Busy hill-top town
See www.cordessurciel.fr. Wrapped around a conical hill in a cloak of steep cobbled streets, mellow stone and mossy Roman tiles, Cordes is as busy as a beehive (which it closely resembles) in summer. Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse, encircled his Cathar sentinel in three tiers of battlements above the Cérou valley, from whence it earns its full name of Cordes-sur-Ciel (in the sky). A warren of underground passages tunnel through the hillside, where defenders could take refuge. Above ground, fine stone houses such as the Maison du Grand Veneur and Maison du Grand-Fauconnier on Grand’rue, sport leafy capitals and carved hunting scenes, hounds, foxes and bears romping across their fa√ç¬µcades. Rescued from decline by tapestry workers at the end of the 19thC, and subsequently ‘discovered’ by artist Yves Brayer in the 1940s, Cordes has attracted a large and distinctly commercial artistic community. Apart from browsing in the numerous galleries, diversions include a glimpse at Brayer’s colourful daubs on show in the Maison du Grand-Fauconnier, delving into local history in the Musée Charles-Portal, and enjoying the glorious views from the Terrasse de la Bride, where Camus found “a beauty that could banish solitude”.
You can make a delightful 60-km circular drive north of Cordes. Set off on the D922 for Laguépie. Just inside Saint-Martin-de-Laguépie, take a sharp right turn on to the D9 for Saint-Christophe and dawdle along the thickly wooded Viaur valley with glimpses of the river, apple orchards and colourful patches of sunflowers and sorghum. After 10 km, cross a bridge on the D73 for la Garde-Viaur, where you recross the river to a handy café with tables by the weir. The D239 clambers up through oaks and chestnuts to Saint André-de-Najac, and crosses the D922. Trailing behind the ruins of its 13thC fortress, Najac rides the crest of a ridge above the plunging Gorges de l’Aveyron in a roller-coaster of little stone houses and vine-draped wooden balconies. Take the D106 down to Varen, where the Romanesque abbey-church of Saint-Serge boasts some beautiful capitals. Then meander back through the fields to Cordes via the D600.