W alking Tarn Gorge has a much-merited mythical status among French walkers; so much so that you are likely to meet ‘randonneurs’ here from the six corners of The Hexagon. They come to feast their eyes on some of Europe’s most spectacular scenery, enjoy the isolation and remoteness of southern Lozere and escape the crowded trails that typify country life in places like Haute Savoir and Eastern Provence. The preponderance of Dutch cars and German bikers tells you just how much fun it is driving and riding the tarmacked right bank, although most of these tourists opt for camping as their accommodation solution and grotto visiting or kayaking as their day-time vacation activities. Anglophones are surprisingly under-represented, as the logistics of access make many plump for easier, but inevitably more crowded, destinations. Yet for travellers who like to enjoy the trip as much as the walking tour itself, the little extra effort is hugely rewarded.
Walking Tarn Gorge and the Jonte gorge is a special experience indeed, enhanced by the fact that they are the only French canyons that are truly inhabited, with roads that run along the right bank of each river – the Gorges de la Jonte road was built in 1875, whilst the road along the Gorges du Tarn came later, built between 1895 and 1907. These might bring in the tourists, on the other side of the canyon, but the upside is that hikers can find conveniently-located accommodation at various stages along their trail.
Day One of our trip opens with a climb out of the Jonte gorge via the GR6, which is relatively gentle by Tarn standards and so the perfect start to your hiking vacation. Once onto the limestone plateau, the highest of the ‘Grands Causses,’ with altitudes ranging from 800 to nearly 1250 metres, you enjoy a fine walk across the steppe-like, south-central sector of Causse Méjean. Tree cover is in short supply in this landscape of short-grass prairie [no water course traverses Causse Méjean], which makes for some superb wide-ranging panoramas across the surrounding massifs where the sky is forever omnipresent.
Megalithic man has left a strong imprint on the Plateau and you enjoy a couple of menhirs before passing near the Aven de La Barelle, past the Tombe de Geant and the Aven Armand and through isolated Caussenard hamlets. The climb through the Eyguières valley is protracted, but well rewarded, by your arrival in the charming village of Saint Pierre des Tripiers and the chance to sit round a large and welcoming dining table and share a common meal with kindred spirits.
Day Two commences along the GRP with a fascinating descent into the jowls of prehistory. The silence is eerie as you enter a confined space that the hair on the back of your neck almost immediately recognizes as sacred territory. You can almost picture in your mind the primitive activity that would have taken place in this area 7000 years ago.
A natural amphitheatre is followed by Dead Man’s Cave, before you traverse a proto-historic resin encampment encompassing the Copper, Bronze and Iron Ages. This total immersion in early civilization is a backed up by the geological landscape itself. The Arcs de St Pierre are three stone arches found in quick succession in the heart of a pine forest. Their origins remain a mystery. Once you arrive above the ‘Belvedere de Vautours’, high above the Jonte, the sheer splendour of the canyon is overwhelming.
You now delight in walking one of those trails that remain in the mind’s eye forever – Le Balcon de Vertige. Is it dangerous? Certainly not so long as you keep close to the rock face, away from the precipice and don’t look down if you are a bit squeamish or suffer from vertigo. Enough said, although walking sticks are highly recommend and extra care would be required in adverse weather conditions. To miss the ‘Le Balcon’ would be a shame, but if it’s foggy you won’t see the sites anyway, so best follow the GR6A indicated on the map.
The two most impressive works of geological architecture along the way are the ‘Vase de Chine’ and the ‘Vase de Sevres’ respectively. Each seems to cheat the laws of gravity and both will surely topple into oblivion one day as a result of exfoliation.
You descend to the Rocher de Capluc and onto the villages du Le Rozier [right bank] and Peyreleau [left] bank: two villages at the junction of three Causses – Le Noir, Le Méjean and Le Sauveterre – with the former in Languedoc and the latter in Aveyron.
