Penne: Silent Sentinel


Hamlet in the commune of Penne


This week our walking group chose a route that the SF and I hadn’t done before, close to the village of Penne in the Tarn Département. Since we didn’t go into the village, I’m afraid that nearly all my photos are distance shots, which my camera doesn’t cope with very well. (Note to self: buy a better one). However, they serve to give you an impression of the rolling green countryside.

Penne – Rocher des Suquets

We took a steep path upwards to le Panorama des Suquets, from which there is a magnificent view of Penne and the surrounding countryside. Penne is one of a string of villages set on rocky pinnacles overlooking the River Aveyron. Commanding the countryside for miles around, they were perfect defensive spots. The name Penne itself has a variety of possible origins – Latin, Celtic or Occitan – all of which are associated with its position on a spiny outcrop.

Turbulent history

The village straggles down a hill from its ruined château, which is at the right of the picture below. According to tradition, Frédégonde, queen of the Francs, had the château built around 560 AD. During the 13th century, it became an important site of Cathar resistance. In the 14th century, the English occupied it for 30 years during the Hundred Years War. The Protestants destroyed it during the Wars of Religion in 1586. Under Henry IV, stones from the ruins were used to rebuild the village.

Penne with château on right

Today, there isn’t much left of the château. It stretches like a twisted fist pointing two rocky fingers upwards. Now in private hands, the owners are renovating it. The village itself consists of one long main street with smaller ruelles leading off it and has some well-restored examples of Medieval and Renaissance architecture.

Magnificent countryside

The commune of Penne stretches over a large area much of which is wooded and hilly. This made it an excellent base for various Resistance groups during World War II, including the Maquis d’Ornano, about which I wrote a while ago.

Penne sits on the edge of the forêt de Grésigne, one of the largest in the region. Mainly oak forest, it apparently provided timber for the royal navy during the time of Colbert. It’s a beautiful place to walk and crammed full of wildlife, including magnificent stags, with which you have to be careful not to collide at night.

From the 15th to the 19th centuries, the forest was the site of a number of verrières (glass factories). The glass had a distinctive blue-green colour, whose manufacture was a well-kept secret. The forest was also home to charcoal burners but they had mostly disappeared by the time of World War I.

I always feel a twinge of nostalgia when I visit this area. A friend who, sadly, died five years ago owned a delightful, small château with Templar origins up in the hills above Penne. The view from her terrace was breath-taking.

We often walked with her and her extremely badly-behaved dogs in the forêt de Grésigne. The dogs would wallow in the muddiest ponds they could find and then run off in pursuit of wildlife. It didn’t worry our friend too much. As we sipped apéritifs overlooking the view, the dogs would return, tired and filthy, and then shake all over us before finding more mischief to get up to.  

Poplar stump sprouting

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  1. I so enjoy these descriptions. This is my 8th summer renting in the Tarn. I have visited all the places that our wonderful blogger has written about and she (lol – not sure your name?) has nailed it! TRUST the suggestions. I am doing research on the cathars and templars and welcome any must see places. I have been to all the old forts and towns along the pyranees, minerve… and last summer spent time at la Couvertoirade (A must see for any templar junkies like me!).


    • Thanks again for this nice comment. You obviously like this region since you keep coming back. There’s so much to see and do and still a lot of it that I haven’t yet done, despite living here for 15 years. I haven’t yet been to La Couvertoirade, for example.

      A good book on the Cathars and the Albigensian Crusade, if you’re interested, is by Jonathan Sumption, “The Albigensian Crusade” published by Faber & Faber. No doubt available from Amazon (.fr or That will give you some more ideas for places to visit.

      Enjoy the rest of your stay.



  2. It looks gorgeous and, as with so many places in SWF, the history is fascinating. So those purple ‘flowers’ are poplar! I often wondered what they were. Thanks for a very interesting post.


    • Actually, I’m told that it is purple toothwort and that it sprouts on poplar stumps, as well as on those of other species of tree. So it’s not the tree itself. My mistake.


  3. So glad I came across your blog when doing genealogical research. Have visited France a few times and your writing evokes such happy memories. Also, have discovered that my paternal roots originated in Escatalens/Scatalens, in Tarn et Garonne, mind you some 300 years ago! Not sure how far Escatalens is from you but nonetheless it is nice to read about the area and see the photos. Many thanks


    • Nice to hear from you. It’s interesting that your paternal ancestors came from Tarn et Garonne (although it wasn’t called that then). To my shame I had to Google Escatalens to find out where it is but now I see it’s near Montech on the other side of Montauban from us. We are right near the Aveyron border in the NE of the département, so in the foothills of the Massif Central. Thanks for your kind words about my blog and best of luck with your genealogical research.


    • Thank you. The close-ups are better than the distance shots, I’m afraid, but you get some idea of the countryside and Penne’s place in it. I had never seen that plant before. I don’t think it grows around here.


  4. Every time I read one of your posts, Vanessa, my ‘to do’ list grows longer! Another great place to visit, Penne. Driving thru the Tarn, I’m stunned by some of the breath-taking views. I’m not sure any camera could truly capture their magic.


    • There is so much to see. Even after 15 years, we’re only scratching the surface. In the area of Penne, there is also Bruniquel, another hilltop town overlooking the River Aveyron, which is even more spectacular and, further towards Gaillac, Puycelsi, yet another fortified hilltop village. Cordes, futher west, is also worth a look.


  5. I noticed a lot of “walking groups” when I was looking about information on the UK. Does France have a lot of them as well? I did not realize it would be so regemented Catherine. Do they have all ages? I wish we had some of them here.


    • There are a large number of walking groups in France. It’s a very popular pastime. They are more or less regimented depending on size, whether they’re a formal association etc. The one I belong to is very informal and dogs are welcome. The dogs are a little excitable at the start but they soon work off their energy!


  6. I was recently kicked out of my walking group because my dogs were accused of being undisciplined by the leader, a retired policeman. My one dog jumped into a water trough to drink and later ran across the unfenced lawn of an empty house. I found out later that he also objected to my bringing a friend for a walk, and crossing roads without his permission, so I think it was me he found undisciplined. Looking for another walking group in my area if you know of one…


    • Sounds a bit autocratic to me. As I said in my reply to another commentator, the group I belong to welcomes dogs and anyone can join in. We live too far from you for it to be of interest to you, though. For that reason, I’m afraid I don’t know of any walking groups in your area. There must be some, since it’s so popular.


  7. My camera’s not too hot at distances either. Perhaps we’ve got the same sort! We get lots of those purple toothwort flowers every spring too. We don’t have poplars but they’re happy enough with alder tree roots.


    • I must get a better camera for distance shots. I hadn’t seen those flowers before but someone mentioned that they are common on poplar roots here.


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