Off the beaten path Christmas in Occitanie, France
Yeah, like I’ve said in so many posts, France has so much to see, for the tourist that wants to go beyond Paris and the regular touristic locations. Going beyond takes you to see those hidden parts that most people don’t really visit.
So he took me to visit Aveyron and Lozère in the Occitanie region of France. ‘He’ meaning my ex-boyfriend, ‘me’ meaning me naturally. Ha! That failed didn’t it? Not sarcastic or funny enough. I’ll try to work more on my sarcasm one of these days, when I stop blogging 15 hours a day. I never thought blogging would be so much work. But then I guess no one else did either. Oh and if you’re wondering, I’ll write about the next boyfriend when he’s a permanent fixture in my life, not one second before. 😛 Nope, not even one millisecond before.
Anyways back to the Occitanie. No, it’s not the famous L’Occitane en Provence, the world famous producers of parfums and beauty products that come from that region. Although I wish I had had enough time to visit their factory too. Would have got me some amazing perfume. The only one I got to visit was the Parfumerie in Grasse.
The Occitanie is an administrative region in France that was created by the amalgamation of the earlier regions of regions of the Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon on 1st January 2016 when I was there. Yeah, me, I was there! Sassy enough? Hmm… Oh well, I had actually left the region the night before and gone to Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. But that’s a story for another day.
CHRISTMAS IN LOZÈRE
Lozère is an Occitanie department that was earlier part of the Languedoc region. It covers four mountain ranges and a few rivers, the main one being the River Tarn that starts in Mount Lozère. Part of the Cévennes National Park is in Lozère, while the rest of it is in Aveyron, Ardeche and Gard. The famous winter skiing destination Mont Lozère is also here, being the highest peak in the area at an elevation of 1699 metres.
Anyway, I’ll start in random order, because it doesn’t really matter what you see first. It just matters that you see everything. Near Saint Énimie in the Lozère region of Occitanie, is La Source de Burle, a spring of water in the Gorges du Tarn quite close to the Cevennes National Park.
This famous water source was supposedly a cure for leprosy found by Saint Énimie, the pious and chaste princess and daughter of the King of Franks. It appears that Saint Énimie did not want to marry her suitor, but wanted to devote her life to caring the poor. So she was granted a leprosy, and whenever she was away from this region she was leprous. But every time she came back to La Source de Burle she was made clean. So she was finally allowed to live here taking care of the poor and soon started a convent near Saint Énimie.
But the water here from La Source de Burle is such a gorgeous blue so and clear, and tastes amazing too. Yeah, there are steps going down to the water so you can drink from it. (If you’re wondering how there’s a pic of my ex-BF here, it’s because we’re still friends and he’s given me permission for headless shots.) Did I say headless? I meant faceless. There was a time I wanted him to be headless, but not anymore. Anyways, even if it was just a short 10 minute stop at this place and there’s no one around, and I had to run after him holding my boobs so they didn’t bounce around too much in this useless bra, it still earned place on my list.
There are a number of small hotels, bed and breakfasts, and camping and rafting sites situated along the river nearby that can be visited for stays of hours, days or weeks.
Quezac and Ispagnac
Saint Énimie was almost as amazing as the home of the Quezac water springs, natural iron filled water that is bottled here in the Cevennes in the village of Quezac near Ispagnac, and reaches all over Europe. So famous and so quietly hidden from the world. Perfect!
We continued for a distance of about one more hour’s drive from the nearest city or town, passing that rock that looked liked Jesus on the way. We didn’t’ stop to take pics there because I was too tired and he was going to give me the old picture of it that he had taken. We stopped to take pics a little later at an off road that was now closed and ran along another roaring stream. Maybe it was the echo from the rocks that made the stream appear so loud! The rocks had collapsed into some parts of the road, making access difficult, but it was so empty and so rustic, and so enticingly saying ‘walk in further, there’s more to see’! There’s an old broken down road office about ten minutes, but we don’t investigate. Well, it was also a good place to take a short pee break in the shrubs in the mountains too, hoping no critters pounce on you from the bushes, but that’s another story. 😉
And finally reaching that town that’s hidden in the hills, Ispagnac, where we spent Christmas with family and friends. Quaint and almost like a stroll back in time! Ispagnac is a small sheep farming town that people hardly visit, with a handful of stores and a few holiday homes. It’s gorgeous.
