Knowing that the fine weather wouldn’t last, I made a long-planned excursion into the Aveyron Département yesterday. I set off under wall-to-wall blue skies. The trees were fuzzy with spring green and the pastures were gold-tinged with buttercups. The farmers were taking advantage of the sunshine to cut the hay. Alas, the weather has reverted to type today.
Where we live used to be part of the Aveyron until Napoleon put his hand (or thumb; opinions vary) on the map in 1808 and hived us off into Tarn-et-Garonne. But I have an abiding attachment to the Aveyron – named after the river that flows through it.
Yesterday was road works day. Wherever I went, I had to wait at temporary red lights or proceed cautiously over newly-laid tarmac. Never mind; they look after their roads in the Aveyron. My first port of call was Villeneuve-de-l’Aveyron, a bastide town established in 1231 and built onto the existing settlement. More of that in a later post.
My principal destination was Peyrusse-le-Roc, a village well off the beaten track. Today, it’s a sleepy place perched on a hill. In its heyday in the Middle Ages it had an estimated population of 3,500. Its name was originally Petrucia – named after the reddish rock of which the houses are built. Reading up on it beforehand, I wondered why the ruined twin towers that cling to their rocky pinnacle are called, ‘le château inférieur’ (the lower chateau). When I got there, I saw why: the present village is on the hill above the site of the chateau.
The town was founded in around 767 AD, was later fought over by the houses of Toulouse and Aquitaine and Simon de Montfort might have taken it during the Albigensian Crusade. It ended up in the hands of the French crown in the late 13th century.
Peyrusse thrived because of the silver and lead mines nearby. Once these had run out in the 14th century, there wasn’t much left for the inhabitants except farming the unpromising terrain. People moved away, the medieval town fell into ruins and those who remained moved up the hill. Villefranche-de-Rouergue, which was at the confluence of river and road routes, overtook Peyrusse in importance.
The village remained a stop on an alternative route de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, but that wasn’t enough to make it thrive. Like so many of these places today, it lives principally from tourism. I advocate visiting out of season: Peyrusse is probably heaving in the summer. When I arrived around midday, I had a whole car park to myself. The only other visitors were a couple who were plainly not shod for the stony paths. Forewarned, I was glad of my walking boots.
Unfortunately, the massive church in the place des Treize Vents was padlocked. I had read that it contains delightful contemporary wall paintings and sculptures by local artist Hervé Vernhes. Instead, I negotiated my way down a steep path beside la Mairie. The site of the ruined square towers on the Roc del Talhuc opened up before me with a stunning view to the rolling countryside beyond.
To gain access, you have to scale metal staircases/ladders. How on earth did they get all that stone up there in the first place? Reader, I chickened out. Instead, I descended the well way-marked path down to the River Audierne that bounds over the rocks some 150 metres below.
Not much of the original medieval town is left. But the size of the ruins that remain gives you some idea of what an important settlement this was. You descend past a barbican, a belfry and monumental stone walls. At the bottom, you come upon the remains of an enormous building: l’hôpital des anglais – so-called presumably because the town belonged to Aquitaine at one point, effectively English after Eleanor married Henry II of England. They treated pilgrims and local people – and possibly lepers at one point – there.
You can follow the way-marked trail over the rushing Audierne, and walk along the opposite bank until you come to this delightful 11th-12th century bridge – le pont du Parayre. The mule track that crosses it linked the town with the plateau on the other side of the river. From there, I had a steep climb back up to the village.
Before re-joining the car, I followed signs for a ‘Jardin Mediéval’ and found this wonderful potager, with a panoramic view over the countryside. They grow herbs and plants common in the Middle Ages. I now know what Sarriette and Isatis Tinctoria (woad, from which they made pastel dye) look like.
From a nearby house wafted delicious smells of lunch and the irritated tones of the chef – “Allez! A table! A table!!” It was already 13h15, late by French standards.
London felt a very long way away.
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