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Islands in the sky – Cévennes and the Grand Causses

 cevennes

The spectacular territory of the Causses and Cevennes in the south east of France, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site and taking in four counties: Aveyron, Gard, Herault, Lozere in two regions: Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon.

The exquisite countryside of the Cévennes, in the south east of the department of Lozère, provides a frontier between the at times brutal climate of the mountains to the north and the softer Mediterranean weather of the south. It’s also where rivers opt to flow northeast to the Atlantic or south to the Med.

Its 1,699m summit covered with snow in winter, Mont Lozère – known as ‘The Mountain of Springs’ – is purple with heather come autumn. Cross-country skiing is popular on the mountain at Mas de la Barque and Bleymard-Mont Lozère while summer brings hordes of ramblers to the magnificent walking trails.

Tumbling rivers and streams rush through deep, rugged ravines. Beech trees, fir plantations, oaks and, importantly for local cuisine, groves of chestnut trees – known locally as ‘bread trees’ – dot the ruggedly barren hills, whose carefully terraced slopes allowed the cultivation of mulberry bushes – ‘`The Golden Tree’ – needed for the silk industry on which local fortunes were once built.

Pretty little hamlets seemingly grow out of the rock itself. Every turn in the road produces new delights, especially along the Corniche des Cévennes, which winds its way between Florac and Saint Jean-du-Gard.

Pilgrim routes of Cevennes

Up on the mountain, church bells still summon visitors, as they did pilgrims lost in torment back in ancient times while a swarm of loose-knit arts communities has transformed the area into an Eldorado for painters, sculptors and other creative people.

Ancient tribes flourished here. The Cévennes boast France’s second most important menhir sites, after those of Brittany. Once a protestant stronghold, the region saw much strife during France’s religious wars.

The infant River Tarn is born way up on the smooth flanks of Mont Lozère, glides under the arches of the Pont de Montvert, then white-waters its way past Ispagnac, furiously carving its way over the limestone karst.

This process, which began millions of years ago, created the truly spectacular route of the Gorges du Tarn, officially rated as a ‘Grand Site Naturel Classe’.

53 remarkable kilometres wend their dizzying way through Rozier, passing the imposing Château de Castelbouc, and the delightful riverside village of La Malène.

100 metres underground, the caves at Aven Armand, which were discovered in 1897 by Louis Armand, have more than 400 stalagmites – including the largest known one in the world.

High plateaux of Cevennes

On its journey, the Tarn has created islands in the sky – the magnificent Grands Causses, high plateaux that are even less populated (at just even people per square kilometre) than the rest of this sparsely settled region.

The grandest of the Causses is Sauveterre, in the north; in the south there is Méjean.  Both are truly spectacular. There are awesome caves here, such as the outstanding grotto of Dargilan.

In the south of the department, the River Jonte follows a more secretive itinerary but it is no less spectacular. If you can’t find it, ask the languorously circling vultures – they know the way.

Widely recognised as one of Europe’s prettiest rivers, the Lot is at its most spectacular from its source 1,214m above sea level at the foot of Mont Lozère and on its east/west passage through the Lozère department for 90km on its way to joining the far-off Garonne, at an altitude of just 29m, after a journey of 481km.

Wonderful waterways of Cevennes

Mende, the department’s attractive and historic main town, is set on this wonderful waterway, which can be crossed here on a magnificent 12th Century bridge, which is overlooked by the imposing and grandiosely named Basilique Notre-Dame et Cathedrale Saint-Privat.

Outstanding architectural gems abound along the valley – ancient houses, mighty Châteaux and imposing churches vie for attention. Take time for site visits and look out for the impressive barrel-vaulted interiors as well as the distinctive painted facades that are a unique element of the local architectural style.

Strung along the valley are fertile little farms, charming villages and small towns, such as Bagnols les Bains, Chanac and La Canourgue, the latter laying host to a colourful Festival of the Singles each spring. Some 22 communes in all are recognised as part of the Pays d’art et d’histoire de la Haute Vallée du Lot (Art and History Country of the High Lot Valley)

Architecture is a major attraction throughout the department, solidly built from locally quarried stone – limestone up on the Causses plateaux, schist in the Cévennes and granite in the Aubrac and Margeride. The villages of the Lozère are rightly recognised as being among the most beautiful in all France.

Coveted accolade

Two of them have been granted the coveted accolade formally by the organisation “Most Beautiful villages in France”:  Saint Enemie, nestling in the heart of the Gorges du Tarn since the 6th Century, and the historic fortified village of La Garde Guérin.

Many others would be worthy of such recognition: Pont de Montvert, through which flows the infant River Tarn; Florac, which sits with its imposing château at the gateway to the Cévennes national park; Langogne, with its forest of red roofs; Nasbinals, with its solid granite and basalt houses clustered around a picturesque Romanesque church.

Just five minutes off the A75 autoroute are the ‘villages étapes’ stopovers of La Canorgue and Aumont-Aubrac, while the two ‘green pearls’, Saint Chély d’Apcher and Marvejols are also not to be missed.

More information on this spectacular area:

Lozere – the “Big Country” of France

Leisure in Lozere – off the beaten track in the spectacular UNESCO World Heritage area in south east France

The last wild horses in France – Cevennes National Park

Lozere – a Foodie’s Paradise – from cheese and honey to the tradition of Transhumance

www.lozere-tourisme.com

By Roger St Pierre

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