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Introducing Aveyron

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Photo: Christopher Baker

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.

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