Inside the Tarn River Gorge

I thought I would reach the Tarn River Gorge just when the slope from the Aubrac ends, in La Canourgue. But it is not immediately here, and it keeps ascending for almost 20 km. I find again my previous elevation around 900 m, and there it is finally.


 

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Tarn river gorge

 

I can see right below in a tiny scale the village of Saint-Chély-du-Tarn. The descent in the canyon is splendid, it is a narrow road magically sticking to the cliffs and leading me to Sainte-Enimie.

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Saint-Chély-du-Tarn

 

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Sainte-Enimie is a very beautiful village across the Tarn river. All the businesses are closed and it looks deserted, but it’s probably packed with tourists in summer.

Then can begin my ride along the Tarn river. The road is sculpted in the rock when the canyon sides are too steep to let it go naturally. Sometimes there is a small opening and I find a campground or a couple of houses.

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Sainte-Enimie

 

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Sainte-Enimie

 

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Saint-Chély-du-Tarn

 

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Hauterives, a village on the river, once upon a time a passage point when transportation happened by boat. When the road was built on the “wrong” side, the village got isolated. I didn’t spot any life there.

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Hauterives

 

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On this Sunday afternoon, the road is totally empty and I make my only way possible along the river, through the quiet and gigantic walls. The sky has been grey for the whole day but I make a lot of picture-breaks. I am still 30km from Millau, the viaduct I want to see, and also the end of my canyon adventure, when the hidden sunset rings the well-deserved dinner bell. I find a roof in a rest area of a road turn avoid the possible rain during the night, and by chance an electric outlet outside of a closed canoe rental shop a kilometer further. It’s much warmer than any other night, 11°C at 8pm, about 5°C warmer than before, and I can stay outside during the evening and compile my swiss video.

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 With the Aubrac yesterday, and the Tarn canyon today, I got to cycle through splendid landscapes that I didn’t plan to visit but was advised to do so on the way. By not planning my route exactly I let the door open for those little surprises and it turned out very well.

 


 

I wake up … with a torch light in the eyes. The very good Sunday is just over, it is 2 am and the road police is kicking me away. I am informed that it’s forbidden be where I am. That it is forbidden to camp in the canyon. That I must get a hostel (which are all closed during this anti-touristy season, so being 2 am is probably not helping). That I should be away soon. That I’d better not be on their way later in the night and in the next days. And that I should be already in court. Then they drive away.

I can’t believe that people are paid to patrol in a Sunday night in an empty valley, where even most of the locals have run away, to say this. With the agility of a mind woken up in the night and put on the road a few minutes later, I am there, cycling at 2 am in the dark with no destination, since I am forbidden to sleep outside of a paid accommodation (none of which are operating). It just makes no sense.

Then I remember that they were nice enough to give me details about the law: camping (i.e. under a tent) is forbidden, but as long as I am not under a tent, it is allowed to sleep anywhere in the canyon. That’s my only option as I have nowhere to go and those cops sounded just as smart as their clichés. There are not too many places to hide in the canyon, so I stop at the next gorge bend that has some land off the road, put my plastic tarp in the grass, my sleeping bag over it, and finish my night there.

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I wake up only with my alarm and luckily I am still dry. But at the moment of packing, small droplets start to swing around in the air. The bed weather is waking up too.

I cycle until the next town, Les Vignes. The scenery must be very nice, but it’s foggy and it starts raining. The light is bad, nothing looks good for my eyes and pictures.

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Naturally everything is closed in Les Vignes, except the café at the end of the village. The lady says she receives no customer, only the workers enlarging the road further down the canyon, when they make a reservation, and sometimes the villagers. And me. I have a coffee, watch the light rain becoming less and less light, and since the road inside the gorge is blocked for works (November is the time of the year to close shops, take holidays, and have infrastructures repaired), I have to climb up outside of it, on the causses. It’s only 10 am and the day could hardly be worse.

I have 2 options to continue, either on the west side of the canyon, through Le Massegros, either on the east side, until another canyon. Both side require to lift my weight up from 400 m to 900 m. I pick up the first option, that ascends by the Côte des Vignes. Viewed from the top, it looks like I move only 100 meters east. Viewed from me, it’s rather zigzags and a lot of sweat under the rain (see elevation graph above). The department has installed boards at each hairpin bend to announce the slope angle for the next kilometers. It’s very accurate.

 

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Côte des Vignes – start

 

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Côte des Vignes – just a small “Bravo” but that’s my only positive news so far …

 

Ten kilometers later, and my clothes wet but not soaked, I reach Le Massegros. Only to get down in the canyon again by another road, having bypassed the work section on the lower road. But rain gets stronger and I find the protection of the post office until 12:00, then of the groceries store until 12:30. The awareness that I am still quite dry for being outside in this rain is positive. Half a saucisson later, I realize that if I stay here, nicely dry, I will be stuck in this small place until the evening and eventually get cold. This pushes me to put my gloves on again and to leave in the rain, with the expectation that the big town Millau, 30 km from here, will bring solutions.

