Virtual Visits: Discovering the Gorges de l’Aveyron

Twin châteaux of Bruniquel

From tomorrow, we are allowed beyond the 100 km limit without authorisation in France. For the time being, this is the last of the virtual visits, since I hope to start attacking my bucket list of places to see in reality. Today, we’re taking a trip of around 30 km from the plus beau village of Bruniquel to Varen. We’ll drive alongside the River Aveyron that flows through dramatic gorges for much of the way.

This road was formerly a railway, which explains the gentle curves and the impressive tunnels built through the rock of the gorges that rise up above the river. You can still see the former station buildings, like the one below at Féneyrols. It’s a delight to drive along this road, which crosses several times between the Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne. We’re in autumn, when the hillsides are painted red and gold.

Former station house at Féneyrols

This is the land of perched hilltop villages and fortresses, fought over constantly throughout the Middle Ages: during the Albigensian Crusade and subsequently during the Hundred Years War. Today, the countryside is tranquil and the villages are depopulated, so it’s difficult to imagine the turbulent history that this part of France experienced at that time.

We’re starting at Bruniquel because I haven’t done Montricoux, further downriver, properly yet. Downriver from Montricoux, the landscape flattens out into the plain that surrounds Montauban. We’re travelling upriver.

Bruniquel

Bruniquel’s twin châteaux are perched on a hill with a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside, looking a bit like something out of Colditz. You’d certainly see the enemy coming here. Like many such picturesque villages, it’s heaving in summer and deserted in winter.

The film Le Vieux Fusil, with Philippe Noiret and Romy Schneider, set in World War II, was shot here. And every summer Offenbach operettas are performed on the esplanade of the old castle, attracting hundreds.

Fortified gate and bell tower on the way up to the châteaux. The SF has to wander in front just as I press the button, as usual.
Sheer face of the château that appears in the film ‘Le Vieux Fusil’

Evidence of our ancestors’ occupation of the area was found a few years ago in caves near Bruniquel. Circular structures that were clearly not natural formations, formed from broken stalactites, have been dated to around 176,000 years old. Neanderthal people created them long before Homo sapiens supplanted them.

Penne

The village of Penne stands sentinel above the road. Its château has long been in ruins, although there are plans to restore it. The village has a long and turbulent history, having been a site of Cathar resistance in the 13th century, occupied by the English in the 14th century and sacked during the Wars of Religion in the 16th century.

Penne is one of the gateways to the Forêt de Grésigne, which you can see covering the hillsides in the image below. This extensive forest was once a royal domain and supplied timber for Louis XIV’s ships. The availability of wood as fuel made it a site for glass works, which produced a distinctive blue-green glass.

Penne with château on right
Penne with château on right

Penne is also home to a producer of a wide range of goat’s cheeses, who has a stall in the Sunday market in Saint-Antonin, further upriver.

We’ll bypass the village of Cazals, a pleasant place with some good examples of half-timbered buildings. The former mill on the river is the terminus if you hire a canoe in Saint-Antonin. We’ve done this a number of times, and it’s an excellent way to see the river gorges and the range of bird and insect life. If you’re lucky, you’ll see a kingfisher. You also get very wet, and if the river is low, there are places where you have to get out and push the canoe off the rocks. Really.

Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val

Tranquil Aveyron at Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val

Our next destination is the town of Saint-Antonin. Here, the river looks tranquil and inoffensive. It’s hard to believe that, in March 1930, a wall of water came rushing downriver, swelled by heavy rain and large quantities of melted snow. It took the bridge with it and continued on its destructive course through Montauban and Moissac, killing hundreds and making many more homeless.

The river can rise fast here, and low-lying parts of the town are not infrequently under water during a wet winter.

Terracotta rooftops of Saint-Antonin by the Aveyron
Gorges de l’Aveyron at Saint-Antonin

The town is a warren of little streets and alleyways. It boasts the oldest civic building in France, the Maison Romane below. This rather Italianate-looking structure dominates the market square and dates back to 1125.

Saint-Antonin – Maison Romane

Saint-Antonin is also host to a large Sunday market. This is centred on the halle, below, but stretches along the surrounding streets. At the risk of offending people, I have to say this is not my favourite market, especially in the summer when it’s invaded by tourist hordes. Then it’s difficult to get about in the crowded streets, and it does nothing for my claustrophobia.

However, for those with less delicate sensibilities, it boasts a good range of stalls, where you can buy pretty much anything. You’ll have to make a visit without me.

Market hall in Saint-Antonin

Féneyrols

After Saint-Antonin, we leave the gorges behind. The road passes through undulating, fertile countryside with the river not far away. Before long, we come to Féneyrols with its blue painted bridge. I don’t have a photo of it, but you can find out more about it here. A friend claims that he flew a light aircraft underneath it in his youth for a dare.

The Aveyron at Féneyrols

Féneyrols boasts a privately owned château, first mentioned in 1323. Like the other towns and villages along this stretch of the Aveyron, Féneyrols had its share of tribulation in medieval times and during the Wars of Religion.

