Rambling in the Tarn
Rambling in the Tarn (by Hervé Boitel)
There aren’t many ramblers from outwith France who seem to have heard of the Tarn, even today. Some 30 years ago, when I first stumbled on this incredible area, it was impossible to imagine meeting a single foreigner in the region. But the Tarn certainly made a lasting impression on me, and I eventually settled here.
Once you’ve discovered the, let’s say, Albi-Montauban-Villefranche de Rouergue triangle, or more specifically the Gaillac-Cordes area which is in the Tarn, then it’s very hard to get it out of your system. What makes this place unique ? Well, apart from the vineyards of Gaillac (among the oldest in France), apart from the hill-top bastides that raise their heads everywhere here, in a hugely varied landscape, still unspoilt and so rich in history and cultural heritage, the main attraction for ramblers will undoubtedly be the amazing forest of Grésigne, as well as the endless deserted plateaus that stretch to the north side, towards the gorges of the Aveyron and beyond.
The Grésigne forest is the most important oak forest in the South, over a thousand acres of hilly woodland, and quite well-known worldwide for the diversity of its fauna and flora: a place of great scientific value, as well as outstanding natural beauty. When I first saw it, at sunset, from the ramparts of Castelnau de Montmiral, with its deep-blue velvety curves on the horizon, I was stunned.
Immediately below the forest, on the sloping hills, the vineyards and a mosaic of fields (plenty of sunflowers, of course!), wild hedges and copses all in a jumble, interspersed with isolated farmsteads and dovecots. And in the foreground, just below the village, the winding valley of the Vère which flows into the Aveyron, far away at Bruniquel (another most spectacular bastide). That was my first view of the local countryside, but I wasn’t aware yet of the magnificent gorges just beyond the forest, and the endless possibilities they could afford in terms of canoeing, potholing, rock-climbing or simply rambling.
I took to cycling for a while, aiming first at such beauty-spots as Cordes, Puycelsi, Penne, Bruniquel, Saint-Antonin Nobleval - places that no ‘touriste respectable’ can ignore. By keeping to the smaller, cycling-friendly roads, I discovered many other villages and hamlets that have a ‘je ne sais quoi’, a quality of silence and peacefulness that sometimes takes your breath away. This is where you will find the nicest gentle walks, through agricultural landscapes, the main interest of which lies in the discovery of a superb rural architecture.
A further step into the discovery of the region, in a much more thorough and satisfactory, relaxed way for me, was rambling. That was when I came to realize that there were miles and miles of wonderful, well-kept, marked hiking-paths (thanks to the ‘Fédération Française de Randonnée Pédestre’* ) meandering through the surrounding wilderness. Many of them follow the route of previous shepherds' paths, even a portion of a would-be Roman carriageway in the Grésigne, and they will take you to the most amazing places, down deep crevasses murmuring with waterfalls, or along the dry watercourse of a torrent, under the thick cover of moss-bearded box-trees, past caves and other picturesque features... It is the ‘massif de la Grésigne’ and the limestone plateaus I am now talking about.
To those keen on wildlife or nature discovery as much as hiking proper, I do recommend this place which is also unique in that it is at the dividing line between Atlantic and Mediterranean climates. In some places, along the most sheltered slopes of the Grésigne and on the upland plateaus, the vegetation will be just like in Provence. In other places, it is the Atlantic influence that prevails, and there’ll be lushness and freshness in vivid contrast. The overall impression is a mixture of habitats and micro-climates that makes for the greatest variety of life-forms within one and the same district.
When I first arrived, I was fascinated by the flora: so many early flowers like fritillaries or the numerous orchid species that thrive from late April to early June, or wild gladioli, or the spectacular asphodel. Such a wealth of plants I’d never seen before, being a northerner, such as Coriaria myrtifolia which grows everywhere here, because it was used for tanning. And this also holds with insects: so many different kinds of butterflies, dragonflies, beetles and bugs ! As for birds, I was struck by the number of raptors, which have become virtually extinct in more ‘civilized' areas like England.
Now my pleasure is to share with my rambling guests, within the context of a winter or spring break at Cassanis, the knowledge of the area I have acquired. I am especially delighted to find my British guests marvel at what has become to me quite familiar now. And I have to resist the temptation to be smug when they gasp over the nightingales or a hen-harrier or the little egrets or even a ‘bien ordinaire’ sparrow: ‘Oh, these are everyday things here ’ or ‘There’s nothing so special about this bit of waste land. Let’s move on for God’s sake!’ Have I become blasé or am I just pretending ?
* The FFRP association publishes ‘topo-guides covering the whole French territory : 180 000 km of GR paths (sentiers de grande randonnée) and PR paths (sentiers de promenade et randonnée). The markings for the former are white and red, yellow for the latter.
Hervé Boitel is a former lecturer at Strathclyde University, and was then dedicated to hiking throughout Scotland, the Trossacks and the Cairngorms namely. He has now retired from teaching (philosophy and French literature) and started a new life as a gîte owner and group holidays caterer, holidays that involve gentle rambling, nature and heritage discovery as well as some life sharing experience in a friendly way. For more information about staying and rambling with him:
(Published January/February 2010)