After a weekend of cold winds and low temperatures – I was picking walnuts wearing a woolly hat and a jacket on Sunday – the weather turned again on Monday. A cloudless blue sky and temperatures in the mid-20s Celsius tempted us to abandon our computer screens. We took advantage of the continuing Indian summer to do a walk that we haven’t done for more than 10 years.
The valley of the River Viaur has some of the most beautiful and least populated scenery in the region. For much of its length the Viaur marks the boundary between the Aveyron and Tarn départements. The river joins the River Aveyron at Laguépie. The Viaur valley runs through the plateau known as the Ségala, where the soil was fit only for growing rye (seigle). Today, the area is noted for cattle rearing and the veau du Ségala has a Label Rouge, which guarantees the traceability of the meat and products made from it.
The Viaur itself is tranquil and shaded by chestnut trees and alders. The steep gorges are clothed with chestnut and oak forests. Church spires peep over the hilltops and dominate the sleepy villages of ruddy-pink stone houses crowned with split stone roofs. The former settlements down by the river were abandoned from the 18th century onwards. The chestnut forests, formerly cultivated and maintained, were abandoned, too.
The area’s modern tranquillity belies a more troubled past. Some of its villages were fought over, won and lost several times during the Albigensian Crusades and then during the Hundred Years’ War. A large number of chapels and pilgrimage sites dot the hillsides – a reminder of the Catholic Church’s determination to reclaim the area from the Cathar heresy.
We started by the bridge below the pretty village of Bar in Aveyron. This walk follows the Viaur closely for much of the way and we had it largely to ourselves. A heron glided majestically above the water, looking like a pterodactyl, and landed on a rock mid-stream to begin its patient vigil. The ground was carpeted with fallen sweet chestnuts and, braving the spiky casings, we gathered some to roast on our fire. We walked across a meadow covered with purple crocuses and admired the flame-coloured autumn hillsides.
The village of Lagarde-Viaur, on the Tarn side of the river, marks the mid-point of the walk. Today it’s a quiet place comprising a few houses around the church, most of them holiday homes or uninhabited. In its heyday, though, Lagarde-Viaur was an important strategic town, commanding the crossing over the river. Originally belonging to the Counts of Toulouse, the Albigensian crusaders took it in 1211 and it passed back and forth until it was finally attached to the kingdom of France in 1271.
Little remains today of the fortifications, except traces of the gates and the 13th-14th century fortified church. The square tower of the church is pierced by arrow slits (meurtrières). I doubt if the forbidding door is the original but it certainly looks more like the entrance to a fort than a place of worship. Apologies for the shadows of the telegraph wires: the place is festooned with them.
From the village we climbed steeply until descending again towards the river and the Moulin de Bar where we had left the car. Around 20 working mills originally lined the riverbanks. They were used for milling grain, pressing walnut oil, spinning and saw-milling. The last one ceased operation in 1979.
As we drove home towards the sinking sun, we felt how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful region, steeped in history and far from the madding crowd.
Copyright © 2011 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved