Churches, chestnuts and cutting edge knives: exploring the Lot Valley, France
PUBLISHED: 14:46 20 February 2012 | UPDATED: 21:04 20 February 2013
Karen Bowerman samples the delights of the French countryside on a driving holiday
Karen Bowerman samples the delights of the French countryside on a driving holiday
On the left are the righteous, standing in neat, orderly rows and beaming. On the right are sinners: a jumble of writhing, disorganised bodies with fat bellies and bulging eyes.
In the middle is Christ. At his feet theres a small set of weighing scales and a representative from each camp.
The saint kneels patiently, awaiting the Last Judgment. But the devil is busy plotting; it may be the end of time, but his works not over yet!
He slouches over the scales, examining them with his beaky face. Then he stretches out a stubby stone finger to tip the balance in evils favour.
The elaborate tympanum above the door of the Romanesque abbey of Conques in southwest France has more than 100 carvings, each with their own story, but this is my favourite.
A medieval delight
Im on a driving tour of the Lot Valley, named after the exceptionally sinuous river that crashes through gorges and meanders through plains on its way from the Massif Central mountains to the Aquitaine Basin.
On the Lots main tributary, the Dourdou, in the departement of Aveyron, lies Conques, a medieval town that takes its name from the Latin concha meaning shell, because of the shape of the rocky outcrop on which it was built.
Conques abbey commands a hilltop square of half-timbered houses, with walls as uneven as the cobbled streets around them. Several have roofs, like witches hats, covered with grey, scalloped-shaped slates or lauzes that shimmer in the light.
The abbey shelters one of the most important medieval treasures in France, the bones of St Fides (or Saint Foy), a twelve year old girl who was martyred in Agen in 306 AD for refusing to worship pagan gods. The poignant story has a piquant twist.
Five centuries later, when relics were all the rage, the monks at Conques decided to acquire Foys remains for themselves.
The furtive transfer as our guide phrased it (my group preferred theft) is depicted in an old, stained glass window in the cloisters, where cloaked, hooded men with what can only be described as swag bags, creep through the fields on their way back to the abbey.
In a darkened room in the treasury, Im pleased to discover that at least Foys reliquary is grand. Its a small, gold statue of the saint, jam-packed with gems donated by pilgrims.
As for the monks, they never looked back. The cult of St Foy spread, donations poured into the abbey and they ended up heading a monastic empire that extended from Germany to northern Spain.
The furtive transfer had worked very well indeed. High in the churchs galleries, its as if the eagles, double-tailed mermaid and wide-eyed angels always thought as much. They stare down from the top of pillars, over todays constant stream of pilgrims with fixed, rather smug, grins.
An imposing chateau
Conques is not the only medieval town in the Lot Valley with a fascinating story. We drive through Entraygues - where in the Middle Ages boatmen with shallow canoes or gabarres used to transport barrel staves made from local chestnut trees to the wine makers in Bordeaux and on to Espalion where former tanneries look as if they rise directly out of the water.
The buildings have doors opening onto the river and large stone slabs jutting out of their walls, a bit like hotchpotch steps, so workers could clean their hides whatever the height of the water. The skins were dried on wooden balconies above.
En route to Estaing the Lot is never far away. There are tantalising glimpses of the river, chasing us through beeches, pine trees and thistles.
Estaing is dominated by its chateau, a rather piecemeal affair built by successive counts of the dEstaing family from the 13th to 16th centuries. Its a mishmash of lines, angles and materials with sections bolted together with little regard for style and modern day down pipes and guttering doing their best to join everything up.
It looks out over narrow sandstone houses with red shutters and on the day I was there, an old man in an old cloth hat, who was untying his pale blue rowing boat from the side of the river.
Snippets of everyday life in the Lot Valley: the old tractor we followed that squealed round the bends, showering our windscreen with straw; the youth on his bicycle, wearing a beret and balancing a flagon of olive oil; the farmer on the vast Aubrac plateau, slowly herding his heavy-bodied, buff-coloured cattle to the sound of their deep, clanging bells, and in the hills above Vieillevie, the old woman screaming at her unruly geese as her cat disappeared behind a milk churn.
And then there was that pile of mossy, stones at the edge of a woodland path, which didnt seem to mean very much, until I learnt it was a familys secadou, used for drying sweet chestnuts.
Acres of chestnuts
At Mourjou, a small village about 6 miles north of Conques, there are sweet chestnuts everywhere. Lining the roadside, in fields and in paddocks, trees are festooned with spiky balls of bright green.
Mourjou lies at the heart of the Chataignerie, 100,000 hectares of protected land largely given over to chestnut groves in the departement of Cantal.
We wander round the village and dont see a soul. But the man at the museum promises the place comes to life in October, at nut festival time.
The museum largely serves to show how times and tastes have changed. In the 14th century villagers paid their taxes in chestnuts. Now only 70 families gather them, and solely for their own use. The entire Chataignerie supplies just 300 tonnes a year.
But the nut is still celebrated here, and besides flavouring cakes, jam and ice cream and existing in its own right as a sticky puree, its found in flour, honey, offal, saucisson and even beer.
The tree has other uses too. As I picked up some of the beer at a local supermarket, a man told me the wood was perfect for coffins since it keeps worms out!
Celebrated knife craftsmen
From worms, to bees and flies, crafted by hand in the Laguoile knife factory at the foot of the Aubrac mountains.
In a building designed by Philippe Starck, under a roof from which a 60 ft blade protrudes into the sky, steel is forged, the horn of Aubrac cattle trimmed and blades cut, sharpened and polished.
The Laguiole knife, inspired by the Catalan navaja, grew from a simple farmers tool to a sign of regional identity when people of Aveyron were forced to head to Paris in search of work in the 1800s.
Today its an expensive status symbol. An average pocket knife costs 100 Euros and a set of steak knifes more than 600. A special blade made for President Obama in 2009 (out of steel from the Eiffel Tower) cost 55,000.
But the Laguiole knife is more than a valued possession; its also an example of local craftsmanship and regional regeneration. I watched as workers, with endless patience, put together the blade, the handle and the spring.
Part of the spring is technically known as the mouche, the same as the French for fly. Its thought this is why 19th century craftsmen carved decorative flies (which mutated into bees) at the point where the blade folded into the handle.
Its a tradition that continues today with the bee remaining the symbol of the Laguoile brand.
And dont forget the food
Of course, being in France we couldnt overlook the food! From the artisan aligot (a puree of mashed potato, crme fraiche and tomme cheese) that demanded a certain flick of the wrists to control its stringy tentacles, to the exquisite dishes of Michelin starred chefs Herve Busset and Louis Bernard Puech, there were plenty of excuses to celebrate the tastes and flavours of the region.
Chestnut veloute, Aubrac beef, salted meat and Estaing trout; laguiole, salers and pelardon (goats milk) cheeses - all were laid before us, with, well, just the occasional bottle of wine.
Somehow every day turned into a gastronomic feast. We should have been hiking really.
PAY A VISIT
Additional information from:
Le Moulin de Cambelong, Conques http://www.moulindecambelong.com/; Hotel Beausejour, Calvinet http://www.cantal-restaurant-puech.com/; Hotel Auguy, Laguiole, http://www.hotel-auguy.fr/ Chez Camillou, Aumont-Aubrac, www.camillou.com