Aveyron echoes with the past. Every densely wooded gorge and valley, every ancient bastide town and every winding road seems to whisper of pilgrims making their weary way south, of Romans and rebellious Gauls or of Knights Templars, thundering across the plateaux.
Part of the Massif Central but also the northern most part of the Midi-Pyrénées. As a department Aveyron has an earthiness, a simplicity and a quiet but wild ruggedness that’s hard to find elsewhere. Forests and vineyards cling to steep ravines. Medieval villages poke their heads out of leafy canopies in the hills. Rivers dotted with old mills and forges laze their way through cool musty valleys.
Walk on the wild side
The plateaux of the Aubrac to the north east of the region are vast, forlornly beautiful and represent the Aveyron at its most untamed. It feels wild and unconquered with a haunting beauty to its bleakness. You can roam for hours in solitary delight interrupted by nothing more than mountain shelters (Burons) and the occasional Aubrac cow. It’s definitely the place to start if you want to imbibe the very soul of the region. Also it harbours one of the ancient pilgrim trails that cuts across France.
3-star taste of the Aubrac plateaux
It’s hard to imagine how it must have felt to the tired travellers as they bowed their heads into the wind and pushed on to the south. However, if you have the time, follow in their footsteps a while across and down from the lofty plateaux. You’ll cross through the pretty hillside villages and into the thick and craggy relief of forests of chestnut, pine and oak. Gradually you will be drawn on to the beautiful haven of Conques.
But if you can’t travel the trail and don’t want to meander alone, join one of the “Aubrac Rando” guided walking tours. They leave from the village of Laguiole and this way, you’ll get a real sense of these hills. www.aubrac-laguiole.com
This area was the childhood home of Michel Bras, the only three-star Michelin – chef in the region. He says that he takes much of his inspiration from the 2,000 local varieties of flora and fauna that you’ll find here.
His restaurant is just 10 minutes outside the village of Aubrac. It hovers like a floating beacon of luxury, indulgence and all that is modern. The glass walls give dramatic views over the valley to Laguiole. You’ll find that the dishes served here are as much about art and poetry as they are about the terrain. There’s an emphasis on edible flowers, herbs, beauty and all that’s in season. There’s a hotel here too (book in advance as it’s very popular): www.bras.fr
New generation wine of Marcillac
Wandering down from Conques and the Aubrac, it’s an easy and logical journey to pop in on to the regenerated, up and coming wine growing region and appellation of Marcillac. It’s a relatively unknown appellation. It’s risen from the ashes of the almost extinct wine production that the monks from Conques and wealthy merchants of Rodez enjoyed many centuries ago.
Renowned for its reddish soil, if you look carefully you can still see the overgrown and forgotten vines of the past. And steeply terraced vineyards now cling to either side of the valley in a south facing arch. To the north it is bordered by forests. The vines produce spicy and rustic reds (as well as some rosés) predominantly from the Fer Servadou (Mansois) grape. They slip down very comfortably with earthy local cuisine.
There’s a vastly updated cooperative here at the Vignerons du Vallon with an excellent visitor centre. It’s a short distance from Rodez which showcases the history and production of Marcillac. Better still in the summer months, the local village of Valady is a wonderfully indulgent way to relax, unwind and experience local wine and cuisine at their weekly Saturday fete.
The beautiful market of Villefranche-de-Rouergue
Head west over the rolling hills to Villefranche-de-Rouergue. It’s one of the region’s five 13th century “new concept” bastide towns with a distinctly southern feel. From the rawness of the Aubrac and the deep gorges and ravines cut by the rivers Aveyron and Dordou, the grid style streets, tall timbered merchant’s houses and limestone arcades have a refreshing feel. On market day (Thursday) the town explodes into a melting pot of colours, scents, sounds and irresistibly tasty treats.
One of the best markets in Aveyron, it fills the main square (Place Notre Dame) and spills out in every direction. Fruit, veg, spices, sticky sweets, warm breads and patisseries, herbs, flowers, meats slow turning on the spit and vast pans of steaming shell fish, all tease and tempt you into the many backstreets. And, when you’re ready, escape to the calm of the esplanade near the riverbank where you can cool off in the sleepy shade of a plane tree.