Thursday, April 30, 2015

Gorges du Tarn, France: Cathedrals of the Natural Kind

The storm that kept us grounded an extra day in Albi lingered long enough to give us lead-gray skies on the morning we left the city.  But the roads were dry and the chilly wind was at least to our back.  We followed the Tarn the entire day, running chocolate brown and high from the storm.  We followed a small road alongside the river that was a former railroad bed, so the grade was even with no surprises.  Water trickled down side canyons and in grottoes along the way.
The Tarn running mighty and muddy.
The further we got from Albi, the smaller the villages and almost no traffic.  We must have passed through half a dozen tunnels, some almost a kilometer long.  The first one had lights the entire length, but not the others.  We had to dig out our headlamps to light the way, but it still was quite disorientating tending to vertigo to ride in those black tubes.
Old railway tunnel along our road with a characteristic horseshoe shape.
By afternoon the clouds dissipated and so did the railroad grade and we were going up and down most of the afternoon.  There were three hydroelectric projects on the river along the way.  It was a long day for us, 95 kilometers, and we pulled late into the campground.  It seems to be still early season in this area -- we were the only campers, and maybe two other parties occupying cabins. It was a very nice facility -- four stars.  We are not quite sure exactly what that means, but we know it has something to do with services they offer. And this one had toilet paper.  I am thinking of compiling a chart of star rating vs toilet paper availability to confirm this theory.
Hydroelectric project along the Tarn.

Green, green...

John’s thermometer read 3 degrees the next morning, but it didn’t seem so bad once we remembered in was Celsius.  The highlight of the morning was passing under the Millau Viaduct, the tallest bridge in the world.  Astounding in scale.  And on this day we entered the Gorges du Tarn.

See my little bike?  Just a toy in comparison to the bridge!

Very, very impressive.

The other viaduct.
The Gorges du Tarn is a 50-kilometer canyon carved by the Tarn river.  A persistent limestone caps the top of the canyon walls which become quite narrow and steep, with shales and schists below.  Occasionally we would pass a cave with a heavy wooden door, presumably with some aging cheese behind it.
Entering the Gorges du Tarn.
Hiking, climbing, spelunking, white-water rafting and kayaking are big sports in the area.  We understand it gets very crowded in July and August, and the campground density is quite high all along the river.  But we are early season, and we found out that open campground density is quite low.  So we cycled further than we intended and ended up in a campground where most of the fellow occupants were climbers, many which we saw scaling the cliffs above us on the way in.  They had the look of the climbers back home -- minimalist, friendly, lean and dressed in puff jackets.

The building stone in the area is more varied than the limestone of the Dordogne and Lot valleys.

We exited the canyon the next day, the first day of full sun in a while, stopping often to take pictures of chateaus and cliffs and the river.  Pardon the pun, but it was “gorge-ous”.  Our road was near river level, but serpentine roads branched off frequently and we could see them switchbacking up the canyon to the high plateau into the reaches of the Cevennes region.  I wanted to follow those roads, but it would have to be some other time, some other mode of travel.

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