Should FDJ rider Alexandre Geniez, who comes from the town of Rodez, not far from the route of stage six of the 2016 Tour, ever find himself travelling around Argentina, he might be surprised to stumble across a small town, Pigüé, in the Pampas where the locals speak the same language.
Not French, but Occitan, a medieval language which is spoken throughout the Auvergne and the south of France and has more in common with Catalan than French.
Occitan might be a dying language, but it’s still very much present in the region of Aveyron, through which today’s stage runs: you’ll come across it on market day in rural communities, in local newspapers, on radio stations and in some instances, in the same schools that were once tasked with its eradication.
Okay, I’ll admit I don’t actually know if Geniez (below) speaks Occitan himself, but I’m willing to place a bet that he has older relatives who do.
So what of that town in Argentina? It owes its existence to another local, Clément Cabanettes, born in 1851 in the village of Ambec, some 30 kilometres south-east of Montsalvy, on the route of today’s sixth stage of the 2016 Tour.
Cabanettes arrived in Argentina in the late 1870s and worked for the Argentinian army for a while, before going on to set up the country’s first telephone company.
While travelling through the Pampas, he came across a valley some 600 kilometres south-west of Buenos Aires that reminded him of home. The Aveyron might be stunningly beautiful, but at the time it was also grindingly poor, an overpopulated region whose difficult terrain could offer little more than basic subsistence farming, and whose inhabitants were suffering from job cuts in the local Decazeville mining industry and the destruction of vineyards due to phylloxera.
The 33 year-old Cabanettes decided there and then to offer a lifeline to his impoverished compatriots by setting up a new farming community in Argentina.
The Argentinian government was in a hurry to fill the land with Europeans, having just concluded a brutal campaign to remove its indigenous peoples. So in recognition for his services to the military, Cabanettes acquired 270 square kilometres of land for a minimal sum, and with the financial help and know-how of a friend, Eduardo Casey, set up the town of Pigüé (meaning ‘gathering place’ in the native Mapucho tongue.) A train station was built, alongside accommodation, a silo and a well.
On 23 October 1884, 163 colonists from 40 different families left Rodez by train, got on a ferry at Bordeaux, and eventually reached Pigüé on the 4th of December. They included in their number a priest, a blacksmith, a cartwright and a teacher.
Cabanettes set up a sort of cooperative, where settlers were asked to make a financial contribution towards the purchase of cattle, seeds and machinery and to contribute half their harvest towards the community.
The first three years were a disaster. It took a while for the Aveyronnais to work out how best to manage crops and livestock when climate and soil conditions were so different to what they’d known. Cabanettes and Casey were bankrupted by the project and it wasn’t until after they’d died that Pigüé finally flourished.
More than a third of today’s 14,000 strong population is descended from the original families. Links to France are kept alive through an association, based in St-Côme-d’Olt, a village neighbouring Cabanettes’ birthplace, which regularly organises exchanges between the two communities.
The Aveyron is sparsely populated now, a rare pocket of France off the main tourist trail, a land of picturesque river gorges, wild moorland, medieval castles and ancient hill top villages. But on closer inspection, you’ll find some of those villages are just a collection of ruins, the abandoned homes of families who took their language and customs some 11,000 kilometres further west.