TAKE A STROLL
A wander around the Plus Beau Village of Bruniquel in Tarn-et- Garonne.
Despite having lived in the area for almost 13 years, for some reason I had never got round to visiting the village of Bruniquel. So when the call came from FRANCE Magazine to go for a stroll around this hidden gem, I immediately jumped in the car.
Why on earth has it taken me so long to discover this place? Nestling on the eastern border of the Tarn-et-garonne département just before it tips over into Tarn, Bruniquel is pretty as a picture. Built high on a promontory that provides magnificent views of the River Aveyron, the village somehow makes you feel its history the minute you place your feet on the ground. Though it was first mentioned in the 11th century as Brunichildum, there is evidence of human activity dating from at least 35,000 years ago to the Paleolithic era.
I feel about 35,000 years old myself as I start the steep climb up the pretty Rue de l’hôpital heading for the top of the village. Bruniquel is not for the faint-hearted, but the castles that perch on the cliff face are well worth the effort to reach. It might seem a little greedy for a village of fewer than 600 regular inhabitants to have not one, but two châteaux. It was the result of a family squabble between the ruling vicomte and his son: the ‘old’ castle dates from the 13th century, and its baby brother – the ‘new’ castle – was built in the 15th.
The castles – which were joined up in the 18th century – house some of the first man-made artefacts to be found in the area, but I have already been distracted by all the activity on the flat patch of concrete at the entrance. Temporary seating for what looks like two or three hundred people has been installed away to my right, while to my left a bunch of roadies are hard at work putting up an impressive-looking stage.
A quick chat with one of them and I am up to speed with the Festival des Châteaux de Bruniquel, a three-week celebration of the 19th-century composer Jacques Offenbach. Launched in 1997, the festival spans late July and early August, and has as its centrepiece an ‘ Opéra bouffe’ (punning the French term for comic operas and the slang for ‘opera with grub’). An Offenbach comic opera is performed (this year it was Orpheus in the Underworld), and after each show the stage and floor of the open-air theatre are transformed into a makeshift dining hall where spectators and performers eat and drink together.
It would be remiss to head back down to the village and its warren of passages, alleyways and ginnels without visiting the gardens on the other
side of the castle. My wife and I enjoy a leisurely five-minute stroll and pause to admire the view from on high. It is not hard to see why Bruniquel has been voted one of France’s Plus Beaux Villages. Director Robert Enrico was equally impressed, as he filmed scenes here for the 1975 wartime drama Le Vieux Fusil ( The Old Rifle), starring Romy Schneider and winner of four César awards.
Taking the picturesque route back down, we pass through Place des Oules and on to the Rue du Château, before making our way to the Promenade du Ravelin. We stop in the church to marvel at some of the religious art inside, escaping a powerful sun for a few minutes’ respite at the same time.
Apparently, 33,000 people visit Bruniquel and its castles every year, and that number is rising all the time. The place is certainly busy today and the tourist office at the entrance to the village is doing a brisk trade in brochures and maps. My natural tendency to strike off and follow my own path makes me think I might enjoy Bruniquel even more out of season. But it would be churlish of me to mark down such a beautiful place simply because other people are enjoying it too.
There is always time to sit down for a quick glass of something cool and refreshing, so we head to Le Jardin de la Taverne for a leisurely drink and to watch the world go by. It certainly seems that time passes slowly in Bruniquel, but when you are in such a pretty little spot, that can only be a good thing.
Bruniquel is a magnificent village in itself, but there are many other exciting things to see and do in the surrounding area.
The River Aveyron offers a fantastic opportunity to go kayaking and canoeing so you can enjoy the breathtaking scenery from the water. Hire everything you need from Club Multi-evasion Gorges de l’aveyron at Négrepelisse, just west of Bruniquel (tel: (Fr) 6 10 03 74 85).
It would be remiss not to visit a vineyard in this prime winegrowing region. Domaine de Rastelat (tel: (Fr) 5 63 30 98 97) is run by husband and wife Didier and Sylvie Debayles at Revel near Vaissac, 12 kilometres from Bruniquel. They use long-established traditional methods to produce their tasty red and rosé wines in the Coteaux du Quercy appellation.
If you fancy somewhere even quieter than Bruniquel, yet equally enjoyable to stroll around, head for Montricoux, six kilometres to the north-west. Stop for lunch at the high-end Hostellerie Les Gorges de l’aveyron (menus from €15, chateauxhotels.co.uk), which has a wonderful view over the River Aveyron.
Half an hour’s drive away from Bruniquel is bustling Montauban, the capital of Tarn-et-garonne. Built primarily of red brick, and sitting at the confluence of the Tarn and Tescou rivers, it features a huge bridge that is more than 200 metres long and dates from the 14th century. During World War II, Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Mona Lisa was hidden in a secret location in Montauban to protect it from the Nazi occupiers.
Finally, just 23 kilometres from Bruniquel lies Saint-antonin-nobleVal, a buzzing little town that is a particular favourite with English expatriates and tourists. Could this be because the place was occupied by their countrymen during the Hundred Years’ War? Whatever the reasons, you can’t fail to enjoy a walk around this lovely place.
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Enjoying a stroll in Bruniquel: A pretty, tree-lined street; The château on its rocky promontory; An entrance to the castle
ABOVE: Montauban, capital of Tarn-et-garonne;
BELOW: The village of Saint-antonin-noble-val