Guide to the Loire regions

At the Source of the Loire


Le Cros de Ligeret, the first confluence of the river Loire, with the L'Aïgueneire, also known as La Rivière Noire


Contents: 

  • Access to the Gerbier de Jonc

  • Where to Stay

  • Bibliography

  • Useful Links


Overview
True worshipers of Loire valley wines should make a pilgrimage to the source of the river at least once in their lives in order to baptize themselves with a glass of the clear, icy water that flows into the ancient stone trough at la ferme de la Loire.  

Any guidebook or article on the Loire invariably starts off with the statement that the river is the longest in France. More recently, however, there are theories that the Allier, a significant tributary of the Loire, should claim this title. The Allier rises in the Massif Central, flowing north and joining the Loire just south of the town of Nevers, but at their confluence the pretender to the title is said to run stronger and as such we should all be referring to the Châteaux or vineyards of the Allier Valley, rather than those of the Loire.

The Loire flows for a total of 1,012 kilometres (628 miles), passing through 12 different départements on its course to the Atlantic. Along with its tributaries, it is responsible for draining 120,000 square kilometres, or 22% of the country, effectively dividing France in two in the process. The river originates from springs that emerge from the base of Mont Gerbier de Jonc, a curious 134 metre (440 feet) high dome of volcanic rock that sits like a giant unkempt haystack on a plateau that forms part of the Cévennes range of hills in the north-west corner of the Ardèche département.

Whilst for most people the Loire conjurers up images of septentrional France, the reality is that at its source the river is just 160 kilometres as the buse flies from the Mediterranean. Surveying the surrounding countryside one could be convinced that these are the Highlands of Scotland, although the topography here is much gentler and the latitude allows for a more temperate climate, where upland meadows can reach beyond 1,400 metres - higher than the summit of Ben Nevis. But the Ardèche remains a remote and lonely part of rural France. At the source of the river the conditions are harsh; inhospitable and virtually inaccessible in winter. Spring arrives late, delayed by the cold and the altitude, but by mid June the chaffinches, yellowhammers and chiffchaffs are in full song, whilst hen harriers circle the surrounding pastures, which by now are covered in a profusion of wild flowers and include numerous varieties of gentian, violets, wild narcissi, orchids and pansies.

Yellow gentian (Gentiana lutea), a plant common to mountainous regions in Europe, is widely found here and is easily recognised by its tall, slender stem and yellow flowers that sway in the breeze. Its large tap root is the base for locally produced bitters of the same name and is often a secret ingredient used in many other well known brands, such as Suze and Fernet-Branca. It’s also been used, historically, as an alternative to quinine.

In addition to gentian, bright purple violets are gathered in high spring by the inhabitants of Sainte-Eulalie, the first village encountered as one follows the course of the fledgling river. The harvesters roam the meadows in search of the tiny flowers, before carefully drying them for a few weeks. The entire crop is then sold over the course of a weekend at the annual Foire-aux-Violettes, which is held in the village on the Sunday following the 12th July. Sainte-Eulalie is a quiet and remote community with a single bar-cum-hotel, but apparently leading up to the fair the village becomes a lively international community, with potential buyers from the leading perfumery, confectionary and pharmaceutical companies all in attendance, although like at any serious truffle gathering, the merchandise itself is rarely ever encountered. 

The Gerbier de Jonc and the controversial source of the Loire

One theory for the origin of name Gerbier de Jonc suggests it comes from ajonc, the French word for gorse, of which there is plenty growing on the slopes, whilst another states that it comes from the Latin derivative of the Indo-European word for Gar, meaning rock, and Jugum, meaning mountain. At its summit, the dome stands at 1,551 metres (5,089ft) above sea level. In geological terms, it was created relatively recently, during the late Tertiary Period, or around 1.8 million years ago. It is made up, primarily, with sheets of phonolite, a fine-grained, alkaline-rich, cinder-coloured volcanic rock that is very compact, although easily split into slabs. It clangs when hit with a hammer, lending the rock its alternative name of clinkstone. 

