This beautiful rural walk winds between the bastides or fortified towns that sprung up between the Cathar Crusades of the 1200s and the Wars of Religion in the 1500s. They are situated in spectacular settings on rocky promontories or broad hills like the Tuscan hill towns and are rich in history. The intervening countryside is a beautiful mixture of forests, fields and river valleys with a distinct lack of tourists. This has become not only one of our most venerated walks, but also one of the most popular tours in France. No fewer than 4 of the villages on this tour (Cordes, Bruniquel, Puycelci and Castelnau-de-Montmiral) are included on the unofficial but prestigious list of 143 most beautiful villages in France. The days are quite full, but you should have plenty of time to explore and photograph these wonderful places. You are also strongly advised to take an extra day to discover the old city of Albi, a survivor of the arrows and slings of history. A great day can be spent walking around the huge red brick cathedral and palace, looping across the bridges over the Tarn or having a good meal in the centre. This tour is a little different from our other hotel treks in that Chambres d’Hotes are used for some of the nights, literally ‘a room with your hosts’. For a couple of nights the accommodation is also Table d’Hote, ‘dinner with your hosts.’ You will on those occasions have meals prepared by members of the family, and probably sit and eat with them. They will offer you wine and try to engage you in conversation and enthuse you with what they are doing. You certainly won’t just feel like a hotel guest.
This walk (grade 3) should present no difficulties for anyone in reasonable condition and accustomed to walking the distances involved. The terrain is undulating with small to medium sized hills, with climbs / descents typically 30-100 metres and occasionally 200 metres or so. Some steep inclines, especially approaching the hill towns. Being able to cope with warm weather is also an advantage.
Arrival at first accommodation in Cordes, an amazing medieval town of cobbled streets, which is perched on a hilltop high above the surrounding countryside. It is a bastide town, founded in what was then (and still is) a remote rural district in the 13th century; lacking a name, it took its name from the great Spanish city of Cordova.
Accommodation: A lovely 2* hotel combining the charm of a medieval building with modern comfort. It is built into the old town walls in Haute-Cordes. All 7 rooms have en suite facilities. The hotel is close to the restaurants and shops of the upper town for your evening meal.
This is quite a long day, but before leaving Cordes, you might wish to explore the lovely covered market, ancient streets and carved facades of the old buildings. Then wind your way down through the Porte des Ormeaux to Les Cabannes and across fields and an ancient stone bridge, skirting a little vineyard. Scattered farms and shady woodland lead you near to Roussayrolles. You could visit this pretty hamlet for a break or dive into the leafy valley of the River Laussiere. Then passing abandoned water mills, climb through a pinewood to arrive at the massive Dolmen de Vaour at an ancient crossroads. There is an easier walk (via the road from Lapeyrade) into the pretty village of Vaour.
Accommodation: A carefully renovated farmhouse, this Chambre d'Hotes is located 1.5 km from the village. The comfortable rooms are ensuite, and there is an outdoor swimming-pool. The owner cooks delicious meals with products from the local markets. Evening meal, breakfast, and packed lunch are included.
After some woodland and pastoral meanderings with some more tiny hamlets your path takes you along a wooded limestone scarp with splendid views across the Aveyron Gorge, before descending and then reascending to arrive at the little village of Penne, clustered below the ruins of the castle above the River Averyron. This has associations with both the One Hundred Years War and the wars of Religion. From Penne descend to the Aveyron Bridge, cross the river and ascend the forested scarp and continue through depopulated lands, and fields where the forest has regrown. Views open up over the Aveyron Gorge and towards Bruniquel Chateau perched on its rock. Having re-crossed the River Aveyron, climb up and explore lovely old Bruniquel village, with its C13 and C16 castles.
Accommodation: A traditional stone built house in the centre of the village, this 4 * Chambre d'Hotes offers lovely comfortable rooms, all ensuite.
From Bruniquel your path climbs to take you through the ancient forest of Gresigne. This is the largest forest in south west France, which has many varieties of holly, some unique to this region, and the marks of prehistoric man. You emerge from the woods to climb steeply up to the old Bastide of Puycelci. The village itself was founded in the 10th century by Benedictine Monks from the Aurillac Abbey. Until the First World War, the village was quite prosperous, with a population of nearly 2,000 in 1830. Almost abandoned in the 1950s, it was since then restored by its inhabitants and is now listed among the “Most Beautiful Villages of France”.
Accommodation: A former inn dating back from the 18th century, this 3* hotel has 8 tastefully decorated rooms, all ensuite. Dinner is included.
Cross the green valley of the River Vere and climb through the village of Laval to follow the edge of a wood. Follow the GR signs through vineyards, climb through a wood towards the ruins of Lagarde. Head along a ridge with views of Castelnau de Montmiral as you approach it. Then descend off the ridge crossing the valley and up into the bastide, which has a very interesting centre with a 17th century square.
Accommodation: A charming 3* hotel in an historic building in the old square. Breakfast may be taken in the courtyard. The hotel has a small outdoor pool, with great views.
The longest day is a little easier to start with in the flatter country initially through the vineyards of Gaillac to the little town of Cahuzac-sur-Vere. The finish is hillier, past the Chateau de Clayrac to a stunning view of Cordes as you approach it and a satisfying finish as you return to complete your circular Tarn walk.
Accommodation: On your return to Cordes, stay in the same comfortable hotel as on the first night of the tour.
Depart Cordes after breakfast.
If you are taking the Albi extension, at 9.30 am a taxi will collect you and your luggage from your hotel and drive you to Albi. On your way into the town you will cross one of the fine redbrick bridges over the River Tarn. After checking in you can explore the town on foot, including the magnificent and fortress-like medieval red-brick cathedral and the former bishops' palace which now houses the world’s biggest collection of works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who was born in Albi. There are pleasant riverside walks along the Tarn.
Accommodation: Albi extension. A small 2* hotel conveniently situated in a quiet location, close to the old town centre and cathedral. Alternatively we can arrange an upgrade to a centrally located 3* hotel. Contact Sherpa Expeditions for details.
The weather was superb, the accommodation comely and varied, the hosts welcoming and the scenery was nature and history at its supreme best. Surprisingly unpopulated with tourists and walkers.
A. Garland, Sydney, Australia, 11 Jul 2016
Thank you a very enjoyable holiday. Medieval villages, flowers, good walking every day with varied countryside. Great accommodation with very welcoming hosts. We were lucky with the weather!
S. & H. Ward, Kent, UK, 20 Jun 2016
Excellent self guided walk through some of the most picturesque parts of France. The hill top towns need to be seen to be appreciated , especially at sunrise or sunset. The track was very well way-marked which particularly comforting. We could only complete 3 out of the 5 days as the weather closed in and conditions were not only unpleasant ( wet & miserable) but, in our view, unsafe due to the slippery nature of the track . By design, the hill top towns are high above the surrounding terrain .....leaving them and climbing to the next one requires a lot of stamina ( and it's not flat in between ! )
T Moran, Claremont, Western Australia, 06 Jun 2016
Per Person, Twin Share