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.
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’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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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