France’s least accessible region is almost unknown to foreigners, and only a vague idea to the French themselves. Dramatic moors and gorges, pristine rivers and forests, astonish all who reach them. Imagine a New England version of the Grand Canyon. More varieties of local honey in the country store than there are cars on the road in a day.
Day 1: Our ride begins in the Dordogne Valley. Along the river past the castle at La Treyne, and the Grottes (caves) de Lacave. Carenac is one of the valley’s most beautiful towns, and since the tour bus crowd is too out of shape to climb up to the old village, you can enjoy a stroll in relative peace. When we leave the valley, we come to the Gouffre de Padirac, one of the world’s most spectacular holes in the ground, and nothing at all like the New York subway. Pastoral biking, ending with a climb to the Causse de Gramat. Rocamadour, our destination, is a vertical town where public transit is provided by elevators and dead stone saints wander around performing miracles. (25-70km)
Day 2: Morning to visit Rocamadour. After lunch, a train carries us south to the Lot Valley. Marathoners can skip all or part of the train to tack on the extra km. Stop in Figeac, to watch the Travel Section crowd “antique” (who made that a verb?). Then up the valley (the flattest riding you’ll see - don’t get used to it). A quiet lane follows picturesque river banks... stop for café in each of the infrequent villages. If you missed it yesterday and want some hill work, detour to beautiful Conques, where religious artifacts dispute center stage with ice-cream-and-post-card shops. Night in a village along the valley. (50-125km)
Day 3: On up the Lot Valley on a beautiful road. A quartet of pretty towns line our route, each with its own château. Entraygues (“between the waters” in the local Langue d’Oc), sits prettily on a point of land between two rivers. Estaing is the family seat of the former French president of the same name, and his brother was long mayor of the village. Espalion pleases with tall tanner’s houses lining the river, and with aligot, a mashed potato and cheese concoction that has inspired religious vocations. St-Côme still has its medieval wall in place, and a beautiful hidden village inside. The day ends with an absolutely impossible ride up a mountain. Then 10 k straight down, through a chestnut forest. You earned them! (75km)
Day 4: Only two hills today, but each lasts half the day. Oh well. Consequently one of our prettiest days, and an introduction to two new types of scenery. The causses, represented on today’s menu by the Causse de la Sauveterre: a limestone plateaux swept by wind and grazed by sheep. Also the spectacular Gorges created by the inevitable action of water on limestone. Our night is spent at the bottom of a canyon that there is no point in describing: you wouldn’t believe us, anyway. (55km)
Day 5: Down the Tarn Gorge and up the Jonte Gorge. This ride is simply amazing. Villages built into the sides of the cliffs, vultures circling high overhead or nesting in the overhanging rocks, Bigfoot… you name it, it’s out here. Even a climatic change between the two gorges. Narrow roads where barely a car passes, delightfully peaceful. And the terrain lets up, relatively speaking. Meyrueis, our base for the next two nights, was a Protestant stronghold during the wars of religion, and commemorates the era by burning itself down every few years. We just made that last part up. (55 delightful km)
Day 6: Another of our favorite days, anywhere. First up to the Causse Noir, and then along the Gorges du Trévezel, on a tiny lane in a pristine valley. Cantobre sits on top of a column of rock, looking out over a confluence of canyons. An en route restaurant only opens if you call ahead to reserve. You can seek out lavender extract from a farm up on the Causse or ewe’s cheese from the local farms. On the way home, visit the spectacular chambers of the Grottes de Dargilan. Then coast back to Meyrueis, for an evening of shuttling back and forth between the town’s hot spots, the crêperie and the bakery. (70mk for our suggested loop)
Day 7: Start with a climb onto the Causse Méjean, to visit the Aven Armand: a giant underground cavern with the world’s largest known stalagmite. Lunch can be had at a local farm, which makes its own jam, preserves its own mushrooms, raises its own cattle, sheep and poultry. Then across the causse and down to Florac. The scenes from the top of the mountain look more like Utah than like anyone’s image of France. Florac is a regional center, where an exhibition hall outlines the work of the National Park, and the oh-so-different French approach to conservation. Lots of fun pictures of otters, too. Evening at the base of our last Cévenol hill. (50km)
Day 8: More chestnuts, honey, tiny towns, goat herds and stunning views. Yawn. Pont de Montvert was home to France’s most important Protestant rebellion, and Robert Stevenson’s donkey. We also return to civilization today. Cycle out of the hills and to the railroad. An hour on a country local brings us to the ancient Roman town of Nimes, in the Gard. Some will continue their cycle odysseys, others will bid farewll to their metal steeds. (55km)
- Trip price includes the bike!
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