Monday, May 16, 2011

Gorgeous Gorges Reprise

Sunday, May 15
The météo says the day will be partly sunny, breezy and cool. We head for the Tarn Gorges, which we've been saving for Judy and Duane's last weekend and Clark and Janis' first weekend. (See the April Tarn Gorges post for more info.) In case you've forgotten, the Tarn is one of the rivers that has cut its way through the plateau of the Grandes Causses creating spectacular cliffs and dramatic valleys. Small towns and villages cling to these cliffs and give scale to the gorges as well as provide picturesque settings that just beg to be photographed. The geology of the area makes this a favorite French vacation area with endless outdoor activity opportunities including parasailing, biking (Tour de France anyone?), rock climbing, hiking, kayaking and camping.

It's a long ways and once in the Gorges, it takes FOREVER to get anywhere. (Although the speed limit is higher, our top speed on the valley road is about 50 KM/H - 30 mph - because of the narrow road and the many twists and turns.

(Duane photo)

Going up and down the Causses is even slower.) So we plan an early day that starts with French toast (from leftover French baguettes of course) at 8 AM and on the road in two cars (girls and boys) by 8:30. OK, 8:40, but that's pretty good for getting 6 people showered, dressed, breakfasted, and out of the house. I warn David I will need gas in the SEAT rental car.

The first stop is once again at Millau to see the amazing viaduct over the Tarn river valley. The wind is strong and cold, so people don't linger at the lookout.

(Duane photo)

Back in the car, we find a variation of Katie's tour that will take us across the top of the Causse to get to Point Sublime. I remind Dave that I have less than a quarter tank of gas.

Going over the top of the Causse is a good idea - better road and it will save one of the 5 km up the mountainside drives. (That's good, because I'm really nervous about having to drive those scary little roads with no guardrails and dropoffs with nothing to stop your landing before you hit the valley.) In the first town we find a 24/24 gas pump (called vingt-quatre sur vingt-quatre, meaning it's open 24 hours our of every 24 hours). These are credit card only pumps that are available 24 hours a day. We know our credit card won't work, but try anyway. No luck.

(Duane photo)

My tank now says 70 km till empty. Distances are not far here, but the ups and downs of driving the hills is hard on the gas mileage. We continue on.

There are no more towns big enough to have a gas pump before we get to Point Sublime. I now have 45 km to empty. Point Sublime is worthy of its name. The views are extensive and the skies are cooperative so that the photos will be wonderful, with perhaps a bit of haze. But again it is so windy you need to hang on to the hand rail at the lookout to feel secure. Eating lunch here would not be fun.

We check out the gift shop which has more stock in it than we saw a few weeks ago. I buy a t-shirt with an embroidered cardabelle on it. The cardabelle is supposed to ward off evil spirits and bad luck. I think Judy and/or Duane buy one too. Back in the car and we're on our way down to the valley via the treacherous 5 km of hairpin turns with precipitous altitude drops (7-11% all the way down). I get to les Vignes, the town at the bottom and still have 45 km left to empty.

Dave starts through town, knowing we have a serious gas problem now. He stops at a parking area next to the river which just happens to have a concrete picnic table with marble top and seats for 6 people. With the sound of the water and the view of the river and the steep cliffs across from us, it is a perfect place for lunch. We are sheltered from the wind; the sun, when it is out from the clouds - which is most of the time now - is warm.

Dave suggests I walk back the block to the tourist office (which is what prompted him to park here in the first place) to see if I can find out where the nearest gas station is. Let's see - it's a tiny town that is mostly closed up, it's not tourist season, it's Sunday and it's between 12 and 2. What are my chances? But I go. Well, my chances are even slimmer than normal. The tourist office is only open in July and August. However, there's a souvenir store open on my way back and I go in to ask the owner where to find gas. She tells me 11 km south in Le Rozier. I think this must be the same station Christie filled up at last time we were here, so I'm feeling better.

Lunch is the best picnic we've had here yet. Scenic, warm, with good friends. What could be better?

We pile back in the cars and head for Le Rozier. The scenery on this part of the road is some of the most dramatic - we drive around, under and through some really big rocks. When we get to Le Rozier, by gosh, it's the same place, and she's open and there's "la toilette". Relief on multiple fronts.

Now we cross the river to climb the other side. This time we are able to see the "castle" built under the cliff face.

(Clark photo)

On top, we again cross the Causses which expose their poor rocky soil which only supports the growth of shrubby trees and grasses. We stop in the same little town so people can hike to the lookout point over Les Malènes and then we cross the remaining top of the Causses and head down to les Malènes under the same conditions we had before. Steep downhills, multiple hairpin turns, narrow roads with few places to pass.

(Clark photo)

Until now we have been lucky and not met any other cars. But now, we must pass several, a bit nerve-wracking. We are down to only a couple of hairpin turns left when we meet 4 Porsche sports cars headed up the hill at breakneck speed as though on a rally. I pull into the widest corner of the uphill side of the hairpin turn to avoid a red speedster running into me as he takes the corner wide and fast.

Once down in les Malènes, we head north toward St Enimie, just 13 km away but about half hour away in time. At one point, there is a stop light, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, until, as we round the bend, we can see that there is a one car wide tunnel through a rock and it's too long and curved to see oncoming traffic. We stop and wait our turn. Then we get behind a bus, a tour bus, one of those two story things. It takes up nearly the whole road so we're lucky traffic is light coming at us. At one point, it slows to a crawl and inches its way under a rock that nearly touches the top of the bus. Amazingly, it fits.

We arrive in Ste Enimie, with its medieval city, which this time is livelier - more tourists, more shops open, more restaurants open, more cars in the parking lot. Once again we wander through the city where Ste Enimie started a Benedictine monastery.

(Ste Enimie)

The monastery is long gone and the junior high school ("college") now stands on its place. The streets are the same, but there are more flowers out, particularly the roses. They smell as beautiful as they look.

When we've checked out all the streets and alleys, we return to the cars and the trip back to Millau where we will have dinner. The boys car (the Peugeot with Olga as guide) are in charge of finding a place in Millau for dinner.

We travel back the 56 km to Millau by the river road, seeing the parts we missed from our plateau excursions on top of the Causses. It's about 6 and the light on the gorges and hillsides of Millau is spectacularly golden and warm. We don't stop for photos, so will have to remember the way the light looked.

We arrive at Millau center where Olga has indicated there are many restaurants. We pick a brasserie which has meals rather than just sandwiches or pizza. Clark and I order steak frites (entrecôte), Janis and Dave order the mutton chops, Judy the volaille forestier, and Duane the steak with pepper sauce. The food is OK, but not specatcular. The mouton is tough (it is after all mutton) and Janis has trouble controlling the food on her plate, letting one mutton chop escape to the floor. (That's one way to avoid having to eat it.) Our steaks are fine, but the fries are a disappointment - rather American - not the thin crispy outside, melt in your mouth inside that I associate with French french fries.

Olga sends us out of town the same way we entered the day we went along the gorges of the Dourbie. The light is still pretty, the sunset behind us is red on the clouds,

(Clark photo)

and there's a full moon. (This photo's for Edie from Pop-Pop.)

(Clark photo)

It's just barely dark when we arrive back in Thézan an hour and a half later at 10 PM.

Judy and Duane finish packing. We download photos from cameras to make a photo DVD for Duane and Judy to take with them. We work on finishing the bidon (or bidet as Judy calls it - but we remind her not to drink out of the bidet), but don't quite make it. And we open the last bottle of Minervois white we bought the other day. No one gets to bed too early even though we have to take Judy and Duane to the train station at 7 in the morning. It's going to be a short night.

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