I went to the hilltop village of Puycelsi in the Tarn département on Friday to interview some victims for one of my magazine articles. It’s about 50 minutes’ drive from here but the route is one of the most spectacular in the region. To get there you drive alongside the River Aveyron that forces its way through impressive gorges for much of the way.
The weather was forecast to change on Friday but thankfully it didn’t, even if it was windy and hazy. The route from Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val to the plus beau village of Bruniquel winds beside the river. The road was formerly a railway, which explains the gentle curves and the impressive tunnels built through the rock of the gorges that rise up above the river. It really is a delight to drive along this road. And, as it was almost lunchtime, there was very little other traffic, so I just engaged the régulateur de vitesse and looked at the countryside.
This is the land of perched hilltop villages and fortresses: fought over constantly during the Middle Ages during the Albigensian Crusade and subsequently during the Hundred Years War. Today, the countryside is tranquil and the villages are depopulated, so it’s difficult to imagine the turbulent history that this part of France experienced at that time.
The first evidence of this that you come to is the village of Penne, standing sentinel above the road. The château has long been in ruins, although the owners have plans to restore it. You can read more about it in my post here.
A little further on, you come to Bruniquel, its twin châteaux perched on a hill with a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. You’d certainly see the enemy coming here. Like many such picturesque villages, it’s heaving in summer and deserted in winter. The film Le Vieux Fusil, with Philippe Noiret and Romy Schneider, set in World War II, was shot here. And every summer Offenbach operettas are performed on the esplanade of the old castle. Read more here.
At Bruniquel, you turn off to the east to get to Puycelsi, along a more winding route that borders the Vère valley. You see this hilltop town long before you actually get there, since it dominates the valley. It has the distinction of never having been taken by force – so they say. And, in the 1960s, a regulation was passed prohibiting the construction of any new buildings within sight of the town. Every year, we sing there in concerts held in aid of the restoration of l’Eglise Saint-Corneille.
Today, less than 100 people live in the village (the commune has about 500 inhabitants in total). Like all such places it suffers from rural depopulation. During the day in the summer, it heaves with tourists. But, mostly, they leave by the evening and it returns to its tranquil state. In winter, it’s very quiet.
Puycelsi is a long way from a town with shops, doctors and other facilities. But at least there are still some commerces. I spoke with Philippe Audard, who has lived there for three months and has taken over the general store, which is open all year round. He employs a baker and sells bread and hand-made biscuits.
‘In addition to those, I have two specialities,’ he said. ‘The first is to provide a local service, selling everyday items and running the Post Office. The second is to sell regional products, such as wine, jam, foie gras and organic products. I also stock products specifically for British people that they can’t get elsewhere.’
Villages like this hang on against the odds. It’s a double-edged sword being a plus beau village de France. Tourists swarm to them in summer but they are, to an extent, preserved in aspic. For much of the year they are silent sentinels of a long-gone past. I had no trouble at all finding a parking space in the village centre. Try doing that in the summer!
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