Travel: A valley designed by artists
Jeremy Atiyah walks through the edible landscape of the Tarn River, below France's Massif Central, and tastes the local figs, chestnuts, Roquefort cheese and sage-and-honey vinegar
Sunday 11 October 1998
Dubious? Well, take a walk through the Tarn Valley then. This is the French Deep South, near Toulouse, where the River Tarn spills down deep gorges from the Massif Central. The river has given its name to one of the departments through which it flows. And it was here that I was beamed down just last week.
A bird of prey in the skies above France could not have landed with such unerring accuracy. From the minute I picked up the route (in walking parlance, this was the GR36), the sun came out and I was surrounded by fig trees and stone houses with mossy slate roofs. A tiny Romanesque chapel emerged from the undergrowth.
Being honest, I'll mention that this first hamlet turned out to be something of an anomaly. In fact, La Maurinie was a place that would have disappeared years ago were it not for the attentions of a family of Russian artists who arrived here in 1946. "It was a very poor, wretched place when my parents came," explained Michael Greschny, appearing with a gigantic key to open the chapel. "This was mostly stuff we saved from being burnt as firewood." The chapel was packed with fantastic religious icons, gloomy wooden Christs and popes in brick niches.
Michael Greschny has created a life for himself that Merchant-Ivory Productions could not have dreamt of. Pushing past plum trees, he showed me his studio, a medieval barn full of dusty canvases, old clocks, half-finished works, cobwebs, skylights, and forests of brushes in jamjars. And this ultimate Bohemian, who lives with a wife and child, even manages to make money by running exclusive art courses and selling handmade jewellery to Faberge.
Time to get walking. With half a jug of wine in my belly, I was soon heading east in the direction of Ambialet. Perhaps the whole Tarn Valley had been designed by artists. Piles of firewood were stacked against old stone walls overhung by chestnut trees. Dogs barked distantly. Rusty, ancient maize- grinders occupied strategically picturesque locations beside geranium pots. By the time I reached the Hotel du Pont in Ambialet, I had been nicely primed to gasp at everything.
But Ambialet is where the Tarn suddenly has a fit and tries to double back on itself. Having achieved an impossibly tight loop through forest- clad hills, it then comes face to face with itself; whereupon it balks, and retreats in the same direction as before. The result is a tear-shaped isthmus, a squeezed hill of schist, surrounded entirely by Tarn.
I took a swim in the hotel pool, overlooked by a stone bridge and an old Benedictine priory on a craggy hilltop. This place is so picturesque that even the local electricity-generating plant has been built to resemble a chateau. The next morning I took a lift up to the priory from where the whole bizarre panorama became clear.
Eastwards from Ambialet, the Tarn throws a few more skittish twists before settling into a smoother flow in the area of Villeneuve-sur-Tarn, where I picked up the path again. But here, on the north bank of the river, I needed to pop in to the local Mielerie et Vinaigrerie - owned by celebrated honey and vinegar producer, Monsieur Richard Marietta.
This valley seems to have the knack of producing well-sorted men. Living in a farmhouse on a mountainside overlooking the river, with his wife, son, horse, dog and goat, Richard Marietta fanatically grinds his own wheat to make his own bread. He also lovingly tends beehives to produce honey which he sells commercially. You thought you knew about honey?
"At 800m, the flowers are very different to those at 200m," he explained. "Depending on the location of the hive, and the time of year, the honey is very different. The honey produced by bees who visit chestnut trees between 20 June and 20 July is dark and strong; the honey from spring wild flowers is light and lemony."
Meanwhile, in another shed, a vast fermentation was taking place: Monsieur Marietta uses tons of honey to produce his luxury vinegar in barrels. An extravagant use of delicious honey?
"Why? People buy expensive cars and travel round the world. Why should rich people drink the cheap, unhealthy vinegar from supermarkets that took one day to produce? If they do, their priorities are all wrong."
At that moment, tasting a golden vinegar infused with sage, it was hard to disagree.
Back on the south bank again, the path was soon running high above the river. I glanced back onto the town of Trebas, a cluster of slate roofs, still the characteristic grey of the Massif Central - though at any moment we would see the first red roofs of the true south.
The path was an autumnal feast of acorns, blackberries, hazelnuts and walnuts. Another bonus was the markings along the way. As well as splodges of yellow paint on tree trunks, ancient stone crosses marked the way, relics from the days when all roads here led to Santiago de Compostela. Grey towers poked out from behind trees; churches hung in the valleys; a hatted peasant was picking fruit.
If you continue along the Tarn towards Millau, the hills become progressively steeper, culminating in the Gorges du Tarn where the valley walls narrow to towering cliffs. I made just one tentative step in this direction, to Brousse-le-Chateau, where the red rushing waters split around an island mid-river, and moss-covered stone houses huddle under a ruined castle.
The chef from a local restaurant, fresh from his frying pans, showed me round the castle, explaining that its old aristocratic occupants had been sadistic paedophiles who had the good sense to sell up before the 1789 revolution - thereby excusing the revolutionaries from having to destroy the property.
Further up-river, the gorges beckoned, but I was diverting to the Rance, a fast-flowing tributary to the south. The town of Plaisance, the first stop down here, was a dripping, tumbling mass of creepers, alleys and horse chestnut trees when I staggered in. Torrential rain was sweeping the valley, and the Rance was flowing red with mud, but I could not have had a better place than the 14th-century Hostellier des Magnolias for a cosy night in. Dinner downstairs by a roaring log fire was an orgy of local specialities, ranging from cock's-comb stew (nul points) to pate de foie gras (dix points). As for the cheese, I have only to tell you that Plaisance is just inside the department of Aveyron where Roquefort is produced. Dix mille points.
The last day of the trip involved spinning back down river to the medieval city of Albi, the departmental capital whose narrow lanes and warm pink bricks offered the best landing place anywhere along the River Tarn.
The pays de Cocagne was what they called this rich trading triangle joining Toulouse, Albi and Carcassonne. It was the land of the coca, the cobs of blue woad which were such a precious early paint.
How attractive can you get: a city built on the basis of trade in painting provisions? No wonder the people of Albi are proud of Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec, their most famous son. Especially when, 800 years earlier, these same people had been responsible for the Albigensian Heresy, no less.
The heretics, known as Cathars, may have been a funny lot, but it was religious tolerance that was at stake. And when Rome and Paris conspired to launch a genocidal crusade against them, a murderous inquisition began. But even from the grave, the Cathars would continue to work their influence. The interior of Albi's colossal, fortress-like cathedral is an improbable riot of colour, designed to reflect local tastes for the bizarre.
Even today, the citizens of Albi gather quietly in their great church on summer evenings to witness son-et-lumiere shows lamenting these horrors of long ago.
Jeremy Atiyah travelled courtesy of Inntravel (tel: 01653 628811), which organises walks for independent travellers in the Tarn Valley between late March and early October. A seven-night walking holiday from Albi to Plaisance costs from pounds 529 per person. A ten-night walk from Albi to Millau costs from pounds 690 per person. Prices include return flights, detailed walking instructions, half-board accommodation in local hotels and picnic lunches. Luggage is carried between destinations by car. Short breaks in local rural hotels are also available.
Daily flights to Toulouse are available with Air France (tel: 0181-742 6600) from pounds 158 return, including tax, and British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) from pounds 142 return plus pounds 17 tax.
Call the French Government Tourist Office (tel: 0891 244123, calls cost 50p per minute).
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