With charming villages and glorious unspoilt countryside, Aveyron offers an idyllic escape from the pressures of modern-day life. Catriona Burns discovers the land that time forgot
Aveyron? Where’s Aveyron? Do you not mean Avignon?’ This, I learn, is what most people say when I tell them I’m going to Aveyron, a rural department in the north of Occitanie named after the river that runs through it. I have to admit, before my visit, I didn’t know much about this little-known corner of France myself, and Google and a stash of guidebooks don’t throw much light on it either. But when I arrive, I quickly realise that Aveyron could very well be one of France’s best-kept secrets.
Although it’s only a short drive from the busy city of Toulouse, Aveyron has the effect of making you feel very far away. Trumpeting car horns, sitting slumped behind a laptop screen and queuing for a £3 cup of coffee all feel a million miles away from this land of winding valleys, towering mountaintops and lush green forests. Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that Aveyron is both one of France’s largest and least populated departments, meaning there’s plenty of wide-open space in which to walk, swim, climb and generally enjoy
the awe-inspiring landscape. In the villages, too, there is a feeling that little has changed over the years. And unless you know that they are there, you might just miss the villages squirreled away into rippling green hillsides and ancient hamlets pressed into the side of valleys, enchantingly hidden away from fast-moving life. So, if your move to France is motivated by a desire to get away from the stresses and strains of modern life in the UK, Aveyron is a perfect choice.
With 10 plus beaux villages to its name – more than any other department in France – Aveyron offers plenty of choice for those wanting to settle in a pretty French hamlet. One of the most enchanting has to be Conques, located in the north of the department. Nestled in a wooded slope above the River Dourdou, Conques is surrounded by forest and a green valley below, making the modern-day world of traffic jams and Facebook updates seem very far away indeed.
Conques was the inspiration for the new Disney adaptation of Beauty and the Beast and it’s easy to see why. As I walk around its crooked streets lined with half-timbered houses and rosecovered cottages, I half-expect a character in costume to burst through a set of wooden shutters and into song. But the cobblestones remain charmingly sleepy, save for a prowling cat and the chiming bells from Abbatiale Ste-Foy de Conques. Built in the 12th century, the church is a popular place for the village’s 90 residents to meet up and pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago come to see its striking stained-glass windows designed by renowned artist Pierre Soulages. I found the church most captivating at night, as I sat in the candlelight listening to Father Jean-Daniel play the pipe organ. This, I was informed, is a nightly event from May to September. “Conques is very far from everything,” a local proudly tells me.
As with Conques, you probably wouldn’t find the village of Estaing unless you were specifically looking for it. Dominated by a beautiful 13thcentury château at the foot of the Aubrac mountains, Estaing could be from another time. Rucksack-clad pilgrims still enter the village via the 16th-century Gothic bridge, people fish for trout in the River Lot that flows past Art Deco and Renaissance-style
houses and merry locals drink Aveyronnais wine at one of many riverside bars from Estaing’s vineyard – the smallest in France.
Time has also stood still in the medieval village of Ste-Eulalie-d’Olt. It’s no surprise that many artists and crafters come to call it home. Walking around its old stone streets to the rumbling of the restored flour mill, you can find inspiration in the most ordinary things: the pebble-stone archways that compel some to duck, religious figurines half-hidden by a flurry of flowers, castle-style turrets and, of course, the village church that dates back to the 11th century. There is something to capture the imagination at every turn, including village get-togethers such as the annual dinner where locals dine on cabbages. Legend has it that this is to honour the villagers’ traditional nickname, Encaulats (meaning ‘cabbage eater’), due to the fact that years ago cabbages grew in every garden.
It is this sense of community in Aveyron that Londoner Gill Hart relishes most. When I catch up with her she is only getting round to dinner after taking her time over a before-dinner drink. “We’ve just had an apéritif with our neighbour – a couple of hours sitting under a cool tree talking and laughing and eating and drinking,” she says.
Gill first came across Aveyron when her husband David suggested they go on holiday 20 years ago, as she explains. “I had never heard of Aveyron but I looked it up on the internet and found out it was one of the largest departments in France and one of the least populated,” she explains. “When we arrived we found Below: The picture-perfect village of Belcastel sits on the banks of the River Aveyron wonderful lush countryside, beautiful gorges and clean rivers safe for swimming. We spent most of our time walking and discovering lovely stone-built houses and farms rearing cows and pigs. I remember saying to David ‘I don’t know about you but I could live here’. That holiday changed our lives.”
Indeed they did move, and some 20 years later, it’s clear that Gill and David have left the harried rush of London life behind. “I have become a typical French housewife making foie gras, bottling fruit and vegetables and making jam from the fruit not only in the garden but from the hedgerows,” Gill says. Whatever village in Aveyron you’re in, from Belcastel that’s nestled in the hollow of the Aveyron valley to Najac that rests on the rocky ridges of the Aveyron gorges, they have to be seen to be believed. ACCESS ALL AREAS
Just like Gill, Sarah Jones had never heard of Aveyron. It was only when she realised how convenient the capital’s Rodez airport was that she discovered the department and was immediately taken with what she found. “It was an instant coup de coeur,” she remembers. “Our luck finding this part