Last Saturday night’s thunderstorm caused us little bother – except for water seeping under the kitchen door as usual – and cleared the air. In parts of Aveyron, we hear, the damage was considerable and a church spire is reported to have fallen onto a house. This morning, as our walking group assembled in Saint-Antonin, the air was fresh and skeins of mist floated over the River Averyon. But the sun quickly dispersed the haze and we were glad our walk was short and mainly shady. The heat has returned.
Every year, the village of Espinas lays on guided walks every Wednesday in July and August. René and Marie-Bernadette (Nadette) Curato lead the walks and convey their affection for their adopted village. Mostly, the randonnées take place within the commune of Espinas but today’s walk was up on the causse above Saint-Antonin, along le chemin de Lou Finot.
A few definitions are in order. Le causse is – so I’m told – the Occitan word for a limestone plateau, which is the dominant topographical feature of the Quercy region south of the Dordogne. The soil is thin and poor and the rock pokes through the surface everywhere. Little vegetation grows, except for scrub oak and hardy plants that need barely any water, which is scarce. Sheep farming was the prevailing form of agriculture.
In places, small areas of cultivable land exist. These are normally sinkholes – cloups in Occitan; dolines in French – formed by the land subsiding, sometimes when an underground cave roof collapsed. René explained that rainwater deposited earth in the base of the cloup and, enriched with animal dung, the soil could support modest crops.
Realities of Rural Life
The evidence of former human habitation is everywhere on the causse. This area was once much more densely populated. In 1900, for example, Caylus had more than 4,000 inhabitants. By 2006, the population had shrunk to 1,569. The challenge of scratching a living from such unpromising soil, combined with other economic and demographic trends, led many to abandon it. René told us that some of the paysans, whose land was not sufficient to feed them, regularly exchanged their labour for a plate of soup.
But who, or what, is ‘Lou Finot’? I should have asked René. ‘Lou’ is the Occitan word for ‘the’. In my ignorance, I used to think it was short for the name Louis. So, when we dined on holiday years ago in Perigueux at ‘Lou Chabrol’, I thought it was the restaurateur’s name. That phrase actually refers to the former practice of pouring a glass of wine into the dregs of the soup and drinking it straight from the bowl (down here, it’s called lou chabrot).
Researches via an Occitan dictionary reveal that finot is an adjective meaning slim or thin. This doesn’t help me along greatly, so I’ll be grateful to anyone who can enlighten me.
The chemin de lou finot is a nature/patrimoine walk and information boards point out the variety of wildlife and explain a little of how people once lived up there. The area is rich in orchids, of which, René said, there are at least 18 varieties. He also said that orchids grow particularly well where sheep graze or have grazed.
Thanks to René and Nadette, we learn something new on each walk, despite the fact that we have been taking part for years. Next week’s will be at Flouquet, a hamlet within the commune of Espinas, where the remaining part-time residents re-enact for us some of the rural pursuits that are now just dusty memories.
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