Book Review: Aveyron, a Bridge to French Arcadia

Pont des Consuls, Villefranche-de-Rouergue

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.

Copyright © 2012 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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10 Responses to Book Review: Aveyron, a Bridge to French Arcadia

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  3. Deborah says:

    I think I NEED this book – thanks for the review! The Aveyron is one of those areas that live on in the mind after visiting, rather misty and mysterious and very pretty. You must drive over the Millau viaduct! The last time we did it (a couple of years ago) was in an old convertible of ours, much-loved companion on trundles round France twenty years ago. I was in the back, there was hardly another car in sight, a sunny day, roof off, and it felt like flying!

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    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, it’s awful that we haven’t been there yet. Unfortunately, when you live in a place that’s what happens. From the photos I’ve seen it really is a very beautiful bridge and enhances the landscape rather than spoiling it.

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  4. Lee I says:

    I read this book, probably before I got my Kindle. The pictures are in color, so unless your Kindle is a Kindle Fire, you are missing that. I enjoyed it, but not being familiar with the area, I should have acquired a good map so I could better picture the relationship between places.

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    • nessafrance says:

      My Kindle is a bog-standard B&W, hence the pictures don’t come out well. A map would have been useful. There is one at the front but probably one at the start of each chapter would have helped since they tend to be based in particular areas, even if they are thematically based. Since I know much of it pretty well this wasn’t a hardship for me, but I can see it would be if you don’t.

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  5. Evelyn says:

    Actually this is the kind of ‘guide’ book I love! I find it fascinating to get a feel for a place and then explore it my own way. I’ve read two such books about the Lot/Dordogne area, both by WS Merwin, an American poet. And…once again…my Amazon.fr addiction has been fed. I just ordered my own copy of this book!

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    • nessafrance says:

      It will certainly give you a sense of the place. I hope you enjoy it. I have found loads of places to visit, most of which I was only vaguely aware of.

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  6. Firstly, thank you for giving me a reason to put off further getting a Kindle. I have been long hesitating, and this type of “dishonesty”, because it is just that, is the deciding factor! I’ll stick to the hard copy.

    My son used to live in Montpellier, and cruising down the motorway through the Aveyron, there were more signs off to interesting places than anywhere else. Coming back up, I could never stop myself going off at tangents, having a look at this and that, and in fact, never wanting to leave. The Aubrac, particularly, stole my heart, and at one time, we all thought we might move down there. It was only the winters that finally stopped us doing so.

    The variety of culture and landscape of the Aveyron is amazing, a never ending surprise and delight. I shall buy the hard copy of the book, and if I like it as much as you, it’ll make a good Christmas present for other members of my family!

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    • nessafrance says:

      I am actually a fan of Kindles and have been very pleased with mine. But I still like proper books and I don’t feel they will ever be replaced. However, it is good to order a book and have it delivered instantly. I am very cross with them, though, because it is incredibly easy to order things by mistake. Despite being very careful, I have done it several times now. I ought to clarify that the 50p was the credit card company’s charge for a cancelled transaction. The amount doesn’t matter in the scheme of things, but it’s the principle. If you order hard copies from Amazon’s website at least you have several opportunities to review the transaction and change your mind if you want: it’s virtually impossible to order by mistake in the same way as with a Kindle.

      The Aubrac is lovely but, as you say, the winters…Aveyron is amazingly varied in many ways and this book, in my view, conveys the spirit of it really well. I hope you enjoy it.

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