Walking the Viaur Valley

 

Autumn colours in the Viaur

After a weekend of cold winds and low temperatures – I was picking walnuts wearing a woolly hat and a jacket on Sunday – the weather turned again on Monday. A cloudless blue sky and temperatures in the mid-20s Celsius tempted us to abandon our computer screens. We took advantage of the continuing Indian summer to do a walk that we haven’t done for more than 10 years.

The valley of the River Viaur has some of the most beautiful and least populated scenery in the region. For much of its length the Viaur marks the boundary between the Aveyron and Tarn départements. The river joins the River Aveyron at Laguépie. The Viaur valley runs through the plateau known as the Ségala, where the soil was fit only for growing rye (seigle). Today, the area is noted for cattle rearing and the veau du Ségala has a Label Rouge, which guarantees the traceability of the meat and products made from it.

The Viaur itself is tranquil and shaded by chestnut trees and alders. The steep gorges are clothed with chestnut and oak forests. Church spires peep over the hilltops and dominate the sleepy villages of ruddy-pink stone houses crowned with split stone roofs. The former settlements down by the river were abandoned from the 18th century onwards. The chestnut forests, formerly cultivated and maintained, were abandoned, too.

 

Chestnuts

The area’s modern tranquillity belies a more troubled past. Some of its villages were fought over, won and lost several times during the Albigensian Crusades and then during the Hundred Years’ War. A large number of chapels and pilgrimage sites dot the hillsides – a reminder of the Catholic Church’s determination to reclaim the area from the Cathar heresy.

We started by the bridge below the pretty village of Bar in Aveyron. This walk follows the Viaur closely for much of the way and we had it largely to ourselves. A heron glided majestically above the water, looking like a pterodactyl, and landed on a rock mid-stream to begin its patient vigil. The ground was carpeted with fallen sweet chestnuts and, braving the spiky casings, we gathered some to roast on our fire. We walked across a meadow covered with purple crocuses and admired the flame-coloured autumn hillsides.

 

Crocus in the Viaur

 

The village of Lagarde-Viaur, on the Tarn side of the river, marks the mid-point of the walk. Today it’s a quiet place comprising a few houses around the church, most of them holiday homes or uninhabited. In its heyday, though, Lagarde-Viaur was an important strategic town, commanding the crossing over the river. Originally belonging to the Counts of Toulouse, the Albigensian crusaders took it in 1211 and it passed back and forth until it was finally attached to the kingdom of France in 1271.

 

Church at Lagarde-Viaur

 

Little remains today of the fortifications, except traces of the gates and the 13th-14th century fortified church. The square tower of the church is pierced by arrow slits (meurtrières). I doubt if the forbidding door is the original but it certainly looks more like the entrance to a fort than a place of worship. Apologies for the shadows of the telegraph wires: the place is festooned with them.

 

Viaur church door

From the village we climbed steeply until descending again towards the river and the Moulin de Bar where we had left the car. Around 20 working mills originally lined the riverbanks. They were used for milling grain, pressing walnut oil, spinning and saw-milling. The last one ceased operation in 1979.

As we drove home towards the sinking sun, we felt how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful region, steeped in history and far from the madding crowd.

Copyright © 2011 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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13 Responses to Walking the Viaur Valley

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  6. robinnis says:

    What a fantastic walk, you should become a guide! And some free produce.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Unfortunately, the guide books are too good and the ways too well marked for me to offer my services. However, we did well with the chestnuts. They were 5.95 euros a kilo in the supermarket today and we were treading them underfoot on our walk!

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  7. We do have more varied weather here. The Gers tends to be hotter and I remember August 2003 at Marciac, they had sprays to walk under in the main square. We go every year and that was definitely the hottest. I’ve never known it get up beyond the low 30sC here and we’re only thirty+ minutes SE from Marciac. We reckon it’s the configuration of the finger valleys splaying up from the Pyrenees that accounts for the differences. Who knows. Anyway, enjoy future walks, great time of year for it.

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    • nessafrance says:

      I don’t think I’ve ever been so hot in my life as sitting under that chapiteau in 2003 trying to listen to Diana Krall and Oscar Peterson – and they must have been even hotter onstage with spotlights blasting down on them. Hope your winter won’t be too tough; they’re bad enough here recently.

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  8. What a fantastic walk. And fancy finding crocuses in October. I loved the historical info, Vanessa. Thanks as ever. I hadn’t heard of those crusades before. I hope you can fit in a few more walks before winter starts. Here in Creuse that’s usually on the first of November 😦

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    • nessafrance says:

      We also hope we’ll get some more walking in. The weather normally turns here in early November too so the clocks changing is a real landmark in our year. Never mind, plenty to do indoors, including all that writing I’ve been saving up over the summer!

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  9. The Viaur valley is reminiscent of our area – Hautes-Pyrénées on the border with Gers and Haute-Garonne. I was photographing autumn crocus this morning and there a two great bowls of chestnuts waiting to be roast and dried for using in winter stews. The trees here are not yet on the turn and, although the approaching winter months are not such a wonderful prospect weatherwise, we always look forward to the extraordinary display of reds, browns and yellows from the wooded hillside opposite out property.
    Yes, it’s great to live in such a beautiful country.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Perhaps it hasn’t been so dry over there as it has been here for the past 3 months – hence your trees not turning yet. When we went to the Marciac Jazz Festival in 2003 (is it that long ago already?) we went for a drive around your area and I was very taken with the scenery. The temperatures were in the low 40sC so we stayed mostly in the air-conditioned car, but we did have a nice meal at a town whose name I now don’t remember. We also went and bought some Madiran wine direct from the property. I’ve often wanted to go back and explore in more detail, but you know how it is…

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