So here I go on my way to get drenched. I have the descent down into the gorge again, that would surely be very enjoyable with a nice weather. I try to imagine how beautiful it would be under a blue sky, but it doesn’t work. My only goal is now to get to Millau and find a place to dry up and stay overnight.

 

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I reach Millau after 50 km of cycling in the day, and decide it’s good enough for the conditions and secure a place to stay for the night at a B&B. The tourist office also tells me about a visitor center of the Millau viaduct, just under the viaduct itself  5 km from the town, closing at 5 pm. My visit to Millau being mostly to see this huge piece of engineering, I get on the bike again and reach the viaduct.

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Millau Viaduct

 

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Millau Viaduct

 

This is “the world’s highest multi-stayed viaduct”. It peaks at 343 meters, and the cars drive 270 meters over the Tarn river. It is 2 460 meters long, shorter than what I expected, and allows the highway to link a plateau to another one. This way, the cars don’t have to get down in the valley, create jams in the town of Millau, and get up again in the other side. It can resist to winds up to 200 km/h, deforming only 40 cm from its stable position. The 7 piers represent 53 000 m3 and 135 000 tons of concrete, while the deck, entirely made of steel, weights 36 000 tons. That’s 5 times the amount on the Eiffel Tower. The surface occupied on the ground by the tallest pier (245 m, the world’s tallest pier) is like a tennis court. The video of construction of the viaduct, that lasted 3 years, is very interesting, even though the whole center looks like a showroom for the company who built it (Eiffage).
At the entrance of the visitor center, deserted like all the tourist places this month, a man with a tripod seems happy of my arrival. It’s a journalist shooting for a TV program and he needs to have some people interacting in front of his video camera. There is only the guide and me available. So here I get a free guided tour of the center and viewpoint. On the other hand, I have to answer a question with a mic. “How is the viaduct inspiring you?”. I have soaked gloves, soaked socks, rain over my head, and I just realize that “342 meters for each span” or “the deck weighs 36 000 tons” are not valid answers. All I see is a bridge, a very special one, yes, but still a bridge. So I guess I won’t look that good on the TV program. Well, considering the broadcasting time slot  it will probably get only a small audience. But as there is a sequence of my cycling under the viaduct, they might show something good. (“Météo à la carte” sur France 3 en semaine à 12:55, probablement courant décembre).

Some people had told me I would be on TV, and they are already right. But I guess they didn’t think it would be because I was the only one in the day willing to cycle in the rain to visit an exhibition about stacks of concrete.

To celebrate the end of that bad day, actually better in the end than when it started, I visit the nearby bakery and get a local specialty: a feuilleté au roquefort, warmed up in the microwave. The smell that reaches my nostrils as soon as I get the present in my hands tells me that it is not a good idea for celebrations. At this time, I don’t care anymore about being drenched, as I know I am getting a roof for the night. I get to my B&B and hear the continuous rain on the rooftop. It’s a nice sound when I’m dry. But it has rained almost the whole day and the forecast for the next ones is not letting me sleep optimistically …

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Weather for the next days …

 

 

I leave Millau with dry clothes again and continue my route along the Tarn river. It is no more called the Tarn river gorge, but the Tarn valley, or Les Raspes du Tarn. It’s a bit less steep on the sides, curvier, and lonelier. The road is sometimes as narrow as a small car.

 


 

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Last check on the viaduct

 

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The valley itself seems to be owned by EDF who installed dams every 10 or 20 km. Each dam has a village nearby, including a “Cité EDF”, made of similar houses and probably still housing the dam and powerplant workers.

 

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A dam on the Tarn

 

I also stop a few minutes by the road to clean my chain as it started to make clunky sounds. Actually I didn’t clean it since Zweisimmen in Switzerland, and it went through bad weather. When I ask for WD-40 I get to meet a very friendly couple who also invite me for a light lunch.

 

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Is Africa so close?

 

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After 50 km cycling in the valley, I leave it to aim straight south. Just there, around 5 pm, I see a big dark mass moving in the field nearby the road, about to run on the road. Before I did an immediate U-turn, it looked like a huge wild pig running like a brown bear. At this point, I think it could totally be a bear, but it’s too improbable. When my camera and mind is ready to check from closer, the beast has disappeared. Hmmm … having to set camp in the next minutes, before the darkness comes for dinner, I still prefer to cycle a few kilometers away from the scene. I mount my tent in a farming area by a small water stream.

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