Today was a beautiful, if still too dry, autumn day, so the SF and I decided to bestir ourselves and make the most of this fine weather for a walk. “Where shall we go?” We are faced with an embarras de choix, since so many walking trails criss-cross this area. Walk from here or take the car? In the end, the car won, and we parked down at the lake in Caylus, where several footpaths converge.
Our destination was the village of Saint-Amans-le Vieux, so called because in 1892 the church and surrounding buildings were abandoned in favour of another Saint-Amans, a couple of kilometres down the road. A new church was built there in 1891.
Keep your eyes open
Before reaching it, there were plenty of other things to be seen, although you have to look for some of them. First, the undulating Bonnette Valley, where the river has cut a swathe through the limestone hills over millions of years. It’s a beautiful valley whatever the season: coloured with pastel greens in spring or painted in russet and ochre in autumn. The trees are just beginning to turn, a legacy of this year’s drought.
The path winds beneath the limestone cliffs that are riddled with caves and passages. One of these was, supposedly, used by the Resistance in World War II.
Someone has recently left their signature in the form of these ferns carved in stone.
A little further on, I looked back to get a better view of this monumental rock, when I spied something at its base.
What I thought at first were fissures in the rock are in fact stylised people and animals painted onto it. They are somewhat more modern than Neolithic cave paintings, I’ve no doubt, but they are very discreet and rather charming; a reward for those who stop to look around them.
Further on, we came upon a ruined farm. Some years ago, an association was formed to restore the buildings partially and to preserve them as a record of a way of life that has disappeared. Although the path runs through woodland now, the trees and undergrowth have reclaimed what were once fields bordered by dry stone walls. The soil here is poor and unforgiving, and it must have been a back-breaking and discouraging task to scratch a living from it, not to mention the sense of isolation, especially in the winter.
The ruins of former houses, barns and shepherds’ huts pepper the woodland – witnesses to the much larger population that lived in the area more than 100 years ago. But the difficulties of making ends meet, the progressive mechanisation of agriculture and the lure of better prospects in the towns led many people to “mettre la clef sous la porte” (leave the key under the door, i.e. abandon the house).
The former village of Saint-Amans-le-Vieux (once known as Saint-Amans de Promilhargues) is a case in point. The church was thought too isolated to act as a parish church; hence the new one. Maybe the population around it had dropped below a point that was considered viable. The new Saint-Amans also had better access to the road between Caylus and Saint-Antonin.
All that now remains of the village are the church, owned by the commune of Caylus but with access barred, and the presbytery and school, now privately owned and restored.
The original Romanesque church belonged to the Templar commandery in Lacapelle-Livron. When the Templar order was dissolved in 1307, the Knights Hospitaller of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem took it over. They built the current church in the late 15th/early 16th century.
We left Saint-Amans by a dusty path that looped back towards Caylus before crossing the main road and stopping at the view point showing the village below coiled around the base of the old château. One last climb up to the château and then down another dusty path to the lake.
Yet again, we reflected on how lucky we are to live in a region blessed with striking natural beauty and steeped in history.
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