Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017
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Lost in Aveyron

The medieval towns along this little-known river are one of France's best-kept secrets

I am addicted to rivers. This may be because a river has a beginning, a middle and an end, and not much else does these days. A river is the linear thinker's dream trip. Images of slow boats on the Amazon, the Yangtze, the Nile and Burma's Irrawaddy linger ever so sweetly in my memory. Nobody has ever transformed a river into a theme park. If a river isn't navigable, then I'm prepared to follow it by road, albeit in fits and starts, from end to end.

Some years ago, my wife and I were doing just that with three rivers of southwestern France, the Dordogne, the Lot and the Tarn. Inevitably, this involved a lot of wandering off course, and one afternoon we found ourselves on the banks of an exquisite little river forming a sun-dappled loop around the bastide town of Najac and its mighty 13th-century castle and keep. It was the Aveyron. I had never heard of it. I never forgot it, either.

We decided to return to the French southwest to follow the Aveyron. It covers a mere 250 kilometres, a winding, shimmering ribbon through the fifth largest département in France and its resplendent green-gold countryside, medieval villages, perched castles -- at least 20 of them linked by a Route des Seigneurs -- vineyards, superlative cuisine and the everyday joys of the French countryside.

The Aveyron begins near Sévérac-le-Château, twists westward and empties into the Tarn, an understated death, in a cherry orchard between Moissac and Montauban. We were starting at Moissac and taking a leisurely week to reach the source. The river would expose itself to us in vignettes, here an armada of canoeists against a towering limestone gorge, there a fisherman up to his knees in solitude casting his line for rainbow trout. History would accompany us all the way, reminding us of our own tiny place on a bend of time.

Turned to Stone
Moissac is famous for its Benedictine abbey, which managed to survive both Richard the Lionheart and the cutthroats of the Albigensian Crusade. It contains one the greatest collections of Romanesque art and architecture in France. The cloister's gallery and capitals are exquisitely rife with sculpture, some depicting saintly martyrdoms such as St. Saturnin getting his skull smashed and the topsy-turvy crucifixion of St. Peter. The weathered, even ravaged face of the sculpture renders it all the more lovely. As in the temples of ancient Egypt, ruin lends a certain perverse majesty that didn't exist in the first place.

Montauban is a town so battered by the horrible religious wars, only its bridge and square survived, the latter splendidly restored, its arcades a fine spot for a glass of wine and a plate of poulet frites. We forged ahead to a string of pristine villages. Bruniquel is a maze of battlements and half-timbered houses along streets so narrow, someone on the large side might have trouble getting around. Penne has a castle ruin perched on a promontory like a tomahawk flung against the sky.

The river emerges grandly near Montricoux, where the restaurant Les Gorges de L'Aveyron (tel: 011-33-5-6324-5050) takes full advantage of the vista. We ate on a patio under an old chestnut tree. The screeching of the proprietors' 50 Amazon parrots was a little disconcerting. Suddenly I recalled all the parrot jokes stored away in the vaults of my subconscious. "Did you hear the one about the sex-mad parrot?" I begin, but my wife shut me up as usual.

Instead we concentrated on langoustines sautéed in butter and garlic, set atop eggplant caviar and capped with a deep-fried basil leaf. There was a silky terrine of foie gras. Red mullet, a fish not much appreciated in Canada, came panfried in browned butter with chopped almonds. The rabbit was stuffed with black trumpet mushrooms.

A British Invasion
The following day we were at Najac, the village where we first encountered the Aveyron and which had haunted us since. The town is at its best at sunrise, when its formidable castle and keep stand illuminated in the flame of first light, a veil of mist swirling around the village below. This is how we will always remember it.

On our previous visit, we had looked at property for sale, as itinerant Canadians compulsively do, and entertained the notion of escaping the rat race and moving to a house overlooking the river. On this visit all such notions vanished. In the intervening years, Franìois the boulanger had given way to Alf the chip-maker. Najac has become a haven for fashionable Brits who've taken to wearing black Basque berets. Our dreams dashed, we consoled ourselves with a visit to Jacques Carles' farm in Monteils. This is no ordinary farm; it's more like a foie-gras theme park. Jacques Carles, a jolly fellow, makes everything that can be made from a duck, from confit to cou farci, the neck richly stuffed and far more delicious than it sounds. Tourist busloads arrived to see foie gras in all its phases then sat down to a duck-everything lunch. One thoughtful soul issued straight advice to foreigners: "In southwest France, if you do not like zee duck, you would be advised to go home."

Carles introduced us to his flock of Barbary ducks, free-ranging happy birds. He demonstrated force-feeding with an electronic contraption that fattens the bird from six to seven-and-a-half kilos. We finished in the tasting room, with Carles slathering obscene hunks of duck liver on baguette. Suddenly we didn't feel so bad about the fall of Najac to tea-and-crumpeters.

