Enjoying the peaceful nature in the Haut-Languedoc
Lots of holiday makers travel to the beaches of the South of France over the A7. The Route du Soleil, however, is more than simply a motorway to sunny weather. If you leave the motorway just after Lyon and drive west, you will soon arrive in some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in France. The nature parks Monts d’Ardèche, Cévennes, Grands Causses and Haut-Languedoc reach almost to the foot of the Pyrenees. It’s actually a shame that we drive in our droves past all the beauty in search of the sun. I like hiking and cycling in the middle of the countryside with my wife and dog, so it was an easy choice for us to make. Put the tent in the car and go. On route to Southern France!
The preparations – and with that the pleasurable anticipation – for our summer holiday usually start on our return trip from the summer holiday the year before. On our way home, inspired by the holiday we have just had, we usually get the best ideas for the following year’s holiday. Last summer, we already kind of had an idea where we would be going this year: South of France! It had been a while since we’d been there so we thought it was high time to go again.
We didn’t fancy a boiling hot summer by the Mediterranean. Baking in the sun all day is not our thing. Greenery, countryside, wild animals, flowing rivers, that’s what we want to experience during our holiday. The entire Mediterranean coast was scrapped off our list. But, just above it, there was an area that looked interesting…
Looking for nature
We soon saw on Google Maps that there is a large strip of green just north of the coastal region. Roughly from Valence, just under Lyon, to Carcassonne, with one motorway running through it, the A75. It looked promising. It is in the South of France but not in the hottest and busier southernmost part. When we zoomed in we saw that the area has no fewer than four connected nature parks: Monts d’Ardèche, Cévennes, Grands Causses and Haut-Languedoc.
Four national parks for the price of one! That sounded good to me.
A bit more research told us that each of the parks has its own landscape. They are all beautiful, all unique and all worth a holiday. We had made our choice for our 2019 holiday. The total area is so large that we wouldn’t be able to explore it all from one location, so we split our holiday into two parts: ten days in Haut-Languedoc and ten days in Cévennes. We decided to go to the southernmost park, Haut-Languedoc, for the first ten days. It’s perfect for hiking and cycling in the lovely hills. We chose Cévennes for the second ten days; it’s a more rugged nature park with many challenging cycling routes for mountain bikers and great climbs for racing bikers.
Great little campsites
All we had to do then was find a couple of campsites. But that took us no time at all. We have pitched our tent at small and quiet campsites for years. That’s why we have the ACSI Great Little Campsites-app installed on our phones. It’s also handy if we want to go for a weekend break in our own country. Our list of criteria is always the same: small campsite in the middle of the countryside, dogs permitted, a river or lake nearby, and wifi if possible, so that we can hang out with Netflix if the weather is lousy. And just for France, we added sitting toilets to our wish list… it is holiday time after all.
For our destination for the first week-and-a-half, we chose a campsite in the vicinity of the small town of Lacaune. It is north of Haut-Languedoc, almost reaching the Grands Causses. For the second half of our holiday, in the Cévennes, our eyes fell on a campsite in Meyrueis. It is a town that will ring a bell for many Dutch cycling enthusiasts because of ‘The Rider’, the book by Tim Krabbé.
In January, we searched out these two campsites and booked them. There was nothing else standing in the way of our perfect camping holiday. In the months running up to our holiday, we always do a bit of research to see what there is to do. The most important things for us are places we can go on good walks and go cycling, with our dog, because the dog and the mountain bikes always join us on holiday. Luckily, there are ample hiking and mountain bike routes in both regions.
No bikes on holiday with us in the end
Just our luck, the car broke down before the holiday, and so badly that it was a write-off. Fortunately, the car gave up the ghost far enough in advance of our holiday that we still had time to arrange a hire car. That was a stroke of luck, but …. the bikes didn’t fit in or on the hire car. The tent and all our camping equipment just about fit. We were forced to leave our bikes behind. We could cross off our dream racing and mountain bike adventures. Good job that we are also partial to hiking.
After a hectic last weekend, it was finally time to leave. We drove at night to avoid busy traffic. At ten at night we closed the door behind us in the hope of being at the campsite around two in the afternoon the following day. The route went via Maastricht and Luxemburg to Lyon where we took the A89 towards the A75. We had to follow the A75 quite a way down south until we left the motorway near Millau. It all went smoothly, no traffic jams, hardly any road works and we even got through all the tolls pretty quickly, too. It was just such a shame that you couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee anywhere along the motorway.
Added bonus: Milau Viaduct
Just before we left the A75 for the final kilometres through the French countryside, we had to drive over the wonderful Millau Viaduct. It costs ten euro for two-and-a-half kilometres, but it’s more than worth it. This viaduct is the largest cable-stayed bridge in the world, making it a great destination in itself. The French have also added an aire (rest area). It was built because countless day trippers would get out of their car to take photos, and that’s not the greatest situation on a motorway.
Nowadays, you can walk to a great viewpoint from the car park. It’s a lovely spot from which to really admire the bridge. There is also a museum about the construction of the bridge, a restaurant and well-kept toilets. A perfect place to stop and to stretch your and your dog’s legs after such a long night. The walk to the viewpoint isn’t long, but it is very steep. The view is spectacular. After half an hour wandering around, we’d seen enough and we drove on to our final destination.
