August 26, 2009
Blanc, Aveyron, France
You can go searching for the end of the world and miss it, finding yourself instead next to busloads of tourists at an alpine overlook, snapping pictures together at a disappearing glacier. Or the end of the world can sneak up on you. In August, as Europe’s cities empty and urban dwellers snarl traffic from Hamburg to Seville in search of tranquility, I didn’t expect to find ourselves alone in the middle of France. Yet here I am.
Where is the Aveyron? Where the Massif Central meets the Mediterranean ranges, where southwest France meets southern France, and Paris is light-years away. We followed the autoroute 75 south from Clermont-Ferrand and exited at Millau, just after the famous Viaduc de Millau, the giant cable-stayed bridge completed a few years ago and already a Michelin three-star attraction. I have to agree with Michelin: the audacity of building such a monument to progress, half five-masted ship and half spaceship, in the middle of nowhere merits more than a detour. But I’m not here looking for progress.
We took the road to Saint Affrique. It was late, eight o’clock, and the inhabitants were beginning their Saturday evening with a drink on the terrace cafés of the main road through town. I imagined their eyes on us and our Paris license plates. It certainly looked like a southwestern town, with plane trees lining the sidewalk and posters announcing the headlines of the latest Dépêche du Midi. I called up the owners of the house we were renting to announce our arrival. “You’re in Saint Affrique? You’ve got another 45 minutes, then.” I looked at the map, and although we were less than twenty miles away as the crow flies, the road twisted and climbed in an unpromising fashion. In the southeast corner of the Aveyron, the limestone plateau of the Grands Causses gives way to wide, red valleys and slate cliffs, and nowhere is close to anywhere. We passed a broken-down tractor with “Non au McDo[nalds]” spray painted on the side; a little farther along, another scrawled message called cryptically for “Down with GMOs, not with union membership.” I remembered we were in the land of José Bové. We were also a few miles away from Roquefort, home of the famous blue cheese: Bové may rail against globalization, but his cheese is exported across the globe.
When I say we weren’t looking for the end of the world, I’m lying a bit: the village where we were staying was an abandoned village on a rocky escarpment, deserted after the Second World War. It was recently purchased and partially restored by a British couple, who took up residence in the ruins of the 10th century fortified castle and restored the schoolhouse and the rectory as rental properties. It was twilight when we arrived, and I could just glimpse the village church clinging to a cliff below the road.
In the morning, it looked like paradise. A stony path led up to the church at the end of the cliff. Our house was nestled back in a grove of plum trees. The early sun turned the hillside facing us golden. But aside from lazing the day away in one of the hammocks strung between the trees, there wasn’t much to do, certainly no discernible economic activity. The hills were mostly forested, and many seemed to steep for livestock. The valleys had some small-scale agriculture, a few lonely cows or scattered hayfields. The towns we ventured into had disaffected textile factories and defunct thermal bathhouses, and the only thriving businesses in town seemed to be the grocery store, bakery and bistro. Half the houses leaning into one another looked abandoned under their cracked plaster, but the others looked alive, inhabited. People sat outside on terraces overlooking the river to eat lunch. What could people possibly live from here, we wondered.
Thanks to Parcours Romans en Rouergue, a fascinating local history book my husband found, the history and geography of the region began to come to life. We learned that in the 14th century, there were 42 families living in the abandoned village where we were staying. Now there was one, plus room for two seasonal vagabonds like ourselves. Why build here -- and painfully, stone by irregular stone – in the middle of the forest? We found a photograph from the beginning of the century, and it turns out that the forest didn’t exist. The steep hills were covered with meadows, and the local residents lived as shepherds, as they presumably had since before the Romans arrived. In the rural exodus that followed the war the land was given up, and beech, chestnut and oak rapidly moved in, blurring the landscape of centuries.
“We’re here for a week,” my husband said to the local grocer as they chatted over the cheese counter.
“And you… you like it?”
“Because there isn’t a lot to do here, you know. A lot of people find it rather far from everything.”
My husband assured him that that was exactly what we were looking for. He bought Roquefort, some organic yogurt, and a small, round, fresh sheep’s milk cheese called pérail. The grocer explained that it was a cheese made seasonally from the excess milk not used up to make Roquefort. He confidentially added that it was quite appreciated by the locals. “We love it so much, we eat it without bread.” Eating a cheese without bread is a high compliment from a Frenchman.
We quickly learned that going anywhere was an afternoon or morning’s endeavor. There simply was no way to get anywhere fast on the mountain roads. But staying at the house, reading and lazing in one of the hammocks strung between the trees was not an option, since we had to chase behind le Petit as he raced up gravel paths and down grassy embankments. So we hiked up the mountains with le Petit on my husband’s back, stopping to gather blackberries. Or we followed the roads to the hidden vestiges of abbeys and castles and raced back in time for naptime. I’ve had my fill of off the beaten path for now. Although I’m not entirely sure I’m ready to fight my way to work in a packed RER on Monday morning, I am hoping to carry just a little bit of the infinite calm of this place with me when we go back home.