 

That afternoon, we explored the Château de Belcastel, towering above the banks of the Aveyron. Parts of it date back 1000 years and were fastidiously restored by its late owner, architect Fernand Pouillon. Its turrets offer a giddying panoramic view of the river, village and countryside. The castle is riddled with private apartments which can be rented (tel: 011-33-5-6564-4216; fax: 011-33-5-6564-6141; www.chateau-bel castel.com/gites.html) -- four rooms in a tower seems an irresistibly romantic retreat -- and secret little gardens beyond the reach of tour groups. The moat, for heaven's sake, has been turned into a swimming pool. When I commented on how perfectly the slate-roofed village below complemented the castle, I was told that the cunning Pouillon, leaving nothing to chance, designed that, too.

Much To Lose
With the Aveyron as our thread, we gallivanted across the countryside. One minor detour took us to the Château du Bosc, the family home of the painter and aristocrat Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Our guide was Nicole Tapié de Celeyran, the artist's great grand-niece. Graciously, she took us to Toulouse-Lautrec's childhood bedroom -- his Punch-and-Judy show was curiously endearing -- showed us family paintings and photographs and finally gave up on our mangled French.

I came away with an affinity for the painter because we share the same birthday, we're about the same height and he too had a liking for uninhibited women. The biography produced at the ch"teau notes: "We will not dwell on the artist's Parisian life." Such prissy humbug.

Another excursion took us north to the tiny wine region -- one of four in the area -- of Marcillac, which is characterized by red soil and slopes planted with the Mansois grape originally grown by the monks of Conques. At the village of Bruéjouls, vigneron Jean-Luc Matha showed us around his pocket-sized winery and shared his deep ruby-red cuvée spéciale, a vivacious wine roaring fruit, butter and spice. Matha produces 72,000 bottles a year and sells them for $10 at the winery -- a steal.

We drove to a lookout from which rows of Mansois, green fire fringed with poppies and buttercups, trailed off forever. There wasn't anything ugly -- no suburbs, no industrial parks, no strip malls, no billboards, no traffic snarls -- in sight. Whimsy led us past the old town of Espalion on the Lot River to the town of Laguiole (pronounced La-yole), which is famous for two things. One is its knives. The artisans of Laguiole have been making incomparable knives since 1829. The name has become internationally renowned for the utmost in tradition, integrity and finesse (although it's essential to look for the Laguiole Origine Garantie at the bottom of the blade, or it may be a faux Laguiole from China).

The Forge de Laguiole offers tours. We followed the process from the tempering of the blade to the fitting of the handle. Most of the blades are all-purpose pocket knives, which Frenchmen -- even Gérard Depardieu -- carry, using them for everything from peeling apples to slicing steak in restaurants. Famous designers such as Hermès have created knives for collectors.

One Sharp Chef
The perfectionist blades were much in evidence at Laguiole's other great site, the Michelin three-star restaurant Michel Bras (tel: 011-33-5-6551-1820; fax: 011-33-5-6548-4702; www.michel-bras.com), high on a hill eight kilometres outside of town. As we arrived, the sunset poured in through picture windows and a lot of convention went out the windows: chef Michel Bras openly celebrates "a dash of lunacy and a large sprinkling of liberty" in pleasuring his customers. He consigns smokers to the salon for les plaisirs du tabac -- a revolution by the standard of tobacco-fogged French restaurants.

This is the theatre for the chef's refreshing and original take on contemporary cuisine: paper-thin pastry with delicious crèpes layered like tarte tatin. Salad, an orchestration of at least 20 vegetables, herbs and flowers, with every ingredient getting its 10 seconds of glory. A warm lava rock topped with a barely cooked slice of turbot and chopped nuts in butter, and a little cup of aillade -- hazelnuts, garlic and disproportionate pleasure -- on the side. Foie gras with iridescent blanched cabbage, aspic with black truffle and a sprinkling of sel de Guérand. I was ready to get down on all fours and lick the bowl. And on it went, triumph upon triumph from an artist who clearly believes that food sustains the soul as much as the flesh.

We found accommodations nearby at La Ferme de Moulhac (tel/fax: 011-33-5-6544-3325; http://perso.wanadoo. fr/moulhac/chambres/chambres.htm), a 200-year-old farmhouse recently transformed into a bed and breakfast. Philippe and Claudine Long have four beautiful rooms with metre-thick stone walls, copper doors, beamed ceilings and beds to shame most commercial hotels. This is the sort of farmhouse that would garner six-page spreads in design magazines. Yet the price for two is a mere $85, including a country breakfast of baguette, crêpes and tea or coffee.

Finally, we returned to the Aveyron, to the rolling, pastoral countryside on the fringe of the tempestuous Gorges du Tarn. At Sévérac-le-Château, we began searching for the source of the river. Our questions were greeted with blinks of astonishment and a collective shrugging of shoulders. Accidentally, we stumbled across a direction reading "Source de l'Aveyron."

Finally we would see how the Aveyron was born -- this shy and demure cousin to the majestic Dordogne, dishevelled Lot and flighty Tarn. We arrived at the source under a charcoal sky shot through with sudden sun.

But what was this? The Aveyron begins as inauspiciously as it ends: it is a simple pond. Three chestnut mares were grazing on one side. On the other, Renaults were whipping by on the road. A passing cyclist seemed to read our minds and pulled up beside us. "It eees not beauty-fool," he said. I looked at the sky, the mares, the miraculous pond. "Wanna bet?" I told him.

 

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