The Parc naturel 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 Abbaye de Silvanès and the Templar village of La Couvertoirade provide history in spades.
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 Gorges du Tarn Landscapes
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.
Things to do in the Gorges du Tarn
There is an abundance of things to do activity-wise in the Gorges du Tarn from hiking and rock-climbing to kayaking and canoeing. With many campsites in the area, finding accommodation for camping is no problem and ensures you are close to nature.
Top Image: Gorges du Tarn © Macumazahn / Shutterstock
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. 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.
The lively town of Millau occupies a beautiful site in a bend of the River Tarn at its junction with the Dourbie. It’s enclosed on all sides by impressive white cliffs, formed where the rivers have worn away the edges of the causses, especially on the north side, where the spectacular table-top hill of the Puech d’Andan stands sentinel over the town. Millau owes its original prosperity to its position on the ford where the Roman road from Languedoc to the north crossed the Tarn, marked today by the truncated remains of a medieval bridge surmounted by a watermill, which juts out into the river beside the modern bridge. Nowadays the most famous thing about Millau is the spectacular viaduct that lies just to the west of town.
From the Middle Ages until modern times, thanks to its proximity to the sheep pastures of the causses, the town was a major manufacturer of leather, especially gloves. Although outclassed by cheaper producers in the mass market, Millau still leads in the production of top-of-the-range goods.
The town’s clean and well-preserved old streets have a summery, southern charm. Whether you arrive from the north or south, you’ll find yourself sooner or later in place du Mandarous, the main square, where avenue de la République, the road to Rodez, begins. South of here, the old town is built a little way back from the river to avoid floods and is contained within an almost circular ring of shady boulevards.
Viaduc de Millau
Although it looks like little more than the A75/E11 autoroute on the map, the €400 million Viaduc de Millau, which opened to traffic in 2004, is still the tallest bridge in the world. Designed by British architect Norman Foster and French engineer Michel Virlogeux, it was originally conceived to alleviate congestion for one of the main France–Spain holiday travel routes. The toll bridge costs €7.50 to cross – instead, consider taking the D992 to pass underneath it, an experience that moves from breathtaking to completely surreal at sunrise or sunset.
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. The centre of production is the village of Roquefort-Sur-Soulzon, where severalcheese manufacturers – including Gabriel Coulet and Papillon – welcome visitors on free guided tours, with tastings.