Lozère: France’s big country
Published 01/04/2013 | 12:09
It’s true that the Grand Canyon is well, grand, but you don’t need to cross the Atlantic to find an awe-inspiring gorge. An easy less than two-hour low cost Ryanair flight from London Stansted will take you to the cathedral city of Rodez, gateway to the dramatically beautiful Gorges du Tarn.
It is an easy drive northwest from the airport into the lovely department of Lozère.
Space, that rare commodity in modern life, is abundant in these parts – for this is the least populated department in all of France.
From here are views of the far-off Alps to the east, the Pyrénées to the west and the Massif Central due north – France’s three great mountain ranges within one panoramic sweep. Let your gaze sweep through 360° and the view takes in Mont Blanc, and Canigue and right at your feet Lozère itself offers enormous variety.
This is the famed Languedoc Roussillon, France’s fabled Midi.
Created thousands of years ago from massive volcanic convulsions, the mountains have been softened by the ages – the peak of Mont Lozère is a mere 1,699m high – but lowered as they may have been by the passage of a million years or more they still have a unique ambience. There’s a very special quality of light to be found in these parts. No wonder the region has been such a home from home for painters; for poets too.
In the north, the gently rolling uplands of Aubrac and Margeride are ancient volcanic uplands, with mysterious blocks of limestone peeping through grass shorn short by grazing animals, for this is sheep country.
The great limestone plateaux of the Causses, the pastoral uplands of the Cévennes and the alluring valleys of the Tarn and Lot rivers see nature at her best but there’s also a key human element to Lozère’s powerful appeal.
From prehistoric times through Roman occupation, the Middle Ages, the religious wars, the Revolution, the Napoleonic era and on into modern times, Lozère has – despite its relative remoteness and sparse population – played an at times dramatic role in the evolution of the France we know today. The footprint of history is large in these parts.
Nature has dominance
The western edge of Lozère, set more than 1,300 metres up in the southern reaches of the glorious Massif Central, is the lightly populated Aubrac, a place where nature rather than man still has dominance. The air is sweet with the smell of wild herbs and the scent of alpine wildflowers. Trees are rare on these windswept uplands, but strangely shaped outcrops of rock punctuate the vast, rolling moorland meadows that seem purpose made for leisurely walks and idyllic picnics.
The glorious colours of wild orchids and the carpets of wild flowers – whites, purples, pinks, yellows and blues – bring close focus back to a vision defined first by big skies and sweeping panoramas. It's a photographer’s paradise.
The relative absence of trees means that, instead of wood, it is stone – with its abundance in these parts – that has been the building material of choice, gifting a legacy of picture postcard farmhouses and quaint little cottages.
Especially renowned are the villages of Nasbinaid, Aumont-Aubrac, Fournels, Prinsuejois, Recolles d’Aubrac and Arzenc - d’Apcher, built from weathered granite and basalt stone and featuring ancient pilgrim trails, tiny chapels and wayside crosses that testify to a deeply spiritual way of life
Winters are hard on these remote and mystical uplands but come spring the grasses, nurtured by underground streams and Ice Age lakes, spring back to life and brown turns to vivid green as the beautiful golden-coated Aubrac cattle are turned out onto the pastures once more. This is a once rare breed that was saved from imminent extinction back in the 1970s and which now flourishes once more. Today they produce a specially favoured yogurt and rich cheeses too.
Set between 1,000 and 1,500 metres altitude, the haunting Margeride presents a sweeping vista of granite-strewn moorlands, rich pastures and densely brooding forests.
It’s a land of haunting solitude, the silence broken only by birdsong, the whistle of the wind and the burbling of countless little streams.
It is criss-crossed by a web of tiny byways, many of them virtually single track. Yet this seemingly empty place has a long and often turbulent human occupation.
From royal Marvejols to Saut Akban sur Limagnole, even the smallest of hamlets has history oozing from its stones.
It was here that the Gauls of Gévaudan battled Caesar’s legions – and it was here, in the 18 Century era of Marie Antoinette, that a mysterious serial killer the locals called ‘The Beast’ carved a bloody trail through three dread-filled years. Eventually, the blame for the deaths was laid, without any real evidence, at the door of the wolves that roamed these hills back then.
Fortunately, in these more enlightened times, this vast national park has become a protected refuge for these beautiful but too often misunderstood animals.
And here the last native European bisons have also found safe haven.
The exquisite countryside of the Cévennes, in the south east of the department, provides a frontier between the at times brutal climate of the mountains to the north and the softer Mediterranean weather of the south. It’s also where rivers opt to flow northeast to the Atlantic or south to the Med.
