Review of our Inntravel walking holiday around Mont Lozère in the Cevennes, France in autumn 2009.
Inntravel organise independent unaccompanied walking holidays, usually staying in small family-run hotels. They provide detailed walking notes and a local 1:25,000 map. They arrange transfers to and from the (often remote) start and end-points of the holiday, and arrange for your baggage to be transported by road between hotels - all you need to carry with you on the walk is a picnic and a waterproof. Very civilised.
This was our tenth Inntravel holiday, this time to the beautiful mountainous Cevennes area in southern France.
The long journey began with a flight from Gatwick to Marseille Provence airport, then the shuttle bus from the airport to Marseille St Charles rail terminus, then a three hour rail journey to Villefort, and finally a taxi to our first hotel, the Auberge de la Régordane at La Garde-Guérin.
The taxi driver told us that it hadn't rained since May (this was mid-September), so consequently the land was brown and dry. He pointed out forest fire damage on some of the surrounding hillsides.
We were blessed with hot dry weather for most of the walk. We had a cold blustery northerly wind out of a cloudless blue sky on one day, and drizzly rain meant that our waterproofs saw daylight on our last day.
Auberge de la Régordane in La Garde-Guérin.
This stunning tiny stone-built medieval village consists of cottages and towers, of cobbled streets with drains down the middle, of ruined buildings and a well-kept church, and fabulous views in all directions. The look-out tower in the middle has a challenging staircase, but affords magnificent vistas from the top. The settlement sat astride a main medieval travel route in France, and grew rich by taxing the travellers.
The Auberge is the only hostelry in town, and is a stunning stone building, with a spiral stone staircase to the upper floors, a dining room with a huge stone fireplace, and a courtyard where evening meals can be taken under the stars in good weather.
Our room was small but adequate, with a good-sized bathroom, and ample storage space.
We liked the Auberge, but we have to say that the proprietor, M Nogier, always seemed very busy. He was always either on the phone, or conversing with other guests or dealing with deliveries. It was difficult to have a sensible conversation with him. We stayed an extra night here, to do a circular walk around the spectacular Gorges du Chassezac, and asked M Nogier to supply a picnic. The picnic was over-priced and not very good. The main thing that walkers need in hot weather is water, but M Nogier didn't have bottled water in plastic bottles for walkers. He explained that he only had mineral water in heavy glass bottles at restaurant prices. It's vital to take your own water bottles to fill up from the tap.
On our “rest” day here, we opted to do a challenging but rewarding 14km circular walk down into the Gorge, involving 500m of steep descent and ascent again up the other side. This was tough on our first day, and we were hot and exhausted but triumphant by the time we got back to the Auberge. We asked M Nogier for a cold beer as soon as possible, but then had to wait fifteen minutes for it to appear as M Nogier busied himself on the phone, chatted to other guests etc.
The evening meals were good, tasty food, with good service, taken in the stone courtyard or in the dining room. A dozen swallows flitted around the courtyard as we ate, and settled to roost above the entrance door in the courtyard as darkness fell.
La Garde-Guérin to Villefort
The next day we moved on to Villefort, a short walk around the Lac du Villefort (a reservoir). The authorities clearly don't like people walking around the lake, as there was only one picnic table and chairs on the east side of the lake and nothing on the west side. We found a spot where we could sit on some bits of wood balanced on piles of stones beside the water to enjoy our picnic. I say enjoy, but M Nogier had supplied us with tiny, rindy bits of cheese, ham, tough chewy bread, and a huge tub of chickpeas, most of which we donated to the wildlife of the forest around the lake.
The lake itself was very pleasant, and is clearly used as a weekend retreat by the locals, with lots of chalets and caravans called the Village de Morangiès on the east side of the lake. There is a trout farm at the southern end of the lake – we enjoyed excellent fish from this farm several times during our holiday.
Hotel Balme in Villefort
Villefort is a small town with little to recommend it. The high street is a few hundred meters long with a couple of supermarkets and pavement cafés/bars, a good bookshop and a few other shops including butchers and bakers.
