Letter from Paris
Lately, I have been shuttling back and forth between Paris and different parts of the Aveyron, by air, by train and by car. What I haven't done yet is shuttle between London and the Aveyron, which is by far the cheapest way to get there. Ryanair has been flying daily between Stanstead and Rodez since May 2003, for, sometimes, as little as 5 euros. Of course, the train ticket to get to Stansted Airport from London will cost you some £20, but that's besides the point-when advertising their super bargains, you wouldn't expect airlines to trumpet additional frills. Still, even if you add them all up, it is cheaper to get from London to Rodez than from Paris, adding to the ever-growing number of UK citizens in the Aveyron, some of whom have made it their permanent home.
However, the scarily tight connection times, weekend delay, exhausting first day, and stick-shifting ride down two-lane roads to Mayrinhagues were worth it.
Most foreigners I speak to have never heard of the Aveyron. When I tell them I am in the midst of writing a book about it, their eyes brighten with recognition. I always anticipate the blank expression that will follow a few seconds later, when they realise that I didn't say "Avignon" but A-vey-ron, which I articulate very slowly this time round. The Aveyron is tucked away on the southern edge of the Massif Central (the central mountains of France), a very vast area of rugged surface that makes it inaccessible (it takes seven hours to get from Paris to Rodez by rail), and no TGV connection is planned for a foreseeable future, because it will simply be too costly.
The current policy of the SNCF (French Railway) is to run the TGV to a nearby city (in the case of the Aveyron Toulouse or Montpellier) and then connect it with a small regional train (TER), which is stylishly designed (the way the French know how to do these things), but always involves the hassle of a change. This also means that many local lines are closing down, occasionally causing an outburst of protest, also French-style. From the tourist's perspective, however, why bother, when other wonderful parts of France, like Provence, are so much faster to get to? Except if he or she is one of those who can appreciate the uniqueness of the Aveyron, which, for me, has been a perpetual song of astonishment and a thrilling experience of rebirth.
Among its multiple geographical features, due to a variety of climates and geological complexity, are the northern highland pastures of the Aubrac, which the Aveyron shares with the Cantal and the Lozère. The Aubrac cattle is famous for both its beauty and the quality of its meat and has not escaped the attention of the most upper circles of British society. Among its fans is Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who, despite his busy international career, makes time to breed Aubrac cattle on his farm in Dorset, England and is a regular visitor at the annual spring Transhumance, when the cattle make their way to the mountains for the summer season. It so happens that this year is both the 100th anniversary of the entente cordiale between England and France, and the 40th anniversary of Gardiner's Monteverdi Choir.
It so happens, too, that one of the four major pilgim routes to Santiago of Compostela runs through the Aveyron starting in the Aubrac. It's the shortest of the four, but also the most beautiful one, starting at Puy-en-Velay. Furthermore, this year happens to be une année Jacquaire, that is, a year when Saint James's Day falls on a Sunday, which gives the pilgrimage extra momentum. This means there will be many more pilgrims on the road throughout the summer, many of whom you will recognise because they will be carrying the characteristic pilgrim staff and sporting a coquille Saint Jacques by way of a brooch. The other day, I even saw a donkey decorated with one which stuck out exquisitely against its shining black coat.
Incidentally, the gourmet coquille Saint-Jacques dish has its roots in the pilgrimage. Upon arrival at Santiago in Galicia, the pilgrim would pick scallops on the beach to take home as a token that he has completed the pilgrimage. Later the scallop became a decorative motive often to be seen carved on the walls of churches, sometimes on the pews. Next time you are in Paris, before you rush to see the magnificent tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn, in the National Museum of the Middle Ages (Hôtel de Cluny), take your time to look at the beautiful courtyard, dripping with coquille Saint-Jacques carvings on a couple of its walls. One of the four main pilgrim routes went through Paris, precisely through rue Saint-Jacques, hence its name. It started at the church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie (so called because it served the butchers' community of Les Halles Central market), of which only the tower has survived. You can see it north of place du Châtelet, at present under scaffolding.
When you eventually make it to the Averyon, where crosses and other paraphernalia from the medieval pilgrimage are sprinkled everywhere, go and visit the church of Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul in Villeneuve-d'Aveyron, which houses 14th-century murals depicting the pilgrimage. Better still, if you can make it to the Aveyron in the last week of this coming June, you will be able to listen to the Monteverdi Choir perform in some of France's most beautiful medieval churches, Sainte-Foy in Conques (June 27th-an all-day event), the Cathedral of Rodez (June 28th) the Abbey of Loc-Dieu (June 29th). Rehearsals are open to the public at no charge, in three bejewelled country churches, St-Pierre de Bessuéjouls, St-Austremoine and St-Jean-le-Froid, starting on June 24th.
The surroundings are just as enchanting, be it the conch-like topography of the gorgeous medieval village of Conques, the grounds of Loc-Dieu which are worthy of an English stately home, the tiny Jean-le-Froid perched on a mountain blessed with bracing air and sweeping views, St-Austremoine, nestling among the vineyards of the red valley of Marcillac, and St-Pierre de Bessuéjouls, basking among the greenery of the happy valley of the Lot.
Bearing these figures in mind, you will have presumely gathered that you are seriously deep into la France profonde.
Credit: Background top banner, watercolour by Jessie Chapman, Charlottesville, U.S.A, excerpt from his travel sketchbook called "Andiamo a Parigi!".