Its 1,699m summit covered with snow in winter, Mont Lozère – known as ‘The Mountain of Springs’ – is purple with heather come autumn. Cross-country skiing is popular on the mountain at Mas de la Barque and Bleymard-Mont Lozère while summer brings hordes of ramblers to the magnificent walking trails.
Tumbling rivers and streams rush through deep, rugged ravines. Beech trees, fir plantations, oaks and, importantly for local cuisine, groves of chestnut trees – known locally as ‘bread trees’ – dot the ruggedly barren hills, whose carefully terraced slopes allowed the cultivation of mulberry bushes – ‘`The Golden Tree’ – needed for the silk industry on which local fortunes were once built.
Pretty little hamlets seemingly grow out of the rock itself. Every turn in the road produces new delights, especially along the Corniche des Cévennes, which winds its way between Florac and Saint Jean-du-Gard.
Up on the mountain, church bells still summon visitors, as they did pilgrims lost in torment back in ancient times while a swarm of loose-knit arts communities has transformed the area into an Eldorado for painters, sculptors and other creative people.
Ancient tribes flourished here. The Cévennes boast France’s second most important menhir sites, after those of Brittany. Once a protestant stronghold, the region saw much strife during France’s religious wars.
The infant River Tarn is born way up on the smooth flanks of Mont Lozère, glides under the arches of the Pont de Montvert, then white-waters its way past Ispagnac, furiously carving its way over the limestone karst.
This process, which began millions of years ago, created the truly spectacular route of the Gorges du Tarn, officially rated as a ‘Grand Site Naturel Classe’.
53 remarkable kilometres wend their dizzying way through Rozier, passing the imposing Château de Castelbouc, and the delightful riverside village of La Malène.
100 metres underground, the caves at Aven Armand, which were discovered in 1897 by Louis Armand, have more than 400 stalagmites – including the largest known one in the world.
On its journey, the Tarn has created islands in the sky – the magnificent Grands Causses, high plateaux that are even less populated (at just even people per square kilometre) than the rest of this sparsely settled region.
The grandest of the Causses is Sauveterre, in the north; in the south there is Méjean. Both are truly spectacular. There are awesome caves here, such as the outstanding grotto of Dargilan.
In the south of the department, the River Jonte follows a more secretive itinerary but it is no less spectacular. If you can’t find it, ask the languorously circling vultures – they know the way.
Widely recognised as one of Europe’s prettiest rivers, the Lot is at its most spectacular from its source 1,214m above sea level at the foot of Mont Lozère and on its east/west passage through the Lozère department for 90km on its way to joining the far-off Garonne, at an altitude of just 29m, after a journey of 481km.
Mende, the department’s attractive and historic main town, is set on this wonderful waterway, which can be crossed here on a magnificent 12 Century bridge, which is overlooked by the imposing and grandiosely named Basilique Notre-Dame et Cathedrale Saint-Privat.
Outstanding architectural gems abound along the valley – ancient houses, mighty Châteaux and imposing churches vie for attention. Take time for site visits and look out for the impressive barrel-vaulted interiors as well as the distinctive painted facades that are a unique element of the local architectural style.
Strung along the valley are fertile little farms, charming villages and small towns, such as Bagnols les Bains, Chanac and La Canourgue, the latter laying host to a colourful Festival of the Singles each spring. Some 22 communes in all are recognised as part of the Pays d’art et d’histoire de la Haute Vallée du Lot (Art and History Country of the High Lot Valley)
Architecture is a major attraction throughout the department, solidly built from locally quarried stone – limestone up on the Causses plateaux, schist in the Cévennes and granite in the Aubrac and Margeride. The villages of the Lozère are rightly recognised as being among the most beautiful in all France.
Two of them have been granted the coveted accolade formally: Saint Enemie, nestling in the heart of the Gorges du Tarn since the 6 Century, and the historic fortified village of La Garde Guérin.
Many others would be worthy of such recognition: Pont de Montvert, through which flows the infant River Tarn; Florac, which sits with its imposing château at the gateway to the Cévennes national park; Langogne, with its forest of red roofs; Nasbinals, with its solid granite and basalt houses clustered around a picturesque Romanesque church.
Just five minutes off the A75 autoroute are the ‘villages étapes’ stopovers of La Canorgue and Aumont-Aubrac, while the two ‘green pearls’, Saint Chély d’Apcher and Marvejols are also not to be missed.
Take to the waters
2,700 kilometres of first-class rivers and streams, make for an angler’s heaven. Conserving stocks to ensure a healthy future, the number of ‘no kill’ areas has steadily increased.
