A Trip down the River Aveyron

The River Aveyron © Vanessa Couchman

The River Aveyron © Vanessa Couchman - Credit: Archant

The River Aveyron runs through a dramatic landscape with a turbulent history, as Vanessa Couchman discovers

Village of Saint-Antonin © Vanessa Couchman

Village of Saint-Antonin © Vanessa Couchman - Credit: Archant

The River Aveyron changes character constantly during its 250-kilometre course through southern France. Turbulent or tranquil, it flows through varied scenery: chestnut forests, arid limestone gorges, orchards and sunflower fields. Historic towns and villages perch on the hilltops. This is everyone’s idea of la France profonde, but today’s tranquillity belies a colourful history. The Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heretics in the 13th century, successive wars and recurring outbreaks of plague left few towns and villages along the river unscathed. Later, the once-thriving settlements suffered economic decline and rural exodus, intensified by World War I.

You can follow the River Aveyron by road for parts of its course, although in places it plunges through steep and inaccessible gorges. The river rises near the town of Sévérac-le-Château. Flowing westwards, it skirts the rocky pinnacle on which sits Rodez, capital of the Aveyron département. The medieval town clusters at the top around the Cathédrale Notre-Dame. During the Middle Ages, Rodez was divided between its bishops and the Counts of Armagnac. A wall marked the dividing line, pierced by gates that closed at curfew time, but little of it remains.

The original cathedral collapsed in 1276 and its red sandstone successor took several centuries to complete. At 87 metres high, its belfry is the tallest in France. “Look under the seats in the choir,” says a friend. The hinged misericords reveal bizarre carvings of characters in contorted or downright vulgar postures. A Saturday morning market takes place in the shadow of the cathedral, much as it did hundreds of years ago. Nearby, the Musée Fenaille has the biggest collection of prehistoric statues in France, testifying to the area’s high concentration of ancient sites. Rodez also boasts its own wine area to the north, the Vallon de Marcillac, which produces a fruity red and can be explored along the Route des Vins.

Some 25 kilometres from Rodez, the Plus Beau Village of Belcastel huddles in a deep valley of the Aveyron, where thick forests cover the hillsides, a magnificent sight in autumn. Most of the village is on the steep right bank, its houses built of local stone with lauze (split-stone) roofs. The 15th-century church is on the left bank, across a humpbacked bridge. The château that dominates the village has an interesting history. Abandoned at the end of the 16th century, it was in ruins until 1973, when architect Fernand Pouillon started restoring it. The guide has a photo of the château in its parlous pre-restoration state. “Pouillon had the imagination and ingenuity to take on a project like that,” she says. The château has collections of contemporary art and medieval armour, including a suit of armour once belonging to Henri IV.

Market day at Villefranche-de-Rouergue

Market day at Villefranche-de-Rouergue - Credit: Archant

Le Restaurant du Vieux Pont, owned by the Fagegaltier sisters, has one Michelin star and uses local ingredients to create regional recipes with a modern twist. I can vouch for their meltingly tender pavé de cerf (venison). You can stay at their hotel in a converted barn across the bridge – not far to walk after a meal.

Next stop along the river is Villefranche-de-Rouergue, an atmospheric town of dark stone buildings with their slate and terracotta roofs. It was founded in 1252 by Alphonse de Poitiers as a bulwark against English-ruled Aquitaine and to quell the rebellious inhabitants of Najac 20 kilometres to the south. Villefranche is a textbook example of a bastide, of which more than 300 survive in south-west France. These fortified towns marked a significant development in urban planning. Streets in a grid pattern surround a central square – a far cry from the meandering alleys of early medieval towns.

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Villefranche was an important stop for pilgrims on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques de Compostelle. At its heart, Place Notre-Dame is dominated by the medieval collégiale church. Its tower offers breathtaking views of the countryside and elaborate chimes ring out at noon. The arcaded square still hosts a market a Thursday morning market, one of the largest and most authentic in the area. Bunches of flowers sit next to oddly shaped organic vegetables, wheels of bread and rings of fouace cake, a regional speciality. “Taste this,” says a rosy-cheeked woman holding out cubes of pastis, an apple pie made with filo pastry. “It contains my secret ingredient.” Something strongly alcoholic, evidently. This is also duck country, which is plain to see from the stalls groaning with produce, including the Ferme Carles near Monteils, a farm that runs tours and tastings.

The river here is seen at its best by taking the scenic 15-minute train journey from Villefranche to Najac. The laid-back Najac station master featured in a documentary film about the village. “I can’t sell you a ticket,” he says. “You have to use the ticket machine.” His only role is to blow a whistle for the train to depart. Najac, another of the Plus Beaux Villages, is known as the gateway to the Gorges de l’Aveyron. Built along a single main street, it straddles a rocky spur overlooking the river that encircles it, forming a natural moat. The ruined 12th-century fortress, which is open to the public, is a landmark for miles around.

Château de Najac © Vanessa Couchman

Château de Najac © Vanessa Couchman - Credit: Archant

An exploration of the village with my guide Karine starts at the arcaded 14th-century Place du Barry. “Najac was a thriving, strategic town in the Middle Ages, with 3,000 inhabitants in its heyday: now there are 750,” she says. “It was the principal town of the historic Lower Rouergue region, until overtaken by Villefranche. Alphonse de Poitiers rebuilt the 11th-century château in a further attempt to keep the Najaçois in check.” Little remains of the ramparts that once encircled the town or the estimated 17 gates, except for the Porte de la Pique.

