A Village on the Causse – Varaire

Ancient walkway at Varaire

Ancient walkway at Varaire

Last week our walking group started from Varaire, a small village on the Causse de Limogne in the Lot. Like many of these villages, it’s picturesque, but blink and you’d miss it when driving through. In common with other places, though, there’s more to it when you start to dig around.

Origins

Dolmen du Lac d'Aurié - front - near Limogne

Dolmen du Lac d’Aurié – front – near Limogne

Evidence of human habitation since prehistoric times abounds nearby on the causse, which is peppered with dolmens and standing stones. Varaire itself has probably existed since at least Roman times. One source says that it is named after “Varatia Villa”, a villa belonging to someone called Varatius. Another source says the village was called Varadeto and was established on the ancient Roman road, known as the “Cami Gasco”, which bounds the commune on one side.

Whatever the origins of its name, Varaire stood at an important crossroads between the main trade route linking Caylus and Cahors and one of the Saint-Jacques de Compostelle pilgrimage routes. To the east is Limogne, which today has a rather good Sunday market; to the west lies Bach, which has a rather good restaurant, Lou Bourdie.

Pilgrims and bishops

Varaire was once a rather more bustling place than it is nowadays. In the 13th century, un hôpital existed to lodge the pilgrims: the word was used then in the sense of hostel, not a place for treating the sick. By the 16th century, pilgrimage and other traffic was significant enough to support two inns.

Vestiges of the 13th-century château and tower at Varaire

Vestiges of the 13th-century château and tower at Varaire

Varaire was also the seat of the Cardaillac family, which contributed several bishops of Cahors. The vestiges of their 13th-century château can be seen in the village: a defensive tower and the remains of the main castle building. Much of the village was destroyed during the Hundred Years War but was later restored.

Lavoir

Lavoir at Varaire

Lavoir at Varaire

The village boasts a splendid lavoir (communal washing place), with one of the biggest ponds I have seen. This also dates from the Middle Ages but has clearly been restored. The plaque on the wall says the pond has a mound in the centre on which carts were able to park while barrels of water were filled. Since there are few streams or springs on the causse, these lavoirs were the only washing places and became key gathering points for the village women.

Lavoir at Varaire detail

Lavoir at Varaire detail

Varaire - washing stones

Varaire – washing stones

Depopulation

Our walking route led along tracks edged with ancient stone walls. The remnants of former houses and farm buildings, reduced to rubble in many cases, testify to the much bigger population in times past. Rural depopulation and World War I took their toll, as in so many places. In its heyday in the 1850s, Varaire had a population of 1,066. This declined to a low point of 236 in 1975, but is now just over 300.

During the 19th century, the area was found to have extensive reserves of phosphates, used to make fertilisers. The frenzy to exploit these minerals was akin to the U.S. Gold Rush and mine workings were excavated everywhere. Varaire and Bach were important centres of this industry. But the reserves were soon exhausted, or not worth mining, and little exists today to show for it. However, you can visit what’s left of one of the mines, les Phosphatières du Cloup d’Aural, just outside Varaire, which is now a nature park.

Present-day sustenance

Restaurant at Varaire

Restaurant at Varaire

Varaire still has a restaurant, Les Marronniers, which we discovered not long after we moved here. It serves good value regional cuisine in a pleasant ambience. We went once with friends and asked the then waitress – a hefty woman of a certain age – what we would get for lunch.

“Well,” she replied, “There’s soup, and then a starter, followed by some meat, cheese and dessert.” A mystery menu, then. However, I can report that it was good and included truffles inserted under the skin of the guinea fowl. This is truffle country, after all.

Finally, I discovered that “Varaire” is also the Occitan name for the poisonous hellebore plant, but I’m sure this has nothing to do with the village.

You might also like:

French Regional Cuisine: l’Auberge Lou Bourdie at Bach
Lovely Lavoirs
Truffles Tomorrow
Truffle Market at Limogne

Copyright © 2015 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

 

Advertisements

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 History, Places and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to A Village on the Causse – Varaire

  1. Pingback: Restoration of the Lavoir in Caylus | Life on La Lune

  2. Anthony says:

    Three cheers for Monique! Truffles are ridiculously overrated (like oysters which used to be the food of the poorest), and snails have no merit other than their sauce, which is boring. The problem with French cuisine is that it is terrified of real flavours and spices, but very big on fancy descriptions of blandness. It’s only very recently that the centuries-old herb coriander has hesitantly been available on market stalls.

