The “Gorges du Tarn”, a well-deserved growing popularity – Meanderings through France
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
With their spectacular landscapes, their lovely villages and the Tarn river allowing many different water sports, it comes as no surprise that the Gorges du Tarn are so popular with families, sport lovers or those who are fond of old stones and history. There is something for all tastes and all budgets.
During the secondary era there were actually two parallel rivers, the Tarn and the Jonte that dug their way for millennium deep through a high plateau. They created two spectacular canyons that join where the Jonte flows into the Tarn. Whether by car by foot, by boat or cycling, everything is done to help you discover them at your own rhythm. Following their meanders and narrow straits you will discover medieval villages, castles, high waterfalls, small cirques, beaches and a rich fauna including otters, European beavers, herons, vultures and many other birds.
For centuries vine, olive or almond trees and other fruit trees were grown on terraced fields on the steep south facing slopes, going down from the plateau to the river. Even if they have long been neglected, ancient stoned walls surround most villages, redrawing the landscape.
Ste Eminie probably is the most beautiful one of these villages. Stretching downhill under an old monastery it’s a maze of narrow pedestrian paved streets and tiny squares filled with flowers. Many of the medieval half-timbered houses have been turned into restaurants, shops or even holiday accommodation for tourists. A wonderful starting point to explore the river.
Close to the old stone bridge you will be able to rent canoes, ready to go downstream for a more or less long trip. The most spectacular part of the Tarn is only 8-km long but of course if you feel like having more the Gorges du Tarn are 53-km long and 3-day long trips are set up by the canoening clubs. No matter how far you may go you won’t have to fight your way back against the current: pick up meeting points along the way are scheduled to take you back to your starting point. But there is no need to rush and you can have plenty of time to stop on one of the beach nested in a meander, and swim, sunbath or have a picnic.
If you don’t feel like paddling, go to La Malène, another pretty village on the riverbank, where the “Bateliers des Gorges du Tarn” will take you aboard one of their small motorboats for a one-hour tour in the most beautiful part of the gorges. An English-speaking guide will take you through the narrow straits where the gorges are only a few dozens of meters large, overlooked by the 500 to 600-meters high cliff. A quiet yet impressive trip!
Located in a magnificent site, St Chély is a small village that can only be reached by a high single-arched bridge spanning over the Tarn. Its old and beautifully restored houses huddled together as if seeking protection from a long forgotten enemy! Don’t miss to visit the 12th century church and the ancient stone-oven where the whole village used to bake bread, pies or stews every three weeks. A waterfall spurts out from a small lake hidden in a cave and dives into the river next to the beach from which you’ll have a wonderful view over the village and the bridge.
The canyon dug by the Jonte river may not be as famous as the Gorges du Tarn, but it would be a shame not to see it: as spectacular and beautiful, it also is less touristic and less crowded in summertime. With its rocky outcrops sculpted by winds and rain it’s the perfect place to admire different vultures’ species that were reintroduced there during the 20th century. To make the most of this beautiful area you can stay at the Chateau d’Ayres located in Meyrueis, a lively village stretching along the river. The castle, surrounded by a huge park with age-old trees, was turned into a hotel by its present owner, the Marquis de Montjou. Impressive stairs will lead you to one of the 29 big rooms nicely decorated in an 18th century style. After a swim in the outside or the inside swimming pool you will enjoy a tasty meal made with local produce in the stylish dining room and its big fireplace or on the outside terrace. The Chateau d’Ayres truly offers a peaceful and relaxing stay in a home of character. www.hotel-restaurant-meyrueis.com
In a totally different way the “Hotel de la Muse et du Rozier” is a modern style hotel with a Zen atmosphere. Its large picture windows give a magnificent view over the river and the Gorges du Tarn. The hotel has a direct access to the river with a beach and an outside heated swimming pool and if you feel like paddling they will lend you a canoe. All the rooms have a river view and are decorated with a modern and uncluttered style. All the meals are homemade and you’ll enjoy a genuine Lozere cuisine. www.hotel-delamuse.fr
For a night in a medieval atmosphere you should choose the “Chateau de la Caze”. Build 500 years ago this fortified castle looks more than impressive but once inside it’s a real journey back in time… with all modern amenities. Having dinner on the outside terrace with a view over the river and the cliffs in the sunset light is unforgettable. www.chateaudelacaze.com
For more information: www.lozere-tourisme.com
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny