Embracing Mont Caroux in the east and the Montagne Noire in the west, the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut Languedoc is the southernmost extension of the Massif Central. The west, above Castres and Mazamet, is Atlantic in feel and climate, with deciduous forests and lush valleys, while the east is dry, craggy and calcareous. Except in high summer you can have it almost to yourself. Buses serve the Orb valley – where you’ll find the small, unremarkable town of Bédarieux – and cross the centre of the park to La Salvetat and Lacaune, but you really need transport of your own to make the most of it.
Near the eastern edge of the park sits the medieval village of Olargues, scrambling up the south bank of the Jaur above its thirteenth-century single-span bridge. The steep twisting streets, presumably almost unchanged since the bridge was built, lead up to a thousand-year-old belfry crowning the top of the hill. With the river and gardens below, the ancient and earth-brown farms on the infant slopes of Mont Caroux beyond, and swifts swirling round the tower in summer, you get a powerful sense of age and history. St-Pons-de-Thomières, 18km west of Olargues, is the “capital” of the park, with the Maison du Parc housed in the local tourist office.
The uplands of the park are wild and little travelled, dominated by the towering peak of Mont Caroux and stretching west along the ridge of the Monts de l’Espinouse. This is prime hiking territory, where thick forest of stunted oak alternates with broad mountain meadows, opening up on impressive vistas. Civilization appears again to the west in the upper Agout valley, where Fraïsse-sur-Agout and La Salvetat have become thriving bases for outdoor recreation, and to the north, at the medieval spa town of Lacaune.