Revisiting old haunts can be tinged with disappointment. I once returned to a place where I had lived 30 years before and was saddened to see how much it had changed. Happily, Cantal has never fallen into that category. This mountainous, formerly volcanic, area of the Massif Central draws us back as often as we can get there, although our last visit was two years ago.
Cantal is one of the least densely-populated départements of France with 26 inhabitants per square kilometre. Only four other mainland départements are even more sparsely populated and three of those are mountainous areas. You can see why. The terrain doesn’t lend itself easily to highways and railways. Those that exist are marvels of engineering, with tunnels and cuttings hewn out of the volcanic rock. The more local lanes are often little more than glorified tracks. Where we stay, in the Cère Valley, which runs north-east of Aurillac, there is one mountain pass over into the parallel Jordanne Valley, often snowbound in winter. To live here all year round, you need a 4×4.
Last Monday, we were full of anticipation for long walks among magnificent scenery, tranquil villages built of the dark local stone enhanced by scarlet geraniums and robust mountain meals taken in no-frills hostelries. But before heading to Thiézac, the village which is normally our base, I had a mission to accomplish. Let me take you on a mystery tour to a place that is well known to a reader, thanks to whom we took a detour to visit it.
We turned off the main road in the town of Maurs, which used to describe itself as the “Nice of Cantal”. Presumably, someone decided this was a rather extravagant claim and its moniker is now “La porte du Midi” (gateway to the South of France). Following winding roads through rolling countryside dotted with shaggy-coated cows, we arrived at our target.
You go along here…
Through this archway…
It’s just around the corner…
Coming into view…
There it is – la Maison Carrée – the Square House, although it sounds better in French. Where are we? The medieval town of Marcolès in the area of southern Cantal known as la Châtaigneraie, owing to the prevalence of sweet chestnut trees.
The town (or City, as it was called) developed in the Middle Ages, since it was on an important trade route between the mountains of the Auvergne and the regions of southern France. Wines from the south were exchanged there for cheeses from the north. The 15th and 16th centuries saw the apogee of this commercial activity and the construction of houses by merchants keen to show off their wealth.
Marcolès lost out after the Revolution, when the main road was moved further westwards. The railway also passed the town by.
La Maison Carrée was once a much taller watchtower, first mentioned in records in 1203, but no doubt dating from before that. At some point, it fell into ruin and, as so often happened, the stone was pilfered and used for other buildings. Later on, someone felt it worth restoring and rebuilt it in its present form.
Marcolès sports a very well-kept church with an unusually light interior. French churches are often rather gloomy inside.
The town also has a Michelin-starred restaurant. Below, the SF looks hopefully at the menu, but we had other fish to fry and needed to be on our way.
Dear O, I hope you’ve enjoyed our little mystery tour – being, of course, the surprise to which I referred last week.
You can learn much more about the story of la Maison Carrée here.
More about Cantal to follow in future posts, including a recipe for a typical Cantalien dish, pounti.
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