M Gomy was very friendly and welcoming at the Hotel Balme, which is showing its age. The hotel is on the main road through the centre of town, and we had a room on the second floor over the front door. This was a huge comfortable room, with a good bathroom and WC and sufficient hanging space. The wallpaper was in places stained and peeling, and there were dents in the walls. The bed linen was however perfectly clean and the bed comfortable and warm. The food in the restaurant was good, plentiful, and served promptly and politely.
M Gomy's picnic was the simplest and the best – just masses of light baguette bread with an eggy spread, lots of cheese and ham, with a delicious slice of mouth-watering melon. Just right.
Villefort to Le Merlet
The next day was one of the best. We were taken by taxi from Villefort at the bottom of the valley at 600m altitude and dropped off at 1450m altitude by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. From here we walked through glorious wild high-level unspoiled countryside by the headwaters of the mighty River Tarn, here just a minor mountain stream.
M Gomy's picnic went down very well beside the Tarn, while ravens and eagles flew above us.
We departed from Inntravel's route by adding on an extra 6km of walk down the Tarn valley (their “Option 1” for the “rest” day at Le Merlet). This was a good move – the day's walk, while glorious, hadn't been that challenging, so this excursion increased the day's distance by sufficient to make us think we'd worked hard and deserved a beer at our destination - Le Merlet. However, this was not to be – they haven't bothered to get a licence which allows them to provide alcohol except at mealtimes.
We stayed two nights at this excellent huge old stone farmhouse set by itself at 1100m altitude in the hills. It was a great place to stay, full of character. There's a huge terrace outside the main building, with fantastic views south over the hills. M Galzin runs the farm, while his wife looks after the guests. The farm has lots of sheep, some pigs and several massive and fruitful vegetable gardens. Most of the food served is produced on the farm. We enjoyed all the meals here, apart from the mutton casserole main course on the first night. The mutton was a disgrace, consisting of 95% bone and 5% fat. The main course on our second night was delicious slices of roast pork, with assorted vegetables. All the other courses here were excellent.
All meals are taken at a communal table in the dining room, which is a great way to get to know your fellow-guests. Huge bowls of food are slapped on the long table in front of the enormous fireplace, and you help yourself. Wine is included, and the carafes of very drinkable local red wine keep coming, until 10pm, when M Galzin announces that everybody is going to bed, that the last one out should turn off the lights, and the staff then all disappear. M Galzin is a bit of a character – he's mad keen on football, and knew more about our local football club than we did.
The bedrooms are located in several annexes next to the main farmhouse building. Ours was comfortable and spacious with an excellent bathroom with a shower.
On our second day here we walked down into the nearby village of Le Pont de Montvert, which is well worth a visit. The steep old cobbled alleyways take you down to the main road by a couple of ancient bridges over the confluence of rivers. There are one or two bars, restaurants and shops. From here we did a long slog up the hillside southwards, with spectacular views over the village, followed by a ridge-walk, a walk through some woods, and finally several exhausting miles up side roads back to Le Merlet.
We liked Le Merlet, despite the dodgy mutton casserole. The place is a genuine dirty muddy farm, not some rich proprietor's spotless antiseptic toy.
Le Merlet to Le Mas Nouveau
Another great day through spectacular scenery, with an ascent to the week's high point at 1440m. Inntravel claim it's 18km, but a fellow walker with a GPS reckoned it was more like 22km.
A cold blustery wind blew from the north on this day, which helped to keep us cool after the baking heat of the first few days, but sent us actively seeking sheltered spots when we sat for a rest or for lunch.
Inntravel's walking notes failed us at one point during this day – we spent 20 minutes casting about for the path, before finally finding it by heading in the opposite direction.
The final couple of km were a bit of a trial – 700m of descent steeply downhill on broken stony rubble-strewn paths, made bearable by more spectacular views over the foothills to the south of the Mont Lozère massif. We also were entertained once as we were able to look down into the cockpits of two Mirage jets as they flew past below us dodging and weaving through the valleys around the mountains.
