Les Gorges de l'Aveyron
Six days along the Aveyron and
in the Bastides of the Rouergue
In south west France, straddling the departments of Aveyron and Tarn et Garonne, is the
spectacular gorge country of the Aveyron and Vère rivers.
The Aveyron rises in the causse country of the Cevennes, then runs west to Rodez from where
it follows a winding descent through gorge country till it reaches Villefranche-de-Rouergue. It
then cuts through its most celebrated gorges, picks up the Vère at Bruniquel and joins, first the
Tarn and then the Garonne, just downstream of Moissac.
By the time the Garonne reaches the Gironde and the Atlantic, just North of Bordeaux, all the
enchanting rivers of the south west have converged into a mighty waterway.
The Aveyron area includes some of the most interesting bastides of the south west and a fair
number of villages in the "prettiest villages" classification.
Ruined castles and churches give testimony to a bloody past. Simon de Montford and his
Albegensian crusaders occupied the area in the early 13th century, to be followed by the
English at the beginning in the 14th century, then the interchanging supremacy of the
protestants and catholics during the Wars of Religion and finally the Revolution.
In 1991 we did a six day walk on the route known as the Tour des Gorges de l'Aveyron. In 2010
we returned to the area and spent two weeks in St Antonin Noble Val enjoying the ambience of
the historic old town and revisiting the highlights of the walk.
Villefranche de Rouergue
The food is good in the Aveyron. All
the regional specialties of the
Dordogne are still found here - confits,
foies gras, cèpes, cabécous and, for a
splurge, truffles. Rabbit and hare may
also appear on restaurant menus.
As well as the fine Bergerac wines, the
big reds of Cahors, with a provenance
back to Roman times, are excellent
Day 1. Villefranche-de-Rouergue - Najac - 22 km (8 km from Monteils)
Day 2. Najac - Les Cabannes (Cordes) - 23km
Day 3. Cordes - Cahuzac - 16 km
Day 4. Cahuzac - Puycelci - 28 km (19 km from Castlenau de Montmiral)
Day 5. Puycelci - Bruniquel - 15 km
Day 6. Bruniquel - Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val - 22km
For the most part, the walk follows the Aveyron River and its tributary, the Vère. It is fairly easy,
the greatest challenges being the climbs up to the bastide towns - inevitably at the end of a days
There are a number of circuits that can be followed and several alternative starting points. Most
walking is on the GR 36 (in the east) and the GR 46 (in the west). Links are made across the
circuit by way of a number of GR de Pays. Access is easy - Figeac, Montauban and Caussade
are all on the major rail lines from Paris and Toulouse and there are buses linking to the smaller
We started the walk in Villefranche-de-Rouergue and finished in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val - a total
distance of 126km, covering about two thirds of the full circuit. It was May when the forests were
a vivid green with new spring leaves sprouting on all the trees.
The walk began in Villefranche de Rouergue, which is an old French bastide but also a sizable,
modern town. It was given the "new town" appellation in 1252 when it was created as a bastide
by Alphonse de Poitiers. However, the site had already been settled in prehistoric times and it
had been recorded as a mining town from about 1099.
The fascinating old quarter has narrow streets, old buildings, now mostly shops and offices,
surrounding a central market place, a most imposing church and an arched stone bridge.
It was here that an intriguing feature of the walk kicked in. It was
Wednesday, and it seemed that most hotels were closed for the
day. Happily the laid back Hotel des Colonnes was prepared to
take in guests as long as they took responsibility for letting
themselves in and out.
A spiral staircase led up to a bedroom which overlooked a very fine
church. Next morning the bells pealed out to welcome in
Assumption day and the church precinct became very busy with
the faithful coming and going.
On track to Najac
On track from Monteils
The lunch place
The lunch bridge
Villefranche to Najac
To avoid a dreary walk on busy main roads through the industrial
part of town we took a local train to Monteils and from there the
Climbing at first, there were fabulous views back towards Monteils
and south to the Aveyron. A muddy pathway then led down through
the leafy forests to the river. The Aveyron, at this point, runs over a
rocky bed and looks like God's own trout stream.
