It’s cold, wet and miserable this week when we should be basking in wall-to-wall sunshine. So much for the person who said this summer would be hotter than 2003. And the swimming pool has gone green again. So to cheer myself up, I decided to write a post about another of les plus beaux villages de France, Belcastel, in the Aveyron about 50 minutes’ drive from us. You can read more about it in a more recent post, with photos taken in September rather than November.
I mentioned in my post about Najac that the Aveyron Département has the highest concentration of plus beaux villages in the whole of France. They are normally outstanding examples of local architecture, in a beautiful or imposing site and unspoilt by the ravages of modern planning.
Belcastel nestles in a deep valley with the River Aveyron at the bottom. Thick chestnut forests cover the flanks of the slopes. Most of the village is on the steep north, or right, bank. The 15th-century church is on the left bank.
Belcastel has two main claims to fame: a fairy-tale, if somewhat severe, château; and a Michelin-starred restaurant. It also has a 15th-century humpbacked bridge over the River Aveyron and a collection of houses built in the local stone with lauze (split-stone) roofs.
The château started life as a chapel in the 9th century and the Seigneurs of Belcastel expanded it into a fortified building. During the 13th century, they apparently supported the Cathar heretics and incurred royal displeasure. Then they ruined themselves financially by going on the Crusades in the Holy Land from which they failed to return. The château came into the hands of the Saunhac family in 1390. They restored it and built the bridge and the church.
The Saunhacs abandoned the château at the end of the 16th century. During the 19th century stone was pillaged from it, hastening its ruin. It was not until 1973 that a French architect, Fernand Pouillon, discovered the ruins and set about restoring it as authentically as possible. The present owners have opened the château to the public and it serves as a setting for village events as well as containing several contemporary art galleries.
The last time we were in Belcastel, the château was still undergoing restoration, so we have not yet been inside. Click here to find out more.
There are several restaurants in or around Belcastel but the one I’m talking about is L’Auberge du Vieux Pont, owned by the Fagegaltier sisters. It has one Michelin star. We have eaten there three times. On the first two occasions we ate well. They were the SF’s birthday celebrations: funnily enough, we haven’t been on my birthday. The cuisine uses local ingredients and they serve regional dishes with a modern twist. They also have an excellent cellar and a knowledgeable sommelier. The dining room itself is not particularly atmospheric but is invariably full.
On the third occasion, we went with friends to whom we had waxed lyrical about it. Unfortunately, there were problems that night. It took a long time to get served and when we did it looked as if portion-control had been rigorously exercised. The starter consisted of a couple of Noirmoutiers potatoes with a bit of bacon and the occasional minuscule girolle. The main-course pigeon had clearly died of anorexia. The young waiter who operated the cheese trolley then served tiny slivers of cheese – cheese-paring indeed. It was a great shame and we should have complained but didn’t. We haven’t been back since then – 2007 – but maybe we should give them another chance.
The restaurant also owns a small hotel in a converted barn on the left bank. The rooms are comfortable and well-furnished, if a bit pricey, and they have lovely views over the river and the village. Click here for the restaurant/hotel website.
The village is worth a visit but keep away in the high season when it is no doubt heaving.
An adapted version of this post appears on the Aveyron Tourist Office English-language blogsite.
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