Tuscany? No, the Tarn. Milhars to be precise, a village just over the border from our own département. Much of Milhars stretches out along a busy road, which means we have rarely stopped there. But there’s a hidden part of it perched on the hill, and that was a revelation last Sunday.
A number of areas in France claim the title of the Tuscany of France, including the Gers, the Lomagne and the Quercy Blanc in Tarn-et-Garonne and the Tarn itself. The rolling countryside, with its cypresses and parasol pines and its perched medieval villages, is considered to resemble Tuscany. It’s mainly a construct to attract tourists, but it’s not completely fanciful.
In fact, I didn’t intend to see the old part of Milhars. As often occurs, it happened by accident. I had seen flyers advertising the annual Fête de l’Osier (wicker), so I thought it might be fun to go along and find out what this involved.
On a weekend in February, there wouldn’t be that many people, would there? I was wrong. It was heaving. The springlike sunshine and temperatures had brought people out after lunch, eager to shake off a gloomy January and glad of an outing after the post-Christmas dearth of entertainment.
Cars were parked along the verges on both sides. To find a space I had to drive to the end of the village and walk back to the salle des fêtes.
A long, open-sided marquee sheltered stalls displaying basketwork of all kinds: bread baskets, shopping baskets, log baskets, even sculptures made of wicker. Yet more stalls crowded the salle des fêtes.
Some of the stallholders held demonstrations of basket weaving. I declined to take part, having all the manual dexterity of an amoeba. It was interesting to watch, though. Some of the work on sale was quite expensive, but I can understand why, given the skill and effort involved.
Basket weaving, or vannerie in French, is an ancient industry. There’s evidence that it already took place around 10,000 years ago. Egyptian murals show wicker furniture in use 5,000 years ago.
The raw materials haven’t changed: plant materials such as willow, young chestnut twigs, reed and bamboo. Willows grow in abundance along the little River Cérou that bisects Milhars, hence, I imagine, the origin of the fête. Their slender, strap-like branches are tough but pliable.
The old village
Interesting as it was, there wasn’t a lot to detain me after a while, so I picked up a leaflet about Milhars from the tourist office stall. The brief description intrigued me, so I walked uphill to the old village, grouped in a snail-like spiral around its château. There, I found a fascinating warren of ruelles and tiny squares interspersed with gardens within the ramparts.
Three of the old fortified gates still exist.
Milhars (pronounced Milliarss, which was news to me) started life as Miliacum. In Gallo-Roman times, it was a place where a milestone was erected, then it became a stronghold that controlled the route between the Albigeois and the Quercy-Rouergue as well as the crossings over the Cérou and the Aveyron. So it held a very important strategic position. As you can see from this photo, there’s a good view for miles around.
As in many such villages, rural depopulation has been marked, especially in the late 19th century. In 1821, Milhars boasted 837 inhabitants. A century later, this had dropped to 369. In 2020, there were 242 people, less than a third of the peak.
The present château, which is privately owned, dates from the 17th century. It was built on top of the remnants of a much earlier, probably 13th-century fortress. Apparently, a square tower remained, but it partially collapsed in the late 19th century and was then demolished. The early village was built close to the old château, but as the population developed, it spread out beyond the ramparts and at the bottom of the hill.
Driving through the village, I have often wondered what the arches below were in the wall below the château. The leaflet about Milhars describes them as arcs de décharge. None the wiser, I had to look this up. Apparently, they are relieving arches, which “act as a bridge absorbing/dissipating most if not all of the pressure from the downward force of the wall/load above.” In other words, a way of preventing the whole lot from collapsing under the weight.
I was hoping for a more romantic description of these mysterious arches than this mundane architectural term. Reassuring, though, if your house is just underneath.
Walks around Milhars
The area is good walking country. You can walk along the banks of the Cérou, up into the hills above the village or along la Vallée de Bonnan. The latter is a series of meadows where sheep once grazed, bounded by wooded hills, with the Bonnan, a clear stream flowing through the middle. The Bonnan valley is particularly noted for the diversity of species of plants and insects. The circuit is a lovely walk. Being largely flat, it’s not taxing, either.
Other features in the village:
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A fascinating post Vanessa. I love a basket. I remember my much older sister, weaving a basket as part of primary school teaching course. Looks like yet another interesting place in France. Merci beaucoup for sharing this.
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Thank you, Carole. There were certainly plenty to choose from at Milhars, but I had to keep my hand firmly away from my wallet, as we don’t really need any more! We’ve lived here for nearly 26 years, but this is yet another case of discovering something for the first time that is virtually on our doorstep.
Bonsoir. I see that the coat of arms of Milhars as shown by Wiki includes, as one of its principal attributes, a blue chevron. But sorry, I don’t seem to be able to copy it into this comments box.
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Yes, I also saw that, and I suppose that the chevron on the stèle probably references that. But it lacks the other elements, unless of course they have been weathered away. The stèle itself may also be a reference to the original milepost , although it’s doubtless not the same one.
Umm. The other attributes don’t look ‘pukka’ heraldic – a bit municipal. The chevron may refer back to authentic history. But the milepost allusion is great! Well done, Milhars! As ever, a fascinating post.
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I didn’t have time to look at it closely when I was there. In any case, I’m no expert on heraldry! The actual coat of arms is more elaborate, as I think you’ll have found. I can’t paste it here, either. I can’t find any reference to this stèle, so the milestone idea is my supposition. I will have to return to find out more.
We have a house near Castelnau-Montratier, in the Lot, and I enjoy your posts very much. The area near us, around the Lendou valley (Montcuq, Lauzerte etc), is known locally as Little Tuscany but I always thought it was estate agents-speak, to attract buyers who couldn’t afford a house in Tuscany!
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Hello, Sandra, and thank you for commenting. I’m pleased you enjoy the blog. It’s kind of you to tell me. Yes, your area is certainly one of those known as la Toscane Française! I think it may have started out as an estate agent concept, but if you look at the title of the tourist office for Gaillac, Cordes, etc., you’ll see they have appropriated it. https://www.la-toscane-occitane.com/villes-villages/gaillac.
I haven’t been over to your area for a while, but we did some househunting there before landing in NE Tarn-et-Garonne, and I know it’s a lovely part of the world.