As a travel writer, you soon learn that there are countries which, when you mention them, elicit a polite smile of incomprehension, which says: er, where’s that then? Laos is a classic example. Also Kyrgyzstan. And maybe Eswatini.
But can it be true that there are chunks, regions, entire departments of France that conjure the same puzzled stare? Oui, my Spectator reading friends, c’est vrai: and that place is Lozere. France may be the single most touristed country on earth, the one country the whole world knows, yet for the last few weeks, when I’ve told people I’m off to do a French travel piece in the department of Lozere I’ve been confronted with flat incomprehension, then embarrassingly incorrect guesses: is it in Brittany? Is it an overseas island?
And now, as I sit here nibbling chunky, tasty, knobbly local charcuterie, in the slant September sun, in the pretty, stone-built, shaded-by-a-plane-tree terrace of the Hotel Restaurant La Route d’Argent, in quaint little Nasbinals, Lozere, next to the lyrically medieval church – famous as the grave of a local bonesetter, which is itself somehow fantastically, parochially Lozerienne – I can feel a proper sense of superiority. I have come somewhere in France that no one else knows about, including plenty of French people – even if it is, itself, so authentically French you can’t move for old men sitting at zinc-topped bars, passive-aggressively shrugging under their berets as they sip glasses of pastis and think about nougat.
One reason for Lozere’s anonymity is its glorious emptiness: per square kilometre, it is the emptiest department in the country. Another, perhaps, is Lozere’s hard-to-categorise geography. It is technically a part of the Occitanie region, and barely 100 klicks from the Med – therefore surely in the burning south, the Midi! And yet its tough, exhilarating and rugged high-country landscapes – moorland, woodland, cataracts, mountains – somehow make it a determined, reclusive outlier of the north.