TAKE A STROLL

A wan­der around the Plus Beau Vil­lage of Bruniquel in Tarn-et- Garonne.

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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.

Open-air theatre

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.

The vil­lage of Bruniquel in Tarn-etGaronne looks over the River Avey­ron

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

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