Here, in the gorges between Villefranche-de-Rouergue and Najac are old lead and silver mines,
first worked in Gallo-Roman times and continuing intermittently up to the end of the second
Lunch was in the shadow of a high railway bridge. Built between 1854-58 to provide access to
the mines, the construction of the railway line down these gorges between Monteils and Najac
was quite a feat, requiring nine bridges and the same number of tunnels.
After crossing the railway bridge, listening out for trains, there was a long climb to Najac.
There are glimpses of Najac's castle on the climb through the trees and the view as the top of
the ridge is reached is quite magnificent The 12th century castle, stands high and the little
town tumbles down the ridge till it reaches an old church and then the land all falls away to the
valley. Houses are built out of pinkish stone and have high pitched grey slate roofs. Artinisat
shops line the streets.
In a well located hotel/restaurant at the entry to the town a big gathering of old soldiers was still
finishing a lunch to celebrate VE day. Their enjoyment seemed a good sign so we booked in for
the night and enjoyed a celebratory first night's dinner.
Leaving Najac, a steep track runs past the castle and through the town to the edge of the cliff.
Then it drops over the edge and down to the Aveyron.
Following the river, we came upon a sort of holiday camp at Mergieux. Known as a Village
Vacances Familles, these facilities are set up as summer vacation resorts with cabins and
community halls providing for happy communal holidays en famille.
At Laguépie the GR left the river and the track rolled along through pleasant country until Cordes
came into view, strategically placed like most bastides, on the top of a very steep hill. We opted
to stay at Les Cabannes, at the base of the hill, and to explore Cordes the next day.
We joined several other guests in the dining room adjoining the bar of a modest hotel and ate a
strange combination of soup, cold meats and spaghetti. Everyone drank freely from their
allocation of red wine and watched TV while eating dinner.
Najac to Cordes-sur-Ciel
Cordes to Cahuzac
Cordes was a French bastide. Still preserved
within its ramparts and stone gateways, it is also
known as Cordes-des-le-Haut or Cordes-sur-Ciel.
The old quarter is ultra pretty and busy with tourist
The weekly market was in full swing with a range
of farm machinery on offer. The epicerie stalls
provided us the necessaries for a fine lunch
A fairly uneventful day's walk through pleasant rolling country brought us to Cahuzac. There were
no dramatic ups and downs and lunch among juniper bushes was akin to being in the causse
At Cahuzac the only hotel was closed - unusual for a Saturday. Désespoir. But in the pub down
the road local knowledge came up with a chambre d'hôte and one of the drinkers ran out into the
street to waylay the proprietor who just happened to be passing . She was very cheery and helpful
and offered a sparkling big room in a brand new establishment which she managed for the local
commune. She also suggested a little restaurant for dinner, back along the road to Cordes and
newly opened by a friendly young couple.
The bells of the church rang every hour all night.
View from Cordes
Cahuzac to Puycelci
At Cahuzac, the GR 36 mysteriously becomes the GR 46, but this
didn't concern us as Madame from the chambre d'hôte drove us to
Castlenau de Montmiral. Taking lifts was usually against our rules
but Madame was very insistent and the desirability of cutting 9 km
off a long 28km day was appealing.
Castlenau is another bastide high on a hill and seen for miles
around. Its name says it all - castellum novum montis mirabilis
which roughly translates as the "new castle of the marvellous
mountain" from where, of course, you can see everything.
Madame dropped us in the colonnaded central market square where
a flower market was doing good trade. Local housewives were buying
seedlings, soon to become the bright floral displays seen around all
village houses during the summer. The gardens and wayside flowers
are lovely at this time of year, particularly the iris that grow both in
gardens and randomly along the roads.
Leaving Castlenau, it was easy walking through farms and past the
occasional château. The track was very muddy. Between the villages
of Lacapelle and Laval, the GR took a sharp turn to the north and
again headed towards the Aveyron, last seen at Laguépie.
There was another very steep climb up to Puycelsi where a search for accommodation found
everything closed (Sunday this time). At the local tourist office a helpful attendant immediately
recognised English speakers and delivered us into the hands of an Englishwoman who ran a
chambre d'hôte out of town and back along the route we had come.
While it would have been preferable to stay and look around Puycelci rather than retrace the
route, it was a very agreeable evening. Angela, our hostess, had lived here for a number of years
with her German artist husband. She had overcome most of the local reticence to accept
strangers and become part of the community. She was able to answer lots of questions that had
been nagging us about local life and customs. She had to go out, but cooked us a meal and left
us in charge of the house and a large Alsatian, as gentle as a lamb and, appropriately, called
Woofy. An unexpected treat was a nightingale that sang during the night, as nightingales do.
