Gorges du Tarn, southern France

Gorges du Tarn

If a quiet afternoon drive in southern France, exploring a peaceful, winding river through a stunning natural gorge sounds like your idea of a relaxing break, then then Gorges du Tarn may just be the ticket. For those with an historical bent, there are countless ruins to see, including castles, villas, and other buildings. For those that prefer to get a little more physical, the Gorges du Tarn is one of the most popular places in France for hiking, kayaking, climbing and abseiling.

The gorge is a very scenic natural limestone canyon formed by the Tarn River between the Causse Méjean and the Causse de Sauveterre in northern Langudoc-Roussillon. The various gorges formed by the river are among the deepest and most picturesque gorges to be found anywhere in Europe.

Gorges du Tarn

Gorges du Tarn

If hiking or sightseeing is your thing, then late summer to early autumn (late August to October) is when the trails and roads are at their best, and in many areas the trees will be full and colourful. For those looking for kayaking adventures, spring (around March) would normally be best, but check with the local guides to ensure the river is safe.

A single – and sometimes nervously narrow – road winds through the gorge following the river. For those approaching from the major routes, the village of Millau may be the best entry point. The main gorge is home to several attractive villages, most of which offer accommodation, restaurants and other services.

The main road is an impressive trip, if only for the steep rock walls and over-hangs that line the roadway at points, and the small tunnels cut into the limestone (how do the buses get through them?). The stone country cottages and farmhouses dotted along the route are all incredibly picturesque, and so thoroughly French. At other points, such as through the village of Les Vignes, the walls, houses and other buildings also come right up to the edge of the roadway, creating a narrow canyon for vehicles.

Gorges du Tarn

Caves in the limestone cliffs along the Gorges du Tarn

Along the route, and certainly between La Malène and Les Vignes then again out around Mostuéjouls, keep a sharp eye out on the massive cliffs high up on the north side of the road. In among the cliffs are caves, and in many cases you can see where, over the centuries, houses and farm buildings have been built beside and even into the caves. Some are in ruin, but they are also just as impressive.

For the less athletic, the best long-range views of the gorge are possibly those from Saint-Georges-de-Lévéjac, 15 km north of Le Rosier. From the lookout known as ‘Point Sublime’, you can see a long way along the valley, with towering 500m cliffs on either side. This requires a detour off the main road of about 20km, but many will find it worth the trip.

There are also many other “mini” gorges off the main road that are worth visiting. Among these is Abime de Bramabiau, a network of dramatic gorges formed by the little Bonheur river and millions of years of erosion. Some will also want to see the ‘Park of Chaos of the Montpellier of Old’, a little to the south of Peyreleau. Here the weather over many thousands of years has created curious rock formations, including arches, animal shapes and so on.

Castelbouc, near the eastern end of the gorge and overlooked by the ruins of an old castle, is considered one of the more ‘picture postcard’ villages, and it can be photographed across the river from many points on the main road.

Gorges du Tarn

La Malène, Gorges du Tarn

La Malène is also very picturseque. Situated almost in the centre of the main gorge, it is a good launching point for those staying longer than an afternoon. The Château Hôtel de la Malène offers excellent accommodation in a fully renovated old chateau. In the middle of town, alongside the main road, it is an excellent mix of old and new. Their restaurant, Manoir de Montesquiou, is also highly recommended.

Possibly one of the most unique and photogenic villages in the gorge is Saint-Chély-du-Tarn. Teddy loved his time in this village, and has written a separate article just on that one village.

For anyone interested in the rugged natural beauty or history of southern France, a trip through the Gorges du Tarn – either by foot, by water, or by car – is a must.

Gorges du Tarn

Gorges du Tarn


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