In the depths of the Tarn Valley, surrounded by the stunning scenery of the gorges, this medieval village is something of a legend.
The enigmatic village of Sainte-Enimie ignited my imagination from the moment I first spied its dappled roof-tops, half-hidden in the folds of the Gorges du Tarn below and bathed in the hazy sunlight of a late winter’s afternoon. Approaching from up on the plateau (or causse as the locals say), I half-wondered if the village might disappear as the sun dropped behind the mountain, extinguishing the shadowy mirage along with its rays.
Luckily, as I looped down, plunging deeper into the cavernous gorges, the mirage hardened into veritable bricks and mortar, and Sainte-Enimie revealed itself in the pale light of early dusk, sitting snug and pretty just above the river’s edge.
This Plus Beau Village (a title awarded for its outstanding beauty and heritage) grew up around the monastery founded by the Benedictine monks who came to the area at the behest of the bishop of Mende in the year 951. The monastery, today a secondary school, can be seen on the higher level of the village, quietly observing the bustle below.
I entered the lower reaches of the village on foot from the Route de Mende, the cobbled street immediately heralding a return to the Middle Ages, and came to the Roman church of Notre-Dame-du-Gourg which occupies much of Place de l’Eglise, with half-timbered houses closely surrounding it. Situated just outside the original rampart walls of the fortified vieux village, the church dates from the 14th century, with both the north and south chapels added around a century later. In the north chapel, I discovered the statue of Saint Anne, holding the Virgin Mary and Jesus, and listed as a historic monument in 1908.
Leaving the church, I continued up Rue le Serre (meaning ‘ridge’), the main thoroughfare that leads to the top of the village, and the monastery. Sainte-Enimie grew in prosperity thanks to the presence of the monks and to its location along the ancestral cattle route known as the Aubrac Drovers’ Road, which attracted pilgrims and traders. Looking around me in the centre of the old village, it was easy to imagine the hubbub of the medieval markets, with street names such as Place au Beurre, Place aux Oules and the Halle au Ble indicating where they used to trade dairy products, clay cooking pots and cereal products respectively.
In the Halle au Ble, almost hidden in the corner of a stone wall of a restaurant’s covered terrace, two hollowed-out stones are the original measures for five litres of grain. Apparently, the quantities traded were never large, as most buyers had to carry home goods on their backs, or on that of their prized donkey, if they had one!
Across the square from the grain measures, I stopped for a moment to look out across the remains of the terraced fields on the eastern side of the village. Known as bancels, these stone-walled terraces made it possible to farm the steep slopes of the gorges, notably cultivating vines, almond trees (for their precious oil), and food plants.
The architecture of the buildings also reflects the village’s trading history. Many of the houses have an arcade at the front, known as an echoppe, which acted as a sort of in-built market stall with shutters that could open out on to the street. On other dwellings, part of the upper floors are built out over the street – acting as protection for people selling and trading their wares beneath. The overhang was equally a means to gain extra space inside.
I noticed also the sponge-like, pale ochre-coloured stones used to build some of the houses – I was later told that this porous clay stone is typical of the area and was a popular building material due to its lighter weight. In summer, a number of artisan boutiques open to tourists, thus continuing a rich merchandising history.
Reaching the top of the village, the quiet gave way to the raggle-taggle noise of pupils flocking out of school (the former monastery) and I imagined the ancient monks tutting with annoyance in their nearby graves. The youngsters took the ‘back route’ along the Chemin des Moines that flanks the west side of the old village, skipping down the well-worn steps carved into the rock leading to the road and river below. It was the favoured route of the Benedictine monks through the years, so I followed in their clearly marked footsteps, though rather more slowly than the light-stepped teenagers ahead.