Le Château de Féneyrols
Other side of the château, showing the tower
Féneyrols Clock Tower

Lexos

Before you arrive in the riverside village of Varen, you pass through Lexos. It’s an odd name and sounds more Greek than French to me.

Lexos’ main attraction is its railway station, which was completed in 1883 and is thought to have been modelled on the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. This station building seems surely too large for the village. Although it’s still on a working section of line to Toulouse, traffic is greatly reduced from its heyday. The line once carried freight, including steel from Décazeville and stone from the nearby stone quarries. The Lexos cement plant was closed in 1994. Even before that, however, other more direct lines to Paris were overtaking this one.

Varen

This is the end of our journey. We could go further to Laguépie, where the River Viaur joins the Aveyron, and which holds a renowned chestnut fair in October. But there’s a good reason for stopping here, which you’ll find out below.

Varen has a long history. You can see the vestiges of the 9th-century Benedictine monastery, the large 11th-century church and the 15th-century fortified deanery (below). The number of fortified buildings in this area testifies to its troubled past.

Varen also has a small but lively Saturday market and a popular friperie in the former hotel. There, you might find a bargain, and the proceeds go to charity.

15th-century fortified deanery. The gatehouse was added later.
Narrow street showing columbage (half-timbered houses).

No virtual visit would be complete without lunch, so we are going to sit on the terrace of Le Moulin de Varen and enjoy an inventive three-course lunch while listening to the river in the background. The food is always good here and has the virtue of not making you feel stuffed to the gunwales afterwards.

Le Moulin restaurant
River Aveyron at Varen

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series of virtual visits. I’ve enjoyed revisiting old haunts. As always, I’d be very interested to know if you have been to these places – or others nearby – and to hear about your experiences. If you’re interested in particular places that I haven’t mentioned, you can use the search box in the right-hand sidebar and you may well find posts about them.

Read more about the places mentioned above:

Every Château Tells a Story #5: Les Châteaux de Bruniquel

Penne: Silent Sentinel

Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val: Haunting and Historic Town

Every Château Tells a Story #7: the Château de Féneyrols

Varen: Haven by the River Aveyron

Copyright © 2020 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

10 comments

  1. Once again, thank you for another wonderful virtual journey. These are lovely villages. We spent two weeks near Albi in 2016 and visited most of the ones you have mentioned with the exception of Feneyrols. We stopped in Varen after we had been to Najac but did not have lunch. I remember enjoying seeing St Antonin Noble Val in the movie The Hundred Foot Journey and also seeing it in reality.
    You will enjoy having some more freedom to venture a bit further. Here in Australia we are also relaxing and are able to travel within our state. So we will be packing up the camper and heading to the outback in the next couple of days. It will be cold but it will be nice to get away. It will be very different from the Lot where we should be in our second last week.
    Take care.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Féneyrols is a small place, and the château isn’t open to the public. It’s a nice place to stop for a quick look around, though. I certainly will enjoy the freedom to travel further afield. I hope you’ll also enjoy your trip away.

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  2. I love pottering around that area! I’ve really enjoyed your virual tours and I had to laugh when I saw your husband’s head popping into the bottom right corner of your photo! My husband often does that when I take a snap of something … must be a man thing:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • The gorges are lovely. The best way to see them is actually by canoe. Then you see all kinds of wildlife and get a sense for the life of the river. I love running water and always wish we lived by a ruisseau, but that has its disadvantages. Yes, definitely a man thing! I couldn’t be bothered to take another shot.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. In 2018 we went camping near Tarragona. A foolish move as we chose a campsite we had stayed in about ten years earlier and later in September. We had fond memories. The rentree had happened in France but not Spain. The site was packed and it was never quiet. I lay awake every night in disbelief as adults and children partied until three or four in the morning. We did some sightseeing but finally I broke and begged my husband to abandon the place. Where then?he demanded. We knew from experience that the campsites along the autoroute back towards Toulouse were always busy and noisy. But then I thought of Saint Antonin Noble Val which we’d never visited but that you had written about. A slow journey back as it was a Saturday but the municipal campsite was a joy. A lovely guardienne who directed us to an emplacement with morning sun and made us feel welcome. That night only the owls made any sounds! Sunday morning, as usual, my husband was up first and went looking for baguettes and croissant. He was soon back telling me to get up quickly. You won’t believe it, he told me. It is a market and heaving. It was. We were surprised at the range of number plates from surrounding departments. That evening, our 51st wedding anniversary, we had a lovely meal just off the main place. Over the next couple of days, thanks to your blog, we visited several of the villages perche and trudged up to explore the chateau at Penne. A hideous holiday became very pleasant, thanks to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh gosh! I’m pleased I was able to help in a small way to salvage your holiday. It’s so disappointing when a place of which you have good memories turns out to be less than adequate the next time. We stayed in a lovely hotel in the Dordogne years ago. The following year, we returned , but it was slightly – not very – off season. It was like a different place. To add insult to injury, we both got a terrible stomach upset, which took a couple of days out of our precious holiday. Anyway, I’m glad that yours had a happy ending.

      Liked by 1 person

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