I don’t often do book reviews here. It’s difficult to strike a balance between being overly ingratiating and offensively critical. However, I am making an exception today to mention a book I have just finished and enjoyed about the Aveyron département.
Aveyron – Rural and Unspoilt
We live just over the border in Tarn-et-Garonne. I have formed a deep attachment to Aveyron, which remains one of the most rural and least spoilt départements (counties) in France. It forms a bridge between the mountainous Massif Central and southern France and boasts some glorious and varied countryside. It also has 10 plus beaux villages – and many more which could justifiably aspire to the title – and a high concentration of prehistoric monuments.
As well as being a geographical crossroads it’s a place where ancient meets modern. Nowhere is this more effectively symbolised than in the magnificent, gigantic Millau Viaduct, which carries the A75 motorway over the Tarn Valley. Designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster and built by the Eiffage group, this state-of-the-art tribute to modern technology was inaugurated in December 2004. I am ashamed to say that we still haven’t been to see it, although we did pass that way while it was still under construction and the colossal pillars had been raised.
A Kindle Quibble
Ancient successfully meets modern is one of the principal themes of Thirza Vallois’ book Aveyron, a Bridge to French Arcadia (publication details below). Here, I have to admit that I bought it by mistake on my Kindle, although on this occasion I’m glad I did.
One of the more irritating aspects of Amazon’s Kindle is that when you go to the book details in the Kindle store the cursor is automatically on ‘Buy’. A little slip of the finger and the book is winging its way to you over the ether. You can cancel the order but not without a 50p charge on your credit card. I find this desperately irritating and verging on the dishonest.
A Personal Odyssey
Anyway, enough of that. Searching for something else, I bought Thirza Vallois’ book by mistake but it was a happy accident. Her discovery of Aveyron was also an accident. She is a well-known authority on Paris, especially its hidden corners, having lived there for years. In fact, she was in two minds about whether she should write the Aveyron book and encourage the hordes to move in, c.f. Peter Mayle and A Year in Provence. In the end she did it anyway: “Since la France profonde was going to be assaulted by modern times, I might as well sing its praises before it disappears.” Her book is a description of her discovery of the département over several years, starting with the high moors of the Aubrac in NE Aveyron and gradually working her way around most of the rest.
A warning: this is not a guide book. It’s not a Lonely Planet-type travelogue complete with ‘where to stay’, ‘where to eat’, ‘what to do’ information. In fact, some Kindle reviewers felt their expectations were disappointed in that regard. Don’t expect detailed maps or itineraries. Rather, this book is a personal odyssey, full of anecdotes, personal reflections and descriptions of meetings with the Aveyronnais themselves. Far from being a byword for backwardness and rural decay, Aveyron is one of the places in France where the quality of life is highest.
The book is organised along thematic lines, each of the 11 chapters dealing with a specific aspect of Aveyron, although the theme often coincides with a geographical area. I thought I knew Aveyron pretty well, particularly the western part, but I learned a whole load more from this book. For example: I previously knew very little about the Aveyron wine industry or the 19th-century phylloxera crisis that all but wiped it out; I wasn’t aware that there were troglodyte villages in Aveyron; neither did I know that part of northern Aveyron was once in the hands of the Grimaldi of Monaco. To my must-do list I have added countless entries.
Thirza Vallois’ writing style is vivid and dynamic and she draws you into the landscape with her, whether she is chasing the sunset or getting her first glimpse of the pilgrimage halt of Conques and its abbatiale from a hill overlooking it. There are some photographs dotted throughout the book, taken by the author and other photographers, although they don’t come out well on my black and white Kindle. A few more wouldn’t have gone amiss, although having worked in publishing myself, I know this increases the unit cost. I would also have liked a list of further reading but Googling ‘Aveyron’ does the trick too.
My main quibble was the lack of an index. I know you can make notes and bookmark pages on Kindle but I kept forgetting, which means slogging back and forth to re-find the things that particularly interested me. I mentioned this to the author, whom I emailed to say I had enjoyed the book (I don’t normally do that, either). In her reply she said that on looking back through the book later on, she agreed it would have been helpful but wasn’t sure when a new edition would come out.
So, with the minor caveats above, I can recommend this book if you want to get a real sense of Aveyron’s history, landscapes, traditions and people.
Aveyron, a Bridge to French Arcadia, Thirza Vallois, Iliad Books, 2007, ISBN 978-0-9525378-4-7. Available in Kindle store and in hard copy on Amazon.
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