At The Cat Gallery, we like to get out and about to discover other places with a feline theme. On a recent holiday in France, we made a bee-line for La Romieu in the South Western Département of Gers.
For a small village of around 500 inhabitants, La Romieu is quite famous due to its strategic position on the Voie Podiensis, one of the key pilgrim routes of the Camino de Santiago. A magnificent Collegiale church was built in the 14th Century and this still dominates the village. We were keen to visit the Collegiale but were particularly excited to discover the cat legend of La Romieu.
La Romieu - A Village of Cats
Stand in the centre of the medieval bastide village of La Romieu and you'll see several cats. Walk around the place and you'll find many more, sunning themselves on window ledges, climbing through holes or poking their noses into bushes.
Four of the original La Romieu cats.
Many villagers have added cats to their properties. Above is a selection of "unofficial" cats at La Romieu. We had great fun finding and photographing them!
Residents who don't have walls or large window ledges have found other, innovative ways to follow the feline theme!
Read on to find out how these cats came to be there and what they represent. We'll also take you to the other sights of La Romieu - the Collegiale church and the Jardins de Coursiana - officially designated as a "Jardin Remarquable" by the French Minister of Culture in 2005.
La Romieu - Location and History
La Romieu is situated in the north of the Gers Département, approximately 650 miles (1,041km) from Calais. The region is predominantly rural, with agriculture being the most significant commercial activity. There are some vineyards, but the area is better known for arable crops and fruit growing - especially the world famous Pruneaux d'Agen (Agen is about 20 miles from La Romieu).
La Romieu is situated on one of the key pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. La Romieu was founded in 1082 by two monks from Rome who stopped there and decided to build a priory, a rescue and a hospital. The Gascon locals called them "Roumious", "the pilgrims from Rome" and this nickname gave the resulting settlement its name.
Its location and status allowed La Romieu to flourish and in the 14th Century, the original priory was replaced with the magnificent Collegiale of St Peter. This substantial ecclesiastical building dominates the centre of La Romieu. Some parts still date back to the 14th Century, the rest having been rebuilt following damage caused while under Protestant control in the 16th Century and after the French Revolution in 1789.
The Collegiale of St Peter dominates the landscape.
Collegiale signage, not surprisingly featuring the cross keys of St Peter.
The Collegiale was classified as a Historic Monument in 1901 and in 2018 the village of La Romieu was inducted onto the List of "The Most Beautiful Villages of France".
The Legend of the Cats
A medieval legend, dating to around 1342, 20 years after the Collegiale had been built, tells the story of a French village beset by famine following three years of poor harvests. The villagers were so desperate that domestic animals were slaughtered for food, including cats. A little orphan girl called Angeline loved the cats of the village very much and could not bear to see them all slaughtered. With her guardian's permission she hid a male and a female cat in their barn.
Time passed, and the weather improved. Hopes of salvation turned to concern as farmers realised that other creatures had their eyes on the maturing harvest. With no cats left in the village, rats were able to feast to the despair of the villagers. At this point Angeline revealed her secret to the village. The villagers were delighted to discover that Angeline was now concealing not just a pair of cats, but 20 moggies keen to earn their keep in the fields!
Soon the rodent population was under control and life in the village returned to normal. Angeline and her love of cats had saved the village from starvation!
The Legend in the Modern Times
An artist called Maurice Serreau had retired to La Romieu with his wife, Jacqueline. Maurice knew of the legend and in homage to it, started to sculpt cats for his own home and those of friends and neighbours. Within a matter of years, 14 cats had been carved from stone and placed on buildings in the centre of La Romieu. A fitting memorial to the medieval legend and a tribute to the commercial and domestic value that cats offer to humans.
One of Maurice Serreau's 14 sculptures is of Angeline, the girl whose love of cats saved the village. The legend also suggests that as she grew older, Angeline began to develop feline-like features, including pointed ears. And that is certainly how Serreau's bust depicts her.
La Romieu in 2023
Today, the cats of La Romieu are a significant tourist attraction that help to keep the village lively and prosperous.
There are real cats at La Romieu too. We snapped this moggy out on the prowl at dusk.
It was a hot day when we visited. These three were doing their best to keep cool in an alleyway, whilst always being alert to strangers with i-phones!
For a small village, it punches above its weight with a variety of restaurants and accommodations, including L'Etape d'Angeline, named after the heroine of the story, and located in the same square where most of the cat sculptures can be found.
These cats are also Maurice Serreau originals, on a property that he owned, opposite L'Etape d'Angeline. There are actually three cats in the picture - the left hand window features a cat and small kitten!
As mentioned earlier, La Romieu has a lot to offer in addition to the cats.
The Collegiale of St Peter
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the UNESCO world heritage listed Collegiale of St Peter. It cost 1 Euro on top of the ticket price to rent a headset with commentary and it was SO worth it. Here are a few more snaps that we took while there.
The cloisters were beautiful. A haven of peace (and shade!) on a hot day.
The Collegiale has two towers, one of which has an incredibly rare double helix stone staircase. The most famous one of this age still in existence is at the Chateau de Chambord in the Loire Valley. Built in the days when religious persecution was an occupational hazard, this second "secret" staircase would have given the Collegiale's occupants an opportunity to hide/escape from their foes.
The double helix tower features two secret "spyholes" that allowed those with access to keep an eye on their congregation.
Can you see Alison on one of the pews? She had no idea I was watching her from the second spyhole!
The Jardins de Coursiana
Located about 800m from the centre of La Romieu, the Jardins de Coursiana were established in 1974, initially as an arboretum, by an eminent French botanist. Over time it has developed nationally recognised plant collections and also features an English garden, a vegetable garden and a garden of aromatic and medicinal plants. In total, the gardens contain over 700 species of trees and shrubs including some that are over 200 years old.
The Collegiale of La Romieu, seen from the Jardins de Coursiana.
Blooms in the rose garden at Coursiana.
We travelled to La Romieu by motorhome and stayed at Le Camp de Florence. This well maintained and feature-packed site was a 5-10 minute easy walk from the centre of La Romieu. It features a good quality on-site bar and restaurant.
Aside from York, La Romieu is the only place we know of that has a collection of life-size cat sculptures on its central buildings.
If you know better... please let us know!
Acknowledgements & Copyright:
The Legend of Angeline and the Cats of La Romieu is the property of La Romieu Tourist Office and cannot be reproduced without their permission.
All photographs in this post are the copyright of Peter Hanson/The Cat Gallery and may only be used with prior written permission.
All links in this article are provided purely for the convenience of readers. We paid our own way at all times and all comments reflect our own personal thoughts on what we saw and did.
We hope you have enjoyed this "taster" of what La Romieu "Village of Cats" has to offer.