At 421 kilometres, the Allier is one of France’s longest rivers and also one of its least known. From its source in the southern Massif Central it flows north until it's confluence with the Loire to the west of Nevers, from where the combined rivers continue their long journey to the Bay of Biscay.
The route along the Upper Allier Gorges
Leaving the foothills of the Cevennes, the river gently flows through Lozere to Langogne where it enters the Haute-Loire department. From there it winds through the Gorges de Haut L’Allier, a series of dense, densely wooded valleys that continue for 50 miles to Langeac.
There are only a few riverside settlements along the route between the two, and no direct road. The best ways to see this magnificent wilderness are from the river itself, by rafting or canoeing down from Chapeauroux, or by train. The river here is a magnet for fishermen where trout and salmon abound.
Exploring the Allier gorges by road
From Langogne a road runs along the shores of the Plan de Naussac, a huge man made lake. At any season and time of day there are superb atmospheric views of the lake and surrounding mountains. Never crowded, this is one of the most peaceful scenes in the Allier valley.
After crossing a barrage fitted with environmentally friendly turbines that regulate water in the Allier and the lake, the D126 turns north-east and back towards the river, which it crosses on a narrow rusty cantilever bridge at Jonncheres where a magnificent ruined medieval castle towers over a ravine, bridge and level crossing.
The road then climbs away from the river to Rauret and soon joins the D88. Turning towards Le Nouveau Monde and Grandieu takes the traveller down a narrow valley to L’Allier and the main gorge, which it then follows closely through St Medard and La Maison Blanche to Le Nouveau Monde and Chapeauroux. This stretch provides many fine panoramas of the river rapids, deep clear pools and a lengthy view of the train line from Clermont Ferrand to Nimes clinging to the cliff face opposite.
At Le Nouveau Monde the D31 rises steeply over 200 metres and round several hairpin bends to reach Saint Haon, giving magnificent vistas of the Gorge on the way up, especially of the twenty eight arch 448m long curved viaduct carrying the railway across the confluence of the Chapeauroux and L’Allier.
From the top of the Allier gorges here the two villages of Le Nouveau Monde and Chapeauroux and the viaduct 200 metres below look like a model railway. A particularly spectacular view can be obtained from the tiny hamlet of Le Thord.
Soon after Saint Haon the D40 leads down through dense woods to Alleyras and Pont d’Alleyras where the road drops back to river and railway level. From Pont D’Alleyras the road along the gorges twists and turns and rises and falls to Saint Didier d’Allier, St. Privat d’Allier and on to Monistrol d’Allier, giving tantalising views of the river far below.
Because of the steepness of the gorge, neither St. Didier nor St Privat are actually on the river. From Monistrol the road undulates alongside and above the river through Prades with its sandy beaches to Langeac through St Julien des Chases, St Arcons d’Allier and Chadenac.
Exploring the Allier gorges by train
The railway line runs through some of the most beautiful and dramatic river scenery of any line in France and there are numerous photographic opportunities. There are only three stations on the train route through the Allier gorges, at Monistrol, Pont d’Allyras and Chapeauroux, the highest station on the line.
In addition to one or two daily mainline trains a tourist train runs in season from Langeac to Langogne and back. It is a most spectacular ride, with refreshments available at both ends of the journey. In June there is usually a steam train on Sundays.
Other highlights along the Allier Gorges
In addition to the route described above many roads criss-cross the many hills and forests on either side of the Gorge. In addition, tributaries of L’Allier such as the Chapeauroux and L’Ance, are rewarding to explore, as are the upper reaches of the Loire which lies a few miles to the east.
The Chapeauroux Valley is particularly attractive, leading to Laval-Atger and Chateauneuf de Randon, Grandieu and the Margeride where there is a most unusual Bison Reserve.
A little further on is the Mont Mouchet Memorial which includes a stunning museum recording French Resistance to the Vichy Government and the Germans during the Second world War.
Although few locals will talk about it, and those that will are becoming fewer by the year, there is a growing body of published works about the Resistance Movement in the L’Allier and Haute Loire valleys which were under the control of Vichy and occupied by the Germans from November 1942.
Many small sleepy villages high above the Allier Gorge have much interest, often with small roman style churches, and various attractions such as fromageries and visitor friendly farms.
Legends and stories in the Allier region
The story of the Beast of Gevaudan is well documented, as is the journey recorded by Robert Louis Stevenson (Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes - 1878). South of Langogne, is the renowned Trappe de Notre Dame des Neiges, a Cistercian Monastery deep in the woods near La Bastide, where Stevenson stayed the night and had some interesting encounters.
Remains of robber baron’s castles, once belonging to the Seigneurs du Thord, can be seen overlooking the gorge at Saint Haon.
The countryside and weather
This is ‘high country’, with woods, mountains, plateau and valleys and huge views in every direction. The fauna includes red squirrels, deer, pine-martens, foxes and hares, while birds of prey soar, sweep and pounce on unsuspecting small mammals that include rabbits and stoats.
The fields, limestone walls and cliffs house a wide range of flora, as do the extensive woods and forests where mushrooms abound in many guises. The Allier gorges are a naturalist’s and gourmet’s delight.
The weather is also worthy of comment, with dry hot summers (sometimes) and very cold winters (usually). Because the atmosphere is normally quite dry, frosts are few. When they do occur, especially after a mist, they are spectacular with trees and bushes having the appearance of giant white sticks of candy floss. Sudden and often violent rain and electrical storms are not uncommon, while ethereal mists frequently hover in the gorge in the early mornings.
Author and photos by Terry Burke.