We stayed in a holiday home for rent that was quite close to the Cimetière Communal D’Ispagnac. I think that was the name of cemetery. I didn’t realise it was there till Christmas Day when I was looking out of the window after breakfast and saw the graves. Talk about morbid. But everyone else seemed to know they were there, and it actually felt very normal.
The village church is a fifteen minute walk away, and should be visited. We visited and stood behind while the Christmas mass was on. And there was another church nearby that we visited the next morning, but it was closed. It’s always lovely to visit these quaint and simple old churches reminding you of how simple life can really be. I thought I had taken pics of the church, but I can’t find them. As for the other places. Well it was Christmas. I didn’t think of carrying my phone or camera while roaming around. Oops! The only time I remembered to take a pic was just before leaving, but that’s just a pic of the holiday rental homes and parking lot.
Ispagnac is also the perfect staging area if you want to go hiking in the nearby Cevennes National Park, or spend a day at a sheep farm, or just do nothing. I loved it!
The neighbouring village of Quezac is the home of the famous water springs whose history dates back to the Celts who established villages on the banks of the River Tarn around 500 BC and believed the bubbling mineral water to be sacred. Later the village of Ispagnac was founded in 50 BC by Hispanus, one of Caesar’s legionnaires who naturally named the village after himself. A statue of the virgin in black wood found in a field in the middle ages turned the Quézac area into a site for pilgrimage. The mid nineteenth century saw cholera being treated by the mineral water. And soon the sparkling water sources were purchased by a number of different owners over time. The waters that were once trademarked by Perrier Vittel, then Nestle and are now owned by a group called OEGU. The factory can be visited for a tour for hardly 4€.
But we didn’t go there. He took me for a walk across roads and hedges till we reached another part of the river Tarn that had a spring too. He knows it from his childhood. He scoops up the water and drinks. I take off my gloves, but then I figure, I’ll drink out of his hands too. It’s much more fun. J It tastes different, like iron. He says naturally, there are minerals in the water. Like eh? I know that. You told me. I’m just saying it tastes more like iron than the mineral water we get in the bottles. So whatever! Gimme some more water, pretty please! I’m not sure if swimming was allowed, but being winter I didn’t bother to try. Maybe next time I’ll go in summer and swim in that crystal sparkling Quezac water.
While walking back to the village, we pass a playground and start playing on the see-saw covered with that light covering snow. And then walk for some time balancing on the wooden planks like kids. We were kids, just in grown up bodies. It was fun to walk past the walnut farms and pumpkin farms with the pumpkins so huge, I’d never be able to carry them alone.
SLOW TRAVEL IN AVEYRON
Aveyron is another department in the French region of Occitanie that has deep gorges carved by the River Tarn. Boasting a number of Castles, Chateaus, Abbeys, Caves and stunning scenery, it’s also a great place to go hiking and climbing. There’s so much to see, but for now I’ll tell you about what I saw.
Eglisse Russe and Sylvanes Abbey
At some distance from Millau in Aveyron is the Sylvanes Abbey that is now a cultural centre famous for international music concerts. About 15 minutes away from it is L’Eglisse Russe, a beautiful wooden church constructed in the middle of the forest on a hilltop as a symbol of co-operation between the French and the Russian cultures. The solitude makes it even more striking. The church was actually built in Russia, then taken apart and put back together here in France. Yeah, I wrote a blog about that too, so I’ll just give you the link to it here instead of repeating myself.
And then there are the not so off the beaten track locations that we visited. But they felt like a must visit to me. If you get a chance, try to visit them, even if it’s just to say you did 😉
Château de Montaigut
And how can I forget the Château de Montaigut? It sounds so much like the Montague from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. This 10th century castle is perfectly placed on the edge of a hill. Ah, right! I shouldn’t say castle. I should say Château, because it’s not big enough to be a castle. But it’s lovely. It’s actually a small medieval castle built in the 10th century on a middle age Merovingian necropolis from the 7th century.
