Can so much of it be a secret—even from the French?Almost forgotten for centuries, this sparsely populated département in the south of France stretches over a wildly varied landscape of medieval villages, adventurous terrain, and fairy tale–worthy hotels.
Clearly, it is always a mistake to arrive in a French provincial capital on a Sunday, unless you are looking to understand why Madame Bovary felt she had to have some action or die. There is no slower clock in all of space and time than that which ticks and tocks in the south of France on the day of rest, and no bell tolls with less urgency than that of the cathedral in Rodez. Mind you, this bell tower, rising up nearly 300 feet and surmounted by a Virgin, is a sumptuous gem of late Gothic Flamboyant style, surging out of a colossal red sandstone edifice begun in the 13th century and finished in the 16th. Three hundred years! Why the hurry?But then, that's one of the attractions of medieval architecture, created by people who didn't even have a word for the future or a concept of progress. The only escape from the present was eternity.
In the shadow of the Rodez cathedral, the Place d'Armes is deserted. I am the sole customer in the one open café. Luckily, I order a traditional Aveyron dish called aligot, for which an astonishingly elastic local cheese is slowly stirred into garlicky mashed potatoes, producing a dense, instantly addictive purée. It's comforting enough to push aside thoughts of eternity and even my anxiety about the immediate future: figuring out a trajectory for the next few weeks with a guidebook that fails to tell me much of anything about most of the points on the map, not to mention the wide spaces between.
It's very quiet here.
Aveyron, with Rodez at its center, is perhaps the least-known département in France, one of the biggest and most sparsely populated. "Even in the summer," local people say, "there are still more cows here than tourists." Few Americans have heard of it unless they remember that François Truffaut's film The Wild Child was based on the true story of Victor of Aveyron, a young boy who was found in 1798 in the forest, hirsute, naked, and mute. I myself knew next to nothing about it, although I often travel in France, where I was born. This is la France profonde, the heartland, which Parisians seldom visit and cannot fathom, where there is some of the world's most stunning, geologically diverse countryside—much of it unspoiled. Aveyron is in the rugged Midi-Pyrénées region in the south, and part of the Massif Central, a huge elevation formed by fire and ice. Peaceful lakeside resorts are an hour's drive from vertiginous peaks, waterfalls, and mind-blowing chasms, under which flow subterranean rivers. Deep valleys alternate with eerie and vast limestone plateaus, or segue into undulating meadows, peat bogs, and hot springs. Some of Aveyron's caves are big enough to shelter the Rodez cathedral.
Here are a thousand castles, more than a thousand megalithic tombs, innumerable Gallo-Roman ruins, and some of the most remarkable Romanesque architecture in Europe, as well as Norman Foster's architectural marvel, the Millau Viaduct—the world's tallest bridge and an unmatched feat of engineering and green planning. Aveyron has five bastides—planned walled towns that were the first urban experiments, built in the 13th century—and 304 communes (more or less equivalent to counties), some a mere handful of houses hanging on to a cliff, others nestled among the caves where prehistoric people lived, still others clustered near thermal baths or scattered downhill from a 12th-century fortress. Ten villages in Aveyron (the highest concentration in any department) meet the 30-odd criteria required to be officially included among the "Most Beautiful Villages of France."
After lunch, I walk along silent old streets to the Musée Fenaille—one of the few other places open on Sunday. The collection is astounding, starting with fossils more than 300,000 years old, continuing through the Gallo-Roman heyday, then into the tumultuous Middle Ages, when Aveyron (then called Rouergue) was successively invaded by Visigoths, the counts of Toulouse, and, of course, the English, during the Hundred Years' War. My favorite objects are the statue-menhirs, anthropomorphic standing stones several feet high, carved 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. The Lady of St. Sernin, the most famous piece here, is so well preserved you can see every marking—the hands, the feet, the strange tattoos or scars on her cheeks, the dots for eyes and small circles for breasts, though she has no mouth. What might she say, if she had one?"Hello to you, from 50 centuries ago..."?Or maybe just, "I'm thirsty."
I intend only to glance at the other exhibits on my way out but wind up staying until the museum closes, inspecting objects used by the Ruteni tribe when the city was a hub of southern Gaul (ruteni from the Latin for red, the color they dyed their hair). They were fearsome archers and some 12,000 of them fought alongside Vercingetorix, leader of the Gauls, in a heroic revolt against the Romans. But they could also read and write, and the extraordinary exhibit that re-creates one of their pottery shops includes remnants of their bookkeeping. Bookkeepers in Gaul! With dyed red hair! When I come out of the museum, it's easy to see Rodez as a 2,000-year-old city, Gallo-Roman ruins as more immersion course than tourist attraction, and Aveyron as a place with a rare relationship to time—an intimate, uninterrupted connection to the past.
