It’s true that the Grand Canyon is, well, grand, but Britons don’t need to cross the Atlantic to find an awe-inspiring gorge. An easy less than two-hour low cost Ryanair flight from London Stansted will take you to the cathedral city of Rodez, gateway to the dramatically beautiful Gorges du Tarn as Roger St Pierre found out when he visited lovely Lozère in the south east of France…
It is an easy drive northwest from the airport into the department of Lozère in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Space, that rare commodity in modern life, is abundant in these parts – for this is the least populated department in all of France.
From here are views of the far-off Alps to the east, the Pyrénées to the west and the Massif Central due north – France’s three great mountain ranges within one panoramic sweep. Let your gaze sweep through 360° and the view takes in Mont Blanc, and Canigue and right at your feet Lozère itself offers enormous variety.
Volcanic convulsions – the mountains of Lozère
Created thousands of years ago from massive volcanic convulsions, the mountains have been softened by the ages – the peak of Mont Lozère is a mere 1,699m high – but lowered as they may have been by the passage of a million years or more they still have a unique ambience. There’s a very special quality of light to be found in these parts. No wonder the region has been such a home from home for painters; for poets too.
In the north, the gently rolling uplands of Aubrac and Margeride are ancient volcanic uplands, with mysterious blocks of limestone peeping through grass shorn short by grazing animals, for this is sheep country.
The great limestone plateaux of the Causses, the pastoral uplands of the Cévennes and the alluring valleys of the Tarn and Lot rivers see nature at her best but there’s also a key human element to Lozère’s powerful appeal.
From prehistoric times through Roman occupation, the Middle Ages, the religious wars, the Revolution, the Napoleonic era and on into modern times, Lozère has – despite its relative remoteness and sparse population – played an at times dramatic role in the evolution of the France we know today. The footprint of history is large in these parts.
Nature has dominance in Lovely Lozère
The western edge of Lozère, set more than 1,300 metres up in the southern reaches of the glorious Massif Central, is the lightly populated Aubrac, a place where nature rather than man still has dominance. The air is sweet with the smell of wild herbs and the scent of alpine wildflowers. Trees are rare on these windswept uplands, but strangely shaped outcrops of rock punctuate the vast, rolling moorland meadows that seem purpose made for leisurely walks and idyllic picnics.
The glorious colours of wild orchids and the carpets of wild flowers – whites, purples, pinks, yellows and blues – bring close focus back to a vision defined first by big skies and sweeping panoramas. It’s a photographer’s paradise.
The relative absence of trees means that, instead of wood, it is stone – with its abundance in these parts – that has been the building material of choice, gifting a legacy of picture postcard farmhouses and quaint little cottages.
Villages and spirituality in Lozère
Especially renowned are the villages of Nasbinaid, Aumont-Aubrac, Fournels, Prinsuejois, Recolles d’Aubrac and Arzenc – d’Apcher, built from weathered granite and basalt stone and featuring ancient pilgrim trails, tiny chapels and wayside crosses that testify to a deeply spiritual way of life
Winters are hard on these remote and mystical uplands but come spring the grasses, nurtured by underground streams and Ice Age lakes, spring back to life and brown turns to vivid green as the beautiful golden-coated Aubrac cattle are turned out onto the pastures once more. This is a once rare breed that was saved from imminent extinction back in the 1970s and which now flourishes once more. Today they produce a specially favoured yogurt and rich cheeses too.
Set between 1,000 and 1,500 metres altitude, the haunting Margeride presents a sweeping vista of granite-strewn moorlands, rich pastures and densely brooding forests. It’s a land of haunting solitude, the silence broken only by birdsong, the whistle of the wind and the burbling of countless little streams. Lozère is criss-crossed by a web of tiny byways, many of them virtually single track. Yet this seemingly empty place has a long and often turbulent human occupation. From royal Marvejols to Saut Akban sur Limagnole, even the smallest of hamlets has history oozing from its stones. It was here that the Gauls of Gévaudan battled Caesar’s legions – and it was here, in the 18th Century era of Marie Antoinette, that a mysterious serial killer the locals called ‘The Beast’ carved a bloody trail through three dread-filled years. Eventually, the blame for the deaths was laid, without any real evidence, at the door of the wolves that roamed these hills back then.
Fortunately, in these more enlightened times, this vast national park has become a protected refuge for these beautiful but too often misunderstood animals. And here the last native European bisons have also found safe haven.
For more information on this outstanding area see:
Islands in the Sky – Cévennes and the Grand Causses
Lozere – off the beaten track in France
The Last Wild Horses in France – the Przewalski horses in the Cévennes National Park
Lozere – a foodie’s paradise with its fabulous local produce and tradition of transhumance
Feature by Roger St. Pierre: Despite his French name, veteran globetrotting writer Roger St. Pierre is proudly British. He is, though, passionately Francophile and has been to every one of France’s 94 metropolitan departments. Lozère in southeast France ranks among his top-ten favourites…