For much of its existence until the 1980s, Alès was a city nourished by the coal industry. Tourism in the city revolves around this heritage, so you can venture into a former mine and marvel at the hoard of minerals and precious stones at the campus of the city’s old mining school.
Alès is in a large plain that ends abruptly with the powerful granite peaks of the Cévennes National Park to the north and west. The city can be a useful springboard for hikes in the national park or visits to the castles, gardens and other fun family attractions in the region.
Lets explore the best things to do in Alès:
1. Musée-Bibliothèque Pierre-André-Benoit
In a scruffy western suburb of Alès is a museum founded by the art publisher Pierre-André Benoit, who was friends with some of the most acclaimed artists of the day.
The attraction is an old mansion previously occupied by colliery owners, and may surprise you with the depth of its paintings, drawings, sculptures and gouaches by well-known names like Braque, Picasso, Alechinsky, Picabia Miró.
There’s also a library with more than 400 vintage books published by Benoit for the leading artists of the period.
You won’t be the only one to notice that many of the works are on the small side, as Benoit had a taste for miniature gouaches and illustrations!
2. Mine Témoin d’Alès
The Cévennes was a heartland for coal-mining from the middle ages up to the 1980s by which time production had completely stopped.
The busiest period was in the late-1940s and you could say that France’s post-war economic recovery was sustained by mines like this one on the outskirts of Alès, which opened in 1945 and closed in 1968. It was a kind of educational mine, where 14 to 18-year-old apprentices would learn skills like using explosives and extending mining galleries with wooden supports.
After visiting these tunnels, which have been preserved as they were when it closed, you’ll come away with a better understanding of the job, and respect for the young people who risked their lives in this industry.
3. Le Musée Minéralogique
At the École des Mines, which was once a mining college but is now an engineering university, there’s a whole museum dedicated to minerals and rocks.
The collection, which numbers more than a million specimens from around the world is divided into The World of Minerals, The World of Rock and The World of Fossils.
So whether you’re an amateur mineralogist, geologist or palaeontologist the museum will be a veritable cave of wonders, and could be a fun way to introduce young ones to these sciences.
In the mineral cases check out the lustrous chalcedony geode found in Morocco.
4. Musée du Colombier
In an 18th-century mansion complete with a formal garden and a cute dovecote is one of those out-of-the-way small town museums that you may have completely to yourself when you call in.
The Musée du Colombier mixes fine art with archaeology and even if it’s off the radar there’s more than enough to spur your curiosity.
Downstairs are Roman ceramics, tombstones, mosaics, a sarcophagus and a weird and wonderful assortment of medieval door-knockers.
Featured in the art galleries are two pieces by Breughel the Elder, and the Holy Trinity Triptych by the 16th-century renaissance painter Jen Bellegambe.
5. Alès Cathedral
As is so often the way, the 17th-century cathedral in Alès is on the site of a Carolingian church, which in turn was built over a Roman temple.
It is recognised as a French “monument historique” and has just come through a major restoration, cleaning up the western tower and painting the outer walls of the nave and cladding the handsome dome above the choir with lead.
That massive square bell-tower above the entrance has stonework as old as the 1100s and the pointed arch of the portal below also predates the rest of the building.
6. Fort Vauban
Don’t let the name fool you; Alès’ 17th-century fortress wasn’t built by the military Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, but was designed in his signature star-shaped style.
As a citadel it was tasked with housing a garrison to suppress the protestant Huguenots after the French Wars of Religion, in a region where there had been lots of reformist sentiment.
The fort is high on a rock in the middle of the town, and the leafy gardens inside the bastions are the stage for outdoor theatre on summer evenings.
7. La Colline de l’Hermitage
Cross the Gardon d’Alès from the Centre-Ville and on the river’s right bank the terrain gets steep quickly.
You can hike a trail through lush deciduous forest up a hill with the Sanctuaire Notre-Dame-des-Mines at the top, which was a shrine for the city’s miners.
This sanctuary is on the foundations of a far earlier Gallo-Roman fortified settlement.
It’s a calm place, worth a moment of reflection, and there’s a large statue of the Virgin Mary looking out towards the mines.
But the trek is worth it for the nature alone, not to mention the views of Alès and the plain from the terrace.
8. Feria d’Alès
For four days in May Alès is overwhelmed by a lively traditional celebration offering something for everyone, be it wine-tasting, dancing, gigantic paellas and parades with the region’s famous white horses.