In my rented Renault the following afternoon, I feel slightly guilty hurtling past a couple of Most Beautiful Villages but am determined to reach Laguiole, the main town in the Aubrac region of Aveyron—and the closest one to Michel Bras's restaurant and hotel—before dark. As the road ascends, the temperature drops, and the vegetation changes. Here in mountainous northern Aveyron, the architecture is plainer, the aesthetic more austere. Still, having glimpsed some of the gorgeous towns nearby, I am surprised by Laguiole's modesty. The municipal parking lot is dominated by the statue of an egregiously stocky bull—no doubt in honor of Aubrac cattle, famous throughout France for their hardy spirit and delicious meat. Farther along, cars obscure the grimy main strip. Clearly, twee is not what visitors to Laguiole are seeking.
I'm growing increasingly fond of speaking with people in the storefront offices de tourisme in Aveyron's villages. These are found all over France, but the staffs' encyclopedic knowledge of their domain seems especially indispensable in heritage-rich Aveyron. According to Bruno da Silva in the Laguiole office, connoisseurs come here year after year—many of them choosing to avoid summer and arrive in May and June, or September and October. "Often what these visitors want is se ressourcer," he says, using an untranslatable French locution referring to a vacation that returns one to something authentic and pure and restores one's physical and spiritual strength—overlapping perfectly, therefore, with what is known here as le tourisme vert, or green tourism.
The other word one hears constantly in Aveyron is terroir—meaning both soil and region. Michel Bras is a master of cuisine du terroir and Aveyron's most famous native son, and his Michelin three-starred restaurant is reputed to be one of the best in France. Ten minutes up the road from Laguiole, at the end of a longish driveway, there it is, a futuristic metal-and-glass structure lightly poised on an immense carpet of vegetation, which in the waning light seems bright with flowers. Just beyond, a few low-lying structures constitute the hotel, recalling the shape of the traditional long, squat, gray Aveyron farmhouse, the buron, one of Europe's earliest forms of architecture. Down a flight of stone steps, my room is large, luminous, and sober. Two of the walls are mostly glass, and there is hardly any sense of separation from the sumptuous, slightly undulating green expanse outside. Mesmerized by dusk's invasion, I don't draw the curtains until the sky is dark and a faraway sprinkling of lights materializes in Laguiole. My bed is huge and the sheets are indescribably fine. There's no time to memorize the particulars of an almost wild sense of well-being before I fall asleep.
The next morning, I am permitted to visit the kitchen, in which more than 20 people chop, mix, and stir at the customary stations, and at one more station, dedicated to vegetables, two young men peel and trim abundant brightly hued roots, leaves, and flowers. "They are preparing the gargouillou, a dish containing more than fifty vegetables," Véronique Bras, Michel Bras's daughter-in-law, tells me. Véronique's husband, Sébastien, works alongside his father in the kitchen, and their children and Michel Bras's parents are close at hand. Four generations of the family live here in the Aubrac region. Each one greets visitors with a quiet cordiality highly unusual in a French kitchen.
"What is it that is of most value to you here?" I ask Sébastien Bras, a handsome man with an easy smile.
"The relationship we have to Aubrac," he says. "A tradition, a certain light."
At lunch, that light, pale and beautiful, fills the restaurant, which is cantilevered over the plateau of Aubrac, giving diners the impression that they are in a sleek and calm spaceship hovering above the countryside. The meal begins with the gargouillou, a symphonic poem of textures, colors, and tastes. I believe I will remember this extraordinary pleasure forever, if only for the contrast between the complexity of its preparation and the exquisite simplicity of its final presentation. Every detail of the meal and the environment is surprising and nuanced and, incidentally, also adds up to an object lesson in the passionate regionalism of old Aveyron families like the Brases. So much here, on and around the plates, speaks of the place and its traditions, down to the graceful knives for which Laguiole is famous, the chair legs in the shape of bull horns, the waiters gliding about in blue farmers' smocks.
