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