A Hidden Treasure

A Hidden Treasure

Here’s the latest discoveries and adventures from Beth and friends still finding new amazing places right in the heart of southwest France, this week they discover the popular market town of Saint Antonin.

"Imagine what it was like living in the Middle Ages, the early period. In a town blessed with a formidable natural resource, which contributed to its reputation as an important trading centre in the Occitanie region.

It all started around the 8th century. This place has history coming out of its ears. Its name is Saint Antonin Noble Val. I was dying to visit and dragged my husband along for the morning.

Our route took us past Montauban, the principal city in our area, through several pretty villages, including Caussade. The hatter industry flourished here, peaking in the late 19th century. Also known as la cité du chapeau (hat city), straw hat making was Caussade’s speciality.

Deeper into the countryside, we went. There were none of the gentle fruit-growing landscapes we see in our area. This was big-boys rugged terrain.

A slash in the landscape. We had reached the Aveyron Gorge, a natural feature more than 50 kilometres long. Vertical cliffs, some over 500 metres high, towered above the river flowing far below. A vast forest covered the landscape like a verdant duvet, bisected by the limestone fissure. It was an incredible scene.

We followed the steeply descending ribbon-like road. Stone slabs the sizes of houses were stacked into skyscrapers on our left. To our right, we snatched more sightings of the gorge through a blur of scrub and scabby trees. Another tricky hairpin bend, and there it was, Saint Antonin Noble Val, a secret town nestling at the confluence of the Rivers Aveyron and Bonnette.

The closer we got, the clearer it became that this was no ordinary settlement. Narrow streets guarded by fortification fragments, ancient buildings and stone obelisks, I couldn’t wait to start exploring.

We walked beneath a massive cathedral-like archway into another world. Just for a moment, we were utterly alone on a cobbled way lined either side with medieval buildings. Some looked like homes, others, shops with living quarters above.

The narrow street was interrupted by openings to intriguing allies. I couldn’t resist a peek. There were balconies, twisty passageways, old and new masonry and planters, which suggested these were folks’ homes.

Back out, and I passed several different shops. Chapeaux and Casquettes, a thumbs-up supporting neighbouring Caussade, was impressive with its frontage buttressed by a massive timber beam. There were épiceries, boulangeries, even a book shop. I couldn’t resist that!

A magnificent building caught my eye; it seemed somehow grander than the others. Maison Romane is one of the oldest civic buildings in France. Retired from duty now, in the 12th century, the Town Hall was used as law courts and base for the governors.  

I admired the great tower, solid and dependable against the blue sky. It was a Tuscan-inspired creation by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who knew a thing or two about architecture. Among his major restoration projects, he was renowned for his work on Notre-Dame de Paris and the medieval walls of Carcassonne. It was Viollet-le-Duc who restored this building in the 19th century.

As the way broadened, cafés came into view with residents and visitors enjoying coffee in the shade of squashed together buildings. Soft pastel paint, flaky now, was visible on walls, as were the gnarled vines. Wood stanchions, battered shutters and balconies with intricate ironwork, I gazed in wonder at them all.

The market hall was adjacent. Another imposing building, it dates back to 1840 and is still fit for purpose. Every week on market day, the hall and the surrounding streets are filled with flowers and flavours from the locality. It’s a tradition observed by most towns and villages in our part of France, one I love.  We passed more intricate alleys. Little restaurants snuck discretely behind protective walls, lit by lanterns and candles on tables, each as charming as the other.

We returned to the car and headed to the old bridge, first mentioned in 1163. Initially, the governors used to levy tolls on it. And since several industries thrived here, I suspect it was a lucrative decision.

We parked and walked onto the bridge. The studded steeple of a splendid church dominated one side. A cluster of buildings surrounded it, some whose bases were lapped by the Averyon. There were homeowners taking tea on balconies. The scenes were spellbinding.

The other side marked the point where La Bonnette flows by the town and a river walk, which was favoured by the town’s monks in ancient times. The benign river was a-bob with enthusiasts exploring in canoes and kayaks, the perfect means to enjoy this waterway on a hot day.

Sadly, time was against us, so we returned to the car. We took a different route and pulled off at a rough entrance to grab a final view. In amongst the brush, we discovered a rocky trail. We had no idea whether animals, drovers or even pilgrims had frequented it, but the stone base was smooth with use.

We fought through a patch of gorse, and suddenly there it was. The vista was extraordinary. Those cliffs, ledges, rocks, and forest as far as the eye could see, it felt as though we were on top of the world.

We stayed for a while, absorbing the views, enjoying the moment. Our whistle-stop tour had ended, but it was enough for us to decide that this gem of a town is somewhere we must visit again soon."

Thank you Beth for this new piece, we look forward to more stories next month. Until then you can see Beth's books and stories on her website and on Amazon.