Véronique Bras mentions a great view near the hotel, so when I leave that afternoon, I continue up the road that climbs the mountain. The plan is only to drive through, but after about 15 minutes, I stop the car and get out: I see now why the plateau of Aubrac is often described as lunar. The vista seems otherworldly, illimitable, sci-fi, shimmering slightly in the extraordinary silence. Here, somehow, time seems actualized, accounted for, and expressed by the eloquent layers of soil, ages ago combining and recombining metamorphic rock, granite, and lava—debris torn from the mountain and carried down by glaciers to the high plain where now almost 2,000 species of plants grow.
I can only get myself back in the car by promising myself, like a child, that I can return. But I just want to see how far up the road goes. It is miles between hamlets. Now the only dwellings are burons, and then suddenly I see the remnants of a monastery: La Dômerie d'Aubrac, built as a refuge for medieval pilgrims. During winter's terrible blizzards, when the winds called tourmentes made the snow whirl so densely that paths became invisible, the bell would ring without stop to guide those who were lost and in fear of bandits, wolves, or death from the cold.
Farther up, there are no more houses and no more road, just the drailles, the paths made by cattle ascending to high pastures for the summer and descending in autumn. There is no sound at all, except the wind on the mountain. By now, I am completely smitten with this mysterious landscape. The most mysterious thing about it is why everyone isn't here. "Not everybody gets it," Bruno da Silva said to me a day earlier. "Sometimes people come here and they drive up to the plateau and then they come back and say to me, 'But there's nothing there.' How can I answer them?What is nothing for them is everything for us."
Aubrac to conques is the route that was followed 1,000 years ago by pilgrims walking across Europe to Galicia, now in Spain, where relics of the apostle James are said to be buried. At the high point of medieval religious fervor, millions of pilgrims traversed the Pyrenees on foot each year. (Even now, 80,000 walk the road of Santiago de Compostela on foot, and 20,000 travel it by other means.) Conques was a major stop, because of the abbey and its raison d'être: a fragment from the skull of the fourth-century martyr Sainte Foy, who was tried by the Romans for refusing to renounce Christianity and condemned to be cooked on a bronze grill and decapitated. Much of the countryside is unchanged since then, and the same road winds down to the village of Conques, curling like a snail shell around the abbey at the bottom. You walk the same narrow streets, pause at the travelers' fountain, and look up, as they must have, at the abbey's glorious tympanum, depicting the Last Judgment. Heaven and Hell still seem more divine and horrendous, respectively, than anything you have ever imagined. Angels push back sinners trying to escape. All the way at the bottom, the damned are shoved into the monstrous jaws of hell.
Before they set forth on the journey that would ensure the forgiveness of all their sins, pilgrims took a vow of poverty and gave their fortunes to Conques's abbey. This must have seemed like quite a good deal, based on the tympanum's jaws of hell. Nobles, too, made sure that gold and jewels accumulated in the abbey, a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture with its amazingly high dome and its famous "flying tribunes"—galleries on either side that seem suspended just below the ceiling. It can be visited top to bottom. In the evening, at around nine, without warning, the monks begin their chanting by candlelight, an unforgettable spectacle, as it must have been a thousand years ago.
It's even possible to think of the pilgrimages in the High Middle Ages as Western culture's first organized tours, and the apogee of tourism and wealth for the Rouergue. It all went downhill after the Black Plague and the Reformation stanched the flow of devotees. The population shrank: a town like Conques, where 3,000 people lived in the heyday of the pilgrims, has dwindled over time to 300. Even the Industrial Revolution could not stir the impoverished countryside—the windswept pastures, the half-ruined châteaux, the ancient villages, and the one-room farms have all remained intact, left alone behind the mountains for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.
In a way, Aveyron leaped from the Middle Ages directly into the 21st century with the Millau Viaduct. Now the economy seems to be awakening, as some farmers' collectives are thriving by combining modern and traditional techniques, but luckily, Aveyron's revival, if it is one, is being cautiously conducted, guided by tenacious regionalism, pride, know-how, and tremendous respect for nature and history. That's why, as disparate as they seem, you get both Conques and the Viaduct in the gargouillou.
On my way out of town, I spot a little shack of a pizzeria, high up on the road above the Abbey. For the price of a Coca-Cola I sit and look out at the valley below, fields and churches and turreted castles unchanged since the days when devils and angels vied for popularity with talking cats in boots who made their masters rich.
