The barns of Cominac
The stairstep shape of their gables is peculiar to this valley
The hamlet of Cominac sits on a wide, sunny plateau above the Garbet river valley, 5 km from the village of Ercé in the Couserans. The site is celebrated for its stunning view of the Mont Valier and above all for the unusual profile of the many stone barns that dot the vast pastures: their pinions have a kind of stairstep along the edges.
The roofs of these barns used to be thatched with rye or wheat straw. These cereals were grown on the numerous terraces surrounding the village. It was the roofing material of the poor, for it cost them only time and sweat.
These cultivations no longer exist, and the terraces have been invaded by the forest. Consequently, the barns are no longer covered with thatch; it has been replaced by slate and unfortunately also by corrugated metal.
The walls are constructed of large stones while the flat slabs are of shale. These slabs that form the stairsteps are called "peyrous" in the patois of the Couserans and served to:
- protect the pinion walls
- make a stop for the thatch and protect it so that it didn't rot too quickly and become vulnerable to strong winds
- facilitated access to the ridge ("cliero" in patois) although that was only a secondary purpose
At the ridge of the roof the thatch overlapped from the north side to cover and protect the other (this same system is still used for slate roofs). The higher side is the "bad side", that is the one most exposed to the weather. The bundles of straw were bound head down and fixed in place by laths of ash or willow.
The slant of a thatched roof is very steep (about 45°) so that rainwater runs off easily and the straw can dry quickly. A thatched roof has a long life (40-50 years) but must be repatched every year.
This type of architecture is also found in the Hautes Pyrenees in the valley of Campan.
Some visitors wonder why such a small hamlet is surrounded by so many barns. The inhabitants of Cominac were principally cattle and dairy farmers, as the steep hillside and mountain climate made this the only viable type of agriculture. It therefore required a great deal of hay to feed the animals in winter. The farmers had available to them many small meadows scattered on the mountainside outside the village, linked by narrow footpaths. They constructed a barn on each meadow or group of meadows to store the hay and starting in November the cows and sheep were kept close to the barns furthest from the village, grazing on the grass with hay supplementing. When the hay was exhausted the animals were moved to the next barn closer to the village, and so by midwinter the animals were in the barns closest to the village, sparing the farmers a long, tiring walk in the snow to tend to the cows. In summer the cows and sheep were (and still are) driven to the high mountain pastures, called the transhumance, while the meadows of Cominac are hayed.