SAINTE-ENIMIE AT A GLANCE
Stay the night at… the Auberge du Moulin in Rue de la Combe (doubles from €69, aubergedumoulin48.com), which combines the authenticity of a traditional stone building with modern comfort. The ten bedrooms have views over the River Tarn or the pretty garden and include two family suites. Owners Sophie and Didier are the third generation in the family to run the hotel and restaurant. Didier is the chef, cooking specialities of Lozere made from local produce and served either in the cosy dining room with fireplace, or on the shaded outside terrace, depending on the season.
Stop for lunch at… La Tendelle on Front du Tarn (menus from €15, restaurant-la- tendelle.fr), which has won the qualite Sud de France label for its commitment to serving a popular local menu and promoting regional produce. Organic wines feature strongly and have also been awarded the Sud de France label. Guests may eat in the beautiful vaulted dining room or on the terrace overlooking the River Tarn.
WHERE TO VISIT
La Fontaine de la Burle: The magical waters of this spring cured the leprosy of Enimie, the beautiful daughter of a Merovingian king, who subsequently settled close to the waters, became a nun and established a convent in the 7th century. Whether the legend has any grounding in history (it was recounted in a medieval troubadour’s poem), it has been recounted through the ages to good effect, drawing pilgrims and early tourists to the healing waters. The turquoise-coloured spring, located at the entrance to the village via the Route de Mende, is 27 metres deep by 30 metres across and opens on to an underwater gallery that continues beneath the Causse de Sauveterre.
WHERE TO WALK
Hermitage and chapel: Built in to the cliff- face, directly opposite the village is the semi-troglodyte hermitage and chapel, where, according to the legend, Sainte Enimie retired to die. Leaving from the now-closed Hotel de Paris, opposite the bridge, take the street leading to the Route de Mende, cross over and take the road opposite, before turning left behind the large grey building and following the trail up the cliff. A round trip of around 45 minutes, with lovely views over Sainte- Enimie and the gorges.
GETTING THERE: Sainte-Enimie is an 8hr 30min drive from the northern ports, 30min from junction 40 of the A75 autoroute, which is the main route through the Lozere departement, Montpellier and Clermont- Ferrand airports are both on the A75, but at least a 2hr 15min drive away; The train from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand and onward coach service to Mende takes 6hr45min.
TOURIST INFORMATION: Cevennes Gorges du Tarn tourist board, tel: (Fr) 4 66 45 0114, cevennes-gorges- du-tarn.com; Sainte-Enimie tourist office, tel: (Fr) 4 66 45 53 44.
IN THE AREA
After a leisurely stroll through Sainte-Enimie, why not cross the bridge and try something more energetic with a five-kilometre walk to Saint-Chely-du-Tarn? A tiny village pinned tightly between the cliff-face and the river, it has pretty stone houses in a flurry of narrow streets, one of which leads to the small chapel of Baume de Cenaret, built into the overhanging rock. If you are still feeling fit and adventurous, continue for another nine kilometres to La Malene.
Twenty kilometres south-west of Sainte-Enimie along the River Tarn, you come to the village La Malene. Before the road through the gorge was built in 1905, boats were the principal means of transport between the villages gathered in its valleys.
For decades, La Malene has been the only place where the few remaining boatmen (bateliers) offer tourists the experience of travelling along the gorge in this time-honoured fashion. Using a flat-bottomed boat that holds from two to six people, the batelier steers you along eight kilometres of river to the Cirque des Baumes.
To mix things up with a few high-altitude thrills, pick up the D998 and head 25 kilometres north-west to the Via Ferrata climbing route, situated a dizzying 350 metres above the village of La Canourgue (lozere.fr/ ferrata-de-la-canourgue. html).
Choose the easy or difficult course depending on your ability and/or courage. Trails include a footbridge, two monkey bridges, a Nepalese bridge and an optional zip-wire at the finish.
Just a few kilometres to the east of Sainte-Enimie is the village of Montbrun, perched halfway up the slopes of the Causse Mejean, where the little stone houses are built in a sort of semi-circle to form what looks like one big look-out post. The village is quickly visited, but it’s worth popping in for the far-ranging views across the Tarn Valley.