Sometimes I worry about Aveyron. One day, I eat at a table outside a crêperie in Najac (one of the Most Beautiful Villages), with a lush ravine on my right, and, 100 feet or so up the hill, a 12th-century fortress looming fantastically high above the town. On my left, medieval streets slope down to the river. At the next table, two Englishmen are talking property. "Great buys," one is saying, "the best for the money in the south of France." This jibes all too neatly with most of the articles I had found online before coming here, the British press touting the region for its real estate potential.
But the next day, I eat my second-best lunch of the year, at the Hôtel-Restaurant du Vieux Pont, in Belcastel—yet another Most Beautiful Village surmounted by yet another stupendous fortress, this one dating back to the 11th century (beating Najac's by 100 years) and still complete with four towers, a drawbridge, and a moat. While I watch the Aveyron River flow under a 500-year-old bridge, it occurs to me: at worst, tourists will continue to cause the occasional summertime traffic jam in the bigger cities like Rodez or Millau, or camp by the dozens in brightly colored tents on the more picturesque mountainsides. For all the eagerness of the offices de tourisme, most of the land here is carefully protected: the pastures by the steadfast farmers, the great canyons and plateaus by their status as national parks. The scale has remained entirely human. The Brases' restaurant and hotel are booked months ahead of time, but innumerable charming places to eat and stay are not. I had reserved a table at the restaurant of the Hôtel du Vieux Pont with only a week's notice, though I had not been able to book a room for the night; there are only seven in the hotel—an old village house just on the other side of the bridge—all of them lovely and freshly renovated, and each with a view of the river. Indeed, I made a mental note for my return to Aveyron: Absolutely spend a night at the Hôtel du Vieux Pont. My list of such notes was already very long.
Millau is a smaller, more gracious southern city than Rodez, and any of the hotels and chambres d'hôtes in town or nearby villages put you 10 to 20 minutes' drive by car from irresistible sites and pleasures. Once the world capital of fine glove making (there are still ateliers here that furnish the haute-couture houses), Millau now claims the title of world capital of hang gliding. I cannot report firsthand knowledge of that pursuit, but I can testify that a tour of the nearby Caves of Roquefort will turn you into a lover of Roquefort cheese if you aren't one already. There are boat rides on the Tarn River that pass under the colossal bridge of Millau, with cormorants and herons flying close by for company. You can also visit the archaeological site at La Graufesenque, where the Gauls made the pottery now housed in the Musée Fenaille, or an insect park called Micropolis, or engage in every manner of outdoor adventure in the local rivers and gorges—canoeing, kayaking, swimming, rafting, climbing, rappelling, and riding ponies, horses, and camels. My favorite spectator activity is the rope circuits among the trees in the canyons. Wearing a halter, one delighted or petrified tourist after another leaps like a life-size puppet from one tree to the next.
The highlight of my stay in Millau—perhaps of all of my travels through Aveyron—is a bloodcurdling drive on the road above the gorges of the Tarn River. The road is sometimes so close to the edge that if you look out your window you might think you've taken off; far, far below, the Tarn flows sometimes gently, sometimes wildly. On the other bank is a bald limestone cliff topped by odd rock formations that seem to tell a story one almost knows. On this day the sky is an unearthly pale blue, cloudless, a playground for eagles and falcons. This is a landscape so exciting and crazy it evokes emotions verging on the operatic. Of course, I realize for the first time: Passion comes from nature.
When I spot the Grand Hôtel de la Muse et du Rozier, nestled at the bottom of a gorge, I feel like throwing away my list of Places to Return to. All of these vistas function like children's-book illustrations, making you gaze and daydream of what it might be like to enter this or that magic place. It turns out there is an infinite number of magic places to get to. So, after a while, one is brimming with curiosity. But perhaps this is what se ressourcer feels like.
On my last day, I stayed just outside of Rodez in a renovated château called L'Hostellerie de Fontanges. I need not tell you that it was old, nor that it was charming. In the late afternoon it was warm enough to swim in the pool, then lie down on a chaise longue, daydream, and grow delightfully sleepy. It occurred to me that this was the first day in the two weeks I had spent in Aveyron that I had merely relaxed. I needed to change for dinner—fully expecting a divine meal—but was reluctant to go upstairs, to begin the end of my trip. How many different roads could I have taken?
