If you’re heading to Rodez in the lovely department of Aveyron, there’s no better way to go than via the beautiful little village of Belcastel…
There are 3 ways into the tiny village of Belcastel and the one I arrived on was little more than a dirt track. Winding and bending its way round the hills it gave us wonderfully tempting glimpses of the medieval castle, high up on its perch on the opposite side of the valley. As a way to approach from Villefranche and the west, I’d thoroughly recommend it but what I’d also add is that it’s worth checking the width of your vehicle before you choose this route. It’s a long way back if you can’t get across the steep and very narrow bridge that takes you into the heart of the village and if you’re driving anything the size of a minibus, you’re going to need strong nerves, the help of a few villagers and a measure of bon chance to get across.
The village is well deserving of its “plus beaux villages de France” status because, yet again, here is a place in the Aveyron that is shockingly beautiful, with the gentle tumble of water from the River Aveyron in the background and its steep, cobbled streets leading up to the castle. If you’ve got the time, have lunch at the Vieux Pont (a Michelin star restaurant in the village) and then walk off your indulgences with the climb (and it really is a climb) up to the castle.
Although privately owned, the castle is open to the public and it’s a place that not only has the most incredible views but lots of little hidden balconies and terraces where you can sit quietly and pinch yourself to check whether you really are somewhere quite so beautiful. And it’s a place which over the centuries has attracted a succession of extraordinary occupants and has more than a few secrets to tell. It was seized and held by a band of outlaws (the Routiers) for 27 years (until they were bribed out and promptly killed), it’s withstood many an attack from the English in the 100 year war and is allegedly home to a ghost, although I wasn’t lucky enough to meet her. According to legend she was the wife of Alzias de Sauhnac, who on catching her “in flagrante” in the matrimonial bed, threw her to her death from one of the lofty windows. And did I mention the unresolved story of the hidden treasure?
Having enjoyed its zenith in the 11th and then 15th century, the castle was painstakingly sold off stone by stone by a lady called Rose Acquie who’d bought it for the equivalent of about 300 Euros in 1810, only to be even more painstakingly rebuilt in the 1970s by prominent French architect Fernand Pouillon after he bought it for a sum roughly equivalent to 20,000 Euros. And even Pouillon was a colourful figure who escaped from a French prison in the 1960s where he was being held for the heinous crime of acting as both architect and contractor on a low cost apartment project in Paris.
Pouillon’s renovation project is a wonder in itself particularly when you realise that he rejected modern machinery and insisted that the huge materials needed for the project were hoisted up the north rock face by hand. And you can’t help feeling the tragedy of the fact that Pouillon died only a couple of years after the project was complete.
Today’s American owners seem fractionally less adventurous but they do have an unusual collection of armoury and an even more unusual collection of art which you can see as you make your way round the castle. But the real icing on the cake for me is that you can stay here in your very own private tower suite (April to September) peering down like one of the ancient Lords and soaking up the sublime tranquillity and beauty of this exalted spot.
As I drifted back across the Aveyron on a hot September afternoon, I was struck by how Rodez is such a diverse and unusual place. A small city which clings to the last of the mountains of the Massif Central and dozes quietly 600 metres above sea level. It was originally two cities and is ever so slightly disjointed, with two city squares and a heady combination of gothic and renaissance architecture, hand in hand with the ultra-modern Musée Soulages.
Despite the fact that it’s quite far south in French terms, it also has a distinctly northern feel, with its slate roofs and timber framed buildings. My guide Julie explained that this is a city with a northern heart, heavily influenced by the architecture of Rouen. Its impressive medieval merchant’s homes and shop fronts and its vast cathedral are a must see and I’d be interested in knowing if I’m the only one who found their choice of new (2006) stain glass windows by artist Stéphane Belzere quite extraordinary, even if they are undeniably thought provoking.
Rodez, which is certified as a “grand site Midi Pyrénées and “pays d’art et d’histoire” is a city which, like so many in France really seems to enjoy mixing the old and the new whether that’s in terms of art, architecture, gastronomy or culture. It’s perhaps no surprise then, that it’s also home and host to an annual celebration of Occitania called Estivada. This festival of Occitan culture and language brings together 8 regions of France as well as representatives from Italy and Catalonia and last year saw 100,000 visitors over its 3 days.
As I headed back to the small airport just outside the city, across a September landscape still soaked in the warmth of what felt like an August day, I was struck by what an enormous and diverse region of France this is and how much more the Aveyron has to offer, whatever your passion and reason for being there and I think, if I’d been a pilgrim, I’d have been very tempted to stay.
You can find out more about the Aveyron region at www.tourisme-aveyron.com
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer and deputy editor of The Good Life France