Les Grands Causses – Couvertoirade

After our visit at the ‘Maison de Parc’ (park headquarters) of the Grands Causses national regional park, we left Millau, driving along the Dourbie river on a small, two-lane road, D991. Road and river meander jointly deeper and deeper into the southern reaches of the Massif Central, a group of mountain ranges of volcanic origin. Here in the South, the Massif Central is composed of four major ranges, the Cévennes, the Monts de Lacaunes & L’Espinouse and the Montagne Noire, the Black Mountain. These are wild and woolly regions, which until very recently were considered remote and forbidding. The new highway A75, La Méridienne, with its spectacular bridges, now connects Clermont-Ferrand, where Vercingetorix defeated Gaius Julius Caesar’s occupational forces in 52 BCE, with the Mediterranean coast, finally allowing easier access. Might have offered Gaius Julius a chance to bring in more troops!

Following D991 to our destination of Couvertoirade on the Causse du Larzac, instead of driving the direct route on A75, was suggested by the maison de parc manager. It gave us a chance to fully appreciate the rugged mountain landscape. 



… on a bridge over the Dourbie in …
Judy & Neal …

… La Roque-Sainte-Marguerite
Continuing our journey along D991 toward Nant, we had to stop again to take pictures of the mindbogglingly rock-clinging village of Cantobre above the confluence of the Trèverzel and Dourbie. From here the Gorges of Trèverzel extend NE into the Gard department. This is prime hiking and whitewater kayaking country.   



As Judy and I stood at the curb taking pictures, a group of three bike riders flew by through a downhill stretch of switchbacks. We had passed the group just a few minutes earlier during an uphill section of road. As they were passing, one man called out:”Voilà, mesdames apprécient notre belle campagne!” or something to that effect. So when we overtook them again a little later, we rolled down our windows to wish them a good day. A chorus of “Bonnes journées” erupted and their friendly waves put those guys in mortal danger – not really, but it was quite vigorous waving for riders on a narrow mountain road. Just another illustration of the abominable rudeness of these darn Frenchies, we’re experiencing every day here!

Lacaune sheep grazing to produce the rich milk for Roquefort cheese

Shortly thereafter we picked up D55 in Nant, swiftly climbing up on the Causse du Larzac on our way to Couvertoirade. The mountain ranges out of which the Massif Central region is composed have a number of high plateaus. All in all, there are nine named plateaux or ‘causses’ and the Causse du Larzac is one of them. The Larzac plateau is a windswept limestone karst landscape with very little surface water. Having lived in Central Texas on the Edwards Plateau, we’re quite familiar with the lack of surface water. Only here, despite the paucity of water, everything is so much greener than in Texas, at least in Spring. The main agricultural endeavor on the Larzac plateau is sheep farming. Mostly Lacaunne sheep are raised here to produce the world famous Roquefort cheese. Only cheese made of lait de brebis (ewe’s milk) and aged in one of the ancient Cambalou caves of the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the Aveyron is by law allowed to be labeled ‘Roquefort’ cheese. But since I don’t much like blue or green cheeses, we might as well move on to the black and grey stone village of Couvertoirade.

the sign has seen better days, as has the village
a little guard house, all that remains of a past estate


big BBQ in a romantic setting
colorfully dilapidated farm implements to advertise a farm shop
for homemade products like honey and soap


but this is the main show, the headliner – austere, inhospitable and bleak
a last check for community announcements before entering …
… the fortified village through a deep gateway under the ramparts
the first glimpse at street level …
… and looking up – nothing but stone
Thusnelda the Welcome Sheep in the gift shop provides information
We paid dear Thusnelda our fees for an introductory video presentation and a visit on the ramparts. The video was amazingly informative, especially considering that I could only understand a fraction of the lively and attractive presentation, narrated by a well known French celebrity, I didn’t recognize. If I got it right, a Count of Millau was scared of possible aggression by a Count of Toulouse and requested the Knights Templar to build an outpost fortification up on the Causse du Larzac to prevent sneak attacks.
The monks-for-hire did just that in the 12th century and a couple of centuries later the Knights Hospitaller, who had inherited the Templar’s organization after their dissolution in 1312, increased the fortifications to impregnable levels. Oh, those boys and their power games! 

The crazy thing about this fortified village is the fact that it has no water supply. Non. Anywhere. I believe, the video declared Couvertoirade the single defense structure without water in France. But I’m not at all sure about that. The people, who populated this village, the sheep farmers, and artisans, and the soldier-monks who defended it, had only one option open to them: catch rainwater. Aside from defense structures, they built every aspect of the village with this purpose in mind. Roofs were slanted in angles and shingles layered in ways to form channels, directing rainwater in ever increasing rivulets toward gutters, which in turn slanted toward a pipe leading down to an underground cistern beneath each house. Additionally, the whole village was built on a slight incline and solidly paved. The layout of houses in the village was such that gaps between houses formed street level gutters to gather as much rainwater as possible and direct it toward a large pond, which served to water the animals. Much later, I suppose, when warfare was no longer an imminent danger, the pond was relocated outside the village ramparts.

this model of the village on display in the gift shop shows the layout quite well – the pond used to be in the teardrop-shaped space near the bottom watchtower

In this poster you can see the vertical layout of a village house:
Second floor (3rd in the US)
storage of dry goods in the attic under the slate roof

First floor (2nd in the US)
Family living quarters 

Ground floor (often with an arched ceiling for strength)
Livestock quarters

Below ground
Rainwater reservoir

You can also read a description of a ‘jasse’, a dry stack stone shelter for sheep out on the plateau, which also includes a cistern to collect rainwater for the animals and shepherds. And the famous ‘cardabelle’ (Carolina acanthifolia) is shown as well. These thistles grow wild on the limestone ground of les causses and were called ‘shepherd’s barometer’ since they open in bright sunshine and close up when rain is on the way. Cardabelle thistles are related to artichokes, so part of the bloom is edible, while the thorny portions can be used to card wool. I read they also have certain medicinal properties AND protect against the evil eye, which might be the reason, why you see cardabelles on many doorways all over the Languedoc.

But back to those rampart views.

Pigeon tower
In order to prevent the pigeons from pooping on the roofs and contaminate the water,
the birds were locked up in the pigeon tower when it rained.
How? I don’t know. I’m not even sure, I understood correctly!

Thank you for coming along!
Says the photographer with the fuzzy-mossy hairdo 🙂

PS: When we were ready to leave, we proceeded to the pay station to pay our €3 parking fee, which, as the sign said, was to be used for restoration work in the village. Ahead of me a couple of young women tried to pay by bank card. Didn’t work. Try another one. Didn’t work. Search purses for a different card. Didn’t work. Search coin purses for cash, which didn’t work. YIKES!! Meanwhile, I was hopping on one leg in frustration. The darn machine was broken!! We tried as well, with cash and cards, no go. Another family group failed to deposit their money. What to do? Bright idea: let’s follow one of the tourist coaches out. Those professional drivers must have a way to raise the bar at the exit, right? That’s what we did. We formed a slow snake with several other cars, sneaking out of Couvertoirade behind a Spanish bus – and all of us would have been more than happy to support the village. Pity!  

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