For most of the period until the 1980s, Alès was a city that lived on the coal industry. The city’s tourism revolves around this heritage, so you can venture into a former mine and marvel at the mineral and gemstone treasures on the campus of the city’s old mining school.
Alès is located on a large plain, with the mighty granite peaks of the Cévennes National Park to the north and west. The city can be a useful springboard for hiking in a national park or visiting the area’s castles, gardens, and other fun family attractions.
Let’s discover the best things to do in Alès:
1. Musée-Bibliothèque Pierre-André-Benoit
In a scruffy western suburb of Ales, there is a museum founded by art publisher Pierre-André Benoit, a friend of some of the most acclaimed artists of the time.
The attraction, an ancient mansion formerly occupied by a coal mining owner, may surprise you with the depth of its paintings, drawings, sculptures and gouaches by Braque, Picasso, Alechinsky, Picabia Miro and many others people create.
There is also a library of more than 400 ancient books published by Benoit for the major artists of the time.
You won’t be the only one to notice that many of the pieces are on the small side, as Benoit loves miniature gouache and illustrations!
2. Mine Témoin d’Alès
The Cevennes were the heartland of coal mining from the Middle Ages until the 1980s, when production came to a complete halt.
The busiest period was in the late 1940s, and it can be argued 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 is an educational mine where apprentices aged 14 to 18 learn skills such as using explosives and extending mining passages with wooden supports.
In visiting these tunnels, which were preserved when they were closed, you will gain a better understanding of the job and respect for the young people who risk their lives in this industry.
3. Le Musée Minéralogique
École des Mines was once a mining college, but is now an engineering university, with an entire museum dedicated to minerals and rocks.
The collection contains more than one million specimens from around the world, divided into mineral worlds, rock worlds and fossil worlds.
So whether you’re an amateur mineralogist, geologist, or paleontologist, the museum will be a veritable cave of wonders, and may be a fun way to introduce young people to these sciences.
In the case of minerals, check out the lustrous chalcedony geodes found in Morocco.
4. Columbia Museum
In an 18th-century mansion with a formal garden and a lovely dovecote, it’s one of those out-of-the-way town museums that, when you call, may be entirely yours.
The Musée du Colombier combines fine art with archaeology, enough to pique your curiosity even when it’s off the radar.
Downstairs are Roman ceramics, tombstones, mosaics, sarcophagi and all kinds of strange and wonderful medieval knockers.
The art gallery features two works by Breughel the Elder, and a Trinity triptych by 16th-century Renaissance painter Jen Bellegambe.
5. Ales Cathedral
As usual, the 17th-century cathedral of Alès is located on the site of a Carolingian church, which in turn was built over a Roman temple.
Recognized as a “Historic Monument” in France, it has just undergone a major restoration, with the west tower cleaned, the façade of the nave painted, and the beautiful dome above the choir covered with lead.
The huge square bell tower above the entrance has stonework as old as the 1100s, and the pointed arch of the portal below predates the rest of the building.
6. Fort Vauban
Don’t let the name fool you; Alès’ 17th-century fortress was not built by the military Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, but was designed in his signature star-shaped style.
As a castle, it was tasked with stationing a garrison to suppress the Protestant Huguenots after the French Wars of Religion, and there was a lot of reformist sentiment in the area.
The fort is perched on a rock in the center of the town, and the tree-lined gardens within the fort serve as the stage for an outdoor theater on summer evenings.
7. La Colline de l’Hermitage
Crossing the Gardon d’Alès from Centre-Ville, on the right bank of the river, the terrain rapidly steepens.
You can hike through dense deciduous forests and climb to the summit of Sanctuaire Notre-Dame-des-Mines, a mecca for the city’s miners.
The sanctuary was based on an earlier Gallo-Roman fortress settlement.
It’s a quiet place to think for a moment, where a large statue of the Virgin Mary looks out over the mine.
But the trek is worth it for nature alone, not to mention the view of the Alès and the plains from the terrace.
8. Feria d’Alès
For four days in May, Alès is immersed in lively traditional festivities, with something for everyone, whether it’s wine tasting, dancing, a giant paella, or a parade with the region’s famous white horses.
But the inescapable fact is that bullfighting is at the heart of the festival.
