The Parc Régional des Grands Causses merges naturally with the Causses and Cévennes UNESCO Heritage Site and it is only human administrators who have artificially separated one from the other. The park, most of which lies in the departément of Lozére, is sculpted by the canyon of Gorges du Tarn, where the deep limestone cliffs are a barrier to even mobile signals. Moulded over millennia, this is a spectacular country of narrow valleys, granite gorges and small villages built precariously on slopes such as the Cirque of Navacelles. The gateway to it all is the appealing town of Millau; further south the village of Roquefort-Sur-Soulzon is home to the famed cheese, while the Cistercian Abbey de Silvanès and the Templar village of La Couvertoirade provide history in spades.
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The Gorges du Tarn
The Gorges du Tarn
Millau is the gateway to the spectacular Gorges du Tarn, which cuts through the limestone plateaux of the Causse de Sauveterre and the Causse Méjean in a precipitous trench 400–500m deep and 1000–1500m wide. Its sides, cloaked with woods of feathery pine and spiked with pinnacles of eroded rock, are often sheer and always very steep, creating within them a microclimate in sharp distinction to the inhospitable plateaux above. The permanent population is tiny, though there’s plenty of evidence of more populous times in the abandoned houses and once-cultivated terraces.
The most attractive section of the gorge runs northeast for 53km from the pretty village of Le Rozier, 21km northeast of Millau, to Ispagnac. A narrow and very twisty road follows the left bank of the river from Le Rozier, but it’s not the best way to see the scenery. For drivers, the best views are from the road to St-Rome-de-Dolan above Les Vignes, and from the roads out of La Malène and the attractive Ste-Énimie. But it is far nicer to walk, or hire a boat. There are two beautiful caves about 25km up the Jonte river from Le Rozier.
La Couvertoirade, 45km south of Millau, is billed as a perfect “Templar” village, although in fact its present remains post-date the dissolution of that Order in the late thirteenth century. It’s still a striking site, completely enclosed by its towers and walls and almost untouched by renovation. Its forty remaining inhabitants live by tourism, and you have to pay to walk around the ramparts (wlacouvertoirade.com). Just outside the walls on the south side is a lavogne, a paved water hole of a kind seen all over the causse for watering the flocks whose milk is used for Roquefort cheese.
Roquefort cheese is given its special flavour by the fungus, penicillium roqueforti, that grows exclusively in the fissures in the rocks in the surrounding valley. While the sheep’s milk used to make the cheese comes from different flocks and dairies as far afield as the Pyrenees, the crucial fungus is grown right here, on bread. Just 2g of powdered fungus is enough for 4000 litres of milk, which in turn makes 330 Roquefort cheeses; they are matured in Roquefort’s many-layered cellars, first unwrapped for three weeks and then wrapped up again. It takes three to six months for the full flavour to develop.
If you want to find out more, you can visit a few cheese manufacturers in the area. Visits, which start with a short film, followed by a tour of the cellars and a tasting, are free.
Gabriel Coulet wgabriel-coulet.fr.