High on the plateau, the wind resounded like a wolf howl. And another. And another. Gradually the eerie noises sweeping across the starkly beautiful landscape melded together as if becoming a single utterance of the sheer wildness of the area. The net effect was chilling and thrilling in equal measure.
I was taking a short walk on the Aubrac plateau, a wonderfully remote region of the southern Massif Central that straddles the Lozère, Cantal and Aveyron departments above the north-eastern reaches of the Lot Valley. With its expansive, wide-open moorland dotted with lunar-like granite outcrops and patchworks of ancient pasture, it looks like a French take on Mongolia. You half expect to see yaks grazing by the drystone walls that snake across much of this high, rolling country.
That is when you’re not caught up in imagining that the ferocious Beast of Gévaudan prowls the region once again. Said to have been the improbable progeny of a panther and an enormous wolf, this massive, man-mauling mammal terrorised the people of the historic Gévaudan province in the mid 1760s.
Gévaudan has since become the Lozère departement, but the province’s name lives on, thanks in some part |to the legend of the beast. I had been drawn to the area to visit a chateau that is intriguingly described as the “petit Versailles du Gévaudan”.
Driving there along the network of little lanes that wind up and over this desolately lovely region was a navigational challenge – and getting lost provided a happy detour.
I stopped to ask the way at the eponymous village of Aubrac and found myself in a place of ancient pilgrimage: the small settlement is dominated by the substantial remains of an enormous monastery that dates back to the 12th century. The monks here ran a sanctuary that provided much- needed respite for footsore travellers on one of the most difficult stages of the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Today, the section of the historic path that runs from Aubrac village across the moorland to the town of Nasbinals is an especially popular hike. Avoiding the deepest of the snow that was covering much of the area, I set off – and during my half-hour hike it was as if the magnificent wilderness itself was conjuring shadowy images of fearsome creatures and hardy beasts in the distance.
As well as following in the pilgrims’ footprints, I stayed in their shadow, too: in Aubrac, at the village’s Hôtel de la Dômerie, a comfortably unfussy outfit set on the site of the medieval sanctuary for the pèlerins. Later, I acquired detailed driving directions from the obliging staff to the chateau, several kilometres west.
Given the “Versailles” tag, I was expecting a majestic estate with big, boldly ornate gardens. But of course a lavish-looking palace would have been entirely out of kilter with the rawness of the surrounding landscape.
I arrived at an austere edifice of granite stone bordered by a simple balustrade and surrounded by open land as opposed to grand gardens. It was pushing it to suggest that the chateau bore much, if any, similarity to the extravagantly opulent complex that Louis XIV developed out of an old hunting lodge. But both historic monuments were largely constructed in the 17th and early 18th centuries.
Set at an altitude of 1,200m, Château de la Baume is one of the highest of France’s castles – and it is almost certainly the most dramatically isolated.
The practicalities of construction in this lonely, windswept area are evident. The first and most severe-looking part of the chateau was built in the 1630s for Antoine de Grolée, who as Baron de Peyre was one of the eight lords of Gévaudan. More elegant additions were constructed for Antoine’s successor, his dashing fifth son, Ceasar.
Since the 1850s, the property has been owned by the Las Cases family. They still live here, inhabiting the greater part of the property and opening a stately section to the public. At most times of the year, you need first to make an appointment with the caretaker, who will then show you around with all the due pride and knowledge of a family retainer.
Entering this stronghold of a chateau is like walking into a picture book. For all the stark exterior, this is a gem of a place filled with 17th-century finery, all perfectly conserved. There are wood-panelled walls, coffered ceilings and centuries-old tapestries, while some of the most ornate of the doors were made in the Versailles workshops and painstakingly transported to these southern wilds. The billiard room is fabulously lined with suits of armour – even horse armour – and the bedrooms are richly furnished with painted walls and great swaths of fabric over canopied beds. One of these rooms also has a working clavichord.
I spent an absorbing hour with the caretaker whose generous enthusiasm for the chateau extended to the Aubrac area. Had I visited the Romanesque church in Nasbinals, with its amazing carved porch? Had I seen the Wolves of Gévaudan? These wild animals, she said, had been reintroduced to the area in the 1960s, but were safely contained in a big park just outside the hamlet of Sainte-Lucie (so perhaps I had heard wolf howls after all).
Most of all, though, had I been to Aubrac? Ah, so I’d seen the monastery. But I really must come back in May, she said, for the annual fête when cattle are driven up to summer pastures here. It’s a terrific day, she explained, with a band playing and villagers walking beside the livestock, many of which are adorned with garlands. It was a striking image, taking me full circle from predatory beasts to flower-wearing cows.
Where to stay
* Hôtel de la Dômerie, Aubrac (00 33 5 65 442 842; hoteldomerie.com ); doubles from €67, excluding breakfast.
What to see
* Château de la Baume, 48100 Prinsuejols, Lozère (00 33 4 66 325 159; chateau delabaume.org , €6). During July and August, guided tours daily at 10am-noon, and 2-6pm. Visitors are welcome at other times by appointment with the caretaker.
* The Wolves of Gévaudan, Sainte-Lucie (00 33 4 66 320 922; loupsdugevaudan.com ; 10am-5pm daily, but closed throughout January and until 5 February, €6.50.
* Aubrac’s 2010 Fête de la Transhumance takes place on 23 May.