village, Les Estables has become a centre for cross country skiing with chalets, lodges and ski trails dotted over the hillsides.

At this time of year very few facilities were open and the only obvious hotel showed no signs of life. Instead there was a gîte/chalet with shared bathrooms and dormitories. A school party took up most of the rooms but there was plenty of room for a pair of walkers.

It was an early night for the walkers who slept like logs - unlike the teachers who were kept awake by noisy kids having fun till about 3.00am.
Les Estables - La Coutelle
With evening to be spent in a self catering gîte d'étape, provisions were needed for dinner, breakfast and two days lunch. A small shop, which at first looked unpromising, provided les nécessaires, including pasta, sausage, cheese and ample bread and wine.

The road out of the village ran alongside meadows that were a mass of different colourful wildflowers. There was then a pleasant walk through forests with views back to Mézenc and onwards to le Gerbier des Joncs.

In a forest clearing some farmers were loading delicious looking peaches into a van. We asked could we buy two. They offered 2 cases, and then 2 kilos but didn't see the value of a deal involving two single peaches, so peaches were off.

Soon afterwards the GR 7 went its own way and the GR 420 continued on to Le Gerbier des Joncs which is both a mountain and a small village. Le Gerbier, the town, had bars and restaurants, one of which provided the opportunity for a beer. There were also roadside stalls selling cheese, sausages, bread and honey, all looking more delicious and better than those bought back in Les Estables.
Le Gerbier, the mountain, was quite disappointing close up. For nearly three days it had appeared ahead as a target, always a high conical volcanic peak. Now it just looked like a big hill, emphasising how much climbing there had been since the start of the walk. Although seemingly benign, Le Gerbier des Joncs is a difficult peak to climb and even the GR continued along the road at its base.

At this point we were right on the divide between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Reinforcing this, the track passed over an unprepossessing muddy trickle of water feeding into a farm dam and grandly signposted "La Source Veritable de la Loire". What a far cry from the river's picturesque journey westward through Nevers and Orléans, passing by the celebrated châteaux, to its mouth at Nantes/St Nazaire. The GR3 follows the Loire all the way to the sea and the GR 420 here was partly concurrent with its first stage.

Following round the road there were wide panoramas of all the knobbly volcanic peaks - back to Mt Mézenc, and after a while Le Gerbier also began to recede. From the highest points of today's walk the hazy outline of the Alps could be seen in the far distance.
A loop in the GR doubled back on itself either side of the town of Sagnes-et-Goudoulet. With no reason to visit the town it made more sense to follow a minor road which cut the corner and joined up with the GR to descend fairly quickly, down a forested valley, to the gîte d'étape at the farm of La Coutelle.

The gîte had been full the previous night but tonight we were the only occupants. The unaccustomed load of the day was lightened after eating a hearty dinner of soup, macaroni and sausage with the wine rationed to allow for tomorrow's lunch.
La Coutelle - Le Cheylard
After an early night, it was a delight to set off promptly while the morning mist and cloud still hung on the high mountains. There were still colourful wildflowers everywhere and at one point the track climbed up a hillside where yellow broom was shoulder high. The grassy pastures smelt delicious with the aroma of new mown grass. The Topo Guide had a particular interest in geology and plants and listed all the flowers common to the region. You couldn't disagree with its comment that from spring to autumn the flowers "embroider" the pastures.
We were now near the end of the walk. The afternoon bus from Le Cheylard to Valence left at 3.45 and it was going to be tight. A steep and difficult descent to Le Cheylard was made more stressful by missing a turn and taking 10 minutes to retrace the route. It was also very hot. We made it, with time for a quick beer but not enough to look round Le Cheylard which seemed to be a very agreeable town.

And why such haste to reach Valence? Suffice to say that we had long planned a special treat - lunch at the celebrated Pic three star restaurant. Even the most picturesque village or town in all of France was not to stand in the way. This was a once in a lifetime experience and a grand finale to a wonderful walk.
Return to the Ardèche and Vivarais
We had always regretted the fleeting nature of our visits to the Ardeche towns, so in 2007 we rented a gîte just outside Lamastre for a longer stay.

