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Belcastel: one of the most beautiful villages in France
Writer Vanessa Couchman has visited Belcastel and she tells us of her experience in the “Plus Beaux Village de France”
The Aveyron Département has the highest concentration of plus beaux villages in the whole of France. They are outstanding examples of local architecture, in a beautiful or imposing site and unspoilt by the ravages of modern planning. Belcastel, 25 kilometres west of Rodez, is a prime example.
Belcastel nestles in a deep valley with the River Aveyron at the bottom. Thick chestnut forests cover the flanks of the slopes. Most of the village is on the steep north, or right, bank. The 15th-century church is on the left bank.
Belcastel has two main claims to fame: a fairy-tale, if somewhat severe, château that stands sentinel over the village; and a Michelin-starred restaurant. It also has a delightful 15th-century humpbacked bridge over the River Aveyron and a collection of well-maintained houses built in the local stone with lauze (split-stone) roofs.
The château started life as a chapel in the 9th century and the Seigneurs of Belcastel expanded it into a fortified building. During the 13th century, they apparently supported the Cathar heretics and incurred royal displeasure. Then they ruined themselves financially by going on the Crusades in the Holy Land from which they failed to return. The château came into the hands of the Saunhac family in 1390. They restored it and built the bridge and the church.
The Saunhacs abandoned the château at the end of the 16th century. During the 19th century stone was pillaged from it, hastening its ruin. It was not until 1973 that a renowned French architect, Fernand Pouillon, discovered the ruins and set about restoring it as authentically as possible. The present owners have opened the château to the public and it serves as a setting for village events as well as containing several contemporary art galleries.
There are several restaurants in or around Belcastel but the best-known is Le Restaurant du Vieux Pont, owned by the Fagegaltier sisters. It has one Michelin star. We have eaten there three times. On the first two occasions we were very impressed. The cuisine is based on high-quality local ingredients and regional recipes with a modern twist, such as aligot – potato mashed with young Laguiole cheese, called tome fraîche, and flavoured with garlic. They also have an excellent cellar and a knowledgeable sommelier. The dining room itself is not particularly atmospheric but is invariably full.
On the third occasion, we went with friends and were a little disappointed. The service was slow and the portions rather meagre. However, all restaurants have their off-days and this, unfortunately, was one of them.
The restaurant also owns a small seven-bedroomed hotel in a large converted barn on the left bank. The barn is typical of the region: local stone walls and a steeply sloping roof. The rooms are comfortable and tastefully furnished with well-appointed bathrooms. They have lovely views over the river and the village on the opposite bank. The copious breakfast includes pâtisseries, jams and breads but the price is on top of the room rate, which is normal in France.
Thank you very much to Vanessa for sharing her experience with us.
Vanessa’s blog : a writer’s lot in France
Vanessa’s website : Vanessa Couchman Freelance Writer