Gorges du Tarn and
the Causses
Millau, the Tarn and the Causses
When looking at the tablecloth-sized map of all the GRs in France you see at once that some areas, more than others, are criss-crossed by a complicated tangle of routes. One of these lies just east of Millau where Les Grands Causses are intersected by the deep gorges of the Tarn and the Jonte. You know it has to be good walking country.
Here the GR6, its variantes and some of its offshoots, co-incide with numerous local trails to provide day after day of good walking. Either Millau or Florac make a good base. Alternatively a gîte in one of the smaller towns would be a good choice - Meyrueis on the Jonte, St Enimie on the Tarn or Le Rozier at the confluence of the two.
Valley of the Muse
Roquetaillade and the Valley of the Muse
In 1991 we planned a two-week stay in the area and found a gîte in the tiny hamlet of Roquetaillade, about 25 km from Millau, nestling into the hillside above a little stream enticingly called the Muse. From here, as well as walking, we could explore a wider area extending west to Albi with its great cathedral and museums commemorating the lives of two celebrated local heroes, Toulouse Lautrec and La Perouse, and south to the old templier town of la Couvertoirade and the cheese caverns of Roquefort.
M. Justin Lafon, the gîte's owner had been born in the house but now lived closer to Millau. His father and grandfather had been born in an adjacent house. Justin told of a childhood when this was a lively rural town with 20 children in the local school and all the terraced hillsides in the valley were actively worked. Now there were no children and the population had fallen to less than 20.
The external appearance of the village and its houses was probably little changed from its mediaeval beginnings. Stone buildings straddled the narrow streets with archways set in the thick walls. Doorways opened right onto the steep cobbled roadways which operated more as extensions to the living area of the houses.
Church and bridge, Roquetaillade
Our Gîte, Roquetaillade
We would arrive home from some expedition to find the men's gossip session blocking the street, all seated on chairs enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. They would move their chairs to let us pass and then be amused to watch us drive round the corner in less than a five-point turn.
Many of the houses were empty shells with earth floors and now the target of renovators who were revitalising and changing forever these remnants of rural history. Every weekend when these townsfolk arrived, the cement mixers started whirring, the saws screamed out and there was the constant sound of hammering. Piles of sand, stone, timber and slate sat in readiness for the weekend onslaught.
From our terrace we could look up the valley of the Muse to see four other villages, Marzials, Castlemus, St Beauzely and Castlenau Pegeyrols. They too were in the midst of furious renovation. A pathway ran up the valley and we made several delightful excursions to explore the valley and the other villages. The path ran through shoulder high yellow broom alongside the ancient terraces. In the fields we spotted one of the few signs of any current rural activity - an old shepherd, one of the circle who assembled outside his house in the afternoons, who each day sat and dreamily tended his flock of long haired sheep.
Le Pont de Montvert
In the village life continued to fascinate. We were frequently visited by an old grandmère, the wife of the shepherd, who one day brought us six beautiful fresh brown eggs and on another day, some radishes. She would then announce "j'ai soif" and was only too happy to sit and drink a glass or two of wine with us, not that the conversations produced much understanding as she spoke in a heavy dialect. Our host called her la patronne des poules and we got the impression that this was rather uncomplimentary. For villagers like her, life in the valley of the Muse had changed very little.
Some local history
The public library in Millau was a fruitful source of information about the history of the area. We found that, in 1238 the villages of Castlenau, St Beauzely, Castlemus, Roquetaillade, Marzials and Comprénac had been in the control of a person with the grand title of, Seigneur de Castlenau. In 1270 his son and heir sold all the villages to his brother-in-law on a buy back arrangement to raise money to go to the Crusades. This must have been a successful venture as on his return he was able to buy back all but Castlenau which remained in the brother-in-law's family until the 18th century. It was clearly an uneasy business relationship between the two as it is reported that, in 1289 they fought a duel.
Castlenau itself was sold in the 18th century but the new owner was said not to have got on with the villagers - a bad mistake as he was subsequently decapitated (presumably guillotined) in Paris in 1794. Castlenau has three churches built in the 11th, 12th and 15th centuries and the houses in the village date from the 14th, 15th and 16th century.
Roquetaillade's church has a plaque dated 1463, or perhaps 1464, and the little stone bridge across the Muse was built in the 14th century. There is a chateau with a solid square tower remaining as the only relic of its original structure; the rest was destroyed during the Wars of Religion at the end of the 16th century. It was reconstructed and until recently was owned by a family bearing the name of the village.
The Roquetaillade family finally sold this last remaining vestige of the family's heritage to "a businessman in Marseilles" - the ultimate indignity in historical succession. We were not able to discover much information about the Roquetaillade family but noted that the World War I memorial in Montjaux carried the names of several family members who had fallen in the bloody battlefields along with many members of a local regiment they led.