Having picked up our car at Valence TGV station we arrived once again in Lamastre. Our gite, in a small hamlet called Lapras, had been the gatehouse of a very fine house where Maurice Ravel once visited and wrote some music.

The hamlet was little more than a cluster of houses, a church and a small café/bar called Marie's café. Bread was delivered every morning to the café where we had an arrangement to walk along each morning and buy our breakfast baguette. More substantial shopping was done in Lamastre where an enormous "Super U" served the neighbourhood. In Lamastre there were lots of cafes and restaurant and a busy market each Tuesday.
Our hosts were a charming and very active couple. P was the headmaster of the Ecole Primaire in Lamastre and, as our arrival coincided with le retour of the school year, he was particularly busy. His wife, J, was a nurse and was coming and going all the time. The place was very well equipped. Most remarkably there was a Petit Robert dictionary which came in very handy. All gîtes should be so equipped.

Retracing the four day walk revealed that this region had changed little.
Instead of spring wildflowers the early autumn landscape now offered an abundance of fruit trees, dripping with apples and pears.

Although it no longer offered accommodation, the Hotel des Negotiants continued to serve hearty local cuisine to a bar full of local people. Chauderolles was still an attractive small village and a busy restaurant was still serving lunches at the Gerbier des Joncs. The gîte at La Coutelle, however, was now an antique shop. Le Cheylard lived up to its expectations as an attractive small town to explore.
Further afield is the Rhone valley and the celebrated wineries of the Cote de Rhone which, around Tournon, spill down steep hillsides to the forcefully flowing river. Upstream is Lyon and in between is Vienne with its fine Roman remains demonstrating the importance of the Rhone as a transport route throughout history. Around here they keep finding the remains of Roman villas and of boats left to sink into the mud of the river.

To the south, towards the Ardeche river is wild gorge country favoured by canoeists and speologists and where the recent discovery of the magnificent Chauvet cave paintings have revealed an even earlier, prehistoric layer of history.
The historic railway line still operated in holiday times and at weekends and we discovered that many of the interlinking lines on the old network had been converted into walking tracks. One of these ran from Lapras down to Lamastre, a very agreeable 5 km walk. Others radiated out from St Agrève which retained its unpretentious charm. These were ideal for short walks of 12 km or so.
Le Detaupeur
Upon our arrival at the gîte we could not fail to notice that our host, P was obsessive about his immaculate lawn. It received attention nearly every day - mowing, clipping, edging, etc. We were therefore surprised to notice little earth mounds appearing on this perfect surface, first two or three and then many.

Even more surprising, after the earth mounds had begun to alarmingly consume the lawn, there appeared, embedded in the ground, a small device a little like a small sky rocket, with attached wires. Closer examination revealed that it ticked. It also carried a small sticker warning of electric shocks. After several days it disappeared.

On questioning, P's mild mannered demeanor changed to fury. 'Les taupes, les taupes. Je deteste les taupes. C'est la guerre, la guerre'. And then he explained his long battle with the moles who lived in underground tunnels and kept on destroying his beloved lawn. 'J'ai essayé tout'. This included hosing water down the holes and, more alarmingly, running the lawn mower over the mounds to decapitate the menace.

But apparently le détaupeur was a great success. 'J'ai trouvé la solution. La taupe s'approche du fil et POOOF, elle est morte'. He chuckled and resumed his normal persona, satisfied that conveying electric shocks to a small underground creature had returned order to the world.

Check out this amazing apparatus.
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En route to Lamastre
Vivarais from St Agreve
Fay sur Lignon
l'Hotel des Negociants
le Gerbier des Joncs
Mt Mezenc and la Roche Pointue with the GR waymark
Mt Mezenc and field of flowers
la Coutelle
Terraced field below la Coutelle
Vivarais - extinct volcanoes
Schoolmaster's house and gite
Walking track - railway viaduct
Pictures from