Realistic sculptures of cats hunting, stalking, climbing and looking out from and on window sills, doors and rooftops have given La Romieu in the Gers, its second name as the “village des chats”.
The cats were made in the 1980s by a sculptor, Maurice Serreau who fell in love with the village and was inspired by a legend from the 14th century.
In the story, a young girl, Angéline refuses to hand over her two kittens, one male and one female, when the village is overrun by cats and orders a cull.
Cats to the rescue
The harvests fail and the inhabitants are threatened by famine. This is made worse by the huge rise in the number of rats, which are no longer controlled by cats, and are eating into the harvest.
Angéline reveals the existence of her feline friends, who have now grown and have had several litters. They are let out to catch the rats and save the village’s food supplies.
Brice Mallet, guide to the village for the tourist office says famine was well known to La Romieu during the 13th and 14th centuries: “The village population was often decimated either through starvation or plague which was particularly bad in the Gers, coming back every 20 to 25 years. Around 40-60% of village populations died each time.
It is very difficult to imagine the extent of the suffering, far, far worse than the effects of Covid-19.
The story of Angéline and the cats was not known before the sculptor came but it is now an important part of the identity of La Romieu.”
The origins of the village go back to an 11th century German pilgrim who had been to Rome and wanted to find a suitable place to set up a hermitage.
No-one knows exactly why he chose this spot, but he did so in 1062, and quickly attracted followers who came to live near him.
The name Romieu, comes from the Gascon word Roumieu, meaning Pilgrim of Rome.
It is on two of the pilgrimage routes towards St Jacques de Compostelle, one from Rocamadour and the other on the famous Lectoure-Condom section, and still welcomes a large number of pilgrims every year.
One of the Plus Beaux Villages de France
“The village initially grew up in a fairly haphazard way as people came to settle near the famous hermit,” explains guide Brice Mallet.
“Then, in the fourteenth century its shape was changed completely when many of the original houses were demolished to make way for a palace and the imposing Collégiale Saint-Pierre, built 1312-1318.
It was created for Arnaud d’Aux de Lescout, who was born at La Romieu and became Cardinal to Clément V, the first Pope who settled at Avignon.
“It must have been strange for the inhabitants to see these huge buildings taking over their tiny village, and I think it must have been like the arrival of a space ship to them.
“There is only one tower left from the Palace, but Saint-Pierre with its cloisters and church with two towers, one containing magnificent medieval paintings in ochre, yellows, reds and blacks, can still be visited.”