As we start 2017, Jim and I decided we want to explore more regions of France as well as Europe. As such, I have been happily tasked with planning out weekend trips for the two of us. After much reading, I’d decided Normandy, Brittany, Alsace, and Burgundy were at the top of my list (also, the food/drink for all of those sounds pretty amazing). But, most of those destinations don’t (really) make a lot of sense for a quick weekend jaunt. Feeling a little dejected, I broached the subject with Alice at lunch last week who quickly recommended a weekend trip they’d taken to the Gorges du Tarn. “What?” I asked. “Where is that? Did you take the train or rent a car and drive?” Alice assured me it was a lovely drive and we’d love it as much as she and Bill had. Bonus, a Frenchman had given them a guide and recommended the whole thing. By the time I’d returned from lunch, Alice had already forwarded the itinerary & instructions/directions and a day later Bill supplied us with some local maps. We had our first roadtrip in France planned, and we were ecstatic.
It should be noted that we own a France guidebook that’s over 1,000 pages long. One page is devoted to Toulouse and zero pages are devoted to the Aveyron / Gorges of Tarn. I have two immediate opinions on this: (1) this is sad for American tourists, as they’re missing some really lovely scenery/villages and (2) this is good for the French as it keeps the area somewhat of a local secret.
We started our trip on Friday night. After eating dinner here in Toulouse, we loaded up our rental car and made our way toward Millau (about 2-2.5 hours away), where we’d booked a room for the night. Unfortunately, the guide/instructions/plan we’d been given was for a 3-4 day trip (and we only had two). So we had to cut some things out. Like touring Roquefort, where 100 percent of roquefort cheese is produced. This made me a little sad, but I take solace that I can go buy and eat Roquefort whenever I want (we’ve started making soufflés and our next will be with Roquefort cheese…mmm).
On day one, we left our hotel around 9:30am and started our trek through the Gorges du Tarn. From Millau we started to make our way toward Aguessac, Le Rozier and onward toward Les Vigues. There’s a spot called “Le Point Sublime,” but we were told it took a while to drive there and the views along the way were just as nice (so we skipped it). But, I would 100 percent say if you have the time to (also) check it out. Have you been to Yosemite? If you have, you’d love this area. It reminded Jim and I immediately – including all of the camping sites, options to rent canoes, and general/obvious winter shutdown. Below you can see what I mean. Just gorgeous.
One of my favorite spots was when we came around a turn to find this idyllic village. It felt straight out of a magazine. Every turn had something like this.
We continued along until we came to Saint-Chély-du-Tarn. It’s a little bit hidden to get to the village (after a small tunnel there’s a small road on the right hand side [we’re talking an EXTREME right] that will take you across a bridge to the village), but it’s a definite must-see. We were the ONLY humans we saw walking around and you could hear the waterfalls and the wind while walking through fresh snow. It was cold, peaceful, and just stunning. We’d read there was a small, hidden church between houses, which was so quaint. Pictures of all are below.
I tried to get a photo of the town with the bridge (below) as we were returning to the main road, but the lighting wasn’t quite right. However, if you are a person looking to take some gorgeous photos without people to be found (anywhere), I’d recommend coming here in January. Sure, it’s cold, sure it’s tricky to find food/restaurants, but you’ll get some amazing shots.
Next on our drive was Saint-Enimie, where it was recommended we could grab a nice lunch before heading toward Meyrueis. We saw a number of cars, a couple of people, but almost everything had a sign on the door that said, “Fermeture annuelle.” Even the tourist office was closed for the weekend. We wandered around the town for a while, in search of a restaurant (and happy we’d bought that extra chocolatine earlier). We passed some others we thought were tourists (like us) and then found a local carrying a bag. After about 10 minutes we finally found the one restaurant that was open in the town and after we’d been sitting for about 5 minutes noticed that EVERYONE who was there (and that we’d seen) eventually showed up. We had a nice steak/frites/salad menu lunch, and it was pretty tasty. After refueling, we made our way toward Meyrueis.
Our instructions didn’t mention the amazing panoramic view just outside of Ste-Enimie (below). In the center of the photo you can see the town where we had lunch hours earlier.
