A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary
Gorges du Tarn
ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN'S GUIDE
This itinerary follows the truly spectacular River Tarn as it winds back and forth along the Tarn Canyon or Gorges du Tarn. With each turn the drive becomes more beautiful, never monotonous. The road cuts through the canyon, hugging its walls, always in sight of the peaceful waters of the Tarn and its picturesque villages, clusters of warm stone buildings that nestle above its shore. Encased in deep limestone cliffs, the river canyon is at its most glorious in early autumn-a perfect time to visit. In the fall the traffic has subsided and nature's colors contrast beautifully with the canyon walls: grass carpets the mountains, making hillsides lush in all shades of green, and the trees blaze gold, red, and orange in the sunlight. But whatever time of year, the Gorges du Tarn is lovely.
Recommended Pacing: This itinerary covers approximately 220 kilometers and can be driven in about 4 hours. The stretch along the canyon from Florac to Millau, about 75 kilometers, is sometimes crowded, often narrows to two lanes, and there are no short cuts once you're following the river. If you plan to cover the distance in a day's journey, get an early start. We suggest that you overnight near the river and give yourself two full days to drive, walk, picnic, and even float your way through the Tarn Canyon. At its conclusion, since this is relatively a short itinerary and based on the assumption that you will want to extend your trip into other regions of France, there are two suggestions for continuing your journey. Both suggestions incorporate a trip to the walled town of Carcassonne, one heads further west to visit the lovely cities of Albi and Toulouse, and the medieval, hill-town of Cordes; while the other recommends that once you leave Carcassonne, you efficiently span the distance, traveling the autoroutes, to the geographic, southwest corner where France neighbors Spain and overlooks the beautiful Mediterranean Sea.
With either Avignon or Nîmes on the western edge of Provence as a point of reference, travel northwest in the direction of Alès. Using a good map to plan the best route depending on your origin, travel southwest of Alès to the D907, going north in the direction of Saint Jean du Gard. Saint Jean du Gard is a very scenic village, located just before the Corniche des Cevennes. Just outside Saint Jean du Gard you are faced with the option of traveling the corniche along the canyon's south or north rim. This itinerary travels the D9, which follows the north rim and is the more scenic and better of the two roads. The drive is lovely, traveling through and above the forests of the region. At the northern tip of the corniche the road number changes from D9 to D983 and travels 6 kilometers to the junction of D907. Follow the D907 north just over 5 kilometers to Florac and then join the N106, continuing north in the direction of Mende, but at the tiny village of Biesset veer off and head west on the D907 bis. It is here that your true journey of the Tarn Canyon begins.
To appreciate the region you need to simply travel it: each turn affords a lovely vista or breathtakingly beautiful portrait of a hillside village. Opportunities to stop along the roadside are limited and will frustrate most photographers, but drive it leisurely and stop when possible to explore the little hamlets. The following is an overview of the river and its path, and some of its most picturesque highlights. With a good map in hand, enjoy its scenic journey.
The Ispagnac Basin, located at the entrance to the canyon, is filled with fruit trees, vineyards, and strawberries. Here towns are scattered artistically about; châteaux and ruins appear often enough to add enchantment. A lovely wide bridge spans the river at Ispagnac and farther along at Molines, set in the bend of the river, the canyon boasts a picturesque mill and castle. As the road hugs the hillside, the pretty town of Montbrun blends into the hillside on the opposite side of the river. The road then narrows and winds along the base of the canyon, looking up to rugged canyon walls and down to stretches of green along the river's edge. Castelbouc, on the other side of the river, is idyllically nestled on the hillside and is spectacular when illuminated on summer evenings. Just a short distance beyond Castelbouc the road carves a path to the north, providing a scenic overlook of the neighboring Prades Castle. One of the larger settlements in the region, Sainte Énimie is a charming village caught in the bend of the canyon where an old attractive bridge arches across the river and a church wedged into the mountainside piques the curiosity. From Sainte Énimie the road tunnels into the canyon walls colored in orange, gold, and green. Saint Chély du Tarn is nestled on the sides of the canyon wall and is illuminated in a spectacle of sound and light. A short distance south of Saint Chély, majestically positioned above the Tarn, is a fairy-tale castle offering accommodation, the Château de la Caze.
From the spectacular setting of La Caze, the road follows the river as it bends past the Château Hauterives and then passes through the lovely and probably most active village on the riverbank, La Malène. Many companies offer raft, kayak, and canoe trips departing from La Malène. From the river you have a better view of some of the old medieval towns and a section of the Tarn referred to as Les Détroits, the Straits, not visible from the road. Here the river is only a few meters wide, towered by canyon cliffs rising more than 300 meters straight above. From La Malène the road winds through the canyon rock and a cluster of buildings appears huddled on the other bank, just at the entrance to Les Détroits. Farther on, numerous buses stop at Belvédère du Pas de Souci and you can join the crowds to climb the steep metal stairway to views of the pools below (for an admission fee). From Pas de Souci, the river widens and the canyon walls turn to gentle slopes at the little village of Les Vignes. From Les Vignes it is worth a short detour following signs to Point Sublime. It is a steep climb up to one of the most impressive viewpoints of the canyon, 400 meters above the river.
Cross the river at La Muse to the village of Le Rozier, which enjoys a pretty setting at the junction of the Tarn and Jonte rivers. From Le Rozier you have a couple of options to extend your visit in this lovely region and explore another river canyon before continuing along the D907 the last 20 kilometers along the Tarn to Millau.
To extend your visit, venture east from Le Rozier, crossing the bridge, to the neighboring, picturesque village of Peyreleau. Straddling both sides of the river, buildings huddle on the narrow river ledges as mountain and canyon walls rise from this narrow stretch of the valley. As common as postcards in most towns, walking sticks are for sale at every shop and suggest that you should park your car and take time to explore the region on foot. If nothing else, cross the narrow bridge that spans the river and make the climb up the narrow streets to Peyreleau's dramatic castle.
