By Annette Gartland

Anduze, France - Most visitors to the Cevennes in south-eastern France just want to soak up the countryside and bathe in the rivers, but those seeking something more gilt-edged have also discovered prospecting for gold.

You won't make millions panning in the Gardon river, but you could end up hooked, and with a few flakes to your name.

"Once you know how to pan for gold, you see the river in a completely different way," said Veronique Vilain, who runs panning courses for holidaymakers and schools.

"It's the emotion, the extraordinary connection between man and nature. It's all the things we were told not to do as kids -scratching around in the earth, getting dirty," she added at her Oreval centre at Boisset-et-Gaujac.

Vilain, who has won numerous gold-panning championships, including the European championship held annually in Cardet, started panning with her ex-husband, Jean-Pierre Mandrick, son of the renowned gold panner Pierre Mandrick.

Now her second husband, Alain, has caught the bug. "I pan for pleasure. You're in the peace and quiet of the river, with the birds, and you find gold. It's magic," he said.

"When you examine a flake of gold with a magnifying glass, you feel like you're on another planet. It's fascinating. Each piece is different. Some are flat, and some look like they have been folded."

The Chercheur d'Or campsite at Cardet is the place to meet Vilain, who has been panning for more than 20 years. She offers one-day courses from April to October.

For those interested in learning how to prospect professionally, Jean-Luc Billard, of Les Tavernes, near Ales, also offers either day-long or three-day courses in panning and operating a rocker, a sluice and a dredge.

Some argue the machines disturb the river environment, but Billard, who has been prospecting professionally since 1986, says tests show only a moderate impact on the riverbed.

"There is always plenty of gold left for people to find," he added.

Janine Le Faucheur, based in Saint Bres, whose late husband, Jean-Claude, was a well-known prospector and author of the book "Chercheur d'Or en France", offers courses on the river Ceze.

She teaches use of the Batea, a conical-shaped dish. "It's a great activity for families. In a morning you can find 30 or more flakes of gold.

"Children can be disappointed at first because they imagine they'll find nuggets of gold, and they are rare. But they soon get caught up with the thrill of it all. They all go home with a little treasure-trove."

Prospecting with a pan or batea involves filling the dish with gravel, then sitting on a rock in the river, submerging the pan, and manipulating it carefully to wash away everything but the gold.

Gold flakes are put into a little water-filled vial, and can be picked up with a dry fingertip, or a pipette.

Prospectors need to be prepared to get wet, and have patience. Plus it can be a strain on the back if you don't find a comfortable position.

Guy Laquoi, 73, who lives half the year in a mobile home on the Chercheur d'Or campsite and helps Vilain teach visitors the right technique, says it's not the amount of gold you find that's important, it's the fun of searching.

"You forget your worries. I got started in California. Panning keeps me fit. It's better than sitting in slippers in front of the TV."

Laquoi melts his gold down to make jewellery. "You can find one to five grams a day." He has also had some interesting finds such as a 5th century gold coin, and Roman bronze hairpins.

Etienne Drudi, 68, another avid panner, who also gives Vilain a helping hand, has recovered about a kilo of gold over the years.

"There is plenty of scope for prospective panners in France. You can find gold in about half the departments in the country," Le Faucheur said.

"You just need to know how to read the river and find the right spots."