A road trip through provincial France

The remote region of Aveyron recalls a France of the past, with narrow country lanes, authentic village life and a population where cows outnumber people.

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.

About 40km northwest is another of the plus beaux villages, Conques.  Here, the 12th-century Abbey Church of Sainte-Foy steals the show, architecturally speaking, with a particularly elaborate bas-relief above the main entrance that displays flaming swords, angels, Jesus and the devil entangled in scenes from the Last Judgement. The church is at the heart of a lost-in-time village, full of rambling stone houses surrounded by wooded slopes where locals collect chestnuts in autumn. The famed Santiago de Compostela trail passes through here en route to northern Spain. And whether you are walking with the masses or not, stop to refuel with a gourmet meal of locally sourced meat and produce at the Michelin-starred Hôtel-Restaurant Hervé Busset, which occupies an 18th-century water mill perched over the Dourdou River. Try the œuf basse (poached egg cooked at a very low temperature) served alongside foie gras and truffle cream or the free-range chicken with a delicate crayfish sauce.

From Conques, drive just less than 70km south to the striking 13th-century town of Villefranche de Rouergue. This peaceful riverside enclave sparks to life during the weekly Thursday morning market, when you will hear vendors and shoppers trading the melodic sounds of Occitan (the original language of the region, spoken today by about 1.5 million people in southern France).

From here, a side trip to the nearby village of Belcastel is worth the detour, accessed by a narrow road that winds through a rolling landscape of farmer’s fields. Another of Aveyron’s plus beaux villages, its jewel is the 11th-century fort that occupies a lovely locale along the Aveyron River with a pretty waterfront municipal campground and good trout fishing. The most charming address in town for both eating and bedding down is the Hotel du Vieux Pont (advance reservations for the restaurant are a must); the restaurant and hotel are linked by an old bridge that yawns across the river. The menu includes more Aveyron specialties such as Cabecou au Laguiole and l’Ecir de l’Aubrac,  two cheese varieties made from lait cru (raw cow’s milk) that have a light and fresh flavour. During spring and early summer, order the delicious asparagus dishes including one recipe flavoured with rhubarb and verbena.

Rodez, Aveyron’s mellow capital
From Belcastel it is a 27km jaunt east to Rodez, a proud hilltop capital of about 60,000 people that centres upon a towering Gothic church, the 13th-century Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Rodez . Saturday is the main market day; stroll the narrow streets that connect the old town’s two central squares, Place du la Cite and Place du Bourg, to find regional vendors selling fruit, vegetables and cheese, as well as Aveyron specialties such as farçous (savoury beignets made with swiss chard, onion and parsley) and gateau a la broche (a cake made from butter, flour and sugar that is cooked on a spit over an open fire and, owing to its dry texture, best enjoyed with coffee or ice cream). If you are feeling bold, scout the market for what is perhaps the most typical Aveyron specialty of all, tripous – veal intestines cooked in a carrot, white wine and tomato bouillon that is often eaten for breakfast during local celebrations. Cheese connoisseurs should head to Chez Marie (3 Rue Bosc), a small shop just behind the cathedral with a passionate proprietor and a huge selection of regional and French cheeses; try the strongly flavoured Lyonnaise specialty Saint-Félicien – so creamy you need a spoon to coax it from its clay pot.

The diverse landscapes of the south
About 70km southeast of Rodez, near the town of Millau, Aveyron’s southern landscapes expand into a dramatic river scene, where the Tarn River cuts through the impressive Gorges du Tarn. From Millau, follow the road heading north, the D809, for 18km to the village of Les Vignes, where you can rent a canoe from Coule à Pic, a popular campsite operator that provides shuttle service from the gorge parking lot to the put-in point upriver. From there – and depending on how many stops you make to picnic and swim along the way – count on two to five hours to paddle downriver back to the village of Les Prades. A plastic drum for toting your picnic items in the canoe is included, and afterwards you can relax in the campground’s Jacuzzi, sauna and swimming pool.

Millau is famous for the Norman Foster-designed Viaduc de Millau bridge – a cable-hung marvel that stretches across the Tarn River Valley and is the world’s tallest bridge at 343m. But there is another way to get your kicks on high here – the plateaus just outside town have favourable winds that lure paragliders and hang gliders for some of France’s best soaring. Try it yourself on a tandem flight with local operator Millau Evasion.

Finally, do not miss a visit to the famous caves of Roquefort in the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, about 25km southeast of Millau. You can tour the caves and the fabrication areas to learn how one of the world’s most legendary blue cheeses is made. Whether you choose to visit the Papillon caves, those of Société or another brand, you will surely hear the story of a smitten shepherd who, according to local legend, left a morsel of bread and piece of plain sheep’s cheese in a cave while he went off in search of a lady. Upon his return, the bread was covered with a tasty mould, and the legend of Roquefort was born.

With so much history, gastronomy and natural beauty packed into a single region, Aveyron’s diversity can be overwhelming. But wherever your route takes you, the region’s small country roads ensure the discoveries come at a pace slow enough to enjoy.

Practicalities
The northernmost parts of Aveyron can be reached in a little less than six hours by car (slightly longer by train) from Paris and the southern regions are just one and a half hours from Toulouse. Flights from London (Ryanair has flights from Stansted) and Paris (AirFrance and low-cost carrier, Hop) land in Rodez’s airport. Avis, Europcar, Hertz and Enterprise all have car rental kiosks in the airport.