    BUT ABOUT VARAIRE : why didn’t you mention the dolmen ? It’s big enough! I can send you a photo from my French dolmen site http://www.irishmegaliths.org.uk/frenchgenius.htm….The picture you posted is one of the 4 dolmens surrounding Martiel in the Aveyron.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, indeed, three cheers for Monique, whose restaurant we always enjoy. The one at Varaire isn’t bad, either. I rather like truffles but they do need to be fresh to have any flavour.

      I haven’t visited the dolmen at Varaire, hence no photo. And the photo in the post is of a dolmen a little to the west of Limogne, which I have visited. I took the photo myself. It’s not one of the Martiel ones, although Limogne isn’t far from Martiel, of course. Thanks for the offer: I shall probably visit Varaire again soon and I’ll take the opportunity to take a photo of the dolmen then.

      Like

  3. Pingback: Puylaroque: Tranquil Village with a Turbulent History | Life on La Lune

  4. Pingback: Beyond Time: A Journey Back to Prehistory Part 1 | Life on La Lune

  5. Pingback: Bach, an Ancient Village on the Causse de Limogne | Life on La Lune

  6. Monique says:

    Oh yes, Liz, the jokes and the language. 🙂
    Maybe the lavoirs are an encapsulation of a bygone time when the struggles were harder but the dream was clearer.
    Monique

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Monique says:

    Greetings,
    Fire places are messy, impractical and a fire hazard.
    I enjoyed Georgette story very much!!! Dancing on the table!! Today, the poor guy would be arrested by the vice squad and sent to jail.
    Back then, no one thought anything of it–kids were around playing, boys and girls –glancing once in a while and giggling. The adults were eating, drinking and solving the world ‘s problems.
    I miss the freedom we had.
    Monique

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      I agree with what you say about fireplaces – not very efficient, either. That’s why we installed a woodburning stove in ours. But I suppose it’s all they had in times past.

      Glad you enjoyed Georgette’s story.

      Like

  8. Cro Magnon says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone using a lavoir, of which there are many close by. However, when we first arrived here (43 years ago) my neighbours were still ploughing with oxen; amongst an awful lot of swearing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      43 years! That makes our 18 pale into insignificance. We have French friends locally whose parents also still ploughed with oxen. This is going back about 50 years. And I don’t think any of the lavoirs in our area are still in use – but see Liz’s comment below about the one she used when living in Italy.

      Like

  9. Monique says:

    Greetings,
    I looked at the site Lovely Lavoirs–very pretty. Of course, it is best to restore them and provide a pleasant environment to sit and enjoy nature. In my opinion, it romanticize the past, a past that was harsh for the poor. As it was mostly the poor, the one who could not afford a femme de ménage. Some homes had a cistern in the yard and a wood fire to warm up the water. Once a week, my mother would hire one or two ladies in addition to the femme de ménage to do the laundry. Faire la lessive was to boil, in big tin containers, over a wood fire, heavy cotton sheets, towels, torchons, tablecloth, napkins ( no paper napkins), etc. It took all day, a long day!! Then the laundry had to be hung–it rains in France–it took for ever to dry. For the people who did not have a fenced enclosure to hang the laundry, they had to keep an eye on the wandering cows who would walk right through the laundry and drag the sheets with their horns. Yelling at the cows would make them run farther away. The good old days!!
    Preserving the lavoirs is a nice gesture.
    Thank you for posting the lovely pictures. Very interesting.
    Monique

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I think you must have some very interesting stories to tell about how life was in rural France, perhaps not so long ago. I do agree that we shouldn’t romanticise how life was in the past, but I also think that restoring the lavoirs and drawing people’s attention to them also makes them realise a little more how life was in times past. There are not many people now who have first-hand experience of these things. The danger with restoring any patrimoine is that it becomes a kind of historical theme-park. But I’m in favour of doing it so that it makes people at least think about it.

      Like

      • Monique says:

        I am in favor of restoring the lavoirs –they look prettier, cleaner and, hopefully, clear of snake–vipers because of the rocks and wetness . Theme park or not, the restoration brings in tourist money.
        Where I live now, cattle take down clothes line once in a while.

        It was a long time ago. Even though most of my childhood was spent in the city, we always kept a home in the same village where I and my father were born–the whole clan. It was home–smelling the fresh air, hunting– oh my, a fresh killed faisan to roast. Yum, yum!!

        Another thing that I do not like is fireplace. Have you researched fireplace?

        Anyway, I enjoy your blog. I find it interesting to read how someone interprets my country.

