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Introducing Aveyron

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Photo: Christopher Baker

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.

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