About South Central France: the southern Massif
Until recently, a tourist in the Southern Massif was about as common as a blizzard in June. Traditionally poor and sparsely populated, the region is both rugged and isolated, visited by Arctic winters in the northern uplands and scorching summers in the southern hills. Its magnificent scenery, by turns dramatic and desolate, is the chief attraction.
The see the best places to visit and to appreciate the terrain, spend a couple of days in the Parc National des Cévennes. The second largest national park in France casts its boundaries around two contrasting geological features, the weather beaten limestone plateaux of the Grands Causses and the lonely ridges of the Cévennes hills descending in choppy waves at the southern extreme of the Massif Central. The causses are bracing walking country topped by hamlets and fortified farmhouses. Between the Causse Méjean and Causse Sauveterre, the River Tarn has carved out one of the most spectacular gorges in France, while underground rivers and rainfall have created great caverns filled with stalagmites.
Further hiking opportunities abound to the north around Saint-Flour and the Plomb de Cantal, an outpost of the volcanic Auvergne (the high-spots of which are covered in High Spots of the Auvergne – see the Exploring locally France menu.
One of the Cévenne’s most spectacular drives is the Corniche des Cévennes, a winding mountain road built for Louis XIV’s troops in the early 18thC. In 1685, when the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes sent Huguenots into hiding, many took refuge in the Cévennes and waged a guerrilla war against the king’s army until the Camisard (‘white shirt’) uprising was brutally crushed in 1704.
The focus of this section remains, however, the Parc National des Cévennes. To approach it from the north, there are two options: the fast N9 to Millau, or the (preferable) N9/ N102 to Le Puy with a detour on the D588/ D906 up into the Livradois from Brioude. The N88 then dog-legs to Mende and picks up the N106 for Florac. From Avignon, to the south-east, the D981 climbs the garrigue to Uzès, then the D982 cuts across to Anduze, Saint-Jean-du-Gard and the Corniche des Cévennes.
Patience is essential for exploring the region without a car. Paris-Nîmes train services travel via Clermont east to Le Puy and Le Monastier for connections to Mende and Millau. Alternatively, Clermont-Aurillac trains stop at Neussargues-Moissac for connections to Saint-Flour, Mende and Millau. Daily buses serve most towns and villages in the national park, and run from Florae down to Alès for Anduze, Uzès and Avignon.