Occitania


Laguépie is an important commune (municipality) in South West France situated at the heart of the southern region of Occitanie, historically independent and linguistically distinct from northern France and known as Occitania. The village is a crossroad of five roads and the intersection of two rivers: the Aveyron, that gives its name to a département (county), and the Viaur, known only to aficionados. The Viaur has perhaps the purest water and finest bathing of any river in France, Laguepie being the only major settlement it runs through on its 100-kilometre wild journey from its source on the Lévézou heights of the Massif Central.

Laguépie’s unique name has nothing to do with wasps, as a French speaker might imagine, for Laguepie – and, in fact, the whole of Occitania – is all about rivers. In Occitan, the original language of the south, ‘La-gue-pie’ is said to mean ‘the ford of piebald waters’, indicating the muddy, dark Aveyron and the sparkling, clear Viaur. The latter receives the former at the end of the village, only to – unjustly – surrender its name at the new confluent.

Now refreshed, the Aveyron flows on towards the magnificent limestone gorges and waters the incomparable medieval cité of St. Antonin Noble Val and winds on, embellished with grottos, hidden coves and delightful beaches. Onwards now to Bruniquel, with its prehistoric cave paintings, then looping the Huguenot city of Montauban, just past which it unites with the Tarn, only to join the Garonne at Moissac on the way to Bordeaux. Now it encounters the mighty Dordogne, renames itself as la Gironde and powers out in triumph into the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean.

Regions

Not only do rivers intersect at Laguépie but also regions, both administrative and natural. Laguépie has a small part (St Martin) in the département of Tarn (81) with its own mairie (town hall and seat of local government) with the bulk of the commune in Tarn-et-Garonne (82), known as Laguépie en Ruerge, while some outlying parts are actually in the Aveyron. These modern boundaries are built loosely on the medieval organisation, which are themselves determined by the distinct geographical and geological features that profoundly influence vernacular architecture and agricultural practices.

To the north is the Rouergue, the medieval name for a hilly area watered by the Aveyron and remarkable for its solid grey-stone farm houses and lauzes (thick fish-scale-like stone slates) on steeply pitched pagoda-like roofs. Small fields are normal here, as in the Segala, with which it overlaps and which forms the northern part of Tarn, bordered by the Viaur. The Segala was named for its acid soils that could only grow rye (seigle) until the introduction of liming in the late 19th century. Now the area is famous for small herds of cows producing vaux rouge, grass-fed veal where the herd is kept together for the longest possible time and there is no cruel crating, as in Italy.

To the south and east lies the Albigeois, the important medieval diocese and battleground against the local Cathars during the First Crusade, whose violent victory is symbolized by the domineering shadow of Albi cathedral, the largest brick structure in Europe. Everywhere here we see the influence of the Romans, straight roads and fields of clay for the wide red bricks, terracotta and canal tile (the canal tile is rumoured to be formed by bending wet clay over a woman’s thigh) roofs with the classical pitch of 28 degrees, and sometimes mud bricks. It is known as ‘Little Tuscany’ and contains the Golden Triangle’, an area between Gaillac, Cordes-sur-Ciel (Cordes in the sky) and Albi, which– wherever the soil is alkaline – is home to the increasingly well-thought-of Gaillac wine.

Take the train

We have mentioned the roads and rivers, but Laguéie, happily enough, also has a railway station. The local TER line is great for touring around locally. The next stops are the famous bastides (fortified hill-top towns) of Najac and Cordes, and it is possible for the energetic to hike or cycle back. Further stops south take you to the wine centre Gaillac, where you can catch the sister line to Albi, Carmaux and Rodez, or northwards you can access the extraordinary medieval city of Villefranche-de-Rouerge, with its impressive Thursday market, and on to Capdenac where you can catch trains to Brive-la-Gaillard in the Dordogne, Limoges and thence to central and northern France.

The terminus south is Toulouse Matabiau, whence you can reach Toulouse Blagnac airport, or get onto the TGV lines – or even, if you want some fun, take the local train to the Pyrenees that ends at the extraordinary, if Disneyesque, Catholic shrine of Lourdes, nestling in the foothills of those wonderful mountains.

Historic sites worth seeing, with driving times

Really, you are spoiled for choice in Occitania, but here are some selections. Tell us also what you discover.

North: Najac 17 mins, Villefranche de Rouerge 35 mins, Belcastel 55 mins, Conques 90 mins

North west: Parisot 25 mins, Caylus 30 mins, Limogne-en-Quercy 45 mins, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie 60 mins, Cahors 75 mins, Souillac 105 mins

West: Varen 10 mins, Vefeil 15 mins, Beaulieu-en-Rouergue Abbey 17 mins (an exquisitely restored medieval site where you can wander, rest or picnic), St. Antonin Noble Val 25 mins (too much to describe and fabulous canoeing), Vaour 30 mins, The fortress of Penne, 35 mins

South west: Lisle sur Tarn 50 mins, Toulouse 80 mins

South: Cordes-sur-Ciel 18 mins, Gaillac 40 mins, Albi 40 mins, Lautrec

East: Monesties 25 mins (don’t miss the Mise en Tombeau carvings), Carmaux 35 mins, Brousse-le-Château 75 mins, Saint-Affrique 105 mins, Viaduc de Millau 105 mins.,