Hid­den charms

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

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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.

THE VIL­LAGERS

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

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