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Canoeing the Tarn Gorge

Canoeing down a 50 Kilometre river, complete with lifejacket and willing partner is not how most would imagine a relaxing weekend in the south of France…but cast aside momentarily stereotypes of soaking up the sun in St. Tropez – because, if you’re more into high energy than high living, the Gorge du Tarn is a fantastic alternative. 

The Gorge du Tarn in the heart of the Languedoc is just over an hour from Montpellier and around 2 hours drive from the airport at Clermont-Ferrand, both now served by Ryanair.  We’d been told that the best way to explore this dramatic landscape was on the river itself, so with thoughts of London rapidly fading, we swapped our travelcards for lifejackets and began to explore the gorge by canoe….

Although you can pay for a boat trip, most people choose to canoe, and  the river is generally calm enough for even the least sportif adventurer to enjoy.  You can spend either a half or full day paddling your way downstream the real advantage being the ability to explore the river at your own pace.

We hired our canoe from Le Soulio ( who allowed us as long as we wanted to make our way back to base.  There’s no need to worry about the car either, you leave it at the finishing point and are driven up to your canoe by bus – if you’re lucky this ride will include a free commentary on the surrounding area….although be warned that this is likely to be in French!  

We took advantage of our independence to stop for a break from the paddling and take a dip in the icily refreshing Tarn but to really enjoy the tranquillity and stunning views without groups of fellow canoers splashing noisily around you an early start is a must.  We left at 10am and for the first hour it truly felt as if we had the river to ourselves. 

If you prefer to keep your feet on dry land the whole area is great for walking too, there are marked trails throughout the gorge area and particularly between the towns of between Ispagnac and La Malene.  You can also explore on two wheels and most towns will have a bike hire shop.

The string of pretty villages dotted along the Tarn are worth exploration if you’ve had enough of all that activity, we stopped at the medieval town of St. Enimie for half an hour and ended up spending the day exploring the narrow cobbled streets.  The village is perched on a hill and it’s highest point gives a birds eye view of the village, surrounding countryside and the swimmers bathing in the river below.  The banks of the Tarn around St. Enimie are a great place for a picnic or to grab a bite to eat in one of the many cafes which line the main street.

If you’re looking for a little luxury to pamper yourself after your exertions, the Tarn area has the beautiful Chateau de la Caze – a 15th century castle, converted into a luxury hotel complete with gourmet restaurant.  Alternative options in terms of accommodation include camping, hiring a gite or choosing from a wide variety of local hotels or bed and breakfasts, there are a number of hotels in nearby Millau, one of the largest towns in the area. We were lucky enough to stumble upon it’s lively jazz festival held during the last week of July and were able to join what seemed to be majority of the town’s population to listen to some live music whilst enjoying a well deserved aperitif. 

After a hard days canoeing it was in Millau at the Hotel La Musardiere that our weary muscles found their rest.  This nineteenth century mansion is in a brilliant location for exploring the surrounding area and it’s bright welcoming rooms and large garden are ideal for relaxing.

An essential day trip from Millau for cheese lovers is Roquefort, where you can literally smell your way to the cheesemakers caves. Various producers offer tours and demonstrations of their cheese making, the tours are in French and can be fairly lengthy so it’s worth being prepared for the descent into the chilly caves.  The largest and most well known producer is Societe where we spent the morning on the tour before having a very cheesy lunch in the adjoining restaurant.  There’s also a great viewing point onto the village and surrounding countryside above the Societe caves if you feel like walking off your lunch.

Don’t leave the area without a visit to Montpellier le Vieux, a surreal collection of rocks formed through centuries into statue like representations, it’s relatively hard to find but once there you can spend hours exploring the strange landscape which has amazing views over the surrounding area. On the other hand, if you’ve had enough activity for one weekend there’s always the option of hopping on the small train which will take you back to the park entrance….

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