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Cultural Aveyron; Enchanting Villages and Mystical Castles

It surprised me to discover the Midi-Pyrénées is the largest region in mainland France and is larger than the Netherlands. I visited the Aveyron, tucked away in the South-West of the Massif Central. It is extensively wooded, the deep valleys providing lines of communication between the many towns and villages.

The bridge at St Antonin Noble Val in the French Midi-Pyrenees of the Aveyron on Mallory on Travel adventure, photography

Bridge over the River Aveyron – St Antonin

The landscape is dominated by deep clefts gouged out by ancient glaciers and powerful rivers. The many picturesque towns are either nestled in these valleys or sit high on the surrounding hills replete with castles and impressive Romanesque churches.

There is a great deal of history throughout the region, it is culturally very diverse and the cuisine is as varied.

Most of my trip involved a variety of outdoor pursuits which was great fun but meant there  was not always time available to properly explore this fascinating destination. This is a region rich in history, much of it dating back to the ‘One hundred years war’ between England and France and the religious wars involving the Protestant uprisings against the Catholic king.

It became necessary to make the most of every free moment that was available to enable me to fully appreciate the visit and manage a few alternative adventures.

St Antonin Noble Val

A major town in the Tarn-et-Garonne filled with quiet, narrow and winding streets and pretty, medieval buildings. Nestled by the river Aveyron in the shadow of the cliffs of the Roc d’Anglars, with a multitude of small intimate restaurants and pleasant Chambres d’Hôtes.

The house of love St Antonin Val Noble in the Aveyron Midi-Pyrenees, France on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography

Maison de l’Amour (House of Love, St Antonin)

The Maison des Consuls is probably the finest of these, housing the Musée du Vieux St-Antonin and can date its origins back to 1120. The museum is worth a visit as it displays several interesting exhibits of the history of the town.

I did manage a guided tour around the town with a group of teenage American girls. This was of great interest allowing me to visit a few places that would otherwise have been not have been found. Many of the houses have ‘corbels’; sculpted artefacts often depicting animals, removed from the walls and abbeys of the old town and fixed to these homes.

The town was prominent in the Wars of Religion or Huguenot Wars originally being Cathar controlled before becoming a Protestant stronghold. It even declared itself a Protestant Republic, and remained so for a hundred years until besieged by King Louis XIII who then returned it to Catholic control.

Boules in St Antonin Noble Val in the Aveyron, France on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography

Boules could be a national sport

There is a rich heritage of manufacturing with high quality linen and leather goods being produced locally. Evidence of these industries is widespread throughout the town, the tanneries in particular being clearly visible.

Taking a wander through the streets provides plenty of interest and it is easy to soak up the history that seems to eek from the very walls of almost every building.

Eventually finding myself down by the river with its bridge, both of which are extremely picturesque, I dallied awhile to watch the local men descend to play their daily session of boules.

There was still plenty of time for me to settle back on the riverside patio of Le Carré des Gourmets and enjoy some leisurely dining. There simply is not any need to rush, dawdling over several excellent courses washed down with some excellent wine until the sun dips below the surrounding hills. Time seems to pass here at a sedate pace, it is easy to understand why, and I savour every mouthful and moment.

Bruniquel

The next day a rain filled afternoon allowed me a little more free time, so jumping into the car I took the short drive to the village of Bruniquel eager to see its castle.

Bruniquel in the French Aveyron in the Midi-Pyrenees on Mallory on Travel adventure, photography

Approaching Bruniquel castle

Situated on the confluence of the River Aveyron, and its tributary the Vère this is one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France; a list of the most picturesque and well maintained villages in the country. It immediately becomes clear why when taking a walk down the extremely well-kept streets. These are immaculately manicured and very pretty indeed.

The walk to the castle requires a climb up a steep hill through narrow streets lined with houses that are worthy of any postcard.

I am given a tour around the castle by an equally pretty and pleasant guide named Lise, unfortunately for her she speaks excellent English. This means my fondness for conversation meant the 30 minute tour developed into a two-hour epic. Our chat ranged well beyond the confines of the tour but I did discover part of the reason for her proficiency in English was several months spent as an au pair in Grantham of all places.

The castle is known as Château de Bruniquel and often Châteaux de Bruniquel because there are actually two castles. Yes I know it gets confusing and is a long story but basically a castle in one form or another has been here since the sixth century. The existing ‘old castle’ has been here since the twelfth century, but the ‘new castle’ which is almost an annex was completed in 1510.

Being owned by the people of the village sets this castle apart from the usual ones Funding for the restoration of the castle has come largely from within the community or from fundraising projects which they have instigated.

A guided tour of Bruniquel Castle in the Midi-Pyrenees, the French Aveyron on Mallory on Travel, adventure, photography

Lise, my very patient guide

It is an ambitious and impressive project, the old castle in particular is in remarkably good condition, retaining the original keep, remnants of the Knights Hall, grand fireplaces and the Renaissance Gallery which affords a fantastic panorama of the valley. Two hours flew for me but sympathy for my long-suffering guide prevented me dawdling still further.

The annual Jacques Offenbach festival is hosted here from late July and throughout August, unfortunately I would just miss the start of this event, another time perhaps?

The town had one last gift for before I departed, the heavens literally opened, it was genuinely like a tropical monsoon for about twenty minutes. I have only ever witnessed rain like it less than a handful of times anywhere in the World. It was not the usual weather that might be expected in the South of France, it was however actually quite exhilarating.

Najac

There was not unfortunately a great deal of time to properly explore Najac. Travelling for most of the day and then spending time with groups of children at a nearby activity centre enjoying canoeing, high-wire traverses and aerial slides, left me limited time.