As water gathers within the permeable layer of rock below the dome, it is forced upwards as the water table rises. Once it hits the impermeable layer of phonolite, the water is forced out laterally through a series of springs, all within a few hundred metres of the foot of the Gerbier de Jonc. Unlike at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, where the river Sorgue rises as a torrent from between the rocks, here there is no single spout, but several, causing much debate and disputes locally as to which is the true source. There are three separate claims, all individually marked by plaques, with each professing themselves as the true source of the Loire.  

The first, known as La Source Authentique, is simply marked LA LOIRE can be found on the side of the road directly below the dome. The monument here was erected in 1938 by Le Touring Club de France, although the day we arrived the spring showed no sign of life, which illustrates clearly that no single source exists; the flow is dependent on the level of the water table below the Gerbier de Jonc at any given point in time, dictating where the springs will emerge from out below the rocks.


The second, ‘symbolic’ source emerges as a spout directly out of the wall of an ancient stone barn just below the road. The tiles on the roof are crafted from Lauze, the name given to the split slabs of phonolite, presumably dragged off the mountain, and typical of the upland farms of the Ardèche.
The sign on the wall outside claims ici FERME de la LOIRE – SOURCE GEOGRAPHIC de la LOIRE – à l’interieur 1re Coulée du fleuve. The water flows fast and cold into a trough where visitors are free to take a drink, before they are enticed into the well stocked souvenir shop inside. The trough overflows into a gully and and the water runs freely into a potager where it helps irrigates the fruit and vegetables served at the next door restaurant, before disappearing into a neighbouring field, only to reappear further down the hillside in a series of small, marshy bogs.

About a kilometre away to the south, one finds another contender, La Source Véritable – the ‘true source’ - whose hand scrawled sign bears the inscription ici commence ma longue course vers l’Océan’. The spring here bubbles steadily up from the rocks below and cuts its way through a channel and into a large trout pond, established by the owner to demonstrate the waters purity.

Just below the road and opposite the one of the two restaurants, is a small marsh, filled with water forget-me-knots and other bog plants and fed by some unseen spring and whose waters tumble gently into a wooded ravine. There is no plaque claiming itself a pretender to the title, but here the stream is continuous and, for this observer at least, it is the most obvious contender to the title.

Despite the somewhat dispersed origins, the waters from the four springs converge a little further down the valley and by the time it passes by the village of Sainte-Eulalie, the infant Loire is clearly recognisable as a mountain stream. 

The Gerbier de Jonc is situated on the Ligne de Partage des Eaux, the watershed between two seas; water running off the north and eastern side of the dome will flow into the Mediterranean by way of the rivers Ardèche and Rhône, whilst the rest forms the source of the Loire and follows its course north to the Atlantic. For the first ten kilometres of the Loire’s existence, however, the river is forced south, as if in some forlorn attempt to escape into the warmer and more tranquil waters of the Mediterranean, only to be thwarted and deflected northwards, making a 270˚ turn when it hits the broad mass of the Suc de Bauzon, another volcanic dome, and the river has already dropped 275 metres (900 feet) by the time it passes through Rieutord, the village at the foot of the Suc - the local name given to these mountain volcanoes. At this point, the Loire is no more that ten kilometres north of the source of the river Ardèche.

In fact, some of the Loire does flow into the Mediterranean - via a huge hydro-electric scheme established in 1951. Water from the lac d’Issarles, a huge circular flooded volcanic crater fed by the Loire and its dammed tributaries of the rivers Gage, La Veyradeyre and La Palisse, falls 683 metres through a series of subterranean galleries, 17 kilometres in length, to turbines in the village of Montpezat. The electricity produced is sufficient to supply 200,000 domestic clients in the Rhône-Alpes and Auvergne. After the waters have done their work, they join the Fontaulière, a tributary of the Ardèche.

Access to the Gerbier de Jonc and climbing to the summit


Cairn made up of sheets of phonolite on the summit of the
Gerbier de Jonc

The upland meadows of the northern Cévennes mountain range are a wild and desolate place at the best of times, but the Gerbier de Jonc is practically inaccessible between the first snows of winter and the spring thaw. When accessing the Gerbier de Jonc from the south, there are signs as one reaches the hamlet of Mézilhac prohibiting access towards Gerbier de Jonc during the winter months without the security of wheel chains.