But there’s no avoiding the fact that bullfighting is at the core of the festival.
It is a tradition in the Gard; fighting bulls have been bred and trained for centuries in the Carmargue to the south.
Depending on where you stand on this issue you can see bull runs and there’s a schedule of fights in the Arènes d’ Alès close to the river.
If it isn’t your thing there’s still a riot of local colour, music and culture going on.
9. Château de Portes
Journey north into the national park and in about 20 minutes you’ll be at a medieval castle in the shadow of Mont Lozère.
This castle controlled traffic on the Chemin de Régordane, a path travelled by pilgrims to the Abbey of Saint-Gilles and to the coast to join the Crusades.
You could actually walk this trail on the GR700, though you may be a bit late for the Crusades.
What makes the castle strange are its 49° walls that look like the bow of a boat and earned the label, un Vaisseau en Cévennes (a vessel in Cévennes). Go in for a tour to see how mining threatened the building in the 20th century, and how the village had to be moved down the valley brick by brick because of subsidence.
10. La Bambouseraie en Cévennes
Ten kilometres from the city in Générargues there’s a large exotic garden with a breathtaking bamboo plantation covering 34 hectares, created back in 1856. It was the life’s work of Eugène Mazel, a botany enthusiast who inherited a fortune from a ship-owner uncle from Marseille.
He travelled to the far east to find mulberry trees for silk production (an important part of Alès’ historic economy) and returned with exotic species like bamboo, magnolia, camellias and sequoias.
On a hot day nothing beats a stroll through these cool bamboo groves, but there’s also a hedge maze, bamboo village huts from Laos, water gardens with lilies and a verdant and tranquil Japanese garden.
11. Train à Vapeur des Cévennes
There’s something magical about chugging through the countryside on a steam train, and it doesn’t matter a jot if the carriage is packed with noisy tourists.
The heritage railway runs from Anduze to Saint-Jean-du-Gard, deep in the Cévennes National Park, and meanders along the rocky valley of the Gardon River, crossing it numerous times for photogenic views.
Once you pull into Saint-Jean, have a wander around the old streets of the town, with ochre and pastel houses, all framed by the high wooded hills.
An easy choice for a day out, Uzès is a small town with a big history.
A long line of nobility called Uzès “home”, from the middle ages to the Revolution.
Such was the prestige of the Duke of Uzès title that if the monarchy still existed today the duke would have legitimate claim to the throne, just behind the “Princes du Sang”. When the dukes gained this status in 1565 Uzès became a hotbed of nobility and streets were lined with the stately townhouses that give the town its refined character.
Pick up a full itinerary of “hôtels particuliers” from the tourist office and clamber up to the Duché, the ducal palace at the top of the town.
13. La Grotte de Trabuc
La Grotte de Trabuc draws you into a captivating subterranean world, with waterfalls, lakes and bizarre concretions that you will not see anywhere else.
Les Cent Mille Soldats (The Hundred Thousand Soldiers) is a sea of stalagmite-like formations mo more than a few centimetres high.
You can’t actually call them stalagmites because they weren’t formed by water, so exactly how they came to be remains a mystery.
The 45-minute tour is entirely in French but non-speakers can get the gist with audioguides.
14. Bois de Païolive
You’ll need to travel a bit further north, to the edge of the Lozère department, to reach the Bois de Païolive, but you’ll know why you made the effort when you enter this oak forest.
On a number of diverging trails you’ll be ensconced in a fantasy-like karst landscape with all manner of weird natural sculptures.
Every trail has something to astound you, whether it’s large sheets of flat rock, a miniature canyon, rock labyrinth, arches or large rocks with nicknames like l’Ours et le Lion (because it looks like a bear and lion fighting). You can easily see how prehistoric people would have let their imaginations run wild in a setting like this!
15. Les Halles de l’Abbaye
In an unfussy working town like Alès the local covered market is an eye-opener because you know this local institution will be geared towards everyday people and not tourists.
Les Halles de l’Abbaye is open every morning from Monday to Saturday and has 80 stalls for butchers, greengrocers, florists, bakers, patisseries, wine sellers, cheese merchants and fishmongers, all sourcing their wares within driving distance of the town.
If you want to get really local, look out for tangy reinette du Vigan apples in winter and sweet onions from the Cévennes in August and September.
Truffles, chestnuts, brown trout, Pélardon goats’ cheese and porcini mushrooms are other products that only need a short trip from countryside to market stalls.