Forgotten FrancePosted on: 10 June 2019 by Michael Edwards
Taking quiet roads through the Tarn region, Michael Edwards discovers France’s hill-top villages.
In the turbulent Medieval Ages the ruling Counts of France decided to build fortified villages known as Bastides. With their cobbled streets, timber beams and potted geraniums these are some of France’s prettiest villages. Remarkably there are over 700 of these Bastide villages surviving throughout France, epitomising the charm of French rural life.
Back then the population were told that the ramparts and towers were built for their defence, sometimes to protect them from rampaging English forces. Local people were encouraged to move into these villages by the offer of exemption from some taxes.
In fact, gathering the citizens together made collecting taxes much easier for the ruling classes. Moreover, villagers living around a central market square traded their wares. People became prosperous and the income from taxes actually increased.
Visit Castelnau-de-Montmiral, quite rightly classified as one of France’s “plus beaux villages” to see a classic market square at the heart of a grid pattern of narrow roads. The top floors jut out over arcades below where people could set up their stalls to trade out of the rain. Equally importantly, taxes were based on ground floor rooms, so upstairs rooms were an effective tax-dodging wheeze.
In the Tarn region, to the north-east of Toulouse - and it’s airport is usually under a two hour flight from the U.K. - many of these villages were built on hill-tops, providing spectacular views over the green countryside of hillside vineyards and sunflower fields. Even some of the roundabouts are home to a few vines.
From Medieval times the area around Toulouse was known as “Le Pays De Cocagne”, the Land of Plenty. The blue dye grown locally was a wealth-creating export, particularly to England. On one historic day in 1404 thirteen ships unloaded their cargo of dye in Bristol. Today the pale blue shutters of so many of the region’s buildings celebrate the wealth that dye brought. The industry is still thriving with the distinctive blue cosmetics, scarves and tableware available in shops.
Far from the busy autoroutes of western France - Provence’s thoroughfares see far more traffic - quiet undulating roads roll past one of the Tarn region’s most distinctive features, “Les pigeonnières.” These beautifully constructed stone buildings, sometimes the size of a small house, traditionally provided a home for pigeons who were kept for eggs, for meat and fertiliser for the vineyards.
Visit one of the tourist offices in a Bastide village to pick up a map to plan your route. As your drive up the gradient to the village of Puycelci ignore the parking slots on your right. Incredibly this spectacularly beautiful village,a small part of Forgotten France, rarely seems crowded. You may be able to park, for free, right in the heart of the village. With a restaurant and cafe overlooking the valley below, Puycelci is a good spot for lunch.
In winter the region’s diet is full of warming dishes, making use of beans and pulses, with cassoulet proving popular. Whatever the season, foie gras is a local speciality and recently foie gras brûlée has become a very popular starter. In spring the asparagus appears early as do many of the salad items and vegetables. Goats cheese, mushrooms and onions are popular fillings in the galettes, savoury buckwheat pancakes. Locally grown food is enjoying a Renaissance, at a recent market in Gaillac there were over 30 different varieties of tomato available.
Cordes-sur-Ciel, a breathtakingly beautiful village that appears to float among the clouds on misty mornings, is the region’s poster village. With its steep pedestrianised alleyways, ascending through the artists’ quarter, it is a challenging trek to the top. As Cordes is the one village that attracts crowds you are more likely to find a parking space and room to browse its galleries - particularly the Chocolate Museum - from mid-afternoon onwards. Rest your weary feet at the square, with a well-deserved drink, look out across the countryside and locate your next Bastide village on the map.
Visit www.tourisme-tarn.com to learn more about the region.
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