Day Three’s adventure is as spectacular as the second, as you cross the Tarn into Sauveterre and climb two hundred metres to the GRP and head north along another breath-taking ridge. The path is lightly-shaded, affording stunning views across to Causse Mejean and back to Rozier-Peyreleau. As you enter the first semi-circular ‘cirque’ you espy the first of today’s semi-troglodyte hamlets – Eglazines. Built against the cliff at approximately 700 ms altitude [that’s 300 above street level below], one can still see the contours of ancient terraces just below and can imagine how difficult life must have been up here. The vultures circling overhead indicate that it might not be the perfect lunch spot it seemed at first sight.
Further on, you arrive at the second and larger Cirque de Saint Marcellin, with its hamlet nestled in its northernmost point,’ sheltered from the excesses of the winds. Partly restored, it boasts a chapel which is the subject of its own pilgrimage every June; and further up the vestiges of a fortification that was only accessible by ladder and that served as a refuge for the hamlet’s inhabitants.
Les Vignes is a charming settlement with its small number of homes neatly clustered around the focal point of the bridge. A toll gate would most likely have been located on the left bank in earlier times.
After the relative exertions of the previous three days, the remainder of the tour is quite light, unless you opt for the climb up to the Causse Mejean again on one of the following two days – which we highly recommend you do at least once. Choose the day you wake up with that joie de vivre, or perhaps the need to walk off the excess calories of your optional overnight stay in Le Chateau de Malene.
We suggest you stay low on Day Four and save the glorious climb, and equally magnificent descent, for the following and penultimate day. The Tarn is quite calm and narrow after Les Vignes. You pass Pas de Souci [Tread carefully – or is it No Problem?] on the other bank followed by Les Baumes Basses, again on the opposite bank: ’semi-troglodyte’ but altogether more modern, with a TV areal that captures anything but The Flintstones.
Further along, the unannounced and isolated hamlet of La Croze lies down to your left. It remains reachable only by boat except for the trail you follow. A series of buildings from yesteryear strung out along the banks of the Tarn, where autarchy was the key to survival, hat making and basket weaving were just two of the local trades that kept the hamlet thriving until modernity made unviable and the owners sold out on the cheap to a local patriarch.
La Malène is home to ‘Les Bateliers,’ responsible for transporting tourists downstream since the late XIX century, but more importantly those who resided along the Tarn and required transport or provisions for as long as records have been kept. This tradition is continued from La Malène and we strongly recommend you take the 75-minute trip downstream towards Les Vignes either at the end of the day or before you start walking the next day. They return you to La Malène as part of the service.
Day Five takes you closer to the Tarn than on any other stage of the tour; so close that at times of high water, the first stage of today’s walk is to be avoided and the ‘high route’ the sole option to get to St Chely. This Haute Route is our favoured option today and you will miss out on Hauterives, another fine isolated village on the left bank. In fact, you get to appreciate the very best views of the Chateau d’Hauterives, Castellos and Hauterives in that order plus much more.
Day Six starts with departure from St Chely, the sort of place that you are in no hurry to abandon; so it is up to you how long you choose to remain. Your hotel boasts a heated [and optionally covered] out-door pool perched above the gorge itself that is the perfect place to take a dip after all the adrenalin.
The last section to Ste-Enimie is intentionally short and uneventful, allowing you plenty of time to amble round the ‘ruelles’ of the tourist honey-pot. Due to its favoured location, it has become one of the premier visitor sites of the “Parc National des Cévennes” in recent years with the attendant positive and negative impacts on the village. The latter are only really noticeable in July and August.
Walking Tarn Gorge is a memorable trip that will live on in your photographic memory for many years to come. This text provides just a flavour of what is to come and is an abridged version from our tour dossier.
© The Enlightened Traveller 2017 – Not to be re-produced or copied. All rights reserved.
Further Reading:To walk the Tarn Gorge, please see:
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