As someone who has so far refused to own a car, it may seem a little strange that I love road trips. And it may seem doubly strange that as someone who loves to do her own thing, I haven’t embraced the freedom (mobility-wise, anyway) that is car ownership. But every once in a while, I do a road trip and that little niggling voice that cries out, “Buy a car! Buy a car!” gets a little louder. One such road trip was through the Gorge du Tarn. The two main reasons why I very much recommend not only visiting this region of France, but doing so by driving, are the rocky landscapes and the historic villages.
Landscapes – above ground and underground
Carved over millions of years by the Tarn River, the Gorge du Tarn features some fantastic landscape – deep valleys, forests, rich farmlands, neat rock shapes, and phenomenal viewpoints. Driving can be ‘interesting’ as the road sometimes passes through solid rock and because you tend not to get very far due to frequent stopping. No, not because of rockslides…it’s because of the various view points along the way that make you want to stop to take pictures! Oh wait…that may just be me…
Anyway, doing a road trip in this area does not require a lot of planning if you’re going in the shoulder season (spring or fall) – during the summer, everything is booked up far in advance and in the winter, most places tend to be closed. When I went in a September, village-hopping was basically the name of the game – explore for the day and finish at a next village and knock on a few gite doors until one said they had space for the night.
Above ground is not the only place to find the ubiquitous rocky landscape. Also check out underground, the Grotte Dargilan to be precise. It is the largest cave system in the region and apparently has one of the largest underground rooms in France. As you wander, you’ll see not only various stalactites and stalagmites, but you’ll also see them in various natural colours, including white, brown, pink, grey, and ochre.
Typical villages of the Gorge du Tarn are of stone and slate. They look like they’ve been there forever and will remain there forever. Many of the houses have been restored and turned into gites, kind of like a bed and breakfast or cottage for rent. Shoulder season, when the majority of tourists are no longer here, the villages are a delight to explore with their windy streets, ancient structures. One of my favourites was a structure that used to be the village oven, where the medieval women would bake the family bread. There are also many old bridges that make you wonder if a sacrificial kid is entombed within…
Four villages I recommend are Hauterives, La Malène, Sainte Cecile, and Sainte-Enimie. I especially like the latter as it has a fun founding legend: Enimie was a daughter of a Merovingian king who did not want to get married – she preferred to take care of lepers (makes you wonder if she really was that selfless or good grief, who did her father want her to marry??). She prayed for a way to avoid marriage and then came down with a case of leprosy. Her dad tried many things to get her cured but nothing worked until she bathed in a particular river – but the cure only stayed if she remained in the area. So Enimie stayed, became a nun, started a convent, and presumably lived happily ever after sans leprosy and sans husband. The original is no longer there but remains of the 10th monastery can be seen. If that story didn’t tempt you to plan a visit to this village, another reason to visit Sainte-Enimie is that it is considered to be one of the most beautiful French villages, as measured by an organization called Les Plus Beaux Villages de France.