The panorama from the viewpoint at Puylaroque is magnificent. Beneath the rocky outcrop on which the village stands, the plains of southwest France roll away towards the Pyrénées. On a clear day, you can see the mountains, but that is a presage of rain. You can understand why Puylaroque occupied an important defensive position on one of the last ramparts of the Massif Central.
Puylaroque is a little way off our usual stamping ground, but I’ve recently visited twice in a week. The second time, I walked around and drank in the atmosphere of the older parts of the village. People wished me a polite “bonjour” as I snapped away and peered at the medieval buildings.
The Romans were active in the area, but the first written mention of Puylaroque is in a will dated 940 AD. The village next featured during the Albigensian crusade of the early 13th century, when the inhabitants had converted to Catharism. The crusaders burnt the houses and the chapel in 1209.
Like many villages, Puylaroque has a main road passing through it, but it has left the old town with its medieval origins untouched. The narrow streets, the vestiges of fortifications and the half-timbered houses testify to its development in the Middle Ages.
Being built on a hill, the village didn’t easily lend itself to the bastide design with a large central square. Nonetheless, the village map clearly shows the streets in a grid pattern that was the hallmark of these 13th-century new towns.
According to the Mairie’s short history, the eastern part of the town was occupied by merchants and the nobility. Craftsmen and the lower classes lived on the western side. The outlines of the arcaded shops on the ground floor can still be seen in many places, for the most part blocked up now. Apparently, there are many underground vaults and passages leading between neighbouring houses. A means of escape in turbulent times?
Two squares at the top of the village offer fantastic views of the surrounding countryside: the Place du Château (although there’s no evidence of a former castle) and the Place de la Citadelle. The citadel is still there, dating from the 14th century.
Opposite the citadel stands the 13th/14th-century église Saint-Jacques. This imposing building was constructed on the foundations of the former chapel and can be seen for miles around. You can imagine that the church and the citadel offered sanctuary in times of strife. There was plenty of that during the Hundred Years War, when the English controlled much of the Quercy region, and again during the Wars of Religion, when Protestants and Catholics fought for control of the village.
Workmen made a grisly discovery in 2014, when they uncovered the bones of several skeletons in the roof over the church’s nave. The remains dated to somewhere between the 16th and 18th centuries. People’s first thought was of some massacre or odd religious rite. But, given the respectful way in which the remains had been treated, archaeologists now think that they were uncovered during a previous restoration and placed there awaiting reburial, which never took place.
Puylaroque was formerly in the Lot département, but it was attached to Tarn-et-Garonne when it was formed in 1808. Like every village in this area, Puylaroque was extensively depopulated during the 20th century, particularly after World War I. Its apogee was in 1856, when the commune boasted 2,285 inhabitants. The low point was in 1990 (580) but the population has since risen to 677.
Truffles on the menu
The village is interesting enough in its own right to merit a visit. But there’s another reason to go: a very good restaurant. Les Sens is decorated in minimalist style and offers cuisine that is light, inventive and tasty. Puylaroque is the gateway to the truffle country of the Causse de Limogne and the chef at Les Sens uses the black diamond in his dishes.
Friends kindly took us to Les Sens and the meal was delicious. It’s impossible to describe the intricate dishes: you’ll have to look at the menu on the website. They included succulent Quercy lamb and a tiramisu flavoured with truffle. The latter was perhaps a bridge too far for me, but interesting nonetheless.
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