The depopulation of rural France has been a constant factor in national life in the last half-century. But some places have resisted, with the help of subsidies from Brussels and a younger generation determined to halt the decline. One such village is Calvinet, situated on a crossroads in chestnut country. The son of the village charcutier has won a Michelin star for his cooking at the Hotel Beausejour. The service can be a trifle amateurish, but the prices remain more than reasonable for Louis Bernard Puech’s combination of solid local fare – including his mother’s superb duck in a mysteriously dark sauce (blood or chocolate or both?) and more adventurous fish dishes.
There are tennis courts in the woods, and a rudimentary swimming pool. The public paths climb verdant hills, or lead down the valley past an old chateau. The village shop sells local ham and sausages. On the counter of the butcher’s are photographs and identity details of the animals whose meat he sells: he goes out to the fields regularly to check on their condition. His establishment may be the only butcher’s shop/cafe/living room in France, with the meat on one side of a bead curtain and a bar on the other complete with sofa and television set.
On the crest of the hills, buzzards wheel and big butterflies flutter against the clear blue sky as the road going north dips into a valley and passes an idyllic house behind trees by a small lake. A few kilometres away is the old village of Marcoles, its warm stone buildings well preserved, an ancien regime chateau at the end of a sedate avenue of trees, and fortified gates to protect inhabitants from marauders.
Four kilometres in the other direction from Calvinet lies the village of Mourjou, which possesses the only museum in France -probably in the world – dedicated to the chestnut, which used to provide the main sustenance of these parts. Each October, a
Solitude is the natural state in this place of huge horizons, where you want to shout to the hills chestnut festival attracts 20,000 visitors: the resident Grand From there, it is a relatively short drive to the town of Laguiole, Master of the Order-of the Chestnut turns out to be a Scot, Peter traditionally known for its knives, cheese and cattle – a statue of a Graham, who has given the village’s name to an excellent book about bull stands in the marketplace. Laguiole is the gateway to the the region, Mourjou – the Life and Food of an Auvergne Village. plateau of the Aubrac, one of the harshest places in France, and A little further afield to the west stands the busy town of Maurs, one of the most beautiful, with a solid gastronomic tradition given whose circular streets get clogged on Thursdays by a market that fresh lustre by a local boy made extremely good, offers everything from cane furniture to delicious duck rillettes. A medieval pilgrim knight from Flanders, who set up the first (I must admit I have never sampled the snail patd sold by a young settlement in Laguiole after escaping from bandits and a snow- woman at a stall in the shadow of the church.) storm on the hills, wrote of a place of ‘horror and solitude’. Last Leaving the chestnut land, the road east from Calvinet leads year, I took a long morning walk on the hill above the town. Not past towered farmhouses, vast meadows and clear streams before a soul was in sight, but there were a lot of sheep and swooping reaching the Truyere Gorges, which isn’t as vast as the more birds of prey. Solitude is the natural state in this place of huge famous Gorges du Tarn to the south but is still impressive as the horizons, where you want to be alone, to shout to the hills and track winds between cliffs above the rushing river sprawl full-length in the gorse, wander round the lakes embedded