Laguépie occupies a tongue of land bordered by steep hillsides between the Aveyron and Viaur rivers. They merge just downstream of the village, so that water surrounds it on three sides. Since it’s not en route to any of our usual haunts, we visit only rarely. This week, a meeting there for coffee with a car-less friend gave me an opportunity to extend my acquaintance with the village and its surroundings.
The Aveyron and the Viaur flow through strikingly beautiful countryside with steep gorges and tree-covered slopes, overlooked by ancient, perched villages. It is said that the waters of the Viaur contain gold, but in such tiny traces that it’s not worth panning for. When the sunshine glints on the shimmering waters, you could almost fancy that they contain gold dust.
Needless to say, with all this water Laguépie can be susceptible to flooding. My friend explained that the more powerful Aveyron in full spate can push back the waters of its smaller sibling, the Viaur, towards the village.
Laguépie has an official bathing spot in the Viaur, supervised during July and August.
Village at the edge of the département
A village or settlement may have existed on the spot since Roman times. People once thought that the ‘gué’ part of the name referred to a ford. However, more detailed research has suggested that it derives from the name of a Roman villa-owner named Vippius. Over the years, the V became a G. It doesn’t appear to have anything to do with wasps or their nests (guêpe and guêpier respectively) in French.
Originally part of the former province of Rouergue, Laguépie became part of the newly created département of Tarn-et-Garonne in 1808. At that point, Laguépie and Saint-Martin-Laguépie on the other side of the Viaur were divided into separate communes in different départements.
Laguépie now sits at the crossroads of three départements: Tarn-et-Garonne, Tarn and Aveyron. The boundary with Tarn runs down the middle of the Viaur.
There’s a lot to recommend Laguépie. Road and rail transport links are reasonable, it has a range of shops, although currently no boulangerie, and wonderful scenery surrounds it. There’s not a great deal of employment, and it’s a bit far from major towns to function as a dormitory town. Over the 20th century, Laguépie’s population experienced the rural exodus typical of rural France: from 1,520 inhabitants in 1886, the numbers dropped to 604 in 2019.
I wouldn’t call the village itself picturesque in a tourist sense, although it contains some attractive buildings. However, scratch the surface a little, and you find that there’s more to the place than meets the eye. Before meeting my friend, I wandered around and took the trouble to look, which I haven’t done before.
Lou Viel Castel
The ruins of a 12th-century château, lou Viel Castel, dominate the village from the opposite bank of the Viaur. The fortress has stood sentinel over the river and road junctions since at least 1175, its first documentary mention.
Like many villages along the Aveyron valley, Laguépie saw its share of turmoil over the years. Simon de Montfort razed the château in 1212 during the Albigensian crusade. It passed back and forth between English and French during the Hundred Years War. In 1592, it was razed to the ground yet again during the Wars of Religion.
The townsfolk pillaged the castle in 1793 and used the materials for building their houses. The château remained in ruins thereafter. The building now belongs to the commune of Saint-Martin-Laguépie across the river. An association has overseen renovation work and opens the château to visitors in the summer.
Perhaps Laguépie’s main claim to fame is its formerly thriving chestnut industry. The soil and climatic conditions in the area were ideal for the Spanish chestnut tree. Chestnuts supplied animal feed and food for the inhabitants, too. They ate chestnuts grilled, in a kind of soup (lou bajanac) and ground into flour.
A natural hybrid, le Marron de Laguépie, produced chestnuts of particular sweetness, highly prized for making marrons glacés or eating grilled. Great plantations of them once covered the slopes.
Along the Viaur river, the site of many lovely walks, you can hardly move without trampling fallen chestnuts underfoot in the autumn. Nobody now collects them on an industrial scale.
The arrival of the railway from the mid-19th century gave a huge boost to Laguépie. The village exported hundreds of tonnes of chestnuts every week in season throughout France and even to England. This lasted until the 1950s, when faster road and rail routes bypassed the village.
Laguépie pays tribute to the foundation of its former prosperity in an annual Foire à la Châtaigne on the last Sunday in October. The fair attracts thousands of visitors, as we found when we went about 10 years ago.
Below are a few additional photos of things I saw in and around Laguépie.
As for so many villages, the war memorial is a litany of needless loss. Forty-seven men from Laguépie died in World War I, the “war to end wars”. Saint-Martin over the river lost 34. During World War II, Laguépie lost two men in the fighting and two résistants.
Former café-restaurant, of which Laguépie no doubt had many more during its heyday.
Both the Aveyron and the Viaur once supported many working watermills. In fact, the Viaur had around 50, i.e. one every three kilometres. The one below is on the Aveyron side and clearly hasn’t functioned for many years. I saw the huge millstone leaning against the wall outside.
I love old-style French signs like the one below, attached to the wall outside a former garage.
Finally, on the way home I stopped to snap the tiny église Notre-Dame, a monument historique, in the hamlet of Puech-Mignon, which belongs to the commune of Laguépie. A church has existed on the spot since at least the 10th century. The church has been restored and remodelled on numerous occasions over the centuries.
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