From Peyreleau you can continue traveling the D996, a narrow, often roughly paved road following the dramatic and rugged Gorges de la Jonte. Overpowered by the towering Jonte canyon walls, this is a gorgeous drive and establishing an endpoint of the scenic journey is the picturesque village of Meyrueis. A charming village, located approximately 21 kilometers east of Le Rozier, the handsome buildings of Meyrueis huddle together along the banks of the Jonte. There are numerous outdoor restaurants that take advantage of the views and setting.
Another option from Peyreleau, rather than continuing east, exploring the Gorges de la Jonte, there is a narrow, winding road that travels 10 kilometers south to Montpellier le Vieux-a landscape of intriguing rock formations. There is an admission charge for driving through this complex of rock and then from here one continues another twisting stretch of almost 20 kilometers on to Millau. Millau is a lovely, large city located at the junction of two rivers, the Tarn and the Dourbie, known for its leather goods, particularly gloves. Millau marks the end of the canyon.
Because a visit of the Gorges du Tarn can be achieved in a few days time, we assume you will want to extend your trip and continue your journey into other regions of France. It would be easy to circle back to Provence; make the journey west to the Dordogne and Lot River Valleys, or travel west and then south to region Basque. However, the following are a couple of suggestions for some sightseeing that would necessitate just a few days in terms of an appendage to your itinerary.
SUGGESTION ONE: From Millau it is feasible to follow an itinerary loop that journeys southwest in the direction of Carcassonne, with the suggestion that you incorporate stops in Roquefort sur Soulzon, Albi, and the hilltown of Cordes-sur-Ciel (a short detour) and then circle back to the walled fortress of Carcassonne. Roquefort sur Soulzon is home to the distinctive Roquefort cheese: if this regional specialty appeals, you might enjoy a tour of one of the cheese cellars. Albi, a large city, is about a two-hour drive through farmland from Roquefort. With its cathedral dominating the entire city, Albi, mostly built of brick, is also referred to as "Albi the red." The Musée Toulouse Lautrec is one of its more interesting attractions. From Albi it is another half-hour drive to the medieval town of Cordes-sur-Ciel, also known as "Cordes in the Heavens," above the Cerou Valley. This is an enchanting hilltop village, a treasure that will prove a highlight of any itinerary. Known for its leather goods and hand-woven fabrics, Cordes-sur-Ciel offers many ateliers (craft shops) along its cobblestoned streets.
Retracing your path back to Albi, it is an undemanding drive south along the N112 and the D118 to Carcassonne. Europe's largest medieval fortress, Carcassonne is a highlight of any visit to France and a wonderful grand finale to this itinerary; Vieux Carcassonne rises above the vineyards at the foot of the Cevennes and Pyrenees.
The massive protecting walls of Carcassonne were first raised by the Romans in the 1st century B.C. Though never conquered in battle, the mighty city was lost to nature's weathering elements and has since been restored so that it looks as it did when constructed centuries ago. Stroll through the powerful gates along its winding cobbled streets and wander back into history. The walled city boasts numerous touristy shops and delightful restaurants and places to stay.
SUGGESTION TWO: This suggestion would be to head directly southwest to Carcassonne, visit the walled city and from there, make use of the Autoroutes to efficiently cover the distance to the southwest corner of France on the Spanish border.
Travel first on Autoroute 61 west to Narbonne and then connect with Autoroute 9 south, following the Mediterranean coast in the direction of Perpignan and the Spanish border. Your goal is a very distinctive and enchanting region of France-one I have only just begun to discover and intend to explore in greater depth in the near future. Referred to as Terre Catalane, it is a region strongly influenced by its neighbor in its ambiance, flavor and the easy-going and relaxed style and warmth of the people who live here.
To begin your journey, exit the Autoroute at Le Boulou and travel approximately 10 km southwest to Céret, a charming hillside town of stucco buildings and tiled roofs. Home to many artists, Céret's seemingly greatest renown is for its cerises (cherries) as evidenced in the late spring and early summer by the many stands, banners and festivals. Céret is also the address of a wonderful museum, Musée d’Art Moderne. (tel: 04.68.87.27.76, www.musee-ceret.com)
From Céret, now chart a course east along the D618 to Argelès and then south on the D114 to the idyllic port town of Collioure. Reminiscent of Italy with pastel-colored stucco buildings and tile roofs against a backdrop of the deep Mediterranean sea, Collioure has long lured artists in appreciation of its beauty and setting. The heart of the port boasts narrow passageways that weave through a multitude of shops and restaurants, as well as access to a pretty little beach right in the town, protected and embraced by the breakwater. Center stage is Château Royal, which in its time served as both a strategic meeting point of the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees mountains as well as a fortress. It was home to the Kings of Mallorca in the 13th and 14th centuries and was converted to a citadel in the 16th and 17th centuries.
From Collioure, travel the N114 that continues along the contours of the coast, possibly detouring out to the lighthouse and point of Port Vendres, and then on to Banyuls. Just north of the Spanish border, Banyuls warrants a trip because of its marvelous museum honoring one of France's most acclaimed sculpturers, the Musée Maillol (Open all year, tel: 04.68.88.57.11). It is also the impressive site of the cellars of Cellier des Templiers where you can enjoy a free, guided tour, sample wines from a region that has been producing wines for over seven centuries, and enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding, terraced vineyards. (Open all year, tel: 04.68.98.36.92)
Unless you want to continue south to Spain, from Banyuls I would recommend retracing your path back north to Perpignan, where you will find both train and planes convenient options for continuing your travels.
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