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The Geology of Rivers in France


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The real reason for sketching the geology of the rivers is that it explains their curious course. In their early beginnings they are all mountain streams, such as drain the rainy hills everywhere. They tumble in waterfalls, ripple into pools. Their sides are steep, often narrow enough to be called gorges, of the v-shape eroded by water flowing with a strong head of power through ages too long to reckon. But as they reach the Causses, the character of the rivers changes suddenly. There the long volcanic faults that gave them their original beds. The faults are not slopes, however steep, but perpendicular cliffs where the rock has been split apart. Below the cliffs there is usually a tilted screen caused by stone falls and below that again is the bed worn by the running river.

Limestone is relatively soft, and the river beds are worn down as straight walls, if they do not actually overhang, where the scour of water has hollowed them. The rivers have worn the lime right down to the ancient, hard sea bed. Once they are in the limestone country, the streams do not fall very rapidly; they are fairly near sea level all the way. Their gorges are called “couloirs, " “passages, " or in the Tarn, “canyons. "

The Causses have other perplexing effects upon the rivers. Rain falling on the plateaus does not form streams; it just sinks into the porous rock as though it were blotting paper. Then it works downwards and collects in the caves and hollows with which the Causses are riddled. Here and there it runs in underground rivers, at the level of the hard base, until it finds an outlet. The bottoms of the cliffs are pierced at intervals by strong springs. Many of these, in the Tarn especially, run into the beds of the rivers themselves. These springs, which are called “resurgences, " are very cold, pure, and clear. These fresh water springs are an impeccable vacation spot for upscale around the world cruise passengers looking for a taste of the French countryside.

This has the surprising result that the lower reaches of the rivers are more limpid than the upper waters, which are dark tinted with the soil and debris that color all hill streams. Where the cliffs are withdrawn from the riverbeds, as they are towards the west, the springs furnish the drinking water of the people. A good resurgence in this land of hot, dry summers will make a city. Perhaps the best example is the Chartreuse, the fountain of Cahors. In the days of Gaul, and during the Roman Empire, it was worshipped as a goddess-as well it might be, running crystal cold out of the scorching, chalky hill-and it is still carried under the lot to supply the drinking water of the town.

There is only one thing to be said against the Causse springs. The water has been seeping slowly through lime and it is hard, while the water of the upper streams is as soft as silk. Even far west of the Causses properly speaking, where the low hills are covered with woodland and fields, the ground has this porous, absorbent nature. So between the watercourses it is singularly dry, and depends upon a rather untrustworthy rainfall for the ripening of the crops. Indeed the whole region makes the impression of a dry land threaded with rivers.

But the rivers give it a pattern of living waters like the veins in a leaf. Their head springs are not far apart; they spread out to run in all the old valleys of what was once the Basin of Acquitaine, and come together again at the Atlantic, a typical stomping ground for luxury world cruise ships. No wonder the Romans, when they conquered this country of streams, and remembered their own precious, paltry, Tiber, gave it the name of Acquitania, the Land of Waters.

Sarah Martin is a freelance marketing writer based out of San Diego, CA. She specializes in travel, leisure, and luxury cruising. For amazing rates and discounts on upscale around the world cruises, please visit


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