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Living on the edge

Romantic France is filled with hidden villages like Bozouls, which captivates with its centuries-old buildings perched precariously on the lip of a giant hole in the earth

Suzanne Sng on 09 Feb 2020

The Straits Times


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What was supposed to be a rest stop on a road trip turned out to be the highlight of the holiday.


While planning a monotonous seven-hour drive on the highway from Paris to Arles in the south of France in summer, I stumbled upon a Web page titled The French Town On The Edge Of A Giant Hole.


I pinged my travel buddy: "Does this intrigue you?"


"Very much," was his instant reply.


Google Maps informed us that a detour would add about two hours to our journey south, to which he, as the designated driver, exclaimed: "Life is too short for motorways anyway."


We rerouted so that we could stop for the night near Bozouls or - as we had no idea how to pronounce it - "that weird cliff-top village". (If you really must know, it's "boh-zool" with a silent S.)


One week - and a six-hour drive - later, we were standing right on the edge of the giant hole, leaning over the rails of the viewing platform with a sheer drop below, with our jaws agape and our eyes agog.


Even though we had come across online photos of the ancient village, nestled among the national parks in the south of France in Aveyron, nothing prepared us for the immense chasm in the ground.


Panoramic shots and even aerial drone photos could not capture the enormous size of it, not to mention the sheer insanity of the villagers who had chosen to perch their homes along the horseshoe-shaped rim.


As one of the top tourist destinations in the world, France has numerous must-see sights.


Mont-Saint-Michel, mystically rising out of the ocean with a mediaeval monastery on top. Giverny, with Monet's lush gardens and water lilies. Provence and its rolling, fragrant hills of lavender. Versailles, renowned for its glittering royal chateau and manicured gardens.


I had been to them all and none took my breath away compared with what locals casually call the Trou de Bozouls (Bozouls Hole) - 400m wide, 100m deep, millions of years old.


It was the perfect blend of nature's handiwork and mankind's tenacity, and the best part was there was hardly another soul around to disturb the tranquillity.


Even though we were there at the peak of summer, we saw fewer than 10 other tourists.


As we set off to explore the gorge, we felt like we were well and truly going off the beaten path. Not even many French people know about this place, making it a true hidden gem.


Armed with a simple map from the tourism office, we took the easiest of the three recommended hikes, which range from one to two hours.


Huffing and puffing up and down the canyon, we saw mediaeval towers, pointing skywards with conical roofs, a waterfall gurgling down to a cooling watering hole, blooming wildflowers and the oldest structure still standing - Eglise Sainte-Fauste, a 12th-century Romanesque church built with magnificent red sandstone.


Vertigo-inducing views along the way were almost a given, but the sleepy village of 2,800 inhabitants was not without its charms.


Like so many of the tiny French villages I adore, there were cobbled streets lined with stone houses, their balconies garnished with flower boxes of red geraniums, a boulangerie with the enticing scent of fresh, crisp baguettes, and quaint churches with bells that tolled not quite on the hour.


And best of all, friendly locals who "bonjour" you with a smile, gladly stopping to give you directions and then praising you as you mangle the beautiful French language while attempting to tell them how magical their village is.


We had driven half a day to this remote part of France just to see a hole. When we left, we felt like we had scored a hole-in-one.


• Suzanne Sng is a former Straits Times journalist based in Amsterdam as an independent editorial consultant.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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