On the road in the Gorges du Tarn


Gone, for the moment, are the queues of camper vans. No doubt they'll be back next year. So will the flotillas of yellow, red and blue canoes, and then the walkers drinking in the autumn colours of leaves, rocks and sky. For now, though, winter has come, early and swiftly, to the Gorges du Tarn.


Here November, not April, is the cruellest month. The days get relentlessly shorter, with no Christmas light in sight to brighten the nights. Even when it's fine the sun can't find an angle more than a few minutes wide to shine down, between the short mornings and truncated afternoons it spends skulking below the crests of the looming Causses. The tourist attractions are all boarded up, their equipment evacuated to higher ground as a prudent precaution against flash river floods. For those few inhabitants who hold out all year round, there's hardly a basic shop still open, nor a cheerful cafe in which to shrug off the cold – and the nearest town is over half an hour by road.


And what a road. By its less than resounding official name, the D907 bis. But by any standards a quite remarkable drive.


Before this road opened, in 1905, taking to the river was the only way through the canyon, short of climbing the twisting paths up the valley sides. For five centuries the scattered settlements along both river banks relied on the distinctive local flat-bottomed boats, punted downstream and hauled back up, to carry such cargoes as were necessary to transport between them. Then, in the 1880s, the coming of the railways to Mende and Millau, and the lure of the mountain scenery that lay between the two, began bringing a new kind of traffic to the region. Where the railways led, the hotel keepers followed, and in the breathtaking landscape of the Gorges du Tarn they saw a new age of opportunity opening up.


For this nascent tourist industry, the boatmen were a vital link. They alone could take the new visitors through the dramatic narrows the only possible way, by water. The classic package holiday of that era, centred on a 50 km boat trip from Ispagnac to le Rozier, could take as long as five days – and five hotel nights – to complete.


If it was the combination of railways and boat trips that first put the Gorges du Tarn on the tourist map, it was not long before a road along the right bank of the river was being touted as a far better key to opening up the area for business. It would be a formidable undertaking, but when a local man, Jean Monestier, became minister of transport in Paris for 42 crucial days in 1899, the road project got the government backing it needed. Years of hard pick and shovel work followed, with the aid of the occasional stick of dynamite to blast tunnels through limestone rock. At last, in 1905, the steep southern slope of the Causse de Sauveterre had a roadway etched along its length. Villages such as Sainte Enimie, where a Merovingian princess had come thirteen centuries beforehand to flee the world, would now turn their charms in earnest towards their new vocation, helping make the Gorges a magnet for visitors from far and wide.


On the opposite bank, and a little way downstream, a different fate was in store for Hauterives. Inaccessible by road, its inhabitants remained dependent on boats to cross the Tarn, supplemented by just a rickety cable to carry in supplies. Today this very remoteness is what ensures the appeal of Hauterives, to all appearances a settlement from a bygone century.


Not much other traffic takes the river route by necessity. For pleasure, on the other hand, paddling for a few hours down the Tarn in a hired canoe has become a popular pastime for the young and not-so-young through the summer months, and a favourite way to experience the beauty of the Gorges. There's a less strenuous way of doing that, too. When the local hoteliers no longer felt the need to lay on river trips, the boatmen faced the prospect of seeing their historic craft and river knowledge die out, but a determined group formed a co-operative to keep the tradition alive. That was in 1952 – and, road or no road, the punts of Les Bateliers de la Malène still ply the most scenic stretch of the river canyon, through les Détroits from la Malène to the Pas de Souci.


November 2013