Monday, April 18, 2011

Gorgeous Gorges of the Tarn River

Katie has been scheming for days planning our itinerary to the Tarn River Gorges. It is to be a driving tour that combines the highlights of several Green Guide tours. In addition, it will take us about 2 hours to get to the region to start and return, making for a long day. We decide to be on the road by 8:30 and manage to keep to that schedule.

This area, in the Grands Causses and Cévennes, is a summer recreation area for outdoor activities. One sees lots of signs for camping, lots of "gites" (bed and breakfast places) and places for canoeing and kayaking. It is dotted with small towns clinging to the steep hillsides, in some cases just a handful of houses. The limestone cliffs are unhospitable to normal agriculture except on the plateaus of the causses where we see fields planted with what appear to be grasses. Sheep are pastured here and cheeses made from sheep's milk, called brebis, are numerous. We sometimes see sheep crossing signs along the road.

But it is not tourist season and the traffic is light, most restaurants, hotels, and attractions are closed, the few people we see kayaking are wearing wetsuits, and the towns are quiet. As it is Sunday, we see French families hiking along the gorges, a few backbackers, a couple dressed for mountain climbing, occasional bicyclists, and quite a few picnics. When the French picnic, they bring their own folding table and lawn chairs. There are not designated spaces with tables and amenities as in the states. They set up, eat, and lounge with reading material or perhaps take a small hike. Thus we are not surprised to find such a couple on a gravel pull-off at one of the switchback turns we take going up the precipitous sides of the Causses. We exchange pleasantries, they ask where we are from and are surprised to find us in this place.

But I get ahead of myself. First we must get to the region and as we first come to the Tarn, we must cross the toll bridge at Millau, the Millau Viaduct.

This bridge is truly spectacular, the tallest bridge in the world, with one pier that is 1,125 feet high. It's 1.5 miles long and was a feat of engineering problem solving to build. It opened in December 2004 and costs almost $10 to cross each way. We stopped at the rest area just after crossing from the south to take photos.

Soon after we leave the highway and dive into the gorges themselves planning to drive from Le Rozier in the south to St Enimie in the north. At first the valley is quite wide and the Causses not so high, but as we drive along the riverside road toward Les Vignes, the gorges become steeper and narrower. As we drive along, it is usual to see 3 camera pointed out the windows of our two cars snapping view after view as we negociate the narrow curvy roads. It's impossible to stop at all the wonderful viewpoints. We end up taking hundreds of pictures among the 4 cameras. We remind ourselves that "film is cheap" and we can toss the blurry pictures later.

We stop at Les Vignes for the view and public toilets. These are of the type 2-raised-footprints-in-a-shower-pan, bring your own TP. Frequently now, there is at least one stall with a true toilet (without seat, however) as French laws have changed and handicapped accessibility is now a requirement. But desperate times require desperate measures and I manage to keep my clothes and shoes dry. Luckily the view is gorgeous.

From this point, we will leave the valley floor to find "Le Point Sublime" at the top of the causse de Sauveterre about 3,000 feet above us where Katie has planned we will have our picnic lunch. The road narrows as we negotiate many switchbacks on the way up the hill. No guardrails to obscure the view like in the states (Gulp), and we're not confident that two cars can actually pass each other on the road. We stop a few times to look back down at the town of Les Vignes below us now in the distance.

We get to the top, check out the views and find some rocks with a view of the valley to eat our lunch.

Now that we're at the top, we have to head back down to the valley to cross the bridge and go up the causse on the other side. We stop for a few minutes in the village of St Georges de Lévéjac on the first switchback of the road back down(in search of sheep cheese advertised for sale, but of course, nothing is open).

We make a similar climb up the causse Méjean on the western side of the Tarn River which somehow feels more treacherous to me (are the rocks bigger? the roadways narrower? cliffs steeper? I think yes to all three!)

We make our way across the top of this causse to two rocky outlooks with equally superb views of the Tarn gorges, then make our way back down to the town of Malène, 12 km north of Les Vignes.

We head down the valley road back to Les Vignes to see what are called the Narrows (les Détroits) which cause us at times to drive on roads carved UNDER or THROUGH the rock cliff walls.

It's now after 4 PM and time to put plan B into play. We still need to see the medieval town of St Enimie, and we still have a 2+ hour drive home. Too late to get home for a reasonable dinner. We decide we will eat in St Enimie, about 30 km north, which will cause us to get home very late, but at least not crabby because we haven't had dinner.

We make our way along the valley floor road, stopping occasionally for photos, but not as often as earlier. The light is fading in the gorges, making good pictures hard to capture. We arrive in St Enimie around 5 and decide to walk the town before getting dinner.

We are all charmed by this town that has kept much of its medieval character, including cobbled streets too narrow for cars. The story of St Enimie is that of the daughter of a 7th century king, Dagobert II, who was afflicted with leprosy and healed at this site. (OK, there's more to the story. She was very pious and didn't want to get married, so prayed to God to help her avoid marriage and remain pure. So she got leprosy. Got out of marriage, but then found that she couldn't do her good works anymore. So she prayed again to God to help her. An angel told her to go to the place now named after her and she was healed. When she left to go back home, she contracted leprosy again, and again, after traveling to this site, was healed. She figured it was a sign from God that she was to stay in this region. She founded a Benedictine monastery where she lived out her life.)There is much left here to remind one of life in the middle ages. Small squares where various industries were carried out, building doors that still retain their ability to fold out as small tables to display shop wares on the street.

Remember how I mentioned that it wasn't tourist season yet? That almost ruined our dinner plans as there was only one restaurant open in the town (although there were a couple of bars that were open, they just didn't serve food.) So we had dinner, which was delicious, in this restaurant. In typical American fashion, we were the second table to be seated as we were early by French eating hours. We felt that was good, because the restaurant rapidly filled up, causing service to get slower, and people to be turned away. I had duck with aligot (mashed potatoes with a regional cheese and garlic, delicious and filling), Mike had sausage with aligot and the others had various pizzas, all of which were delicious. Christie finally got her cheese plate with goat and sheep cheeses. With a bottle of regional wine followed by expresso, we pronounced the dinner tasty, finally getting on the road two hours later.

The drive home was accompanied by a full moon. After driving across the top of the causse, we finally joined up with the highway and crossed the Tarn for the last time once again at the Millau Viaduct, its seven red lights visible for miles before you could see the bridge, warning off air traffic. We got home about 11 and fell into bed.

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