Mountains are my paradise
The mountain environment has always been my favourite, there are few views more awe-inspiring than a beautiful conical summit. The Aveyron is an ideal adventure travel destination, with plenty of adrenalin fuelled activities on offer.
Mountain scenery is extremely varied however, from an endless vista of high altitude snow topped peaks, huge steep-sided gorges or lush forest-covered valleys with meandering serpentine rivers teeming with fish and possibly glimpsing a bear or other large mammal.
The landscape of the Midi-Pyrénées consists of gorges gouged through the land by unimaginably powerful forces. There are flat plateaus sitting above steep cliffs and beautiful, densely forested vales with crystal clear mountain streams and rivers. Bears maybe absent, but there is a half decent chance of spotting some deer or even a wild boar!
One of the main attractions of a mountainous landscape is the vast variety of outdoor pursuits it lends itself to. High terrain combined with the associated exposure and flowing water sources provides ample opportunity to try a little adventure of the traditional kind.
Adventure capital or playground is an overused cliché and not necessarily appropriate here as there is not one single town or even region of the Midi-Pyrénées which monopolises adventure activities. The truth is there is plenty available throughout the area.
Expert and novice alike can find plenty to keep them occupied for hours, days or even weeks. My visit was during the summer, perfect for climbing and many mountain sports but the kayaking will be a little tame. Travel there in the spring when snow melt is in the rivers or in late autumn when the rains have come and the rivers can easily reach grade four or five apparently.
There is an extensive network of major rivers and tributaries with easy access from the road a couple of paddlers and a car could have a great time playing on some serious white water at the right time of year.
The whole area is especially popular with climbers with dozens of routes up almost every possible cliff face but there is still plenty of opportunity to forge new routes to those with the necessary skills.
Via-ferrata has spread here from Italy and Germany (where it is known as klettersteig) and is already proving very popular with a number of high level routes having been established. Originally developed by Italian soldiers during the Second World War to enable them move between mountain gun posts it consists of a series of cables which the participant can ‘clip’ into with a pair of Karabiners. There are often ladders and artificial foot and hand holds fixed to the rock to enable movement. Whilst it is not entirely popular with the purists and conservationists it does offer a means for ordinary people with a modicum of fitness to visit the terrain and experience the exposure usually reserved for highly skilled rock gymnasts.
It can still be very strenuous and when over one hundred metres up a rock face it is not a place to find out that you are not as fit as initially thought. Extreme exposure is part of the whole package being high on a vertical cliff hanging on a strip of metal with the wind blowing in your face is definitely exciting and not for the faint-hearted. Participants must be committed and totally confident with the equipment. Relying upon, and can even resting on it, but it is not always easy to put all of your trust on what is basically a few pieces of rope and metal clips.
The climbing in this region is fantastic with routes going up to the limits of the French grading system with 8c and even 9 being relatively commonplace. The rock is superb with routes that seem unfeasibly vertical or overhanging and fortunately many of them are bolt free. They do not seem over used however and although the chalk residue is easily visible on the more extreme routes there is seldom more than one pair on any climb.
It is the perfect destination for getting about either on two feet or two wheels. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of hiking routes from easy trails to serious scrambles up vertical cracks and ridges in the various gorges that make up the area. Trails are available that take just an afternoon around a town or even a few days or more along trails that link gorges and the main towns.
It is not just hyperbole to refer to the region as a mountain biker’s paradise, there are a plethora of routes, both single track downhill and trails for those they also like to go uphill! The roads are excellent and usually relatively quiet so touring by bike is extremely popular and there was not a day that went by that several cyclists were not seen. It stands to reason of course that it is equally suitable for motorcycle touring.
Excitement or chilling
For those that really need some high-octane adventure there are still plenty of choices. I’d planned to go on some serious caving and an evening parapenting but unfortunately in both cases the weather was unsuitable.
There was an offer to go bungee jumping off a bridge near the pretty village of Ste Eulalie de Cernon which I was able to take up. I watched and photographed dozens of people take their personal leap of faith then without much of ado took my chance, jumping off backwards.
There is a condition where a person feels almost compelled to jump when stood at the top of a cliff or precipice and may need physically restraining, to prevent them from doing just that. I am unsure what the medical name for it is but can understand the compulsion as I have experienced a mild form of it many times.
There are a number of companies based in the region that will arrange many of these activities including a flight in a micro-light providing a great birds-eye view of this lovely region.
BASE jumping is possibly the most exhilarating activity of all and even this is possible. Jumpers arrive on the Millau Viaduct early in the morning and hurl themselves from the two hundred and ten metre highway which traverses this impressive piece of modern architecture.
This activity is actually prohibited and to avoid the attentions of the police jumpers often arrive in pairs, one driving the other jumping. The driver pulls over momentarily; the jumper instantly springs from the car fully equipped with a chute and then throws themselves without pause off the span, with just enough time to allow the lightweight parachute time to open.
Getting the heart pumping and blood coursing through the vessels of our body is a good thing occasionally. Experiencing some genuine excitement and release of the natural hormone epinephrine (adrenaline) can make us feel really alive and offer that ‘feel good’ factor that can often be all too brief. We should all make the most of it while we can, it will be all too soon before we are at the wishing I was younger stage.
Those that prefer a little more relaxation however can take a boat ride under the viaduct with the Bateliers du Viaduct from the peaceful village of Creissels. This is a perfect way to experience the full majesty of the viaduct enabling passengers to sit back and truly soak in the wildlife and scenery along the River Tarn. The view of the Viaduct from the river is certainly spectacular but is almost matched by the village of Peyre built into the side of a hill further upstream.
So much to do so little time
I was there for just a week and despite a fairly packed itinerary only scratched the surface of what is possible. There were plenty of options for places to stay, with campsites everywhere including along the River Tarn just outside Millau.
A little more upmarket are the many gîtes (holiday accommodation) and chambres d’hôtes (bed and breakfast) which are available throughout the region, then of course there are plenty of hotels available for all budgets.
This is a region that has plenty to recommend it apart from the activities described, there is a great deal of history and culture to keep the not so active happy. Idyllic, quaint villages are dotted throughout the area and it is a destination ideal for those looking to dip their toe in the adventure travel pool.