I am extremely attached to the Aveyron département, although we live just over the border in Tarn-et-Garonne. Our part of our département has more in common with Aveyron than it does with the rest. Our neighbours even kiss three times, which is typically Aveyronnais. Named after the river that runs through it, Aveyron is a land of many contrasts and fiercely upheld traditions.
Last time, we saw the eastern part and ended up in Belcastel, next to the gently lapping waters of the upper Aveyron. This time, we’re going to do a tour of the western side, not far from where we live. And I’ll show you a few little-known sights. Photos all my own, as usual.
We start in Peyrusse-le-Roc, a hilltop village off the beaten trail but only a 30-minute hop from Belcastel. I should mention that we’re now in early October. The weather is warm with wall-to-wall blue skies, as it often is in that season. The tourists have left, and we have the place “virtually” to ourselves.
Peyrusse was an important town in the Middle Ages, with a population of around 3,500. Its name stems from the reddish rock on which it is built. The town prospered from the silver and lead mines nearby. These ran out in the 14th century and Villefranche-de-Rouergue, which we’ll visit later, stepped into the breach.
Our tour starts in the upper village, which was populated after the old town, lower down, was abandoned. Nothing prepares you for the dramatic sight of the twin towers perched on the Roc del Talhuc, which was practically impregnable in its heyday. Last time, I said we would be doing some walking. To gain access to the towers, you have to scale a couple of metal ladders. You can do that, and I’ll watch.
Once you’ve negotiated those and had a look around, we head downhill to the rushing River Audierne, passing through the now-deserted old town.
I love this delightful bridge over the river.
We regain the upper village by another route, lingering to enjoy this lovely medieval-inspired potager.
Our next stop is Villeneuve-d’Aveyron, one of only five bastide towns to be established in Aveyron in the 13th-14th centuries. These new towns were planned on a grid pattern with a large central square, sometimes imposed on an older settlement. At least 300 of them exist in SW France, created to provide protection to local people during the Hundred Years War and to develop trade and commerce.
We’ll wander around this compact town and enjoy the vestiges of medieval architecture, but our principal mission is to see the wall paintings in the 11th-13th century church of Saint-Sepulcre.
Villeneuve is on one of the pilgrimage routes of Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, as depicted in the wall paintings. No flash photography, and it’s rather gloomy in the church, so the pix are a bit hazy.
Next, I’m going to take you to another church: an absolute gem, little known and seldom visited. It’s only a short detour to the hamlet of Toulongergues. This delightful pre-Romanesque church, probably built in the 10th century, is reputed to be the oldest in Aveyron. Like many such buildings, it’s suffered mixed fortunes, and was even used as a barn at one point. Now restored, it is occasionally open and also contains the remnants of wall paintings.
A stop in Villefranche-de-Rouergue is de rigueur. It’s one of my favourite towns in the region, although the centre is sadly deserted these days and many shops have closed. Villefranche is also a bastide town and has a large central square fringed with arcades and dominated by a gigantic 13th-14th century collégiale (cathedral).
Built on a hill with the Aveyron at its feet, the slate roofs and stone façades give it the air of a mountain town.
The town was founded in 1242 and became the administrative capital of the Rouergue province. Situated on an important trade and pilgrimage route, Villefranche quickly flourished, and its population grew. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but there may have been between five and ten thousand people in Villefranche in the 14th century, before the Black Death came along.
We’ll have a quick look at the Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs, whose Baroque interior is a bit overblown for my taste, but it’s interesting, nonetheless.
Another day, we’ll do some of the sights in the environs: the 15th-century monastery de la Chartreuse Saint-Sauveur, with one of the largest cloisters in France; the château de Graves; and the Abbaye de Loc-Dieu, where the Mona Lisa spent some time during World War II.
Today it’s Thursday, so we’re going to visit the market, one of the biggest and best in the region. Villefranche comes alive on market day. The colourful stalls fill the main square in the shadow of the collégiale and spill out into the neighbouring streets. The clamour of the crowd echoes off the surrounding walls.
Before wandering around, we climb the 163 steps of the cathedral tower (you were warned) to benefit from the magnificent view of the town and the countryside beyond. At midday, the carillon rings the hour with an elaborate tune.
Back at ground level, we buy a picnic, which we’ll eat on the riverbank: local pâté and charcuterie from one stall; goat’s cheese from another; a ring of crusty bread; apples and late tomatoes. And we mustn’t forget les farçous, an Aveyronnais speciality: fritters of Swiss chard, sausage meat, onion and parsley, not unlike the pounti we ate in Cantal, but flat and minus the prunes.
One last stop. To get there, we’re taking the train from Villefranche, a journey of about 15 minutes. The track winds along the river over bridges and through tunnels before arriving at Najac Station, way below this hilltop town with its landmark 13th-century fortress. It’s a stiff walk up to Najac from here. We arrive at the bastide end of the town, constructed during the 14th century.
Najac is built on an undulating ridge. To get to the fortress, we have to walk down and then up again, past the stone and half-timbered buildings and the fontaine des Consuls.
We see this strange excrescence about three metres up. Know what it is? A bread oven.
The fortress is partly ruined, but we can climb one of the towers and enjoy the 360-degree view of Najac and the rolling countryside.
We’ve done a lot of walking. Après l’effort, c’est le réconfort. We’re going to stay at l’Oustal del Barry at the entrance to the bastide end of town. For dinner, we try the local dish, astet Najacois. This is pork loin stuffed with pork tenderloin, garlic and parsley, served with aligot (potato purée with cheese and more garlic) and veg. Not appealing for vegetarians, I know. How about a salad of Roquefort and walnuts? For dessert, crème Catalan served in a wide earthenware dish with a splash of eau de vie de prune on top.
As before, I’ve had to leave a lot out. Have you visited any of these places? Do share your experiences.
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