The Causses
The road into Millau ran alongside fields full of red poppies, coquelicots, and clusters of purple flowers and more yellow broom. It was a narrow, busy road, frequently blocked by farm carts which trundled along with loads of newly cut hay. But it was to the other side of Millau that we were drawn nearly every day to the causses and the fabulous gorges.
Les Grands Causses are so called to distinguish them from those of Quercy. The higher altitude here has contributed to a vastly different landscape. While still of a limestone base, there are residues of harder rock on the Grands Causses that have been shaped into weird and fascinating sculptural forms. The dry plateau areas are similar but here the deep gorges of the Tarn and the Jonte have carved their way down to separate the causses. So we have the Causse de Sauveterre, the Causse Méjean and the Causse Noir intersected by the Tarn and the Jonte to form three quite separate expanses of rocky terrain. In the gorges, pillars of rocks cascade down precipitous cliffs to the rivers which, in some places are 400 m below.
Walks can be tailored to any length. We started out on the Causse Noir with a short walk, descending down metal ladders to reach a ruined chapel called the Ermitage St-Michael, now almost lost amongst invading vegetation. Stupendous views down to the Jonte help understand how the geology works. On other days we drove out along the terrifying road that hugs the cliffs above the Gorges du Tarn and did walks from Le Rozier on the Causse Méjean and St Enimie on the Causse de Sauveterre.
Ermitage St-Michael
Vase de Sevres
The Le Rozier walk had a variety of scenery varying from the dry, shadeless causse environment of the plateau to exhilarating peeps down to the valleys below through strange shaped rocky formations with names like Vase de Sèvres and Vase de Chine. These did in fact look like vases that some giants from prehistory might have used. The cliffs are very popular with rock climbers and abseilers and there would nearly always be helmeted people dangling in space or playing around with ropes in preparation for their adventures in space. Vultures have been reintroduced to the area and they, too, love these rocky spaces with updrafts of wind to help their flight.
Up on the Causse de Sauveterre from St Enimie it was wild desolate country where stony pathways traversed pine forests, passed through abandoned villages, and followed along a well used draille where we encountered a large flock of sheep with bells around their necks. Occasionally the dryness was interrupted by luscious green sinkholes, locally known as sotches, the rare patches of moisture being used to cultivate crops.
Roquefort and cheese
A visit to Roquefort was an easy day trip. They say that this small town, located a little south of Millau, was famous for its cheese in Roman times and that it even graced the table of Charlemagne. Its status today is secure thanks to modern appellation rights, first granted in 1919.
There are twelve or so establishments in the village producing the celebrated cheese which is made exclusively from the milk of ewes. The milk comes from a region which extends north to the Lot, to the west as far as la Montagne Noire and in the south and south-east towards the Grands Causses and the Cevennes. Probably without realising it you have been coming under the influence of Roquefort long before you reach the village. On the roads throughout the production region the trucks carrying the precious milk are going about their business, none more so than those bearing the proud insignia of Société, one of the biggest manufacturers, whose trucks seem to bear down upon you on even the tiniest roads.
The village is dominated by a high limestone plateau and deep underground is the network of limestone caves where they store the celebrated blue cheese. The temperature and humidity of the caves are apparently the secret to the unique properties of the cheese.
You can take a tour through the caves and see thousands of smelly cheeses sitting on rack after rack slowly maturing until they are sold to the connoisseurs of the world. You will probably buy a cheese too and spend many happy hours enjoying it, at first treasuring every taste but eventually devising more and more mundane ways to use it up.
Gorge de la Jonte
Return to Rocquetaillade
In 2010, when staying in the Aveyron area, we made a return visit to the valley of the Muse. Approaching from the North we arrived at Montjaux from where there was a splendid view back up the valley, across to Rocquetaillade and down to the Tarn valley where the wonderful new Viaduc de Millau dominates the landscape.
Opened in 2004, the cable-stayed bridge spans the valley of the Tarn and is one of the highest and tallest bridges in the world. It is breathtaking. It overcomes the holiday traffic jams that strangled the town of Millau and has become a tourist destination in its own right.
After enjoying le menu de jour in a local hotel/restaurant, we took a winding road down to Rocquetaillade where time had stood still or perhaps gone backwards. There was absolutely no sign of life. The old timers who sat around their communal doorways had long ago passed on, the renovations seemed to have progressed very little and our lovely gîte was shuttered up and derelict with its garden overgrown. Well, it was a wet Monday in May and, while the mediaeval village had retained its charm, it was eerie and rather sad.
Viaduc de Millau 1
Viaduc de Millau 2
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