I like to think I’m directionally proficient, but I have to admit that we took a wrong turn once in Meyrueis and ended up taking a little detour up a snowy mountainside, about 30 minutes off our track. In my defense, where we were headed next (Lanuejols and Revens) wasn’t on the road signs (nor were road numbers). After Google Maps directed us to take a hairpin turn up a REALLY crazy (and snowy/icy mountain of switch backs), I realized we were off in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, I realized this while going up-hill in snow. I won’t lie, we thought for a second we might get stuck. I’m thankful for the most cool under pressure husband with masterful Cleveland winter driving skills. Without him, I might be hanging off a French cliff right now. He is the best.
Back on track, we started to make our way toward the plateau. The information sign had alerted us that the mountain and plains areas had worked in perfect harmony for centuries, and it was kind of wild to see the stark differences between the two spaces.
The next village we visited was Cantobre. It was noted to be a “typical” village built into the side of a mountain. We crossed the river and as we were driving up had the view you see in the first photo below. I said to Jim, “yeah, I guess it is pretty typical, just more rocks.” Then as the word “…rocks” was still hanging on my tongue I said with some excitement, “Wait a minute, those are buildings, not rocks!” Yeah, this place is pretty rad. Amazing views, gorgeous little cottage type houses with terraces. We imagined this would be an ultimate spot for the summer to lounge, relax and drink rose while not out canoeing on the river.
We continued with the instructions to NOT miss La Couvertoirade. As we got closer we realized this was a UNESCO world heritage site and quite the spot for tourists. However, again, there were no tourists (we saw two other couples while we walked around and one random dog). I’d like to say I found this to be spectacular, but it just reminded me of Medieval Castles/Middle Ages castles in Ireland and elsewhere in France. I preferred Cantobre, for example. But, it was HUGE and we imagine when it’s high season, it’s putting on a great show.
We started our trek back toward Millau via Nant and drove over the Viaduc de Millau, which is listed as one of the great sights of the area. I reminded me of a bridge in Boston as well as one near Acadia in Maine. I was hoping we’d get there close to sunset to get a good view of the bridge with the light behind it, but we were a little early and had the gorgeous sunset on our drive to Rodez, instead.
We ended our night with dinner in Rodez. Let me just say there is a GORGEOUS cathedral in Rodez (but I didn’t get a photo), and we had a lovely dinner (after a few failed attempts). I had my first bowl of pot au feu (pretty good…kinda tastes like chicken noodle soup with beef) as well as some of the best fresh/creamy herby sheep cheese. We even made friends with our server. Good end to a perfect Saturday.
In hopes of getting back to Toulouse somewhat early on Sunday, we planned to leave Rodez and head (only) to Conques, which was described as “the most beautiful village” Jim/Bill’s coworker had ever seen (Francis). That’s a pretty strong claim, so we were pretty intrigued. I have to say, the drive from Rodez to Conques (about 40 minutes) was really pretty. Almost half the drive was along a river (with REALLY pretty views on your way back). It was a cloudy/cold day and the autumnal/winter colors made everything look like it was straight out of a fairytale. We were (again) the only people there (aside from two other couples). You could hear owls, the wind, smell fires from chimneys. It was a calmness that was equally beautiful. I don’t know if Conques is the most beautiful village I’ve ever seen, but it’s unlike any village I’ve ever seen. It is charming. Positively charming. Out of everywhere we went, I’d really like to go back to this area when it’s warmer and restaurants/stores are open. We saw lots of beer restaurants (seems like it has more of a German feel), artisan shops, etc. It might be crazy touristy or it might be absolutely lovely. It’s hard to say, but I imagine on a warm summer night it just glows.
I’d also like to say the town at the bottom of the hill (I believe also Conques) is beautiful and all the towns we saw along the water and on our way back toward Rodez were just pretty. Unlike anything you see in the US.
Trips like these make me excited to live in Europe. I love a good, modern city, but there’s really not too much of a difference between those and the United States (aside from the food, language, other cultural elements). But the look of these small villages is what makes me feel a little special, like I’m seeing something historic and rare.
It’s our first trip of 2017, and I am excited for all the weekend trips to follow. So many thanks to Alice and Bill (and Francis) for the recommendations. This break was just what we needed!