Trekking France: The Régordane Way – France, Europe

Approaching the Chassezac Gorge

Approaching the Chassezac Gorge

One of France’s oldest and most significant trekking routes is about to be re-launched later this year as the GR 700. Yet the long-suffering Regordane is getting much more than just a casual make-over; statist intervention risks re-writing the history books.

For those of you who enjoy trekking historical trails and a variety of surfaces, The Regordane is hard to beat. Be wary though, of which route you take and of government spin.

The Regordane is a 100-kilometre/68-mile southern section of the historical trail that links France's capital to the Mediterranean Camargue, a distinct stretch of the Chemin de Saint-Gilles. Starting on the volcanic uplands of the southern Central Massif, it follows the line of a natural north-south geological fault to the east of Mont Lozere and The Cevennes.

Once the most easterly thoroughfare of Gaul, the history of the route is inextricably linked with that of the religious and the temporal, and symbolizes the French struggle to separate church from state. From the 10th century, pilgrims en route to Saint Gilles abbey made it Christendom’s fourth most important pilgrimage; Crusaders marched south along it to the Holy Land. Simon de Montfort followed it to suppress the Cathar uprising, and it was the route along which the revolutionary ideas of The Reformation arrived in Lower Languedoc, thus paving the way for the Huguenot/Camisard "Wars of Religion".

Its decline started as a result of the high costs of prosecuting the Cathar war – the Catholic Church just didn’t have the funds for investing in its upkeep. Moreover, once the port of Saint Gilles became silted up and replaced by Aigues-Mortes, which in turn became supplanted by Marseilles with the eastward expansion of Gaul from 1308, interest in the trail drained away as the Rhone Valley became the main north-south trading route.

Those trying to put greater balance into a rather one-sided environmental debate will be interested to learn that climate change from the middle of the 12th century, and lasting for two hundred years, resulted in a warmer and drier Europe. Agricultural production boomed, a well-fed population grew and along with it travel and trade, all of which favoured the construction of roads. These propitious circumstances that assisted the rise of The Regordane ended when, with no human intervention at all, the climate changed once again, this time at the end of the 14th century. Europe became cold and wet, which adversely affected agriculture, brought suffering such as The Plague and left The Regordane to the elements. The Hundred Years War contributed to its abandonment, as it became dangerous to walk due to marauding gangs of mercenaries.

The Industrial Revolution led to a Regordane renaissance; the remote Protestant Lower Languedoc sought an alternative route north for its coal, iron and steel, wine, salt and silk. Thus the ineluctable forces of human advancement led to the macadamization of some of the trail. Fortunately for the trekking fraternity, modern road building chose to reduce the steepness of ancient gradients by the use of winding roads, so the straight and southern-bound Regordane was spared the worst and is often found parallel to, or dissecting, the main roads of today.

The Regordane reads like a French history book; all life is there in microcosm. You start by trekking the largely flat paths of the Lozerian volcanic plateau, and are blessed with a sense of glorious isolation. Then you descend into the schist valleys of The Cevennes and walk through myriad villages and hamlets, all of which have seen better economic days, and lived through various cycles of boom and bust – the rise and fall of medieval trade, chestnut tree harvesting, silk spinning, coal mining and wine growing are etched in the landscape of this historic trail. Notwithstanding such pedigree, the route has been largely left to decay, usurped by farmers and citizens whose land it bordered or dissected, slowly assimilated and forgotten over time. Now it would appear that government has decided that the next economic cycle is to be tourism-led and one of the lead products, The Regordane.

For half a century, one man alone has dedicated his life to preserving its memory and existence, and he continues to walk the trail religiously once or twice a year. He is 78-year-old Marcel Girault. I am privileged to have him as both friend and frequent pen-pal on issues relating to The Regordane. As a result of his tireless work in uncovering the route taken by trail over time, and much of its attendant history, the Federation Française de Randonnee Pedestre (FFRP), in conjunction with the various government bodies connected with tourism, is about to re-launch The Regordane Way as its latest Grande Randonnee/GR route, the GR 700.

