I never cease to be amazed by the new things (to me) I discover in this region, where I have lived for 20 years. We haven’t set foot in Varen for ages and even then we didn’t stop to have a good look around. We rectified that last week when we went for dinner at le Moulin restaurant (more of that below). This small but historic village by the River Aveyron in northeast Tarn-et-Garonne rewards the wanderer with some time to spare.
What’s to see in Varen
Like many such villages, the main road bypasses the historic centre. You can stroll around the ancient streets, some of which are too narrow for cars anyway, without the fear of being mown down.
What you see today are the remains of a Benedictine monastery complex founded in the 9th century. They consist of the enormous church of Saint-Pierre-Saint-Serge, built in the 11th century to house the remains of Saint-Serge and receive pilgrims to his tomb; one wing of the former monastery buildings; and the fortified deanery, built in the late 15th century. They are fine examples not only of Romanesque architecture but also of the fortified architecture of the late medieval period.
There’s also a rather nice little medieval garden with a good view of the deanery.
Show me a village around here that doesn’t have a turbulent history. Walking around these peaceful places today, it’s hard to imagine a time when they were besieged, sacked and passed from one side to the other.
During the Hundred Years War, vulnerable parts of Varen were reinforced. A little later, the deanery, also known as the château, was built. It is a foursquare building on five levels, typical of Rouergat defensive architecture. It once had a walkway around the upper part of the building.
The village suffered again during the Wars of Religion. It was taken respectively in 1572 and 1581 by the Protestant people of Saint-Antonin and Verfeil. The Verfeillais in particular were a pretty bloodthirsty lot, causing a lot of damage and killing a number of people, including the Dean.
When Louis XIII besieged Montauban in 1621 and engaged his troops against other Protestant towns in the area, the people of Varen were afraid of violent reprisals. They didn’t occur, but the king billeted his troops in the village, which imposed a considerable burden on the people.
In more modern times, the coming of the railway in 1858 gave a boost to the village’s fortunes. An enormous station was constructed at Lexos, a hamlet downriver of Varen, believed to have been modelled on the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. This coincided with the apogee of the village’s population. In 1861, 1,913 people lived in the commune.
Most villages in this area suffered from rural depopulation after World War I and with the advent of new agricultural techniques and machinery. The decline was not so steep in Varen because a cement works was developed from former lime kilns, providing employment for local people. The cement works was itself finally closed in 1994.
In a pleasant spot beside the river, sits le Moulin restaurant, housed in – you’ve guessed it – a former watermill. We sat with our friends on the long, covered terrace at the front of the restaurant and enjoyed a lovely meal.
In summer, the river looks tranquil and inoffensive. In the early spring, it can be transformed into a raging torrent by heavy rain and melt-water from upriver. Devastating floods occurred in 1930 all along the Aveyron and many people were drowned. During a particularly wet winter here about 15 years ago, we heard that the proprietors of le Moulin had to be airlifted to safety because the river had risen so fast.
If you’re taking a trip along the River Aveyron, Varen is certainly worth a stop.
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