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."