With its dra­matic po­si­tion over­look­ing the Tarn coun­try­side, the walled vil­lage of Puycelsi is full of me­dieval char­ac­ter, says Howard John­son

France - - Contents -

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.”

Sneak pre­view

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

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