Chaos de Montpellier le Vieux – Lou Clapas Viel
Local folks traditionally called it Lou Clapas Viel – Old Heap of Stones.
The speleologist Edouard Martel explored the site in the late 19th century and made the first detailed mapping of the area.
He also renamed it Chaos de Montpellier le Vieux in order to differentiate it from the city of Montpellier already nicknamed Lou Clapas.
The site indeed resembles a ruined city engulfed by vegetation.
How did Le Chaos de Montpellier le Vieux form?
Le Chaos de Montpellier le Vieux consists of spectacular heaps of dolomite rocks scattered over 120 hectares.
The dolomite limestone is a porous and permeable rock.
It formed about 170 million years ago when a vast shallow sea covered the region and the climate was tropical.
Skeletons of corals and marine creatures settled on the seabed and solidified over the millennia.
The action of the thrust resulting from the formation of the Alps and the Pyrenees mountain ranges about 100 million years ago, gradually lifted the young rock.
This gave rise to the Causses plateaux and the sea disappeared.
Strong tectonic movements lifted entire blocks of rock and broke it in fairly even chunks.
The gully erosion and runoff of rainwater then expanded the existing cracks, and gradually eroded the rock.
The rock then broke in a multitude of eccentrically shaped boulders on the surface.
Erosion resulted also in a vast network of underground caves.
Finally, the fracture lines created by the tectonic movements widened over the millennia and created natural passes.
Eccentric rock formations that gave rise to legends
Over the millennia Nature therefore created one of the most amazing natural sites.
Le Chaos de Montpellier le Vieux indeed resembles a forgotten city engulfed by vegetation.
However, rock not only resemble ruined castles and dwellings with their pillars and arches, but also human faces and animals!
The area was too uneven and to be inhabited by man.
It therefore remained wild and mysterious for centuries, and the only sound that could be heard was the howling of wolves.
It obviously aroused fear among the locals.
Indeed, the shepherds did not dare venture in the area as they believed evil spirits inhabited it.
They believed that long ago the fairies founded this ancient city, then got tired of it and went away, leaving it to fall in ruins.
Le Chaos de Montpellier le Vieux remained for a long time a source of many legends of fairies and witches.
A remarkable natural site
The legends have long died, and Le Chaos de Montpellier le Vieux is today a remarkable natural site open to the public.
Hikers will enjoy the five marked and colour-coded trails that follow the natural passages.
These walks range from 30 minutes to 2 hours.
The others can visit with a little train on wheels.
Some rocks have very subjective shapes and were therefore named after a famous person, an animal or a monument.
You will recognise Reine Victoria, L’Ours, le Crocodile, le Chameau, l’Elephant, le Sphynx, la Porte de Mycene and l’Arc de Triomphe among others!
The site of Montpellier le Vieux is also remarkable for its extensive flora that contrasts with the sparse vegetation of the plateaux.
Scots pines have colonized the site.
Indeed, they need little soil and can easily root in the rock fractures.
There is a also profusion of small oak trees.
These have adapted to the limestone of the Causses.
They proliferate among boxwood, juniper, wild thyme and various Mediterranean bush species.
It is strongly advised to remain on the marked trails.
The site is extensive (remember 120 hectares!) and may resemble a labyrinth.
It is therefore easy to get lost…and who knows, the legends of fairies and witches might be true after all!
Finally, walking shoes are compulsory because the terrain is rocky and steep!
Department of Aveyron
Coordinates Chaos de Montpellier le Vieux: Lat 44.140448 – Long 3.202589