Specially built hides on the riverbanks enable nature lovers to observe heron, waterfowl, woodcock and other birds at close quarters.
The mirror-like surfaces of glacial lakes high in the Aubrac, the lakes at Naussac and Villefort, with their sailing and bathing facilities, and the web of waterways provide a feast of superb activities, both on and beside the water.
Health-giving spa waters spring from the ground at places like La Chaldette, on the Aubrac plateau, and beside the Lot at Bagnols les Bains. Simple to access, with no massive impersonal clinics this is thermal health treatment on its most natural and human scale.
Thundering over cascades or flooding along the gorges of the Tarn, the Jonte and the Dourbie, water has carved the history of the entire Lozère territory.
Take your time, go on foot – in the gently paced manner of the time-honoured pilgrims or with purposeful strides, along the crests or through the valleys, alone or with the family, accompanied or not by a gentle donkey (in the manner of Robert Louis Stevenson).
Some 2,450km of classified randonnées (hiking trails) await your walking shoes and are ready to delight the eyes. Some 1,950kms of these routes are rated as ‘Grandes Randonnées’, ready to guide you from the Causses to the Cévennes, from the flatlands to the gorges.
Long distance routes
Of the four long-distance routes that quarter the territory, two have earned legendary status: the Chemin de Saint-Jacques de Compostella (www.chemins-compoststella.com) pilgrim trail and the GR70 Chemin de Stevenson (www.chemin-stevenson), which follows in the tracks of the great 19 Century Scottish writer and his faithful donkey, Modestine. A local politician and historian at St Germain de Calberte told the contemporary Scottish writer, Alastair McIntosh, in 2007: "We revere Stevenson because he showed us the landscape that makes us who we are."
Two more also follow the traces of mediaeval pilgrim routes, leading hikers to the great abbeys of the Midi at Saint-Gilles de Gard and Saint-Guilhem du Désert. The Régordane trail, coming from Puy-en-Velay, rejoins the first of those routes to traverse 55kms of remarkable countryside while the Chemin de Saint-Guilhem is an abbey to abbey trail, crossing from the Aubrac to Aigoual before plunging down to the River Ardeche via the appropriately named Bonheur Valley.
For touring road riders or mountain bikers alike, Lozère is also wonderful cycling country. If the challenging 678km grand crossing of the Massif Central by mountain bike or the 600km cycle tourist Tour de la Lozère itinerary seem a bit daunting, the local cycling clubs and the Fédération Française du Cyclisme (www.ffc.fr) can produce a host of alternatives for hard riders and more leisurely pedallers alike.
Equestrianism is also popular: Arabian breed horses are raised in Lozère, which is wonderful country for horse trekking. The department is host for several major equestrian events – including the annual staging of the renowned 160km de Florac (www.160florac.com) endurance test, also known as the Trevis Cup Américaine.
There are numerous riding schools and stables locally and several of Britain’s European champions train in the region. Beginners, enthusiastic amateurs and skilled horse riders can all find terrain to suit them – all set to a magnificent backdrop. Besides day rides, Lozère offers extended horse riding holidays through outstanding scenery.
This is a land of sweeping views and the great outdoors, with first-rate facilities for a comprehensive range of other sports, leisure and adventure activities. Canoeing, kayaking, wild water rafting, wind surfing, climbing and pot-holing can all be on the agenda, as well as 500 kilometres of skiing routes when the winter arrives and the church steeples on the mountain flanks look like buoys floating in a sea of snow.
The last wild horses
If you want to see the wind-ruffled manes of the last wild horses in the world, you need to travel to the wildernesses of Mongolia… or to the Causse Mejean in Lozère.
This majestic Przewalski breed has become symbolic of European wildlife protection efforts.
Other species too are making a comeback here, with European bison once again crossing the Margaride while rare birds of prey spread their wings to the thermals above the rugged Gorges de la Jonte.
Nearly a third of the department – 32% to be precise – now has protected Natura 2000 status (www.natura.org), a distinction that conserves the habitat of rare species, such as the otter and the white-footed crayfish. For its part, the Cévennes National Park (eng.cevennes-parcnational.fr) has been campaigning and working for 40 years to foster a system of responsible cohabitation which respects the natural environment.
On its territory the Cévennes Ecotourisme association (www.cevennes-ecotourisme.com) is encouraging local tourism enterprises to become signatories to a durable charter for a responsible European tourism industry.
The reason?: It has identified and wants to maintain its 89 species of mammals, 208 kinds of bird and 2,250 types of vegetation – the greatest number of species yet found in any French national park. It’s a priceless treasure – and it belongs to Lozère.