Over the years the castle was reinforced to protect the city of Saint Affrique from attacks from the South. After passing through several hands over the centuries, the Château de Montaigut fell to ruin in the 1920’s till it was rescued by l’Association des Amis du Château de Montaigut with help from L’Union Rempart.
Visits cost a handful of Euros with or without the guided tours, and once can see the rooms and also the old Merovingian rock cut graves. However, if you’ve noticed the trend in most of my blog posts in France, we reached most of the places just as they were closing or had just taken in the last batch of visitors. Yeah, just in France. Shh! Anyways, we got to see the outside of the castle.
There are a number of graves on the outside that make it a sombre place with the setting sun. On the left as you exit the castle, is a display of carriages and equipment used in ages past. After that is a display in an old two story house with exits at both ends, the ground floor with the home on the ground floor and stable equipment on the top floor. There is also a push button recorder that tells you about what country life was like in Aveyron back in 1914. Different bits of the house light up when the guy in the recorder is describing them. The recording in French was at least 20 minutes long and with my basic French, I couldn’t understand much. So I leave him in there listening to the recording and walk around outside taking pics.
There are a number of walking trails around the Château de Montaigut with different levels of difficulty. Of course, I don’t go off on those trails this evening. I hang around outside the farmer’s cottage taking in the surroundings and watching the beginnings of a picture perfect sunset. The pinks, purples and oranges are beautiful, so I go back inside to get him to come see the sunset. But he gives me a quick peck and goes back to being so engrossed listening to the recording. That’ the problem with intelligent men, isn’t it? Knowledge first! So I go outside again and take a few pics of the sunset, and naturally he reaches outside after it’s too late. Bah!
Anyways, if you’re interested, there are dorms and rooms available for stay at the Château de Montaigut in their erstwhile Presbytery. The also rent out some rooms in the Castle for events and celebrations. Would be a lovely place for a wedding. We’d probably have invisible Merovingian attendees from the 7th Century as well. 😉
Le Village de Salmonac
There’s a small village called Salmonac in La Commune de Vabres LAbbaye that lights up every Christmas. Visitors from neighbouring towns come just to walk around and see the lights that are crafted into the shapes of reindeer, elf, Santa Claus, and even some fairy tale scenes. I even saw some giraffe and seals when I was there.
The entire village forms a very pretty picture, and one can also buy snacks and drinks from some stalls nearby. It’s a good way to spend an evening. However, the ex-BF tells me that the village may not put up lights this Christmas. So if you’re planning on going, best check with the locals first.
Viaduct de Millau
Anyways, the next week we stayed with friends in a pretty green house in a town close to Millau. I won’t tell you where, because anywhere you stay in France in a little village or town is usually better than staying in a big city. Well, that depends on whether or not you’re a country or city lover. Doesn’t it? Just make sure you get un gentil et sympa host. When I’m not using Airbnb, I use end up using Booking.com or Agoda. I don’t know why. I just find it easier to use.
So every time we went anywhere we passed either over or under the famous Millau Viaduct, the bridge spans the gorge of the River Tarn. It’s the tallest bridge in the world at 343 metres and is a cable stayed bridge whose construction completed in December 2004 for around 394 million Euros. The rides on it and near it are just amazing, and well worth the few Euros you spend to get onto the bridge. I still have a few videos of them 😉 There’s also a viewing point created some distance away for all the tourists that come here just to take pics. 😉
There was a lot more we saw and did, like visiting the dolmen, those ancient graves from centuries ago, and taste the original sheep milk’s cheese in the villages of Roquefort, or visiting the artist who turned waste matter into art, or spending hours in the libraries and the churches. But all that I’ll leave you to discover on your own.
Oh, and if you have been to these ‘not the average tourist destination’ places yourself, tell me, wouldn’t you rather spend more time visiting these hidden gems than any other place? But if you’re one of those people who like some of my friends think I’m a fool for preferring these places, leave a note anyway. My friends will be real happy.