LOZÈRE

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

Living France - - Contents -

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.

RE­LI­GIOUS CEN­TRE

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

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