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Morvan Forest - Changes in Fortune

The Morvan Forest has had a turbulent past but its fortunes are about to change. Now categorized as the Massif Central-Morvan, it will receive a booster of grant money from the European Union, further aiding agriculture, forestry and green tourism. Here’s a quick resume of events leading up to the change of status.

Back in Time

The Morvan is a land within a land. While forming the centre of the region of Burgundy, it has a very pronounced character all of its own. This is due to the topography, climate and accessibility, or lack of it in days gone by. People have lived here for thousands of years, they are hardy and strong like the granite underfoot, withstanding the ups and downs of man and nature.

The Morvan has been inhabited since Neolithic times. The Gauls developed their stronghold at Bibracte and it was here that Vercingétorix organized his army to fight against Julius Caesar. There are Celtic remains all around, and the mythology, legends, and the folklore live on.

In the middle ages, castles or châteaux sprung up such as Chastellux, Domecy-sur-Cure and Bazoches, each surrounded by manor lands. The towns of Autun and Vézelay on the outskirts of the Morvan became important religious centres. This was the time when the Romanesque cathedral in Autun and basilica in Vézelay were built and pilgrimages were the order of the day.

House Renovating in the Morvan Burgundy France
Revitalized: one of the very few thatched
houses remaining today

These towns however are on the edges of the Morvan Forest. In the interior, from the 15thC up to the 18thC, workers houses clustered into hamlets, interspersed with small farms dotting the landscape, and these little villages still remain today. The granite cottages had thatched roofs and the people lived a self sufficient life.

Then the lords of the manor began to take advantage of the forests and made a lucrative living supplying Paris with firewood. The rivers were the major methods of transportation and the Canal du Nivernais was hurriedly built to speed up the delivery of the wood to keep Paris warm. Clamecy on the edge of the Morvan developed into an important and flourishing town.

The life of the people working the land was hard due to the geography. They became isolated and inward looking but through necessity had to search for work elsewhere. The women became wet nurses, either leaving to live with richer families in Paris, or taking children in from government orphanages. The men became ‘galvachers’ or ox drivers in other parts of France. At the end of the 19thC the logging trade came to an end, heralding more hardship for the region.

More was to follow. Ten percent of the male population didn’t return from the First World War. During the Second World War, life nearly ground to a halt as six of the villages were completely destroyed by the Nazis and life went underground. The area was a perfect place to hide in communities which were closed, guarded and suspicious. The Musée de la Résistance at St Brisson provides a vivid reminder of the work of ‘Les Maquis‘ from 1942-1944.

The Morvan Natural Park

Morvan Ponies Burgundy France

But things had to change. After the war there was an agricultural transformation. With the introduction of Charolais cattle, the cereal crops such as rye were replaced and three quarters of the agricultural land is now given to pasture. An afforestation programme was initiated with the planting of conifers to supply the timber industry.

One of the saviours of the area without doubt was François Mitterrand who was mayor of Château Chinon for 22 years until he was elected President of the Republic of France in 1981. It was during his reign as President of the Nièvre department that Le Parc Naturel Régional du Morvan was formed in 1970 to protect its rural and natural heritage and introduce a tourist infrastructure.

October 2005 & the formation of the Massif Central-Morvan

The Park borders cross the four departments of the Yonne, Côte d’Or, Saône et Loire and Nièvre. With the political differences of each, governance has not been a smooth ride over the years.

October 2005 saw great change of fortune in the life of the Morvan once again.
Through categorizing the region as a mountainous zone, the European Union have joined the Morvan with the Massif Central region to enhance the further development of agriculture, forestry and green tourism. European funding is to follow.