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France's least crowded corner, home to stirring landscapes and perfect villages

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 07/01/2021 Anthony Peregrine
a man standing in front of a canyon: These wild uplands lie at the southern end of the Massif Central - Getty © Getty These wild uplands lie at the southern end of the Massif Central - Getty

The second time I went to Lozère was to get married. The first time had been to meet my future wife’s farming parents. Mother-in-law hadn’t been noticeably thrilled by the arrival of an Englishman. The wedding day came round all the same. The bride wore white and the priest wore wellies. He had, he explained, urgent gardening business immediately afterwards. 

The traditional post-church tour of all the village bars gave way to a reception in the back room of a café. The posher hotel we’d reserved had double-booked. We lost. The young café-owners sprinkled far too much slipping powder on the dance-floor, so we sneezed through to dawn, and married life got off on the best possible footing.

Ever since, I have felt attached to these wild uplands at the southern end of the Massif Central. Granted, there are downsides. Tough lives have rarely disposed farmers to love all their fellow men. Village feuds run for generations. And winters are challenging. During a snowstorm, I veered off towards oblivion only 20 yards from the in-laws’ farm. My wife hauled me back, though I have a feeling mother-in-law would have let nature take its course. She never forgave me for carting off her daughter beyond the village boundary.

From that wedding day years ago, I’ve roamed all over the emptiest quarter of France. It is the right place to be in most circumstances (though see “winter” above) and especially now. You’ve more chance of catching foot-and-mouth than Covid-19: it is France’s least populated and least densely populated county. Each Lozère square kilometre contains 15 people. English square kilometres cram in 432. Being 6ft from someone is less social distancing, more unusual intimacy. This is France’s loftiest stretch, too. The Alps and Pyrenees rise higher, but are up and down. Lozère is all up, 3,300ft on average. Outside seems clean, clear and devoid of airborne menace. 

a view of a mountain: This is France’s loftiest stretch - Getty © Provided by The Telegraph This is France’s loftiest stretch - Getty

This is, in short, a stirring country of vast limestone plateaux and gorges that could swallow Glasgow, of moorland, huge skies, forest, mountainsides dropping to lakes and torrents, and springy pastures calm with Aubrac cows. Electricity, tractors and running water arrived within older living memories. The Margeride, Europe’s greatest granite plateau, surrounds my wife’s village. Wild and remote, it starts off high and swirls to rocky summits via pinewoods, lakes and meadows laden at different times with gentian, narcissus and other, merely pretty, wildflowers. I’ve walked these parts for days, losing the track on moorland, finding it among rocks 500 yards further up, before passing through hard-stone hamlets as maybe the first foreign intruder since the SS in 1943. 

a herd of cattle standing on top of a lush green field: Aubrac cattle - Getty © Provided by The Telegraph Aubrac cattle - Getty

Up near Grandrieu, the European Bison Reserve breeds the beasts, lest Europe’s last wild herd – in Poland – be struck with disease. Heavy horses pull a buggy-full of visitors as the shaggy items loom from the forest, echoes of prehistory now at arm’s length. In Marvejols, there is a wolf sanctuary and, in Mende – the bite-sized county capital – ruddy-faced folk in from the villages wander the market and confess in the vast Gothic cathedral built on the orders of Urbain V, a local lad turned pope.

Further south, the Cévennes hills plunge through trees to steep valleys and villages more bookish than most. The Huguenots – they held out against the Sun King here longer than anywhere else – required literacy that the faithful might read the Bible themselves. Then they’d tear off to tear the Catholic faithful apart. Slaughter, though, was a two-way business, nowhere more so than in Le Pont-de-Montvert, jammed between Mont Lozère and the infant Tarn river. These days, the village drapes its tough past in jolly holiday colours (avoid the local chestnut cakes: they taste like cattle food). Villagers also show excessive interest in R L Stevenson, who wandered these parts with his donkey.

a close up of a lush green hillside: The Cévennes hills - Getty © Provided by The Telegraph The Cévennes hills - Getty

Beyond Le Pont, lanes snake up to the limestone plateaux. The tablelands have space on an African scale, sheep, rare orchids and, above, wheeling griffon vultures. If you drop dead, they will pick you clean. Then the land falls 1,000ft or more to the Tarn Gorges: an exercise in open-heart geology. It’s astounding that a river as modest as the Tarn should have fashioned such an epic, nature on a supernatural scale.

a bridge over a river: Gorges du Tarn - Getty © Provided by The Telegraph Gorges du Tarn - Getty

At the head of the gorges, Sainte-Enimie celebrates a beautiful princess who bade God destroy her looks that she might avoid marrying some nasty bloke chosen by her father. God obliged, turned her ugly, then sent her to the Tarn gorges. The waters there would restore her loveliness. So they did, and so she stayed put and founded a convent there. The Tarn waters haven’t worked for me, but they might for you. If not, don’t fret. You might still find an agreeable spouse. Lozère isn’t a bad place to start.

a stone building that has a sign on a brick sidewalk: Sainte-Enimie - Getty © Provided by The Telegraph Sainte-Enimie - Getty

How to see Lozère

Holidays are currently not allowed, but when they do return Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Manchester to Rodez (1h40 from Mende) and Stansted to Nîmes (2h40). EasyJet flies Gatwick and Luton to Montpellier, 2h30 from Mende (easyjet.com). Alternatively, sail from Dover or Folkestone to Calais with poferries.com, dfds.com or eurotunnel.com from £170 to £210 return, out in late August, back in early September. Calais is 8h30 from Mende. 

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