In the morning Angela packed up a picnic lunch and returned us to Puycelci from where the
GR headed north.
There was a very muddy descent through a denuded landscape and then an even muddier
climb. The area had been entirely cleared of trees, leading to a complete and frustrating
absence of balisage. Consequently, we lost the way a couple of times and had to retrace our
steps through the mud.
We found ourselves here in the Forêt de Grésigne, a forested area of 4000 ha and one of the
largest remaining examples of the ancient Forêt Dominale. As we found our way through the
forest there was a commotion as a large contingent of the French army passed by - happily
running through the mud, jumping over fallen trees and shouting instructions to each other.
Eventually the mud was left behind and the pathway emerged on a high ridge from where a
new track led down to the Vère River and on to Bruniquel.
Rerouting of the track had cut 5km from the day, leaving more time to look round Bruniquel,
one of the "gems" of this walk. It features as one of the prettiest villages of rural France and
appears on all the travel posters for the region.
Puycelci to Bruniquel
La Forêt Dominale comprised the
great forests of France which provided
hunting and recreation for the kings
and noblemen, timber for the king's
fleets and firewood for the peasantry.
While, in theory, forests were
preserved for the king, by the 16th
century they had been severely
plundered. Their saviour was a certain
Jean-Baptiste Colbert who warned
Louis XIV that, in order to ensure
naval and military supremacy, France
must preserve its wood.
After extensive research into the
remaining resources and the
prevailing practices Colbert, in 1669,
produced the Code Colbert which was
effectively a bible for French forestry.
It encoded forestry practice
extraordinarily precisely and strictly,
including a requirement that one
quarter of all forests were to be set
aside for the king.
Unpopular with peasants and
merchants, particularly in difficult
economic and climatic times, the
Code eventually gave way to more
practical management and
preservation of the most strategically
important forests. The Forêt de
Grésigne obviously continued to be a
Bruniquel is said to have been
founded in the 6th century by
Brunehaut, or Brunhilda, the daughter
of a Visigothic king, herself a Queen,
and not to be confused with her
namesake of Wagnerian fame. She
was at the centre of a feuding family
with names worthy of a historical novel
- father Athanagild, husband Sigebert,
son Childebert, sister Galswintha,
brother in law Chilperic, his mistress
Fredegunde and her son Clotaire.
Brunhilda was put to a horrible death
by Clotaire - tied by her hair to the tail
of an unbroken horse which was
forced to gallop round the village.
On this Monday, it was a ghost town.
The hotel/restaurant was closed, there were no
other restaurants, all shops were closed, even the
garage and its snack bar were closed. There was
no-one about to ask advice. Fortunately there was
a room in a local gîte - an institutional sort of
chambre d'hôte run by the local Mairie. We were
shown to a bleak, sparsely furnished room where,
apart from sheets on the beds and some skimpy
towels there was nothing else on offer. At least
breakfast was possible. Désespoir.
Bruniquel is terribly old and very pretty with an
abundance of old houses - all in different states of
renovation and closely shuttered. The ancient
castle was in the process of being rebuilt. The
town and its castle are perched in an imposing
position at the junction of the Cère and Aveyron
There was nothing to do on this Monday but walk all round the town - several times, take some
photos and do some sketching in a half-hearted sort of way. Under other circumstances it would
have probably been charming - we hated it.
A bit of saucisson, left from lunch, a few boiled lollies and cold water made dinner. To make
matters worse the restaurant/hotel and its menu had looked wonderful. It was a very early night.
Bruniquel to St Antonin Noble Val
In the morning there was no incentive to hang around so it was up
and away early before anything had stirred. Walking along the
peaks behind the limestone cliffs of the Aveyron Gorges there were
wonderful views and lots of white, blue, purple and yellow
A very steep descent to the river and an equally steep climb found
us in Penne where a spectacular ruined castle perches on a
pinnacle of rock. There was a café that was good for a beer, a
shop with things for lunch and there even seemed to be real people
living there. It had much more charm than Bruniquel.
