After pretty much covering the eastern and southern sections of the Languedoc, we ventured northwest for a more rural experience. Perhaps the most remote area in the Languedoc and the one that for me was the most visually appealing were the rocky cliffs of the Gorges du Tarn and the surrounding Cévennes National Park (www.causses-cevennes.com).
Reaching the Gorges is approximately a two hour drive from the lovely town of Uzes or from the Pont du Gard. A narrow winding road completed in 1905 is the only real way to reach the Gorges (prior to this time, traveling along the River Tarn was the only way through). The road itself is a challenge. Although two lanes, more often than not, you need to pull way to the side (i.e. right up against a sheer rock face) to let anything larger than a standard car get through. At times the road is carved through massive rocks creating small tunnels to drive through, sometimes only 12 feet high. The entire area is a low-key summer recreation zone and in particular, a mecca for canoe and kayak enthusiasts who come here to navigate the rapids of the Tarn River. Rental locations are located in every town and you see trailer loads full of bright yellow boats in every available parking area. Rental companies like Le Soulio (tel. + 33/4-6648-8156; www.le-soulio.com/gorges-tarn-canoeing/) can arrange one-day or two-day canoe trips that include bus transportation from the rental facility car park at Cirque des Baumes to the departure point, watertight drums to keep your belongings dry, life jackets, canoes or kayaks and single or double paddles. Prices start at $39 per day for what they describe as their "Memorable" journey or $25 for the "Unmissable." Prices for July and August are higher. During our visit, there had been a deluge of rain so the river became more of a torrent and even avid canoeists were sidelined for a few days, waiting for a bit of calmness to return to the waters.
We based ourselves near the town on Sainte Enimie, a picture-postcard perfect medieval town that was named one of the fifty must beautiful in France. There were a few tourists meandering through the laneways and visiting the 14th century church, but otherwise we had the village pretty much to ourselves. There are a few galleries, ceramics workshops and retail stores, plus a selection of bistros and restaurants, but the town -- built into the side of quite a steep hill -- is peaceful and welcoming and you could easily spend an afternoon getting lost in its medieval charm. Hiking trails extend along the river and up into the hills so you can certainly work off a heavy French lunch without too much effort.
We totally splurged with our stay here and felt like Renaissance royalty residing at the nearby four-star Chateau de la Caze (www.chateaudelacaze.com). Built in 1492, this epic castle situated on a small embankment overlooking the fast flowing river is straight out of a fairy tale. It definitely stops traffic (what little traffic there is on the main road) as drivers round the bend and catch a glimpse of this imposing structure complete with huge arched entry way, a waterfall, turrets and towers. The restaurant at the Chateau is also first class, serving traditional French fare with a touch of modernity. The Jacquette room was on the top floor in one of the towers with the bathroom located in the turret. The public spaces of the Chateau feature antique furnishings, interesting artwork and the original cobblestone flooring of the 15th century. A stay here on a half-board basis (including breakfast in your room or in the restaurant) plus a five-course dinner (with my favorite course -- the après dessert) is priced at $193 per person, per night.
A couple of miles up the road from Sainte Enimie, you will find the town of La Malène, an equally appealing medieval town and another canoeing center. They have a number of small guesthouses and the grand Chateau de la Malène (www.manoir-montesquiou.com), located at the entry to the village. They offer what they call their "Greedy stay" for $392 per person. It includes two nights' accommodations in a romantic room with four-poster bed, two gourmet dinners, two breakfasts and a welcome drink. Of course, you can also choose to stay in lower key accommodation options that are priced from approximately $118 per night for a double (including breakfast) and there are several camp grounds offering tent or cabins stays for significantly less. From La Malène, it is a half-hour drive up a steep mountain pass to the scenic look out spot appropriately named Point Sublime. It provides uninterrupted views of the Gorges from two angles and the drive there is through farmland and a number of tiny country villages.
Two must see villages located within a few minutes drive of Saint Enimie are Hauterivesand Cirque de St Chely. You can't actually visit Hauterives unless you have your own mode of water transport, you make an arrangement with the local bed and breakfast operator (Gite D'Etapes +33/4-6648-4599) to pick you up by canoe or you decide to hike the one hour trip from the town of La Malène. You can also do a two-day canoe trip through Le Soulio with an overnight stay at the B&B in Hauterives included. There is no road access to this petit village built into the side of a sheer cliff overlooking the river. It consists of probably two dozen houses and the remnants of a 12th century Chateau. At first sight, from across the river, it looks like an abandoned settlement but it you look a little closer you see a winch system that residents use to bring in food and other supplies from the other side of the river (with a sign in French indicating that the winch is not to be used for human transport). It is a village that looks pretty much as it did centuries ago, save for a few electricity lines that have been brought in from a point across the river. St Chely, located over an ancient bridge from the main road is instantly recognizable by two gushing waterfalls that empty into the Tarn River and create an image of idyllic tranquility. The village probably has no more than a dozen houses, one miniscule church (plus an abandoned chapel built into the side of the cliff), one hotel (with a swimming pool) and one restaurant -- that is about the extent of it. It is however a very pretty spot to gaze out over the Gorges or to take a walk.
Not all the natural beauty is above ground in the Gorges du Tarn area. The region is quite well known as a center of Speleology (the study of caves). The underground grotto of Aven Armand (www.aven-armand.com/index2-eng.html) is about a 30-minute drive from La Malène and was discovered by the "father" of Speleology, Eduardo Martel in the late 19th century. The €9 entry fee takes you on a funicular ride down into the depths of a 300 plus foot deep cave filled with astounding stalactites and stalagmites. The massive cave looks like a scene out of a Lord of the Rings film and it is lit in spectacular fashion to highlight the enormity of the space and its amazing calcium and rock formations. The tour is in French only, but you can pick up an English language brochure at the ticket office which more or less goes through everything your guide will (and gives you more time to look at the formations without interruption). Dress warmly as the one hour walking tour can get a bit chilly and damp. There are actually a few more interesting cave sites in the area, including Grotto de Adrian (www.grotte-dargilan.com) and the chasm of Abide de Bambina (www.grottes-en-france.com/uk/pop_up/bramabiau.html). When you pay for entry to any one of these sites, you receive a discount of up to 50% on same day entry to another location.
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