Taking roads less traveled by
Les Causses. Le Larzac. L’Aveyron. Even most of the French may have only vague notions of these wild lands of Occitania.
One of the largest preserved natural areas in Europe is located to the northwest of Montpellier, comprising the Parc national des Cévénnes, the Parc Naturel Régional des Grands Causses, and the Parc Régional du Haut Languedoc. When it comes to France, a long-cultivated and civilized land, it is precisely the promise of wilderness that makes this region enticing. Unlike the grand American national parks that preserve vast expanses of land from all permanent human activity, the French national and regional parks integrate the existing human history whilst blocking all future construction. The parks are therefore speckled with villages and farms. Still, these are territories where you can walk an entire day without seeing a soul, and marvel at the stars above an entire night.
The land called Larzac is known for one of the most significant civil disobedience movements in modern French history. Through purely non-violent means, local farmers and shepherds banded together to protest the massive extension of a military base. They were joined by supporters from around the country who gathered on the high plateau to make their collective claims. The resistance lasted a decade (1971-81) until the French government, under newly elected president François Mitterand, finally conceded.
The inhabitants of the Larzac today are a curious blend of people deeply committed to their land and its traditions, but also keen on social and ecological experimentation. They are famous for raising sheep, but certainly not behaving like sheep given their opposition to centralized authority. This cultural DNA is common to much of Occitania, harking back to earlier periods marked by the Cathars, the Albigenses, and the Templars, all of whom the State or the Church ultimately eradicated as heretics.
The heritage of the Templars can be best appreciated at La Couvertoirade, a splendidly well-preserved medieval stone-walled village, located 1 hour directly northwest of Montpellier.
If you plan on visiting during July and August, expect a lot of company. Don’t miss the Thursday evening farmer’s market with its fantastic choice of local dishes served in the village square. If you intend to meander its cobble-stone streets all alone, as if it were a film set, consider visiting off-season, between November and March. In any season, you can always count on legendary crêpes at the Crêperie Montès.
Head straight north where you’ll discover the village of Nant. Dating back to the 11th century, but reaching its apogee in the late 17th-century, Nant is a well-watered village at the confluence of two rivers, boasting a remarkable infrastructure of small canals that serve to irrigate many a vegetable garden. The smaller river, called Le Durzon, actually springs out of a rock a few kilometers from the village. The spring itself is a pristine natural area, worth a visit for those who have never seen pure water. The return road offers you a good local restaurant, Le Durzon, where you can enjoy local stream-fished trout.
Tuesday morning is market day in Nant, where you won’t want to miss tasting the local farçous. These look like dark pancakes, and most often contain chard, onion, garlic, parsley, flour (or potatoes), eggs, and meat (or not). Many variations, of course.
Follow the course of the la Dourbie (river) to Millau. The winding road will afford you views of spectacular villages that seem to grow organically out of the rock promontories, most notably Cantobre, Saint-Véran, and La Roque Saint-Marguerite. Carved out over the eons, the rock formations are monumental, worthy of a great Western. The site called Montpellier le Vieux offers an easy hiking area to discover the strange landscape.
Millau is the largest regional town, best known for its grandiose viaduct, but previously famous for the finesse of its leather gloves. Brands such as Christian Dior still source limited production from local workshops. Other artists and artisans have also taken up residence in Millau, their works on display at this local gallery.
Friday morning is the big farmer’s market day, clearly the town’s most important weekly event. If you missed the farçous in Nant, you’ll find them here as well, at the Place des Halles. For good local cuisine in memorable settings, try Les Arcades, Place Maréchal Foch, or Au Jeu de Paume at 4 rue Saint-Antoine.
Apart from its three or four tree-lined and colorful main streets, Millau is less remarkable as a town than its natural surroundings. It’s more than anything else a center of attraction for outdoor sports like hang gliding or kayaking.
Roquefort is perhaps the best-known of all French blue cheeses (although there are over twenty others). The cheese is made in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, a half-hour drive from Millau. Here you can take a guided tour of the caverns that house its vast treasure of maturing cheeses and learn about the precious “blue” substance that commands 30€ per kilo.
Head 30 minutes south for a marked change in scenery. The earth becomes red near Camarès. Look for the spot called Le Rougier de Camarès. You’ll suddenly imagine yourself somewhere in Africa. The far-away voices you may hear come from Sylvanès, 10km to the east. In a serene wooded valley, a 12th-century abby recognized for its remarkable acoustics hosts an annual festival of sacred and world music.
If you arrived from Montpellier, you’re now looping your way back. Before you leave, maybe you’d like to try some wine? Languedoc is perhaps the most diverse and innovative wine-producing region in France. Its best-known appellations include Minervois, Corbières, Cabarnès, Faugères, Fitou, and Costières de Nîmes. Lesser known, but more on the spot as per this article, are those located between the Larzac and Montpellier, called Terraces du Larzac, Saint-Saturnin, Cabrières, and Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. The local grape varietals include Morvèdre, Carignan, Cinseau, Grenache noir, and Syrah. Each wine is typically a blend of at least three of these, so don’t go looking for “pure” this or that! French wine is above all else an expression of the terroir, rather than the grape.
Consider this one of many possible three-day trips, starting and ending in Montpellier. Another one I intend to propose will take you straight north through the Cévennes to the spectacular Gorges du Tarn. It is a region of striking natural diversity.
See more photos of Larzac and L'Aveyron here,
and here for more photos of the entire Occitania region