        Monique

        Like

      • nessafrance says:

        I haven’t specifically looked at fireplace – by which I assume you mean fireplaces inside the house. I do mention the one in our house, in a post that looks at the architectural features of our property: https://vanessafrance.wordpress.com/2015/02/14/a-typical-quercy-farmhouse-and-an-anniversary/

        As a matter of interest, why don’t you like them?

        Like

  10. Monique says:

    There are times when I think that I am the only French person from the SW who does not like truffles or snails–don’t even mention lavoir–quaint–but!!!
    Monique

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m sure you’re not the only French person who doesn’t like those things. Actually, I do, but when it comes to snails I’m in a minority among my British compatriots.

      As for lavoirs, I didn’t mean to imply that this one is quaint. I’m well aware that doing the washing in times past – and actually not that long ago – was a harsh job for women. The advent of the washing machine was an important step forward. Nonetheless, the lavoirs are an important part of the local patrimoine and deserve to be recognised as such – even if they are now restored and prettified beyond their original appearance. I have intimated as much in previous posts. I have nothing but respect for our forebears who had harsh and difficult lives.

      This post says more about lavoirs and, I hope, conveys the sense of how hard people’s lives were not that long ago: https://vanessafrance.wordpress.com/2011/11/20/lovely-lavoirs/

      Like

      • Monique says:

        I understand what you mean. But for me, I am old enough to remember going to the lavoir with my Nana–she was very strong but getting on in years and I was little and of not much help–probably a sort of worry as she warned me all the time not to fall in the cold water. Going home, she pushed the wheel barrow full of wet clothing. A lavoir does not bring nostalgic happy memories.
        Nothing more. C’est cool ma poule 🙂
        Monique

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        Our walking group used to stop at a hamlet where a woman who was brought up there showed us how they did the washing. Their lavoir was at the bottom of a steep hill and she told us how she and her grandmother had to push a heavy wheelbarrow full of wet washing back up the hill. Sounds very much like your experience. I remember thinking at the time how lucky – and spoilt – we are today.

        Like

      • Interestingly, I am probably one of the very few people of my generation to use a “lavoir” (this was in Tuscany) of my generation. It was bl***y hard, but I did have smart rubber gloves with a furry lining for the winter and the really good experience from it was that I got to know the old ladies who still went there to use it. I learned hilarious Tuscan jokes (i barzeletti) and good Tuscan Italian from them, as well as enjoying hospitality in their homes. Young women stuck in isolation with just a washing machine for company are maybe missing out on good healthy camaraderie and support that one got in the days of the lavoir.

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        I don’t know anyone around here who uses one these days. As you say, they were a gathering point for women, but I’m sure it was very hard work. When we visited the hamlet I mentioned above, the whiteness of the items that had been washed in the lavoir and then carefully stored was astonishing.

        An elderly lady I know said that it was the car that really broke down rural isolation. But you had to afford one and you had to learn to drive. A number of elderly ladies of my acquaintance can’t and rely on their husbands to drive them about.

        Like

  11. Evelyn says:

    I’ve driven thru Varaire many times. After reading your post, I can see I’ll have to stop and take a walk next time. Very interesting! And maybe try the restaurant. My village makes pastis to sell every year for the Telethon. I’ve helped a couple of times. I can be bribed for the recipe and technique!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      It’s worth having a nose around, although it’s only a small place. I didn’t even know the lavoir was there because it’s set in a dip and surrounded by a wall. I always thought you were above bribery!!

      Like

  12. Unfortunately, I am allergic to truffles … not a big handicap, though ! Many thanks for the visit !

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Allergic to truffles! How can this be? But there are plenty of other French delicacies to enjoy. And truffles can be overrated…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I discovered in a top class restaurant when just the smell made me sick. But as you say, this still leaves me an infinite choice !

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        I do like truffles but, unless they are very fresh, they can taste of nothing. And I can see that the smell might not appeal to everyone. I do remember, though, the best truffles I ever tasted were finely grated by friends over oeufs brouillés for breakfast on the 1st January some years ago. Wonderful!

        Liked by 1 person

  13. Osyth says:

    What a delightful place and that Lavoir – I’ve never seen one so big! You had my mouth watering at the Guinea Fowl …. and then I look at the comments and I spy a most delectable sounding pud!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Ah, Varaire 🙂 We missed all of that as we stopped there this spring in a whopping storm on our way back from friends. The restaurant, where we took shelter, was wonderful … too late to eat at 15.30, but they found us the most delicious apple pudding called “pastiche” (or something like that) with caramelised fruit and light pastry which the girl said was pulled, then turned into a circle. I dream continously of it and must go back; then I can see these lovely things in your blog too.

    Liked by 1 person

I love to hear from my blog's readers, so please feel free to leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s