In the most visited country in the world, finding a slice of la France profonde (deep France) is not as easy as it once was. While Provence – with its postcard towns of Arles and Avignon – has long been the go-to destination for quintessential Gallic scenery and ambiance, the sheer tourist numbers often cloud the views.
If you are after the provincial France of the past – with narrow country lanes, authentic village life and a population where cows still outnumber people – set your sights on a road trip through one of the country’s largest and least known departements (administrative regions): Aveyron.
The fifth largest of France’s departements, Aveyron is also one the most sparsely populated, with less than 300,000 inhabitants. Its diverse terrain includes the low Aubrac mountains in the northeast, sweeping plateaus in the south, deep gorges cut by narrow rivers and fertile meadows that are the backdrop for ancient monasteries, castles and villages.
Harder to reach from Paris than other areas of the country (the highway that leads from Paris to the Mediterranean town of Perpignan skirts the eastern reaches of Aveyron, but there are no major highways through the departement’s interior and no high-speed rail links), Aveyron’s relatively isolated location has left it on the sidelines.
“Even among the French, this central part of France is kind of unknown,” said luxury travel adviser Bernard Fromageau of HotelExcellence.com. “If people really want to see the country and the small villages not spoiled by tourism, this is the place to go.”
Hit the road
Unless you fly into the small but efficient airport in Rodez, Aveyron’s relaxed capital city, chances are you will be arriving from Paris on the A75 highway. Head straight into the heart of the Aubrac region, known for its austere and striking landscapes and home to a revered cattle species of the same name. The purebred vache Aubrac has beautiful eyeliner-like markings around its eyes and is said to be among the most juicy, marbled and flavourful beef anywhere.
Your first stop should be the village of Laguiole, famous for the beautiful handmade Laguiole knives that have become a staple on foodies’ tables across the planet. (If you buy one for a gift, follow local tradition and make sure the recipient gives you a coin, any coin, in return – a gesture that signifies that the friendship will not be severed.)
When you start feeling peckish, Aveyron’s most famous foodie pilgrimage (yes, even Parisians make it) is just 6km east. Bras is a three Michelin-starred restaurant where the focus is on the bounty from Aveyron’s terroir – beef from the Aubrac region, veal from the Ségala, truffles from the Causses. The menu varies with the season, but you might find such delicate preparations as kohlrabi with candied orange or a delicious throwback to traditional regional cooking, chou farci – stuffed cabbage served with a gratin of truffles. After your decadent meal, spend the night at Maison Bras, the restaurant’s hotel. The 15 bright and contemporary rooms have views of the Aubrac’s luminous landscape.
France’s plus beaux villages
The next morning, make the 30km drive southeast to Estaing, one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France (the Most Beautiful Villages of France): a listing with a slew of historic and aesthetic criteria that determines the country’s most beautifully preserved villages, of which Aveyron claims 10 – the most of any departement. Estaing is a fairytale village of just 600 people with a castle and a 16th-century Gothic bridge over the Lot River that has been awarded Unesco World Heritage status.