For those seeking a quiet life where the air is clean and natural beauty abounds, Lozère ticks every box. This hidden-away department in Occitanie boasts high plateaux, stunning gorges and villages of historic significance, says Kate McNally
Cover story With wide open spaces and the lowest property prices in Languedoc, this hidden gem is worth a closer look
You probably know the Gorges du Tarn, have heard of the Robert Louis Stevenson walking trail, and quite possibly have read about the Cévennes National Park, but the chances are you haven’t heard mention of Lozère, the département that is home to each of these (or at least a section of them).
Sitting high and pretty in the centre of southern France, looking down towards the Mediterranean in the south and over to the Massif Central in the north, Lozère hides away from the world, up on its plateaux and down in its valleys, and is equally likely to elicit a puzzled “où?!” from much of the French population let alone those further afield. Perhaps, as the country’s most rural and sparsely populated department with, strangely enough, France’s highest average altitude, it doesn’t have much occasion to draw attention to itself.
All of which means, of course, that if you want to go somewhere light years away from the racy glamour of the Côte d’Azur or the sophistication of Paris, then look no further than Lozère.
SENSE OF SPACE
“Space,” says Terry Williams, an adopted Lozérien of longstanding. “What attracts people to Lozère, either as a place to live or to visit, is the space. It’s empty. If you avoid the main tourist traps here, you can spend a whole day without meeting more than a handful of people. And sometimes nobody.”
What also brings people to the region is the beautiful and varied nature in Lozère, from the breathtaking beauty of the UNESCO-listed Causses and Cévennes in the south, to the eerie stone boulder wasteland of the wide Margeride plateau to the north, and the green pasture highlands of the western Aubrac area. The predominant geology of Lozère is limestone through which the rising waters in prehistoric times cut swathes of canyons through the mountains, leaving lacing rivers and valleys in their midst. The many villages and hamlets that grew up in the folded valleys of the gorges have a mystical, vaporous charm that lends them a Brigadoon-like aura to newcomers lured hypnotically down the steep mountainside.
It’s impossible not to make this comparison on the approach into the stunning village of Ste-Enimie, wrapped inside a coil of the Gorges du Tarn. One of France’s most enigmatic plus beaux villages, the village even has its own legend – a princess cured of leprosy by the magical waters from a local spring. Just 10 minutes further into the canyon, the tiny hamlet-village of St-Chély-du-Tarn is similarly mesmerising, with higgledypiggledy pretty stone houses (mostly holiday gîtes) and its own Roman chapel nestling into the underbelly of the cliff. In the winter, as the sun goes down and without a soul in sight, visitors could be forgiven a slight unease. But in the summer months, it’s a different story as the campsites and holiday homes accommodate the large numbers of tourists drawn to the Tarn valley with its incredible views and feast of outdoor activities – canoeing, climbing, swimming, rafting, hiking, cycling.
Mende is the principal town and préfecture of Lozère, located on the River Lot. As with the region, the town has its roots in religion, developing through the Middle Ages as Christian pilgrims came to visit the hermitage of Saint Privat de Mende who was martyred in the mountains of Gévaudan in the third century. From the 10th century, Catholic bishops and high clergy took up residence when granted control of the Gévaudan province, and in 1369 Pope Urbain V commissioned the construction of the Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame-et-St-Privat which towers authoritatively over the town. He died a year after building commenced, missing its completion by a matter of 100 years or so!
The cathedral is clearly too big for
the size of Mende which only has 12,000 inhabitants,” laughs Emmanuelle Soulier, historical guide and native of Mende. “But the church was rich and the clerics wanted to show off the prosperity of the town.” The cathedral is perhaps best known for the ‘Non Pareille’ bell, added in 1516, heralded as the biggest bell in the world until it was dismantled and melted to make canons during the religious wars of the second half of the 16th century.
Steeped in religious history, from the early Christian monks who came seeking silent refuge, to taking centre stage in the wars between the Catholics and the Huguenots, Lozère remains a popular place for pilgrims. One of the best known pilgrimage trails is the Way of Saint James (le Chemin de St-Jacques-de-Compostelle), that runs through the département on its way down from Le Puy-en-Velay to Galicia in Spain. There is also the trail of Urbain V, known as the Great Hiking Trail, which makes a horizontal hop across the country en route for Avignon (the papal seat of Urbain V) in honour of local lad Guillaume de Grimoard who went on to become pope. Or, you could pick up part of the Régordane Way taken by pilgrims to worship Saint Gilles, or the Chemin Camisard in the Cévennes in the footsteps of the Huguenots fleeing persecution from the king’s soldiers.
Of course, today most visitors make
the ‘pilgrimage’ to feel close to nature rather than any particular religious figure, and to enjoy the historical monuments along the way. They even have a literary option, following the route taken by Robert Louis Stevenson with his donkey, Modestine. In short, a comprehensive network of walking (and cycling) highways and byways caters for all levels of effort or non-effort, as required.
For those living in Lozère, employment centres around agriculture, tourism and civil service jobs, notably teaching and nursing. The region is recognised for its efforts protecting the traditions and savoir faire of its rural and industrial past, in particular traditional farming methods, such as the practice of transhumance, and the 19th-century woollen mills.
Property prices in the area are mostly “reasonable”, according to Terry, but have been pushed up in recent years with more people buying second homes. “There are still a number of old stone farmhouses ready for the intrepid amateur builder to spend years renovating, and they can be very cheap,” he says. “But anything in or around the Gorges du Tarn or other major tourist centres is going to be very expensive.”
For Terry and his French wife, Lozère was one of the first places they looked when it came to putting down roots after a career that took them around the world. “The climate suits us, we like the feeling of space, the clean air and the people who live here.”
It would seem that for those who like the simple things in life, there really is no better place to be.
Opening pages: Ste-Enimie occupies an idyllic position on the Gorges du Tarn
This page, clockwise from main photo: Sunbathers enjoy the beach on the banks of the Tarn at St-Chély-du-Tarn; Mende’s Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame-et-St-Privat; the pretty cobbled streets of Ste-Enimie; the Aubrac plateau
Above: The Tarn river is popular with canoeists