Every time you saw me taking a train to the “South” to escape Paris I was either going diving in Marseille or Toulon, heading to some of the finest diving in France, including Calanques National Park and Port-Cros National Park. It is quite funny to note that every time someone refers to the “South” in France, we generally mean French Riviera and Provence exclusively. We almost never say the “South-East”, it’s just the “South”. Whereas we clearly identify Aquitaine and Basque Country (aka surfers’ paradise) as the “South West”, I found myself a bit out of vocabulary when explaining where I was heading to this time.
How should we refer to the area going from Marseille to Perpignan including the Toulouse area, the “Central South”? Following a change in the organisation of the regions of France (we went from 22 regions to 13 in 2016), the area is now called “Occitanie”, but it emphasised regional cultural clashes especially in the French Catalonian area which felt it was losing its identity. So I found referring to the “Other South” of France the easiest way to put it. Haaah France… the land of making simple things complicated, but where its beauty lies in its thousands of cultural nuances.
So what took me there? For once, not diving in the first place, but a travel blogging conference with my French-speaking counterparts since (*drum roll*) I am currently working on the 100% French version of World Adventure Divers! My French blogging friends thought I wouldn’t surely stay away from the water there, and it was initially something that made me doubt about attending the conference. You know me, travelling somewhere and not diving? The answer was only a Google search away…
Millau in Aveyron: History, hearty food & outdoors
Millau has been my base for almost a week the time of the blogging conference, to go on a via-ferrata & zip-lining adventure in the Dourbie Gorges with Roc et Canyon, only 15 minutes driving away from the town centre, and to go scuba diving in the Tarn Gorges with OK plongée nature, 40 minutes driving away. If you are into outdoor sports, the number of options available in Millau is impressive. While I was doing my zip-lining activity, some of the other bloggers of the conference went bungee jumping, kayaking, paragliding, rock climbing or trail running.
Everywhere we went, all these nuances of green amazed me, and I was surprised to learn that Aveyron is the home of the highest number of the Most Beautiful Villages in France. If you fancy discovering the French countryside while making your dreams of medieval villages and traditional food come true, Aveyron is the place to go. I had the opportunity to explore “Peyre”, a troglodyte village by Tarn River, just on the other side of Millau Viaduct, and “Sainte-Eulalie-de-Cernon”, which medieval history of the Templar knights will bring you back in time.
For the foodies, make sure you don’t leave Aveyron without tasting “Aligot”, made of mashed potatoes, fresh cheese, cream, butter and garlic! The preparation is a show in itself as the chef will have to batter it energetically until the mash becomes elastic and makes thin threads. Talking about cheese, Aveyron is also the home of the world-famous strong French blue cheese, Roquefort. I’m glad I was so active during my stay with an average of 15,000 to 20,000 steps each day to burn my high-calorie intake!
With the kind hospitality of people from Aveyron, welcoming and proud to show the best of their region, I couldn’t help thinking that it was the exact same reason that made me love Scotland so much. Even the Millau Viaduct, whose central pillars are higher than the Eiffel Tower, made me think of the Forth Bridges near Edinburgh.
The Tarn Gorges: jewel of the Cevennes National Park
The “Gorges du Tarn” are one of the natural wonders in France I never had the opportunity to visit before. Before becoming a wide river in Aveyron, the Tarn River forms a 400 to 600 m deep canyon in the Cevennes National Park over a distance of 53 km.
During springtime, water is between 10 and 12°C and the current can be strong depending if it had rained before, making it potentially not suitable for diving. In the summer, the flow rate of the river is quieter, the level of the water a bit lower and the temperature at a pleasant 20°C. The ideal period to go would be September when the weather is still beautiful, the river calm, and most of the holidaymakers gone.
When I discovered I would go scuba diving at “Pas-de-Soucy” in the heart of the gorges, and I would be the first diver of the season, my heart pounded with excitement. Breath-taking natural landmark, private guided river diving, and drysuit diving in fresh water? Yeah!
