On Easter Sunday, the day after we arrived in Belcastel, we first stopped at the nearby town of Rignac to shop at the bakery and butcher shop, then drove to the market in Marcillac-Vallon, a bustling little town in the center of the Marcillac wine region. We picked up some great Auvergne cheeses (the Auvergne is just to the north of the Aveyron), including a raw milk Saint Nectaire, from an affineur who had a stall at the market, and some other provisions, including an Aveyron specialty that was a fried pancake made with onions, garlic and basil. We then drove back to our gite to have lunch on the terrace using what we had bought that morning.
We spent the rest of the day in Belcastel, taking several walks in the town and along the Aveyron River. Because of its incredible beauty, Belcastel attracts loads of tourists, most of which come for the day, although there are also 2 hotels, a campground, and a few gites. While there were a fair number of tourists wandering through the town on Easter Sunday, it was obvious that during the high season the village must be mobbed, as there were several parking lots at the edge of town, plus numerous parking places on the roads leading up from the center.
Belcastel is in a valley, with the Aveyron River running through it, a medieval bridge crossing the river, and buildings lining the river and running up the hillside towards the chateau. The chateau, which dates from the 1100's, is an imposing structure that dominates the village below. It is owned by 2 Americans, who apparently live there and run a hotel and restaurant in the chateau. The view from below looking up to the chateau is amazing. Our gite faces away from the chateau, towards the river, and we have fantastic views of the bridge, the river, and the church on the other side of the bridge.
The next day we started off by heading to Sauveterre de Rouergue, another of the Plus Beaux Villages. Sauveterre is a 13th century bastide town that reputedly has the best preserved central square of covered arcades in France.
After we left Sauveterre we drove to Chateau du Bosc, originally built around 1100, which has been owned by the family of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec for several hundred years, and where the painter spent most of his summers as a child. Two women, Henri's descendants, live in the chateau, which is open to the public, and they gave us a tour of the chateau. One of the more fascinating things on the tour were several drawings that Toulouse-Lautrec did when he was a child (ages 7-11). His talent was obvious even at that age.
The next day, after stopping at the small weekly market in Rignac where we picked up some cheese, and revisiting the bakery and butcher shop there, we decided to visit some Marcillac wine producers. Marcillac is the only AOC wine in the Aveyron, and is one of the smallest AOC's in France. The appellation does not include any white wines, only reds and rosés, and the wines are almost exclusively made from the Mansois grape, the local name for Fer Servadou, which is itself limited to a small part of southwest France. We first visited Domaine du Cros and tasted wines at their winery in the steep Marcillac hills, then stopped at the tasting room of Domaine Laurens in the lovely village of Clairvaux with its red stone buildings. We bought a few bottles at each winery then headed back to Belcastel.
That afternoon we decided to take a drive to Villefranche de Rouergue, one of the larger towns in the region. Villefranche was founded as a bastide town in 1252, and in the heart of the medieval center is a large arcaded square with an imposing church that was built after the bastide was constructed. The buildings in the center are maginificently preserved, many of them containing shops on the ground floor with residences on the upper levels.
The following day we started off by heading towards Brousse-Le Chateau, another of the Plus Beaux Villages, which is perched above the Tarn River. Brousse is dominated by its chateau, with houses clustered all around the chateau.
After leaving Brousse we drove to Roquefort-sur-Soulzon to see the famous Roquefort cheese caves. We visited 2 Roquefort producers and took tours of their caves. Roquefort was the first AOC-designated cheese in France, and it was fascinating learning about the production of the cheese. In the US I've seen Roquefort from two producers – Societé and Papillon – but didn't realize that there are only a total of 7 Roquefort producers, and that there are no small artisinal producers; they're all large operations. Papillon, for example, where we had an extensive tour, buys their milk from about 110 different farms, produces the cheese in a huge mechanized operation outside the Roquefort area, and then ages thousands of wheels of Roquefort in the caves in and around the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. The end result is packaged under just a few different labels: Papillon Taste-Fromage, Papillon Exception, and Papillon Bio (Organic). So basically the Roquefort producers are like giant cooperatives that buy milk from dozens of farms and make just a few types of cheese with a huge production, but they've managed to promote Roquefort as the King of Cheeses, with prices to match. Personally, I find most Roquefort too salty; I preferred the other local blue cheeses we got at the market the next morning.