A Walk Around Castanet

Village square in Castanet - church spire in the background

Church in Castanet at the top of the square

Last week, the weather here was truly appalling, especially on Wednesday and Thursday, with high winds and torrential rain. And other parts of southern France suffered much more than we did. This November has been particularly wet, although not cold. We’ve already attained 150% of the average rainfall for the month. The past few Novembers have been unusually dry and sunny, so this retour à la normale was not welcome. Knowing that October’s fine weather wouldn’t last, we took the opportunity on 1st November to do a walk that we haven’t done for some years.

Castanet is a village at the north-eastern extremity of Tarn-et-Garonne. A few hundred metres past the end of the village and you’re in Aveyron. Surrounded by beautiful rolling countryside, the houses of Castanet are constructed in a mellow pinkish stone that we don’t have here, only a dozen kilometres away.

Mellow stone of Castanet

Mellow stone of Castanet

Dated archway in Castanet

Dated archway in Castanet

Chestnut history

The village owes its name to the sweet or Spanish chestnut tree, which grows abundantly in the area (châtaigne in French, castanha or sometimes castanheta in Occitan). Note the similarity to the Spanish percussion instruments, castanets – which resemble two empty chestnut casings. Again, we have hardly any of these trees around here. The topography changes remarkably quickly.

Chestnuts in abundance

Chestnuts in abundance

At one time, the chestnut was a staple commodity in the Castanet area. Najac and especially Laguépie were noted for their chestnut production. Not only were chestnuts ground into flour to make bread but they were also exported in trainloads to Paris and beyond.

Nowadays the chestnut forests, once so painstakingly managed, are now left largely to their own devices. We couldn’t avoid walking over the chestnuts in their spiny casings that carpeted the ground, unharvested. We could have filled several rucksacks with them.

Enchanting walk

The walk starts in the village square, overlooked by the surprisingly large church. From here, it’s all uphill, first along quiet lanes and then through the chestnut forests that clothe the hills. From time to time you are rewarded for your efforts with a breathtaking, distant view.

You also encounter ruined buildings that show how much more densely populated this area was only a century ago. In 1881, Castanet’s population was 930. At its lowest point in 1999 it was 222 (now 254). There is very little noise, apart from the occasional distant whine of a chainsaw, the chug of a tractor and the church bell striking the hour.

The walk takes you past the highest point in Tarn-et-Garonne – 504 metres. From there, on a clear day you get a view of both the Pyrénées and the Massif Central. Although a triangulation point is marked on the map, the SF and I couldn’t find it, so we continued on our way.

November 1st (Toussaint) was a slightly hazy but very warm day. We sat in the sun in the opening to a field and consumed our picnic and were both almost sunburnt as a result.

Traditional hamlets

Taking this route, you pass through two hamlets. The first, La Piale, has a splendid restored bread oven. According to our guide book, it’s also supposed to have a séchoir for drying chestnuts. But we couldn’t find that, either. The hamlet itself, no doubt a thriving place in times past, displayed the usual signs of rural depopulation. Some houses were derelict, while a few had been well renovated.

Bread oven in La Piale

Bread oven in La Piale

From La Piale, we descended into the chestnut forest again, the leaves crunching underfoot. That unmistakable smell of autumn accompanied us: the aromatic scent of dry leaves mixed with leaf mould, with a hint of woodsmoke beneath. I love it.

Well in Le Pech

Well in Le Pech

The second hamlet, Le Pech, is just a few hundred metres above Castanet. Again, it’s a picturesque place with its share of ramshackle buildings. A path between ancient stone walls takes you back down to the main square – and the milk tanker which seems to be parked there every afternoon.

Square in Castanet, viewed from the church

Square in Castanet, viewed from the church

As we drove home, we celebrated once again the chance that has brought us to this petit coin de paradis. But it’s not without a twinge of regret that rural life is no longer what it once was.

Spindleberry in the hedgerow near Le Pech - abundant this year.

Spindleberry in the hedgerow near Le Pech – abundant this year.