There is a general climatic rule which states that for every 100 metres of altitude the temperature drops by one degree centigrade, and this very much holds true here, and one should expect a 10 degree fall in temperature between the towns of Privas and Aubenas, which are around 500 metres above sea level and the summit, even in midsummer. It’s important, regardless of the weather conditions on departure, to pack some warm clothes.

It’s much better to arrive in the morning in order to enjoy the tranquility of the place. Amazingly, given its remote location, the Gerbier de Jonc is the second most visited tourist destination in the Ardèche département, after Le Pont d’Arc, attracting half a million visitors a year. The day trippers start arriving in earnest after midday, and although many never attempt to climb to the summit, they fill the two chalet-type restaurants that are open during the season and mingle in front of the handful of market stalls; some selling souvenirs and tacky t-shirts whilst others offer authentic local cheeses and charcuterie. 

The ascent from the road, which marks the start of the climb, to the summit takes around 30 minutes, for anyone who considers themselves moderately fit. It follows a marked trail, both up and down, and does involve the use of a few ropes and chains in places. The summit plateau measures some 15 metres in radius and is marked with a cairn of volcanic rocks which balance precariously in the swirling wind. On a clear day the Alps are visible, but more impressive are the immediate views of the surrounding countryside. To the north and east, one looks over the valley of the Eysse (whose waters eventually flow into the Rhône just south of Valence), Mont Alambre and Mont Mézenc, which at 1,753 is the highest suc in the range, whilst to the south, the mountains give way to the gently rolling hills and valleys that are the course of the infant river Loire.  



WHERE TO STAY
There is no shortage of chambres d’hôtes within easy reach, or there are several hotels to be found within the towns of Val-les-Bains, Aubenas and Privas, if then objective is to arrive at the Gerbier de Jonc from the south.

Hôtel du Nord
Sainte-Eulalie
T: + 33 4 75 38 80 09
F: + 33 4 75 38 85 50
www.hoteldunord-ardeche.com
This is a modest little hostelry in the square in Sainte-Eulalie, the village closest to the source of the Loire. It has been in the same hands for the past four generations. I haven’t stayed or eaten here, but I understand the 15 rooms are being renovated. Closed mid November to mid February.

Les Châtenes
Lablachere
Montpezeat
T: + 33 4 75 94 58 94
info@leschatenes.com
www.leschatenes.com
English owners Tony and Rita Patton offer three cottages for rent at their home, half way between Aubenas and Mont Gerbier de Jonc. 

Château de Rochessauve
Rochessauve
Privas
T: + 33 4 75 65 07 06
vialley@wanadoo.fr
www.chateau-de-rochessauve.com
This might be a good hour drive from the source of the Loire, but it comes very highly recommended. The house is a 13th Century maison-forte, is tucked away below a cirque in the Ardèche hills, about 11 kilometres south of the town of Privas. It is run by the gentle Yannick Vialle, who is an exceptional cook, and his partner Jacques Laurent. The rooms are sympathetically decorated, a legacy of Jacques antique business which he runs from a shop in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. This is a special place to eat and relax, with lovely views and informal. No credit cards.  

Château de Rochessauve

BIBLIOGRAPHY

FRENCH LANGUAGE:
La Loire, un fleuve vivant – Alain Bujak (Editions Ouest-France 2008)

ENGLISH LANGUAGE:
The Companion Guide to the Loire – Richard Wade (Collins 1979)
Auvergne, Rhône Valley – Michelin
Holiday Walks in the Loire Valley – Judy Smith (2002)
 


USEFUL LINKS – ARDÈCHE

www.ardeche-guide.com           - Comité Départmental du Tourisme de l’Ardèche

www.goutez-l-ardeche.com         - Selection of local products and restaurants

www.gites-de-france-ardeche.com       - self catering accommodation

  

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