Cévennes and Grands Causses - wildlife and walking in southern France (by train)
A relaxed week of wild flowers and country walks, exploring the Cevennes National Park and Parc Naturel des Grands Causses, in southern France.
From the rolling limestone plateaux of the Grands Causses, with their deep-cut gorges to the more rugged granite landscape of the Cevennes, the area has much to offer the naturalist. Butterflies include a variety of blues and fritillaries, coppers and heaths, with Nightingales serenading from every bush, Griffon Vultures and various other raptors circling overhead and Western Green Lizards scuttling off through the undergrowth.
The twin parks of the Cevennes and Grands Causses are particularly rich botanically, and our visit is timed to make the most of the wonderful spring flowers. Most notable is the area’s orchid diversity, with 30 or more orchids possible during our visit. The two endemics, Aymonin’s Orchid Ophrys insectifera subsp aymoninii and Aveyron Orchid Ophrys sphegodes subsp aveyronensis, which will no doubt feature high on our list of finds during the week, along with Lizard Orchid, Military Orchid and Burnt-tip Orchid in large numbers. The steppe-like grasslands of the Grands Causses are full of wild flowers, with White and Hoary Rock-rose, Pasque Flowers, Alpine Aster, Poet’s Narcissus and Wild Tulip all adding splashes of colour.
We will take daily excursions to explore the various habitats and hidden corners of the area, from the limestone grasslands to the deep river gorges. We will visit one of the area’s spectacular caves, enjoy a relaxing boat trip along the River Tarn beneath towering cliffs, and learn about local conservation projects for three European vulture species and the endangered Przewalski’s Horse, a Mongolian species being ‘rewilded’ on the Causse Mejean.
Day 1 After travelling via Eurostar to Paris and then on to Montpellier by TGV, we head north into the Cevennes National Park, where we will arrive at our hotel in time for a late dinner.
Day 2 A gentle start, after yesterday’s travel day, will see us heading a little way north from our hotel for our first introduction to the landscapes of the Cevennes and Grand Causses, as we explore the pine woodlands, grassy steppe and gentle hills. Western Bonelli’s Warblers sing from the trees, with our first Small Blue and Heath Fritillaries on the wing. Our introduction to the wild flowers of the Cevennes should include Aster alpinus, Carthamus mitissimus and orchids including Elder-flowered, Burnt-tip and Fragrant Orchid, and we will find intriguing, prehistoric menhirs on the hilltops.
Day 3 On the edge of the Causse Mejean, we spend our morning amongst the limestone karst of the Nimes le Vieux. Rock Thrush and Black Redstart nest amongst the rocks, Early Purple Orchid and Woodcock Orchids can be found in shaded corners, with the endemic Cevennes Saxifrage growing on some of the limestone rock pillars. In the afternoon we have some time to spend in the small town of Florac, where Dipper nest on the river and we can visit the National Park visitor centre.
Day 4 Today we travel a circuit of the Causse Mejean. At our first stop, we visit the spectacular cave at Aven Armand, reputed to be larger than Notre Dame cathedral. We will look for Griffon Vultures on their nesting cliffs along the Jonte Gorge and learn about the local reintroduction project that has restored these magnificent birds to the area. We end the day with a leisurely boat trip along the River Tarn, travelling through the most spectacular part of the gorge.
Day 5 We head into the heart of the Causse Mejean, where our walk takes us across the wide expanses of the steppe-like grasslands on the plateau, dominated by the beautiful Stipa pennata. Amongst the many flowers, the endemic Aymonin’s Orchid Ophrys insectifera subsp aymoninii can be found in good numbers. Nearby, we will visit the TAKH project, where a population of free-roaming Przewalski’s Horse is being prepared for reintroduction to their Mongolian homeland.
Day 6 We set off southwards today. We will head up to Mont Aigoual, the highest point in the Cevennes with views all the way down to the Mediterranean, and Wild Tulips flowering along the roadsides. From here we carry on south to our next hotel, on the Causse du Larzac, where Nightingales sing in the garden. After settling in, we will have some time to visit the nearby restored Templar village of La Couvertoirade.
Day 7 A short journey north of our hotel, we will explore a quiet valley on the edge of the Causse Larzac. The grassland and scrub on the limestone is notably rich in orchids, with the locally endemic Aveyron Orchid Ophrys sphegodes subsp aveyronensis present in good numbers, alongside Lesser Butterfly Orchid, Military Orchid, Lady Orchid and some ten or more other species. Heading back to the hotel, we will make one more roadside stop along a quiet country lane, where we will look for Frog Orchid, Fly Orchid and Ophrys fusca.
Day 8 After breakfast, we return to Montpellier and our train home.
Please note that the itinerary may be changed to suit the weather or other practicalities at the discretion of the leaders.
We will be staying at two comfortable, family-run local hotels. All rooms are en-suite.
Our evening meals will be taken in the hotel restaurant. We will take picnic lunches out with us every day.
For our daily excursions, we will travel by small coach or minibus.
We will travel by train from London St Pancras to Montpellier, via Paris.
France is two hours ahead of UK time.
If you hold a British passport, from 1 January 2021 you will be able to travel to countries in the Schengen area (including France) for up to 90 days in any 180-day period without a visa. You must have at least six months left on your passport to travel to most countries in Europe.
At this time of year the weather should hopefully be warm and sunny, with average temperatures around 20° C. As with everywhere, the weather is less predictable now than it used to be, and there may be cooler or hotter weather and some rain. We will do our best to adapt our walks and excursions accordingly.
On several days, we are walking for much of the day, albeit at a relatively slow pace. The day walks are mostly circular walks, between 3 and 6 miles, with some rougher ground and some slopes, both up and down. Walking boots (e.g. lightweight) are essential. The pace will be relaxed, with plenty of time to enjoy the surroundings and take photos as well as stopping to enjoy the wildlife along the way. If you are a slow walker, please contact us to discuss whether any of the walks will be a problem for you. You must be able to lift your own luggage on and off of the trains.