The most beautiful campsite in Haut-Languedoc
From Millau it was only another hour or so to the first destination , Campsite Domaine Le Clôt, close to the village of Lacaune. We arrived there, exactly according to plan, just after two. The two owners, Lidewijde and Walther, welcomed us, we were given a small tour and could pick out our own pitch. That was not an easy task, because did we want a pitch with a nice view, a pitch with a nice view, or a pitch with a nice view?
Every pitch at the campsite is spacious and looks out over the hills in the distance. All the camping pitches are nicely demarcated so there is ample privacy. We were tired from travelling through the night, but thankfully the tent was set up quickly and we enjoyed a wonderful summer’s afternoon and evening.
It was very quiet at night. An owl, a bit of rustling in the bushes and the sound of a babbling brook that flows through the middle of the campsite, that’s all we heard. What peace and quiet! It was no surprise then that we started the next morning as fresh as daisies despite having skipped a night’s sleep on the trip.
Hiking in Haut-Languedoc
When we collected the bread rolls for breakfast, Lidewijde and Walther gave us a few tips for great sights and hiking routes. Their bar annex reception contains a modest library of brochures and route guides. They are also fanatic hikers and know every nice spot in the region. One of the suggestions they had for us was a hike around Lake Vesoles; the dog could then have a swim to cool down on the hot day. Perfect!
We did quite a bit of walking in the ten days we were pitched at Domaine le Clôt. Directly from the campsite there are two gorgeous routes that are highly recommended. One of the two is quite challenging and long. It covers a total of 25 kilometres with a good bit of altitude. But you are climbing Pic du Montalet, after all, the highest mountain in the region. It’s worth doing this hike even if only for the last extremely steep kilometre through a strange landscape filled with beech trees distorted by the wind.
At the top, a wonderful view over the entire area awaits you. We liked this hike so much, we did it twice. The first time we climbed the mountain it was cloudy and misty so we didn’t see any of the surroundings. On our second climb we got to enjoy the view over Lacaune and this part of Haut-Languedoc.
The countryside for yourself
You have the countryside mostly for yourself during a walk like that. You can count the few fellow hikers on one hand. It’s perfect if you are going on holiday for the countryside and you don’t want to be surrounded by hordes of people. All the routes are well signposted with the same yellow markings, they even have a cross if you have taken a wrong exit so there’s no chance of going the wrong way!
The second hiking route passing by the campsite was a bit shorter, but definitely worth doing. We hardly bumped into anyone there either. First we took the rather steep ascent from the campsite, and once on top we were surprised by a gorgeous panoramic view. An old Citroën rusting away in a meadow completed the picture.
After the meadow, the route took us back down the mountain. Once at the bottom, a short but wonderful climb through a small stream awaited us. It had been dry for weeks so the water was very low. After some rain, however, we can imagine that this would be a perfect spot for adventurous hikers to get some thrills.
Cities and villages you must visit
The village of Lacaune is roughly a five-minute drive from the campsite. There are a couple of supermarkets there and that is about it really. Lacaune is famous for its hot springs, but we weren’t interested in those. The French are very proud of the local speciality of dry-cured meat. There is no shortage of ham here. You can have a guided tour and see how they cure the meat, but we skipped that one too.
The quite well-known town of Albi is not far away. It took just over an hour to drive to the capital of the department of Tarn. Albi is called the Red Town, because a number of the buildings such as the cathedral, are made of red bricks. Albi Cathedral, the Cathedral Basilica of Sainte Cecilia, is rather spectacular because it is the largest brick building in the world.
You may know Albi’s bridge, de Pont Vieux, from the Tour de France. It went over the bridge in 2019 and the stage finished in Albi. Pont Vieux is also made of bricks and counts eleven arches spanning 150 metres. When you walk across it, it doesn’t seem that special but there is an amazing view from the side of the bridge. We were, however, more enchanted by the many large town houses from the Renaissance that you find in the centre.
Albi is nice if you want a bit of variation and to do something else for a day. If you like quaint towns and villages then you must include Albi on your itinerary if you are on holiday near here.
Little but great: Combret
We accidentally came across one of the most beautiful and most rustic villages of Haut-Languedoc during a car trip. Combret is a small village built on a rather small hill. Wonderful old houses stand snugly side by side and steep little roads meander wonderfully through the village. You will only find a little bar in the village and that was closed, and it looks like it is always closed. Right at the top, there is a small church and cemetery. There is nothing else to do here except walk, that does mean however that there are no tourists and you have the whole village to yourself! That was rather nice after a busy town like Albi.
Haut-Languedoc: do it!
After ten days of enjoyment at and around Lacaune it was, unfortunately, time to leave Domaine le Clôt. It was genuinely a shame. It was one of the nicest campsites we have ever camped at; in the middle of the countryside and very quiet. It’s really quiet by nine in the evening.
The large pitches mean you have plenty of space. Almost every pitch is suitable for a large caravan or motorhome. Even with our large tent we still had plenty of space left. Le Clôt is a campsite where you can totally relax and enjoy the countryside.
Haut-Languedoc is certainly worth your while for a holiday if you love the countryside. There are no large cities here and most of the villages are tiny. And it’s nothing but countryside in between. You are only a stone’s throw away from the forest. We will definitely be coming back here and we won’t have to think long about which campsite we’ll stay at either.
We continued our holiday in Meyrueis, located in the Cévennes, in Gorges de la Jonte. You can read our tips for that region shortly in part 2 of our travel report.