Down the hill, Karine points out the remaining colombage (half-timbered) houses. “The builders used chestnut from the forests for the timbers,” she says. “Coopers also used it to make wine barrels, but the phylloxera bug destroyed Najac’s vineyards in the late 19th century.” Chestnuts were a staple food and, later, a profitable export. Downriver, Laguépie was the centre of a thriving trade and holds a Foire à la Châtaigne every October. M. Mercadier, a nurseryman from nearby Saint-André-de-Najac, later tells me: “There are more than 100 varieties of chestnut tree. The trees provided nuts for food, leaves for litter in the cowsheds, wood for furniture and building, and tannin for tanning.”

“What do you think that is?” asks Karine, pointing to a large stone excrescence emerging from a wall several metres up. Various possibilities are suggested, including a privy, a chestnut store and a hidey-hole – all wrong. “It’s a bread oven. To avoid the tax levied on the ground-floor area, people enlarged the upper floors, which is why they overhang the street.”

Finally the visit reaches the vast 13th-century Gothic church of Saint-Jean L’Évangéliste. It has very few windows, but the painted walls relieve the interior darkness. Najac makes a good base for exploring the region, with two hotels and a range of chambres d’hôtes and restaurants. At L’Oustal del Barry I eat delicious stuffed courgette flowers followed by astet, stuffed loin of Najac-bred pork, served with aligot – puréed potato laden with garlic and tomme cheese.

Southwards from Najac, the river flows through an inaccessible valley, taking a sharp right turn at Laguépie. The road follows the river along a disused railway line, offering wonderful views of the Gorges de l’Aveyron. A short drive from Varen lie the Jardins de Quercy, an inspirational English-influenced garden. Jean Doniès and Alain Herreman are rightly proud of their creation, stretching over a hectare of former farmland. “We started in 1989 and have created a border every year, making a series of ‘rooms’, each with a theme,” Jean explains.

Back along the river is the town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, which is overlooked by towering white cliffs. Exploring the twisting medieval alleys, you almost expect to meet the ghosts of former inhabitants. The town is full of secluded squares, ornate doorways and delightful stone carvings. It originated in Gallo-Roman times but the present town grew up around an abbey in the 8th century. The market square with its covered halle is the setting for a lively Sunday market. The stalls stretch out along the narrow streets selling everything from artichokes to umbrellas, and we taste goat’s cheese from the Fromagerie du Pic, based downriver at Penne.

The Maison Romane, constructed in 1125 and reputed to be the oldest civic building in France, towers over the square. It houses the museum, notable for its collections of bygone implements and geological exhibits. Saint-Antonin also played its part in the region’s stormy history. Simon de Montfort took it during the Albigensian Crusade; it changed hands five times during the Hundred Years War and Louis XIII besieged and took the staunchly Protestant town during the Wars of Religion of the early 17th century.

Continuing downriver, you drive through a series of tunnels bored through the hills for the former railway. The ruined château of Penne stretches upwards like a twisted fist high above the road. The village sits at the edge of the oak forest of Grésigne, one of the largest in the region and a delightful place to walk. From the 15th to the 19th centuries, the forest contained factories manufacturing a distinctive blue-green glass.

As you round a bend the two châteaux of the Plus Beau Village of Bruniquel come into view, standing sentinel over the river. Legend has it that the Merovingian Queen Brunhilde – or Brunehaut – built the first château in the 6th century. A new château was built on its ruins in the 13th century. The second château dates from the 1500s. The steep walk up cobbled streets to the esplanade is worth the effort for the view over the River Aveyron and the countryside. Bruniquel was the setting for the 1975 film Le Vieux Fusil, set in World War II, starring Philippe Noiret and Romy Schneider. The châteaux also serve as a backdrop to alfresco performances of operettas by Jacques Offenbach every July and August.

Beyond Bruniquel, the landscape levels out. The gorges are left behind and the Aveyron meanders through fertile countryside before joining the River Tarn. Bruniquel stands at a crossroads, hence its former strategic significance. From here, you can take the road east to explore the bastides of the Tarn département or continue south to the pink cities of Montauban and Toulouse – but that’s another story.

GETTING THERE

By road: Rodez is nine hours’ drive from the northern ports.

By rail: The nearest main station is Brive-la-Gaillarde, then take local trains to Rodez.

By air: The Aveyron Valley can be accessed from Rodez, Bergerac, Toulouse and Carcassone airports.

Where to stay

Hôtel du Vieux Pont

12390 Belcastel

Tel: (Fr) 5 65 64 52 29

www.hotelbelcastel.com

Doubles from €89.

Hôtel le Belle-Rive

12270 Najac

Tel: (Fr) 5 65 29 73 90

www.le-belle-rive.fr

Doubles from €58.

Where to eat

Restaurant du Vieux Pont

Details as above. Menus from €29.

L’Oustal del Barry

12270 Najac

Tel: (Fr) 5 65 29 74 32

www.oustaldelbarry.com

Menus from €18.50.

Le Carré des Gourmets

82140 Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val

Tel: (Fr) 5 63 30 65 49

www.carredesgourmets.fr

Menus from €17.

Where to visit

Château de Belcastel

12390 Belcastel

Tel: (Fr) 5 65 64 42 16

www.chateau belcastel.com

Château de Najac

12270 Najac

Tel: (Fr) 5 65 29 71 65

Balade Gourmande à la Ferme

Ferme Carles 12200 Monteils

Tel: (Fr) 5 65 29 62 39

www.fermecarles.fr

Jardins de Quercy

82330 Verfeil-sur-Seye

Tel: (Fr) 5 63 65 46 22

www.lesjardinsde quercy.fr

Fromagerie du Pic

81140 Penne

Tel: (Fr) 5 63 56 33 64

www.fromages-de-chevre.fr

Châteaux de Bruniquel

82800 Bruniquel

Tel: (Fr) 5 63 67 27 67

www.bruniquel.fr