Aveyron the land of beautiful villages: -
Monpazier to Estaing, about four hours. Made a stop at the supermarket at Figeac, and found they also had a modular laundry kiosk outside. One washing machine and two driers – kind of like a ‘porta-laundry’. So we did put the washing on, sat in the car under the trees in the car park and ate our sandwiches (from the supermarket) and read our books while the washing was done. Very efficient. Went into the town to see the 1127 residence of one of the Templar commanders but could only see the outside as once again we arrived during the French lunch ‘hour’ that runs from 12 to 2.30. So we carried on to Estaing. The hotel we were staying at didn’t open until 4 and we were a little early so we went and had a good look around the town. Estaing was the family seat of some distant relatives of the ex-president Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who with his brother bought and is restoring the chateau. Our hotel is an old manor house just outside Estaing overlooking the river and some fields. Our room is decorated in red and gold – a little overpowering if you are not used to that kind of decor, but everything is nice enough. The hotel has a non smoking policy, and the threat of a €180 charge for violating the policy, but the French are incorrigible smokers and there is a slight smell of smokers past. There is also have a no dogs policy which is rare for a French hotel – it is much more usual to just charge a few euros for pets to stay. Not good for subsequent guests with allergies, but pets seem to rule here. The Aveyron region has the highest concentration of beau villages of any region in France, so we visited a few. Drove through Espalion, which is not really a beau village but did have an open bar/coffee shop (not always easy to find) so we stopped for morning coffee. It seemed more like a social drop in centre. It was run by a quite elderly lady and most of the customers seemed to be old blokes looking for a bit of conversation and a discussion on the latest in the rugby. The coffee was good. We have noticed that many old villages in France are full of parked cars but seem quite deserted when it comes to people, with only the very occasional old lady sitting in the sun. The only sign of life usually is the ubiquitous yellow French poste van, driven in most cases by a young woman. So we were amused when we drove through one village called Le Cayrol where they had made up for the lack of real people by populating the street with about 30 to 40 well dressed mannequins, representing all the aspects of village life, including a policeman on the edge ot town. We visited the town of Laguiole, which is not a beau village but is famous for designer knives and cutlery, and for Laguiole cheese. We looked at several knife shops, including a Phillip Starck one. There is also a Phillip Starck designed knife workshop on the edge of Laguiole. There are some beautifully designed (and very expensive) knives and cutlery made by individual artisans, but we admired and didn’t buy. We did visit a fromagerie and buy one of the local specialties called Aligot cheese – a mixture of pureed potato, Tome cheese and garlic. They also sold several versions of the local Laguiole cheese, made from local cows, which resemble Guernseys. Laguiole retailers had a spirit of entrepreneurship we have not seen elsewhere in France – both the fromagerie and the knife shops stayed open after the official closing time of 12 noon to catch the last few customers. The next beau village, Prades d’Aubrac, was quite different to anywhere else we had been, with the buildings all of an attractive reddish stone. Then we drove to Aubrac, which is very, very small village about 1000 m high in rolling alpine country, quite different from the surrounding lower hills. In winter the region is a centre for skiing and there are many ski villages and resorts in the region, although all quite small and low key. In warmer months people go walking and hunting, and the cows are pastured up there. We stopped for ‘soup of the day’, which was a local specialty, at the St Germaine restaurant. It was a very hearty vegetable soup with cheese and bread included in the soup. Just perfect as it was quite chilly up there. We did try to buy a piece of their very tempting raspberry and blueberry tart to take away, but that was not allowed. Only to eat there and we had no room after the soup. From there we wound our way back down to the river and stopped at yet another beau village – St Eulalie d’Olt. It was pretty but we didn’t stay too long as some of the residents seemed to be having a fairly heated discussion about something, and the vibes weren’t good. Headed back towards our hotel with one more stop at a village called St Come d’Olt, which was one of the lovelier villages we have visited. From Monpazier we moved on to Castelnau de Montmiral. Meandered a bit on the drive and stopped to sight see as it is not far between the two places. It was yet another absolutely beautiful, sunny warm day with temperatures in the mid twenties. We headed west to a plus beau village called Belcastel, which is the prettiest and best presented of the all the villages we have been to. It has been restored quite extensively in parts but very sympathetically and the overall effect combined with the natural beauty of the area is stunning. http://chateaudebelcastel.com/english/history-of-the-chateau-de-belcastel/ Further west again is the larger town of Villefranche de Rouergue, which is noted for both the Old Chapel of the Black Penitants, which has a remarkable painted ceiling and sumptious altar piece, and the 1451 Charterhouse of St Sauveur and its unique cloisters. We saw them from the outside, but again unfortunately arrived during the French lunch ‘hour’ of 12 to 2.30 so could not go inside. Our final visit for the day was to the village of Najac, which again had its own unique character. It is a long, narrow village, built along a ridge top with the chateau at one end. We stayed the night in the Hotel de Consuls, right on the square in the village of Castelnau de Montmiral. The hotel was not a good choice and we wouldn’t recommend the place. The village is another bastide. Quite small and quite charming, but not really worth going too far out of the way to see.