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.