Aveyron: A week in "La France Profonde"
I awakened one morning last July in a large, soft four-poster bed to the sound of almost complete silence. I climbed out from under my quilt and down a narrow staircase to the kitchen, heated some water on an old gas stove and took my coffee out to a stone terrace where I could see a tiny church up the lane under a shimmering blue sky. A neighbor’s dog barked nearby. A farmer rolled slowly by, dragging hay with his tractor.
I knew I could do whatever I wanted with that day—or absolutely nothing. I was in “La France Profonde” (meaning, according to historian/author Thirza Vallois, a rural area of France that has preserved its authenticity), where time is not a rushing river but a meandering brook. I could write all day sans interruption—I could be the woman in The Swimming Pool movie (without the pool or homicidal blonde).
When I read Thirza Vallois’ book “Aveyron, a Bridge to French Arcadia", I became so intrigued by the Aveyron that I wanted to immediately travel down there from Paris for a long weekend. (I often use aller-retour train tickets to taste other parts of France during my Paris stays.)
However, Thirza warned me that there are no direct trains and that, besides, travelling through the Aveyron should occur in context. A slow context similar to a “dégustation” like wine and a French meal. It is meant to be savored slowly—hardly possible during a quick weekend mostly on trains.
I was determined to experience the Aveyron—“La France Profonde”, a place described as both modern and ageless, where I would find wild and remote fields, medieval towns, stops along the Christian Pilgrim’s route to Compostela, ancient ruins seldom visited by tourists, and the homes of Roquefort cheese and Laguiole knives.
So last July, I decided to take a long deep breath before my planned week in Paris and first spend six days in a secluded 1835 stone cottage without central heating or A/C, in the minuscule hamlet of Mayrinhagues.
Mayrinhagues holds little more than a small château, a church, a number of houses, and a farm.
The journey to Mayrinhagues is not simple. After arriving at Charles de Gaulle from Chicago and taking the RER into Paris, I had to take two trains: an almost four-hour afternoon TGV from Gare d’Austerlitz to Brive La Gaillarde, followed by a crowded local train leaving Brive for the small town of Figeac in the Lot départment. Since rental cars could not be picked up until Monday morning, I spent two nights in Figeac and then drove the 45 minutes to Mayrinhagues on Monday.
However, the scarily tight connection times, weekend delay, exhausting first day, and stick-shifting ride down two-lane roads to Mayrinhagues were worth it.
Figeac was a serendipitous find—a riverfront medieval town with narrow streets, a beautiful old church, and the Champollion Museum, devoted to the history of writing and to native son Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832), who was the first to decipher hieroglyphics (1822). My comfortable bed and breakfast was run by a charming couple; I dined well and drank French beer at the restaurant in the old town square accompanied by one of the town cats.
While spending big chunks of my days eating my own cooking on the old wood kitchen table, writing, reading, and just “being” in my stone cottage, I also found time to explore the Aveyron. I drove to those parts that I could reach easily and quickly by car and could experience slowly and mindfully.
The thirteenth-century walled bastide towns of Villeneuve d’Aveyron and Villefranche de Rouergue—a 10-minute and half-an-hour car journey respectively—were both real treats. In a restaurant in Villeneuve’s old town square, surrounded by locals and in view of the fortified wall, I ate my first aligot ( a sticky, buttery mixture of mashed potatoes, cheese and garlic that according to Thirza is to the Aveyron what couscous is to North Africa). I was also able to attend the widely regarded weekly market in Villefranche at the foot of the imposing Collégiale Notre Dame Church (originating in 1260).
In the town of Najac, nestled high in wooded hills, I visited the fortified castle built in 1253 by Alphonse de Poitiers, from which the view of the surrounding countryside is spectacular and panoramic.
When I arrived in Peyrusse le Roc, I eased my car up to the Lilliputian town centre along a lane that skirted the edge of a drop-off, from which I caught my first view of castle tower ruins dating back to 761. I also visited Hervé Vernhes, the artist whose work is featured in the town’s tiny church and who Thirza called a member of the “brotherhood of sacred anonymity". These artists are little known except in the region but deposit “a tiny legacy of emotions in the stone of the Rouergue".
Each one of these towns deserves its own separate treatment—which I promise I will take care of in later installments. This is an historic area permeated by the Brigadoon-like feeling of an almost unchanged past time. Many of the locals don’t speak any English at all. Visit the Aveyron soon, before too many tourists discover its charm.
To read more about the area, you'll want to buy Thirza Vallois's book "Aveyron, a Bridge to French Arcadia".
About Michele Kurlander: Michele Kurlander is a 67-year-old Chicago corporate lawyer, writer, small business and women's issues advocate (past president of the Chicago Area Chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners), mother of three grown children, and grandma of six. She fell in love with France and all things French many years ago when she first travelled to Europe as the chaperone of a younger cousin in 1967. She travels back to France at least once each year ( often two and three times), whenever her addiction overwhelms her. and keeps up her far from fluent but passable French by reading detective stories by George Simenon about Inspector Maigret. Some of her fondest memories of Paris are (i) sleeping on a bench on the third floor of Shakespeare & Co. one year, and waking to the bells of Notre Dame; (ii) spending her "big" birthdays (50, 60, and 65) in France (the first two entirely in Paris, the most recent both in Paris and in an old stone cottage in a small hamlet in the Aveyron). Michele actually imagines sometimes that she is a resident of Paris, and has developed a number of ex-pat friends, favorite cafes and neighborhoods etc. Her favorite places include eglises St. Severin and St. Gervais, Cafe Panis, the little park across from the Cluny Museum, the Luxembourg Garden, and the Kong Restaurant above the Kenzo store near Pont Neuf where Carry Bradshaw from Sex and the City had lunch with Alexandre Petrovsky's ex wife.