Peyrusse-le-Roc: A Hidden Corner of the Aveyron

Peyrusse - Roc del Talhuc

Peyrusse – Roc del Talhuc

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.

Village square - church built in the stables of the former royal château

Village square – church built in the stables of the former royal château

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.

Peyrusse - gateway to a ghost town

Peyrusse – gateway to a ghost town

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.

Twin towers of the château inférieur

Twin towers of the château inférieur

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.

River Audierne bouncing over the rocks

River Audierne bouncing over the rocks

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.

Peyrusse - forbidding hôpital des anglais

Forbidding hôpital des anglais

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.

Pont du Parayre - mule and pilgrim track

Pont du Parayre – mule and pilgrim track

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.

Medieval garden

Medieval garden

Medieval watering system

Medieval watering system

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.

Copyright © 2013 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.
This entry was posted in Aveyron, Châteaux, History, Places, Walking in France and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Peyrusse-le-Roc: A Hidden Corner of the Aveyron

  1. Pingback: 5 Hidden Gems in Southwest France | Life on La Lune

  2. Pingback: Saint-Cirq-Lapopie: A Plus Beau Village de France | Life on La Lune

  3. Pingback: Beautiful Bastide: Villeneuve-d’Aveyron | Life on La Lune

  4. Kate Swaffer says:

    As always, a wonderful journey for me, wth great images. I’ve ben creating my own potager recently, although not a lot of medieval herbs to be found here. But it is wonderful to be able to pick fresh herbs. I look forward to a ‘real’ visit some time!!

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    • nessafrance says:

      I hope you do make a real visit – it’s more rewarding than a virtual one! It is nice to grow one’s own herbs. We don’t grow vegetables because it’s just too much hard work on our soil and we get given a lot as well. But I do have a good selection of herbs around the garden, which I use a lot in cooking.

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  5. Anita says:

    We visited out of season a couple of years ago. It is a lovely place. We did walk across to the opposite tower constantly wondering if they had lost anyone over the side. We missed the charming bridge though – we’ll have to go back. Great photos.

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    • nessafrance says:

      You’re braver than I am! I bet they lost a few over the side when they were building it. It is a lovely little bridge, isn’t it: Real picture postcard stuff. It’s not far along the opposite bank and well worth the stiff climb up afterwards.

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  6. I tried to grow woad last year but had no luck. I feel inspired to try again having seen that lovely medieval garden.

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    • nessafrance says:

      I hope you have better luck with it if you try again. It was cultivated extensively in our region around Toulouse in the Middle Ages and huge fortunes were made on the pastel dye that comes from it. Although the trade declined, people are now reviving it and making products using the dye.

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  7. Evelyn says:

    My friend, Edith and I visited here last August. She actually climbed the metal stairs and walked across to the opposite tower! I had vertigo just watching her! I guess you and I are both chicken. We missed the pretty little garden and the bridge, tho. It was a beastly hot day and we just didn’t have the energy to explore much more.

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    • nessafrance says:

      I knew I had read about someone else’s experience and now I realise it was yours! It’s worth going back to see the other sights I mention. Just don’t go in season and/or when it’s very hot. Yesterday, it was around 25 C and that was enough for me, climbing back up to the village.

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  8. robinnis says:

    Vanessa – never had you down as a chicken! Fabulous photos, admit to being quite envious of your location. But not giving up my (Costa Blanca) sun!

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    • nessafrance says:

      When it comes to heights, I’m afraid I am. And it gets worse with age. As a teenager I’d have been skipping up and down those ladders, no problem. We do have some spectacular countryside and places but the weather north of the Pyrenees is not reliable. Yesterday, it was 25C, today it’s back to 11C.

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