This is a Garde tradition; the Camargue in the south has been bred and trained for fighting bulls for centuries.
Depending on where you stand on the issue, you can see the bulls running and there is a battle schedule in Arènes d’Alès, near the river.
If that’s not your thing, the local colors, music and culture continue.
9. Potters Castle
Drive north to the national park and after about 20 minutes you will reach a medieval castle in the shadow of Mont Lozère.
The castle controls traffic to the Chemin de Régordane, a road taken by pilgrims to the Abbey of Saint-Gille and the coast to join the Crusades.
You can actually take this trail on a GR700, although you might be a little late to the crusade.
The peculiarity of this castle is that its 49° walls look like the prow of a ship, and it has received the label un Vaisseau en Cévennes (a ship in the Cévennes). Take a tour to learn how mining threatened the building in the 20th century, and how the village had to move brick by brick along the valley as it sank.
10. La Bambouseraie en Cévennes
Générargues, 10 km from the city, has a large and exotic garden with a breathtaking bamboo garden of 34 hectares, built in 1856. It was the life work of plant lover Eugène Mazel, who inherited a fortune from an uncle of a shipowner in Marseille.
He traveled to the Far East in search of mulberries for silk production (an important part of Alès’ historic economy) and returned with exotic species such as bamboo, magnolias, camellias and redwoods.
There’s nothing quite like a stroll through these cool bamboo groves on a hot day, but there’s also a hedge maze, bamboo village huts from Laos, a lily-filled water garden and a verdant and peaceful Japanese garden .
11. The train à Vapeur des Cévennes
There’s something magical about riding a steam train through the countryside, and it’s no big deal if the carriages are packed with rowdy tourists.
The historic railway stretches from Anduze to Saint-Jean-du-Gard, deep in the Cévennes National Park, winding its way along the rocky valley of the Gardon, crossing it several times for photogenic views.
Once in Saint-Jean, you can stroll through the town’s old streets, with its ochre and pastel houses, all surrounded by wooded hills.
Uzès is a town with a rich history and an easy choice for a day trip.
From the Middle Ages to the Revolution, a long line of nobles called Uzès “home.”
Such is the prestige of the title of Duke of Uzès, and if the monarchy still existed today, the Duke would have a legitimate claim to the throne, second only to the “Prince of Toussaint”. When the duke attained this status in 1565, Uzès became a hotbed of nobility, and the streets are lined with stately townhouses that add a sophisticated character to the town.
Pick up the full “special hotel” itinerary from the tourist office and climb to the Duché, the ducal palace at the top of the town.
13. La Grotte de Trabuc
La Grotte de Trabuc transports you into a fascinating underground world with waterfalls, lakes and bizarre nodules you won’t see anywhere else.
Les Cent Mille Soldats (100,000 Soldiers) is a sea of stalagmites more than a few centimeters high.
You can’t actually call them stalagmites because they don’t form from water, so exactly how they form remains a mystery.
The 45-minute tour is conducted entirely in French, but non-speakers can get the gist of the audio guide.
14. Bois de Païolive
You’ll need to go a little further north, to the edge of the Lozère department, to the Pai Olive forest, but when you enter this oak forest, you’ll know why to try.
On many different trails, you will be in a fantastic karst landscape with all kinds of strange natural sculptures.
Every trail has something to surprise you, whether it’s large flat rocks, miniature canyons, rock labyrinths, arches or the big rock nicknamed l’Ours et le Lion (because it looks like a bear and a lion fighting). You can easily see how prehistoric humans used their imaginations in such an environment!
15. Les Halles de l’Abbaye
In a simple working town like Alès, the local covered market is an eye-opener, knowing that this local establishment will be aimed at ordinary people, not tourists.
Open every morning from Monday to Saturday, Les Halles de l’Abbaye has 80 stalls for butchers, greengrocers, florists, bakers, patisseries, vintners, cheese sellers and fishmongers, all in town Purchase within driving distance.
If you want to really get in on the local scene, look out for the tangy reinette du Vigan apples in winter and the sweet onions from the Cévennes in August and September.
Truffles, chestnuts, brown trout, Pélardon goat cheese and porcini are other products that are just a short trip from the countryside to a market stall.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Ales, France
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