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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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