You might also like:

Chestnut Fair at Laguépie
Five Reasons Why Autumn is the Best Season
Walking the Viaur Valley

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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.
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12 Responses to A Walk Around Castanet

  1. Joanna says:

    Hi
    Does claude handyman still nearby
    I visited castanet some years ago and met him
    Would be great to hear from him again
    As I’m coming to vist again in a few weeks
    Kind regards
    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks for commenting, Joanna. I don’t actually live in Castanet, but about 15 km away, so I don’t know the Claude you mention – and, as you might imagine, there are plenty of Claudes around! But if he is a native of the area, it seems unlikely that he will have moved away.

      To answer your other question in the Photographs section, I’m not really a property expert, but you could have a look at this site, which is one of the main estate agents in the area: http://www.agencelunion.com/
      You can search by name of town or village as well as price, etc. You could also try Googling “properties in Castanet” or “immobilier à Castanet”, but bear in mind that there are several other Castanets in France, so make sure it’s the one in the Tarn-et-Garonne département (you might also find it under Aveyron, since it’s right on the border between the two). I hope this helps.

      Like

      • Joanna says:

        Thank you for your reply , and yes so many claudes …
        Well I’m in Quillian for the week and will travel to castanet next week , I’m absolutely Amazed at some of the properties ive viewed already
        I’m just loving everything about my trip except the driving it’s horrendous !! and yes the weather is not helping , and I am putting lots of hours on the road in a day
        Here’s to another happy day looking for my second home in France 🌻

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        Good luck with your househunting. Quillian (Quillan?) is in the Aude, as I understand it, so I wonder if we’re talking about the same Castanet? There’s one in Aveyron, near Rieupeyroux; one in Tarn, near Albi; the one that’s in my post is in Tarn-et-Garonne – and there’s also a Castanet-Tolosan south of Toulouse! Whichever it is, I hope you enjoy your visit.

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  2. Beautiful walk. It is sad to see hamlets and villages no longer bustling with life, especially when one thinks of the housing shortages in cities. We had a wet November too, but pretty much as normal, here it is always the wettest month of the year. Pleased to say that since Saturday it has been gorgeous, much colder, but clear and crisp, just as I like it! Now it is indeed time to finish cleaning the mountain of leaves and finish the remaining outdoor chores before winter!

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      According to a survey done about 10 years ago in our commune, 19% of residences were uninhabited (the survey didn’t determine how many were uninhabitable).

      We are also rushing about trying to get the outdoor chores done. It was so wet up until the weekend that it put us off. But now there’s a huge anticyclone, providing colder but dry and sunny weather. Qu’il dure!

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  3. Osyth says:

    I loved that walk – thank you! I find it fascinating the differences in stone just a few km apart, the different trees that thrive in micro areas. And I was very interested in the castanets (I speak no Spanish and though I did go to an occitane evening in Cantal a couple of years ago we didn’t progress that far!). Rural life in France is tinged with sadness but it is still keeping its nose above water at some level and that is a joy to embrace

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Glad you enjoyed it vicariously! It is surprising how quickly the stone and the vegetation change in just a few km. It’s good that rural life does persist in some sense, but it’s sad to see these hamlets that are sparsely populated nowadays.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Osyth says:

        I remember when I was first in Cantal and managed to collide with a concrete post in Carrefour in a blizzard, the taxi driver who took me back to Riom es Montagnes to collect it asked why I wanted to live there and I said it was beautiful. She said ‘in summer it is so but in winter it is sad’ and then spent the resto fo the journey reminiscing over life in her childhood (she was about my age) …. it is sad and I rack my brain to think of ways of attracting people back (given the ability to remote work now) but I fear the slope is too slippery.

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        It must be particularly difficult in mountainous places like Cantal. When we were there in May (on the eastern side near Pailherols), we stayed in a chambre d’hôtes owned by the mayor – not himself a local man. His commune now has 10% of the population it had in the 19th century. You would think that remote working might have some attraction, but I suspect the harsh winters may put off some…

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  4. What a wonderful walk. Love the photos. Maybe you could make some chestnut pate or even better eat them roasted in the oven.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I have made a lovely stuffing with them, which you can eat separately as well. And we rigged up a grill to roast them in our woodburning stove – but ditched that since our fingers got burnt!

      Liked by 1 person

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