It is yet another of the beautiful villages of France group, dominated by its medieval castle, which is seen from almost any point in the village. In fact sitting high on its own hilltop it dominates the entire landscape of the valley.

Najac a beautiful French village in the Aveyron  on Mallory on Travel adventure, photography

Lovely Najac at sunset

There has been a castle on this site since 1100, the original one was the home of the infamous Simon de Montfort where it played a major role in protecting the Cathars during the Albigensian Crusade.

It is especially striking and for this reason alone it became my favourite village. My trip was complete when the view from the  accommodation balcony L’Oustal del Barry provided an interrupted of the castle. I was entirely captivated and so engrossed in taking photographs that it was late by the time I finally got down for dinner.

Luckily for me, they were very understanding, did not send me to my room without any supper but instead provided me with an excellent meal of local cuisine and a suitable wine to go with it.

The troglodyte village of Peyre near Millau in the French Aveyron on Mallory on Travel adventure, photography

Peyre in the shadow of the Millau Viaduct

I went to bed very happy indeed dreaming up plans of returning to explore the castle properly.

Peyre

Merely glimpsed at from the River Tarn whilst on a boating trip, but it is an incredibly striking village built into the side of a hill above the river. This listed village sits in the shadow of the Millau Viaduct but is certainly not overshadowed by it. The troglodyte church in particular is especially impressive and provided yet another reason to dream of a return.

Yet more villages

The Aveyron region has ten villages which are on the list of beautiful French Villages, more than any other region. There were plenty of other noteworthy small towns passed through on this trip, Ste Eulalie de Cernon with its Vélorail of the Larzac, Creissels and Saint Affrique are just a few worth going out-of-the-way to see.

Leave the toll roads out though, it is well worth taking the extra time, spend the money saved on excellent glasses of wine whilst catching your breath amidst the enchanting villages and mystical castles.

The Millau Viaduct in the French Aveyron on Mallory on Travel adventure, photography

The Millau Viaduct

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  1. Sherry

    What a charming and gorgeous place to be that I wished I could just dive into my monitor and into one of your photos, particularly that photo the of castle Najac at dawn/sunset. I too would be captivated and engrossed in taking photograph if I were lucky enough to be there like you. Medieval castles situated within enchanting villages in the French countryside – this is a trip to envy. I enjoyed taking this trip with you through your post.

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      Iain

      Thank you Sherry I loved it for sure, and Najac was probably my fave place too as mentioned, but there are so many other places with great sounding names, beautiful images in the press pack and recommended by the locals that I would love to go back without the activities and just explore. I am glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Lisa @chickybus

    Wow…this looks like a fascinating place to visit. So much history and really beautiful. I really love Najac–I think I’d really enjoy a few days there. Thanks for sharing such a great photo essay here!

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      Iain

      It really is Lisa and i only managed to scratch the surface it is a huge area with so much diversity I had to cut the piece short too as it was becoming too long so no mention of great little cities such as Montauban and Millau.

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      Iain

      It certainly is Mathias, so many wonderful places to visit, I did get to Millau off your list there are two other articles on my site about the trip including some pictures of the awesome Millau Viaduct.

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      Iain

      Thank you Nelieta (lovely name) it was indeed a truly fantastic place to visit and really hope to get back there one day soon, I can recommend Lise very patient indeed 🙂

  3. Sheril Benedict

    wow this one is great ..how come u discovered this place ?? Your photos looks awesome and your guide must be happy for the snap 🙂 and people in pondicherry (India) will play that boules too . I think we got this game from french people ..

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      Iain

      Hi Sheril it is a great place that I was lucky enough to be asked to visit on a recent press trip. I also think boules is traditionally French but has been exported to other places too 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

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  4. Angela

    This is so fascinating, I’ve been to France many times and traveled quite extensively throughout Provence, Lorraine and Berry regions. France is full of those picturesque villages, I would love to visit the ones you wrote about, it seems a magical place indeed.

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  5. Christian

    Hi Iain et al,
    Great post indeed.

    If any of you wishes to get a closer look at what Aveyron offers, check us out at experiencemyfrance.com
    This is new, and (extra)ordinary.
    See you there!

    Cheers.

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  6. Katie Hughes

    This is new, and (extra)ordinary. Europe has more than its fair share of spectacular castles I suspect, hoping you get to live your dream very soon. So much history and really beautiful.

  7. Tony James Slater

    Awesome post, I’ve never even heard of this region of France! I’m putting it on my list to visit though – I love castles, and my wife (who is Australian, and so new to them) is obsessed. With Castles. Yes.
    Really interesting, and I had a question – the ‘Troglodyte’ village, is it as the name suggests, partially underground? Sounds like it would be worth a visit!
    Cheers,
    Tony

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      Iain

      I think castles bring out the kid in all of us Tony that is one of the reasons I enjoyed this visit to the Aveyron and hope to return soon too. The church in the troglodyte village of Peyre is partially buried and definitely worth a visit too if you get the chance.

  8. rashmi

    The pictures look great! I have always wanted to visit a castle and see what it is really like. Though I could not see the castles myself the descriptions and the pictures you have provided have added to my knowledge and imagination of castle. Thanks for sharing1

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      Iain

      Thank you Rashmi I have always loved castles too every since I was a kid. we used to visit them with my parents and my dad made me one with cardboard and kitchen roll holders, it was one of my favourite toys.

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  9. Nicole @ Green Global Travel

    Sounds like you found yourself some gems out there. I remember when we were traveling through country Spain, we found a heap of great little country towns that looked fantastic, were cheap and had a lot of character, with no tourists around.

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