How to get there
If you are driving down from the Channel Ports via the autoroute network it’s an eight-hour drive to Mende so, if you only have one driver in the party it is safer to allow two days motoring each way (or even longer if you opt for a more pleasant journey on minor roads). Remember, in High Holiday season French roads can be manic.
There is the option of putting your car on an overnight motorail train at Calais and waking up in Brive, Toulouse or Narbonne, each an easy drive from Lozère (book through Rail Europe, www.raileurope.co.uk).
Alternatively, fly to South West France with one of the low cost operators (there’s a range of easyJet and Ryanair services from a number of London and regional departure points to such destinations as Toulouse, Montpellier and Rodez) and pick up a pre-booked hire car on arrival.
The best deals are usually available through UK-based Holiday Autos (www.holidayautos.co.uk) the world’s largest car rental brokerage, which markets a variety of local and international brands and boasts ”the best prices from the best suppliers”, with discounts as high as 40 per cent.
How to get around
Cycle, walk or ride a horse; arrive by car or rent one at the airport – local bus services are few and far between.
Where to stay
There are plenty of accommodation options: ancient barns on the Causses that have been imaginatively transformed into welcoming gîtes; wooden chalets on the banks of lakes in the Margaride; cabins perched among the chestnut trees; Mongolian-style yourtes in the Aubrac, farmhouse chambres d’hôtes (bed and breakfast) – Lozère has these and plenty of conventional hotels too.
Passionate about their region and its history, the department’s hosts love to introduce their guests to the charms of their properties: secret rooms; the frescos on the walls of the Château la Caze and General De Gaulle’s room at Château d’Ayres, while the refurbishment of the magnificent Château Orfeuillette, in Margeride, has been a triumph.
Quality is high but prices are modest, and the department is a leader in making provisions for handicapped guests, with accessibility treated as a priority. The exquisite village of gîtes at Montrodat, for instance, clusters around the Euroméditerranéen Sport-Loisir-Handicap complex, which offers a wide range of sports and water-therapies, suitable for both the able-bodied and the disabled.
What and where to eat
Lozère’s gold? It’s liquid and it is called honey – and it comes in many guises, depending on which flowers have gifted their sweet nectar to the busy worker bees.
Heather, blackberry, chestnut: each gives a unique flavour and colour and France’s leading apiculture region offers a unique opportunity for visitors to don protective clothing and empty a hive of its honeycomb.
Turning their back on food miles and pollution, Lozèriens are ‘locavores’ by nature, preferring products of local provenance – and they favour going organic too, especially when making aligot, that mouthwatering purée of potato, fresh cheese and garlic whose serving is a time-honoured ritual at the local table.
By preference, aligote is served accompanied by a piece of local sausage, stuffed with a mix of meat and Swiss chard, or by an entrecote steak of locally reared Aubrac beef.
Other local specialities include truffade (another delicious potato dish), tripe, wild boar stew, braised mushrooms, fougasse (a local flatbread), lamb, confit and magret of duck, chestnuts…
So is there space left for cheese? Lozère produces 48 different appellations of fromage, of which five have coveted ‘Origine Controlée’ status. Among them is the distinctive Pélardon
There are numerous food-based fetes and fairs in the region, including the famous Soup Festival at Florac and the Toqués des Cèpes mushroom event at Mende, while weekly markets draw artisan producers, discerning local housewives and foodie consumers to busting towns and villages.
Good restaurants abound. Indeed, Lozère is among France’s most Michelin toque-laden departments but there’s good eating to be had at the lower end of the financial scale too, with €12-15 three-course set menus not impossible to find.
Inspirational chef Daniel Legrange holds court in the kitchen at the relaxingly unpretentious Hotel du Mont Aigoual (www. hotel-mont-aigoual), located in Meyrueis, a tiny and picturesque riverside town deep in the mystic Cévennes.
Besides catering to the restaurant’s guests, Daniel gives cookery lessons. Boy, did I learn a thing or two from him about preparing a magret de canard.
What to speak
Why, French, of course – though increasing numbers of French people have at least some command of English, even in emote rural areas. Your ears might occasionally discern an incomprehensible local patois. This is, after all, the Languedoc (‘Language of Oc’, the word for “yes” in the ancient local language).
What to spend (and tip)
France is a Eurozone member. A 15 per cent service charge is automatically included in bar and restaurant bills, so a tip is not necessary, though it is appreciated if you leave something when service has been especially good. 5-10 per cent is fine. Similarly 5-10 per cent is ok for a taxi though, again, is totally discretional.