TAKE A STROLL IN PUYCELSI
With its dramatic position overlooking the Tarn countryside, the walled village of Puycelsi is full of medieval character, says Howard Johnson
Scale the ramparts and enjoy the views from this hilltop village in Tarn.
The gods are clearly smiling today as I drive up the winding road leading to the Plus Beau Village of Puycelsi. A deluge of biblical proportions earlier in the week had stymied a first attempt to visit this gem of the Tarn département in south-west France. But all of a sudden, a break in the weather brings a gorgeous early spring day. The temperature nudges up to 17°C and a bright yet somehow lazy sun offers the perfect backdrop against which to explore this magnificent, fortified hilltop village.
After parking just opposite the mairie at the main entrance to the heart of Puycelsi, I turn around to experience a breathtaking sight; 150 metres above the Vère Valley and encircled by 800 metres of ramparts, the village was founded in the 10th century by Benedictine monks from the abbey of Aurillac, more than 150 kilometres away. This amazing view across the valley – cascading hills of green dotted with the dense gatherings of trees that make up the Grésigne Forest – can hardly have changed since that time. It is perfect for soothing the spirits and lowering your stress levels.
As luck would have it, the mayor, Claude Labranque, pops out of his office. I seize the opportunity to introduce myself, and his welcome is warm and friendly. With just under 100 people living in Puycelsi full time, he knows how important tourism now is for a village that boasted a population eight times larger less than 200 years ago. He is glad that FRANCE Magazine is here – 30 per cent of those permanent residents are foreigners, including Ross and Ginny Jenkins, a British couple who fell in love with Puycelsi in 2002 and have been living here ever since.
Ross and Ginny are active participants in village life. Among other things, Ginny makes jam to help raise money for worthy causes, such as the restoration of the village chapel. “It was a terrible mess inside before,” admits Ross. “But it looks magnificent now.”
Anyone who watched BBC Two’s 2016 wildlife documentary, Wild Tales from the Village, will have had a sneak preview of Puycelsi’s magic from the perspective of its animal inhabitants. But I want to see what things look like from a human perspective.
I head off into a small yet perfectly formed warren of roads and alleyways. Visitors tend to leave their cars where I dropped mine at the village entrance, so having a nose around on foot is a pleasant and relaxing experience. Heading up Rue des Consuls, we pass Ross and Ginny’s beautiful blue-shuttered house. Am I jealous? Just a little bit.
They have told me that Puycelsi is the third most-visited place in Tarn after the episcopal city of Albi and the hilltop village of Cordes-sur-ciel,
and I can see why. Imagine the much more famous Cordes, but scaled down, perfectly reworked and rebuilt to preserve all of its original medieval character, but without the tourist gift shops and parking meters. That will give you some idea of Puycelsi’s undeniable appeal.
The Église Saint-corneille in the middle of the village is eye-catching for its simple elegance and has a beautiful painted ceiling. No wonder the villagers have been so determined for it to lose none of that charm. But it is not the only thing that is charming about Puycelsi. Le Temps de Lire bookshop in Place du Four is a great and atmospheric place to while away the time. The owners even have a section where they give away second-hand books. And I couldn’t resist a wander round La Locale, again in Rue des Consuls, a smart épicerie stocking delicious bottled fruit juices and jams made in the village.
I could spend hours wandering up and down these lovely little streets, but time is against me. Making my way back to the car, I catch sight of the Chapelle Saint-roch on the west side of the ramparts and head over for a quick peek. Standing 85 metres above the Audoulou Valley, the chapel was built by the people of Puycelsi in 1703 to thank The Lord for sparing them from plague. I’m not surprised. Even God himself has a soft spot for this gorgeous place.
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Le Temps de Lire bookshop in Place du Four; The Église Saint-corneille; Ramparts encircle the village; An artisan’s shop; Half-timbered buildings in Rue Montoulieu