Winter here – especially this winter – is not greatly conducive to getting out and exploring. It’s all too easy to sit in front of the fire and make a promise that we’ll do it next week. But I do wonder why haven’t I written more here about Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, one of the more atmospheric towns in the region. It’s not far from here but we just don’t get there very often. See my post about its Fête des Battages. I took most of these photos at the end of October 2012, during magnificent autumn weather.
Exploring the twisting medieval alleys of Saint-Antonin, overlooked by towering white cliffs (the Gorges de l’Aveyron), we almost expect to meet the ghosts of former inhabitants. The town is full of secluded squares, ornate doorways and delightful stone carvings. It originated in Gallo-Roman times but the present town grew up around an abbey in the 8th century.
The market square with its covered halle is the setting for a lively Sunday market. The colourful stalls stretch out along the narrow streets from one end of town to the other in summer. You can buy herbs and spices from a stall which you scent long before seeing it; try samples of local pastries and breads; and taste goat’s cheese from la Fromagerie du Pic, based at Penne downriver, which has a stall under the halle.
Nonetheless, at the risk of offending the locals, I have to say that this is not one of my favourite markets. In summer too many tourist throng the narrow streets. If you suffer from claustrophobia, as I do, this is no fun. Other local markets are more authentic – and cheaper – in my experience, e.g. Caussade.
Despite all this, Saint-Antonin has plenty to see. La Maison Romane, constructed in 1125 and reputed to be the oldest civic building in France, towers over the market square. It houses the town’s museum, notable for its collections of bygone implements and geological exhibits.
Saint-Antonin also played its part in the region’s stormy history. Simon de Montfort took it during the Albigensian crusade, it changed hands five times during the Hundred Years War and Louis XIII besieged and took the staunchly Protestant town during the Huguenot Rebellions in the 1620s. He lodged in our own commune, Caylus, which was staunchly Catholic. In fact, the two towns have always been rivals.
In her comment below, Victoria has reminded me that the film Charlotte Grey (2001) was shot in and around Saint-Antonin. Based on the novel by Sebastian Faulks, the story is set in World War II. I remember the film company changed all the shopfronts in the town to 1940s style – and then had to change them all back afterwards.
Cate Blanchett, who played the main character, was seen dining several times in the town, although one restaurateur told us afterwards that she had a small appetite. We know a few people who acted as extras in the film. However, I’ve never actually seen it and I believe it had a mixed reception. Amazing to think it’s already 12 years since the film was made.
Making the most of the river
You’ll find plenty of walks (randonnées) in the locality, either up on the surrounding hills or along the river. And in summer, the river is great for canoeing. Starting from the town you paddle downstream to Cazals, a small village about 10 kilometres distant. In between, you negotiate weirs and rapids and enjoy long flat stretches. The gorges de l’Aveyron loom above you, their limestone heights pierced with inaccessible caves.
The SF and I are reasonably good at canoeing. I rowed for my college at university and he is of muscular, athletic build. So we power away and, astonishingly, usually avoid arguments. It’s great fun and we always wish we did it more often.
This is much the best way to see the landscape. You see kingfishers, dragonflies, fish rising and naked sunbathers. And you get wet. Very wet. In our experience the best time to go is early September. Normally, it’s still warm but the holidaymakers have gone and you have the river almost to yourself.
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