There is too much variety in Aveyron for a tidy itinerary. But whatever it may lack in dramatic unity it compensates for in pleasure. It really doesn't matter where you begin or end your journey. What matters is the waterfall or the Gothic monastery; the 2,000-year-old bridge or the megalithic tomb where two dusty roads meet; the moment when, at the top of a deserted mountain road, there's a shack with a sign reading Chez Pierre. Just around the next bend, there's a little old hotel; you decide to spend the night. Dinner is served on a cliffside terrace. If you can get yourself to lean over the edge, you'll see the river hundreds of feet below, a few kayaks floating downstream like flowers. You eat side by side with mountain climbers, medievalists, and botanists, and maybe a few glam cosmopolites who stay at the table and talk until very late, drinking local wine. Sometimes laughter drifts up from the river. Sometimes, as if by plan, the diners pause in their various conversations and gaze out at the mountaintops, or down into the irresistible void.
When to Go
Fall and spring in Aveyron have heavenly weather and few crowds. But in summer, the water sports and hiking are just as enticing.
Fly to London or Paris and catch one of the daily connecting flights or the train to Rodez. Or take the high-speed train (TGV) from Paris to Montpellier, and rent a car for the 1 1/2-hour drive to Millau, which takes you over the Millau Viaduct.
Plan to drive, bike, or hike between villages; in the more bucolic areas there is little in the way of bus or taxi service.
Where to Stay and Eat
Aveyron has scores of wonderful midrange hotel-restaurants as well as innumerable chambres d'hôtes (B&B's), many in exquisite settings. These are just a few.
Grand Hôtel de la Muse et du Rozier
Mostuéjouls; 33-5/65-62-60-01; hotel-delamuse.fr; doubles from $176; dinner for two $131.
L'Hostellerie de Fontanges
Rte. de Conques et de Marcillac, Onet-le-Château; 33-5/65-77- 76-00; hostellerie-fontanges.com; doubles from $85; dinner for two $82.
Hôtel-Restaurant Château de Creissels
A 12th-century château with 30 dreamy rooms, some with balconies over the gardens, others looking out over the Millau Viaduct. Rte. de St.-Affrique, Millau; 33-5/65-60-16-59; www.chateau-de-creissels.com; doubles from $83, dinner for two $63.
Reserve months in advance. Rte. de l'Aubrac, Laguiole; 33-5/65-51-18-20; www.michel-bras.com; doubles from $306; dinner for two $207.
Hôtel-Restaurant du Vieux Pont
Belcastel; 33-5/65-64-52-29; hotelbelcastel.com; doubles from $102; dinner for two $136.
Le Comptoir d'Aubrac
Fashion designer Catherine Painvin fled Paris for the Himalayas and finally ended up in Aubrac. The inn, with only six rooms—each more eccentric and wonderful than the last—is a favorite of connoisseurs. Aubrac; 33-5/65-48-78-84; catherinepainvincouture.com; doubles from $231; dinner for two $95.
Les Demeures de Longcol
A medieval hamlet turned into a hotel in a 54-acre park high above the Aveyron River. Even the swimming pool has a fantastic view. Najac; 33-5/65-48-78-84; longcol.com; doubles from $197; dinner for two $95.
What to Do
There is no good guidebook to Aveyron, so you'll want to rely on tourism offices for both advance and on-the-ground planning, not just for additional sights and hotels but also for sports outfitters of all kinds. They can show you how to follow the pilgrims' road to Saint Jacques de Compostelle, for example, a route that includes the magnificent abbey in Conques. Many castles and fortresses offer tours. In Paris, contact Maison de l'Aveyron (33-1/42-36-84-63; maison-aveyron.org). If you're researching online, try the Comité Départemental du Tourisme de l'Aveyron (tourisme-aveyron.com); their site will also provide a list and interactive map of the region's Most Beautiful Villages of France (a designation made by a historical preservation association of the same name). The two biggest centers for outdoor sports are Millau and Najac.
Caves of Roquefort
Micropolis City of Insects
St.-Léons; 33-5/65-58-50-50; micropolis.biz.
Office du Tourisme de Millau, 1 Place du Beffroi, Millau; 33-5/65-60-02-42; ot-millau.fr.
14 Place Raynaldi, Rodez; 33-5/65-73-84-30; musee-fenaille.com.
Site Archéologique de la Graufesenque
Where to Shop
Aveyron's famous Laguiole knives can be bought at the new factory, designed by Philippe Starck, at the edge of the village of Laguiole (Rte. de l'Aubrac; 33-5/65-48-43-34; forge-de-laguiole.com). For fine handmade leather gloves, ask at Musée de Millau (Hôtel de Pégayrolles, Place Foch, Millau; 33-5/65-59-01-08) for information about local ateliers.