When we left Millau we made a conscious decision not to use our Peugeot navigator, Sandra.
Sandra has her funny little ways: all legal roads are equal in her eyes. She’ll chart a zig-zag course through back streets barely as wide as the car rather than take an adjacent arterial route. Any attempt to veer from her chosen course – to stop at a lookout, for example – results in a continuous stream of instructions that are either dangerous or impossible to execute. Sandra’s predicted journey times also assume we will always travel at the legal speed limit, even when she takes us along tortuous minor roads. Over the course of a day these discrepancies become problematic if we’ve booked accommodation and have to check in before a specified time. Unlike previous navigators we’ve used, there is no way to address these functional deficiencies, and we’ve had more enjoyable and less stressed journeys since we served Sandra her notice.
We charted our own course across the Midi-Pyrénées region, with autumn colours on the trees, and ploughed fields with soil that was by turns red, brown and a sandy cream. We arrived late morning in Albi, and visited its famous cathedral. Later in the day we were to find a precise scale model of the cathedral in a Penne church, which was retrospectively helpful as most of the building itself was shrouded in scaffolding. Brick is the most common building material here, with far less stone than is used further east. We walked around town despite a temperature of five degrees and the cutting whip of an icy wind. Failing to find lunch, we resumed our journey west.
In a 2014 poll, Cordes sur Ceil was the preferred village in France. The signs blazoning this success around the town didn’t tell us what it was preferred for; we suspect revenue-gathering, as the minimum parking fee in Cordes sur Ceil is €3.50. We accorded it a half hour of our time, as parking for that duration was free. It’s certainly pretty, although remarkably empty. We only had time to look, not to eat; we bought slices of a pizza-like confection for a picnic lunch down the road, and moved on.
Emerging from a tunnel, we saw the town of St Antonin Noble Val across the river to our right, and turned off to take a closer look. I’m pleased we did, as I thought it arguably the most interesting of the small towns we’ve seen in France. We encountered a few elderly ladies and a lot of cats – do the two go together everywhere in the world? There are thermal baths in St Antonin too, as well as a restored abbey: it seems the ideal base for walking or cycling holidays in this part of the region.
After we left Cordes sur Ceil our journey had taken us alongside a decommissioned railway line and into the Gorges de l’Aveyron. We passed former railway stations and many railway houses. Unlike their New Zealand counterparts, the latter are constructed of permanent materials and have been converted to a variety of uses. Not long past St Antonin Noble Val we detoured onto a scenic route with superb views through one of the gorges. Unfortunately the narrow, winding road had very few places where we could stop, so most of these vistas only exist in our memory.
The town of Penne relies heavily on its ruined chateau to attract tourists, but I found the town itself much prettier and far more interesting. We visited the church, which turned out to be part museum. There were at least two museums, which by rights should be part church, but we didn’t visit them to confirm this. We did visit the chateau to confirm that it was neither church nor museum, and watched the stonemasons at work. The restoration process is not going to be a quick one, but there is the compensation of marvelous views for those doing the rebuilding.