Le Mas Nouveau
Le Mas Nouveau is a picturesque, renovated, old, stone-built farm building, around a delightful central courtyard. The bar / dining room is partially underground in what looks like an old meat store, with iron hooks hanging from the ceiling. There is a health spa with picture windows overlooking the lawn at the back, with beds for massages, and outside there is a large granite hot tub, and granite relaxation couches, which are probably very cooling on a sweltering hot day, but on a chilly day in mid-September were icily cold.
There is a large room used as a conference centre at one end of the courtyard, with a big stone terrace outside for breaktimes. The guest rooms are dotted around the courtyard. The renovation has concentrated on maintaining a rustic farm atmosphere, with lots of exposed stone, antique ill-fitting doors with massive iron strap hinges, etc .
The major disappointment of our holiday was our room here. We were promised a large room, with an en-suite bathroom. We had accepted the fact that the WC was actually outside off the corridor (there was a large party staying at the hotel and this was the only accommodation they had left), but we were promised exclusive use of the WC, and our own key to ensure this.
The large room turned out to be a dormitory with three double and four single beds, and precious little else. The bathroom was not en-suite, it too was outside off the corridor. And there were no keys for the WC, or for the bathroom, or indeed for our dormitory. You could lock the bathroom and WC from the inside, but not the dormitory. This meant that anyone could wander into our dormitory bedroom at any time – while we were asleep, getting changed, or indeed while we were out walking. Our insurance company would have laughed at us if anything had gone missing from our room. The bathroom double doors were certainly antique, with a small hole at eye-level that enabled passers-by to peer in to watch us showering.
We asked to be moved to another room, but there were none available. Inntravel soon admitted that there had been a misunderstanding between Christine, the proprietor, and Inntravel over the non-en-suite nature of the bathroom, but the peephole in the bathroom door and the unlockable bedroom were considered to be quaint, charming and rustic. Inntravel later sent us a reasonable sum in compensation for the misrepresentation and the disappointment.
The food at Le Mas Nouveau was excellent, and the staff helpful and polite, especially the proprietor, Christine, who works full time as a doctor in nearby Ales. We had no problems with Le Mas Nouveau apart from the standard of our room.
You get two nights here, but the only available local circular walks involved a 700m ascent back up the way we'd already come, so we opted for a lazy day and just wandered up a nearby hill.
Le Mas Nouveau to Génolhac
A short walk of 7km or so mainly downhill to Génolhac down in the valley at 500m above sea level. After an hour or so we had a brief glimpse of a small deer running away through the trees, which was nice, but the clouds were already thickening, and it started to drizzle heavily as we neared Génolhac. Our waterproofs were deployed for the first time on this holiday.
Génolhac is a small medieval town with some picturesque old stone buildings in the narrow central streets, through which we walked to reach our hotel, Le Temps Des Cerises.
Le Temps Des Cerises in Génolhac
This is a very artistically renovated historic old house, beautifully finished, and run by the utterly charming M & Mme Dumond.
The small but elegant gardens include a heated outdoor swimming pool and a sun-terrace, neither of which we used because the drizzle continued all afternoon. M Dumond is a very good chef, and supplied us with a delicious, and massive, evening meal and breakfast.
He also drove us to the railway station in the morning for our long journey back to Marseille and home. He took us in a complete wreck of an ancient car, which was totally out of keeping with his beautifully decorated hotel. He apologised, explaining that this was his emergency backup car. His normal car was being mended - the previous week it had been severely damaged in a collision with a wild boar.
These photos are roughly ten to a page, about 2 to 3Mb per page.
A good Inntravel walking holiday - plenty of wild open upland country, with picturesque mountain streams and spectacular views. Good hotels, good food, fair to excellent hotel accommodation. Recommended – just make sure they don't put you in the dormitory at Le Mas Nouveau. And make sure you take your own water bottles...