There is no doubting the potential benefits of such a renaissance for those who live on or near the trail, yet the needs of the nouveau voyageur and discerning trekker, the stakeholder par excellence in the success or failure of the whole enterprise, are in danger of being ignored – the authenticity of the experience is at stake. Economic opportunities must be exploited responsibly in the brave new world of corporate social responsibility, and such standards need to be applied to tourism.

Let’s give the think-tank behind the GR700 the benefit of the doubt – they started with the intention of being faithful to the original Regordane trail. However, the project has succumbed to compromise; the result is at best satisfactory. In trying to meet diverse interests – large group-hiking, cyclists, independent trekkers and pilgrims – it has succeeded in sanitizing the experience and thus satisfying only the minority. Furthermore, by sanctioning one official route and overlooking some historical variations, it risks accelerating the demise and disappearance of these alternatives, some of which are of a far greater historical significance than the more recent and selected variant.

Of course, by baptizing the trail the GR 700, the State not only gains a sort of ownership over the trail that it has not had hitherto, but it can also hide behind its name-tag when questions about the authenticity of the chosen path become too intense – it’s the GR700, stupid!

Marcel Girault is unwilling to give his official blessing to the GR700. The most contentious issues are summarized below.

1. Accommodation. If one starts by favouring groups, the chosen path becomes accommodation-led.

2. Scenic versus authentic. If the choice is between a nice view and an original path, which prevails?

3. Misappropriated land. If an individual steals property, he is liable to be put in jail, but when those same people purloin land by stealth, for a 30-year period without being challenged, then somehow this becomes lawful theft that cannot be opposed in the courts. Ordinance survey maps over the years show clearly how the once wide Regordane has been encroached upon, emasculated and often erased from the collective memory – unless you happen to meet some of octogenarians en route who can still remember where the original path went.

4. An easy life. If there’s an existing GR nearby, why re-open another close by? Will the public know or remember, anyway? Thus The Regordane suddenly follows the GR6 on the rive gauche of the Gardon River instead of the rive droit as it has for the last twelve centuries.

5. Voie Romane instead of chemin Gaulois – or as Marcel succinctly puts it: “If our ancestors the Gauls hadn’t laid down these routes, the Roman soldiers wouldn’t have been able to invade our country and destroy Gallic civilization.” He is referring to the tendency in every French tourist department to ascribe Roman origin to any paved path, stone bridge or church steeple that hasn’t been raised to the ground by the Wars of Religion. This also accounts for our preferred description of the path as The Regordane, rather than the Regordane Way (La Voie Regordane).

6. Les Chemins de la Tolerance. If there was ever an attempt to re-write French history, then baptizing The Regordane as a Chemin de la Tolerance takes the proverbial biscuit. More importantly, it is the ultimate insult to those who died in the struggle for freedom of conscience during the periods of religious persecution in The Cevennes.

This list is not exhaustive and is proffered as a constructive critique of the state-led project underway. Yet whatever the shortcomings of the GR 700, the stakes are much greater than the success or failure of the latest GR. The Regordane is an important part of French heritage and deserves to be preserved and given special status akin to that enjoyed by the Santiago de Compostela Trail – a UNESCO European Cultural itinerary. The only way to bring the issues raised in this article to the fore is to encourage more and more responsible travellers to take an interest in the historical veracity of the trail by trekking it for themselves.

So, whether you are a pilgrim, hiker of historical trails, or simply an avid trekker, pack your boots and your road-walking shoes and join us on The Regordane. Empower yourself via a little research beforehand so that you are aware of the compromises and contradictions en route, and can select from the options available. And next time you hear someone saying they trekked The Regordane, your response should be, “Which one, the GR 700, the ancient (Medieval) route or the 18th century one?"

Scott Anderson, is Director of The Enlightened Traveller and lives on The Regordane.