Discover the silk road of the Ardèche in southern France where silk mills were once a vital part of life.
A rugged landscape with its roots in the silk trade
The Ardèche is a rugged region with twisting roads, far reaching views and medieval villages. It’s roughly an hour and a half south of Lyon and is also a land of diverse vegetation. It has deep musty forests clinging to rocky slopes, flat plains of olive trees and vines and the first hints of the Garrigue further south. In places its wooded gorges and rivers feel wild and untamed and it’s easy to forget that the “Golden Trees” (the nick name for mulberry trees because of their glowing colours and the wealth they brought to the region), once ignited the land.
Silkworm farming and silk production was a huge part of the landscape and life here. It’s a region still dotted with large and abandoned stone silk mills and “magnanerie” or silkworm farms, (most of which are now family homes or gîtes). And sericulture still holds a tenuous influence over the land, even if you do have to look a little closely to find it.
Originally introduced in the 14th century, by the mid-17th century there were over 400 silk mills in the Ardèche. Women and children as young as 8 formed the back bone of the industry and worked in arduous conditions in the mills.
The rearing of silkworms was complex work too but could be done in the bosom of the family home. Silkworms form cocoons which then become the basis of silk and the silkworm cocoons were unwound by hand to produce the thread. Sadly, the silkworms die during the process, meaning the entire life span of a silkworm is only about two months. It was a very labour intensive business as silkworms are entirely dependent on humans, requiring around the clock feeding on mulberry leaves and controlled temperatures and conditions. The smell wasn’t great either I’m told and I came across one article that suggested some Magnanarelle (a woman who worked in sericulture) kept the silkworm eggs in their clothing to ensure that they hatched.
If you stay in the region today you may come across gîtes called the Courradou (the room where the cocoons were unwound) or Magnanarelle, another tenuous nod to the past.
In 1855 disease struck and although within a decade methods for preventing the disease had been established, the industry never really recovered. Battling with competition from China, and then from synthetic fibres, by the end of the second world war, the industry which had been such a massive part of this region had all but died out.
Les Faugères, in St.Vincent de Barres
Today, you can catch all but a glimpse of this bygone time as you travel deep into the Ardèche. Start your visit with a stay at Les Faugères, in St.Vincent de Barres north west of Montelimar. St.Vincent is an 11th century fortified village (one of the region’s many ‘village de caractère’) and Les Faugères is a 15th century house which will plunge you back in time. It’s a delightful gîte but also one of the few places where you can still witness silkworm rearing. They have their own museum and mulberry orchard and run educational workshops, re-enactments and displays.
From St. Vincent, head north and take the D120 west from the banks of the River Rhône. It’s a road that gets increasingly bendy and lofty as it skirts the Vallée de l’Eyrieux but throws out some fabulous views of the hills. At the unpronounceable Les Ollières sur Eyrieux, you can walk down the Dolce Via. It’s an old railway route that’s been turned into a green lane and it cuts its way through the hills overlooking the valley. Far below you see mill after mill, majestic in their decay, while to your right and left you’ll see the occasional farm building which once housed the silkworms. It’s unbelievably quiet and beautiful but it’s not hard not to imagine, the sounds of the ancient trains trundling along this narrow track, filled with local produce and the whirr and buzz of the silk mills below.
The road to Privas
There’s a sericulture museum (Ecomusée du Moulinage) east of Aubenas which gives you a great excuse to explore the region by car. The Ardèche is a place where you’ll find nature and breathtaking views in abundance and for a driving challenge, take the road from Ollières sur Eyrieux to Privas. Winding through the foresty hills I defy anyone not to get car sick. You’ll be twisted to the left, to the right, back to the left and feel like you may actually be driving in complete 360 degree circles as the road climbs and falls and twists and turns through the chestnut, walnut and mulberry trees.
What a welcome sight the pretty town of Privas is when you finally come into land and what a great place to have lunch and recover. La Boria, in the Cour du Palais, has amazing views from the back room out across the hills and valley and serves gourmand standard, locally sourced dishes. It feels like a little oasis in a town which feels distinctly remote.
Take time to savour the onward journey to the museum. At times this road has a distinctly Alpine feel with cattle grazing on the mountain slopes and you just have to stop to admire the views. The route takes you through the Vivarais Mountains and via the Col de l’Escrinet which at 787 metres high, is a window onto the Languedoc, the Cevennes in the east and the Rhône Valley behind.
There’s another silk museum further south at St Alban Auriolles (Mas Daudet) which also gives you a great chance to explore some of the many ‘village de caractère’ which line the way, such as Vogüé and Ruoms. They’re endlessly charming and this is very much a place where the pleasure is as much in the journey as the arrival.
It’s sad that such a significant industry and way of life should leave such a barely visible mark on the region. But the marks are there and with a little searching it is possible to unearth some of the silk trade’s past here and get a slightly better understanding of what helped shape this beautiful region.
Find details of the museums and the Dolce Via at: Ecomusée du Moulinage at www.ecomuseechirols.fr; Mas Daudet Museum at www.mas.daudet.com
Get there: Valence has a TGV station and it’s possible to get trains from the UK or Paris. Although Valence has an airport, most flights are to Lyon or Grenoble.
For more information about the Ardèche, visit: www.ardeche-guide.com
by Lucy Pitts, deputy editor of The Good Life France and editor of Sussex Exclusive
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