Back to the river, then a walk along the Aveyron was followed by
another long slow climb to the peaks again from where the view
down on the gorges and limestone cliffs was magnificent.
Instead of following the river all the way to St Antonin we decided
on an improvised shortened route passed through a rather bleak
deforested area around an army camp, no doubt home to the group
encountered in the forest. We emerged again on the cliffs opposite
St Antonin Noble Val
Most hotels and restaurants in St Antonin were closed (Tuesday this time) but a modern hotel on
the river, Les Thermes, was happy to rent a room notwithstanding its fermé sign.
St Antonin is a picturesque town and larger than those of the last week. Old buildings surround a
central market square and a 12th century Mairie, originally built as a mansion for a local
landowner, is very attractive. The 19th century restorer, Violet le Duc, did some work on the
Mairie and further restoration was being undertaken. St Antonin was the setting for the film,
Its ambience provided a fitting end to the walk.
The town now known as St Antonin
Noble Val has existed since Celtic
times when it was known as Condat,
which means confluence - an apt name
as the settlement was founded at the
confluence of the Aveyron and the
Bonnette rivers. During the Roman era
it came to be known as Nobilis Valis or
An early Christian called Antonin came
to the valley at the beginning of the
Christian era to convert the Rutheni
people. He was martyred and,
according to one of a number of
legends, his remains were returned to
Nobilis Valis in a boat towed by two
eagles. In the 8th century the Abbey of
St Antonin was built at the spot they
may have landed and the town
developed round the abbey, taking the
Return to the Aveyron
In 2010 we decided to return to the Aveyron area and after much sifting through the wide range
of holiday accommodation available settled on a small house located in the historic centre of St
Antonin. We had liked St Antonin very much at the end of the walk but had not done it justice.
It would also make an excellent base to rewalk some of the best bits of the 1991 walk and to
revisit the bastide towns.
With a car collected in Montauban we were much more mobile. Montauban is a delightful small
city on the River Tarn. Its central market place and significant buildings are constructed of pink,
salmon coloured bricks which glow in the warm light of late spring.
Our choice of St Antonin proved to be brilliant. The town attracts many tourists but it is also a small
centre of local commerce and activity. The town radiates out from its central square in a maze of
tiny streets, laneways and alleys. At its centre is an agreeable outdoor bar, several restaurants
and, every Saturday, a busy market that spills its way through the narrow streets. Our house was
at the outer edge of the old town and just inside a ring road that separates it from newer
The house was on four levels, each connected by stairs progressively narrower and more rickety. It
had been lovingly restored by Olivier, a single father who lived in Montauban and played in a band. It
was very well set up with the unexpected touch that all the furniture, decoration and household
utensils came from Ikea. There was a TV room reached by the most unstable steps of all but, as
Olivier had done much of his planning based on what he thought English holiday makers would like,
it was tuned to an English satellite and of little interest.
The best feature of all was an outdoor room which looked over the rooftops of the town towards the
cliff tops across the river. We spent a lot of time here, watching the changing colours as the sun
rose and set over these cliffs.
On other days we mixed up visits to the bastides and prettiest villages with circuit walks from these towns, often co-inciding with the GR's of
the 1991 trip. Again the tourist offices in each town had well presented information about a wide range of walking opportunities. They offered
thematic walks such as those that passed by pigionniers, churches or scenic landscapes. We decided on circuits around Cordes, Castlenau
and Cahuzac, usually of about 12km, not particularly regretting the fact that we no longer wanted to carry a fully laden backpack for 20km or
The towns seemed to have changed little. The hotels where we had stayed in Najac and les Cabannes looked just the same. Cordes,
painstakingly renovated and quite smart, was brimming with tourists. We lunched in the village square of Castlenau where the market had
just finished. Penne was still delightful but had succumbed somewhat to the inevitable restoration activity.
Bruniquel was a revelation: full of people, shops, restaurants and chambre d'hôtes. You wouldn't go wanting for a bed today. Here too, every
building has been painstakingly renovated, and to tell the truth, all gone a bit over the top. But what was delightful everywhere were the lovely
gardens with roses, in full bloom filling gardens and spilling over stone walls.
They say you shouldn't revisit places you have enjoyed as the experience can never be repeated and you will be disappointed. This little
voyage of rediscovery proved that theory very wrong.