My diving day with OK Plongée Nature
For once I didn’t have to wake up at dawn, David of OK Plongée Nature came to pick me up at 10 am in Millau. I had a good reason to sleep in for once!
“No need to go early, it is best to go in the water at noon when the rays of sunshine penetrate the water for the best light effects underwater!”
I climbed up in his van turned into a mobile dive centre, and 40 minutes later we arrived at “Pas-de-Soucy”. We parked at Le Beldoire Camping which was due to open the day after so we had plenty of space for ourselves. Please note that all the areas along the river are private, David has a special authorisation with the camping to go diving from their domain. Do not attempt to go river diving by yourself in Tarn Gorges without any permission.
The weather was stunning that day, and the water looked so clear from the surface. Yet, I quickly noticed on David’s face, the conditions were not what he had hoped for.
“It may not look like it, but the speed of the water at the surface is quite fast, it means the current is strong below, and for sure the visibility is going to be affected; I hope you know how to fin kick efficiently!”
The brief for the dive was to go into the current at the beginning of the dive to reach the pool formed below a high cliff, explore a few of the caverns formed by the rocks which felt into the river, and then came back to our starting point in drift dive mode.
We prepared our gear on the grass, and before putting our dry suits on, we brought our equipped tanks on the river bank to avoid to fall as there are no stairs to access the river. Once in our suits, we only had to put our BCD on and go. Ouch! The current was so strong that despite my best efforts to fin kick efficiently and breathe deeply, I found myself quickly out of breath and had no choice than starting to grab the rocks to move forward.
Once in the pool which max depth is around 12 m, things were more relaxed, but still, we had to remain careful and stay behind the rocks to protect ourselves from the current. David took the opportunity to show me an underwater spring flowing directly into the river, and we searched for big rainbow trout below the rocks.
The most impressive part was definitely this cavern formed by the rocks in the middle of the river; I would have never guessed you could find such caverns in rivers! Too bad the visibility was poor because when the conditions are right, you can get amazing light effects inside. At least our way back to the entry point was a lot more fun as we were surfing in the current with this time absolutely no effort.
Before getting out of the water, we stayed a little while in the shallow part over the cobblestones of the river with the European chubs and the tiny minnows which were surprisingly playful.
I may not have dived the Tarn Gorges in the best conditions; however, the beauty of having dived in all types of situations trained my eyes to recognise incredible dive spots. I think “Pas-de-Soucy” might be just as good as the Verzasca River in Switzerland, maybe even more exciting as the playground is wider, there is more aquatic life to look at, and the caverns with the ray of light are definitely something that can be worth the dive in themselves.
When you know you can stay at a campsite just right next to your dive site where you can enjoy glamping in pristine nature, will you keep the secret? If you don’t feel like bringing all the camping equipment, Le Beldoire Camping also rents large tents with all the comfort you can think of: real beds for 5 persons, a shower, toilets, a kitchenette and a deck with a stunning view to lounge in the sun after your dive.
I asked David if he was able to welcome non-French speaking divers, he said while he travels all over the world in the offseason for diving, he can make an effort in English, but an effort in French in return would be appreciated. He mentioned he already had Dutch and German divers who spoke a little bit of French, and it worked!
How to go to Millau?
The easiest is to take a high-speed train from Paris to Montpellier (3 hours and 20 minutes) and then a bus that leaves from the train station to Millau (about 10€, 2 hours, 4 times a day). To get the best fare on TGV trains in France, try to book your ticket 3 months in advance. I made the return trip from Paris to Montpellier for 50€ only by doing so.
You can also fly directly to Montpellier from Paris, London, Berlin, Dusseldorf or Amsterdam for example. To reach Millau, renting a car will be your best option then.
Do you want to discover other quirky dive sites in France? Have a look at these articles:
- Diving detours in the other south of France: Sète & Thau Lagoon
- Rediscovering my local dive sites in Brittany
- Ice diving above 2000 m in the French Alps
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