Last weekend’s cloudless, azure skies have given way to foggy, grey weather. So this week, we’ll stay under blue skies in Monteils, where we walked last Sunday. After our walk, we had a look around the village. Despite being only 15 km from us, I have visited the place just a handful of times.
I won’t say a lot about the walk, which was pleasant, if unexceptional. As usual, we got lost at the start. We also got lost in the middle. So I will draw a veil over our (lack of) map-reading skills.
Monteils is about 10 km South of Villefranche-de-Rouergue in Aveyron. The village sits on a slight rise above the confluence of the River Aveyron and the little River Assou. It’s a pleasant spot, hemmed in by rolling hills.
We wandered around the alleyways as the sun set behind the hills, accompanied by the scent of woodsmoke and the purling of the Assou, stopping only to pat an old dog that came to greet us. We didn’t linger, since it was getting chilly, and the road home alongside the Assou is prone to black ice.
The village developed at a spot named Monticellus (small hill) in the 9th and 10th centuries. It became fortified around a protective château during the turbulent 13th and 14th centuries.
Vestiges of the château still exist: a square fortified tower (below) and a vaulted chamber, with the Mairie next door. The château passed among various local seigneurial families through the centuries.
After the turmoil of the Middle Ages, Monteils experienced a period of relative calm. The Revolution passed it by, apart from a reference to “the decapitation of a Renaissance tower, which still exists.” I take this to be the one below.
After the Revolution, the cultivation of vines and hemp for making canvas (presumably for sails) brought comparative prosperity. But it was in the mid-19th century that Monteils had its apogee, thanks largely to the construction of the railway. The convent was built in the 1880s. I wrote last week about its role in saving Jewish children during World War II.
The line was the original link between Paris and Toulouse. The hilly section between Monteils and Najac posed enormous technical challenges. The serpentine Aveyron winds its way between the hills, presenting an additional obstacle.
The six kilometres of line took five years to build and finally comprised 11 bridges and nine tunnels in August 1858. Of this stretch, it’s said, “If you’re not in a tunnel, you’re on a bridge.” Many of the workers were Italian, from Piedmont. Accidents and deaths were frequent during the construction work.
The railway gave an economic boost to Monteils, which had its own agricultural fair once a month. To service the railway’s construction requirements, lime kilns went into full production to supply lime mortar. Wood and limestone, the raw materials for firing the kilns and producing the mortar were in abundant supply. The kilns also produced fertiliser, used to enrich the poor Aveyron soil. Once completed, the railway transported huge quantities of it.
The railway had only a brief golden age. Other routes were constructed from the 1860s, which provided a more direct link between Toulouse and Paris and better access to the Décazeville coalfields. The line remained open, but it now carries mainly passenger traffic. The former station at Monteils became a halt, and then it was closed in 2008.
Some people I know, who shall remain nameless, once made an illegal journey on the line between Najac and Villefranche. They didn’t have the right coins for the ticket machine. The Najac stationmaster didn’t sell tickets. And no conductor appeared during the ride. So far, they have got away with it.
In the mid-19th century, the village numbered around 1,000 inhabitants. However, the early 20th century saw numbers dwindle as the rural exodus and the lure of the towns gathered pace. By the early 1970s, the population had fallen to just over 400. Today, it is just over 500.
Just outside the village, la Ferme Carlès breeds ducks and sells the products. Groups can also enjoy a copious Aveyronnais meal in the barn, based on, naturally, duck, prepared to traditional recipes.
I have not eaten there, but I attended a book launch event there some years ago. Jeanne Strang, who owns a house in the area, published a second edition of Goose Fat and Garlic, which is an excellent compilation of recipes from Southwest France, with explanations of their history and provenance. Le patron, Jacky Carlès, gave us a brief guided tour.
Monteils has another convent in Falgayroles, a hamlet in the commune. An Anawin (poor or humble in Hebrew) community makes goat’s cheeses and jams and sells them at its farm shop between early April and late October. They also have a stall at the Thursday market in Villefranche.
A special excursion is in order in the spring to sample the Falgayroles goat’s cheese. Purely in the interests of research, you understand.
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