Touring the beautiful villages of France’s Aveyron region
by Cecilia Morrissey, Port Townsend, Wa.
Visiting the Aveyron region in south-central France was a delightful adventure. For a week in mid September 2011, my companion and I drove its roads, walked its villages, visited its churches, interacted with its friendly locals and ate its delicious food. It was a perfect trip.
Compared to that of Provence or Paris, tourist information about the Department of Aveyron is not plentiful, so researching this area was a daunting task. The Michelin Green Guide “Languedoc Roussillon Tarn Gorges,” with a specific section on the Aveyron and the Lot Valley, was a great resource. An excellent website was www.france-voyage.com, which had information on Aveyron in English, unlike other websites I found.
When traveling in Europe, I am an inveterate train enthusiast. When an area is not accessible by train, I take the bus. For this region of France, however, neither trains nor buses are practical, as the area is hilly and semiremote. There is no train service, and the scheduled buses are infrequent.
Since a car was the only solution, I reluctantly agreed to a one-week rental. After much research and discussion with friends who often rent cars in Europe, I settled on Kemwel (Portland, ME; 800/678-0678). The 7-day rental cost $385 for a car with manual transmission.
But first we had to get from Montpellier to Rodez, the capital of Aveyron, on the bus, as there was no direct train. On the comfortable, long-distance bus, it was two hours north to Millau, then, after an hour layover, two more hours to Rodez.
When we arrived in Rodez, we had the first of many experiences of being helped by the locals. Our bus ended its run at the long-distance train station on the edge of the city, and we thought that we would have to take a cab to our hotel. When the bus driver learned this, he volunteered to drop us off at the cathedral, even though it was not a scheduled stop, leaving us just a short walk from our hotel.
Our accommodations at the Ibis Rodez Centre (phone +33 5 6576 1030) were booked on the Internet for €45 ($56) a night. Breakfast was not included but was available, and WiFi was free.
Ibis hotels are clean, well located and inexpensive. The rooms are very small, and each one looks like every other Ibis hotel room, no matter the location. When you awake in the morning, you might have to remind yourself where you are! But I have stayed in them all over Europe and can testify that the heating, air-conditioning and plumbing always work.
Rodez is built high on a hill above the river and is dominated by the Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame. For two days we walked this charming city, enjoying the weekly market and taking in the sights. (There is a well-marked walking tour, a map of which is available at the tourist office.)
Remember that this is traditional France, so on Sundays the city is buttoned up tight except for a few restaurants.
On the road
On Monday we went to the Avis office in Rodez to pick up our car. I was a little apprehensive as this was not my area of expertise, but the manager was most reassuring and helpful, readily explaining the procedures and answering all our questions, including the most important one: how do we exit the city and head for the hills?
Our car, an almost-new 4-door Peugeot, was comfortable and well appointed, setting the expectation for a wonderful road trip. We used the Michelin “Aveyron, Tarn #338” map, purchased online. It was invaluable.
Because we weren’t familiar with the gas stations, we had purchased a Travelex Cash Passport chip-and-PIN card and loaded it with euros. (I purchased the card at the airport, and adding in the service charge resulted in an exchange rate 15% higher than the bank’s rate.) During our entire trip, we drove under 300 kilometers (186 miles), often driving only 25 to 30 kilometers from one place to another, and used less than a tank of gas.
Each village on our list had a particular site of interest, and our mission was to visit Conques, Entraygues-sur-Truyère, Espalion and Laguiole. The towns were easily walked, and we often encountered people walking the pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela from village to village.
We based ourselves in Entraygues, 30 kilometers from Rodez via a scenic road, for four nights and in Espalion for three. In Entraygues, a city on the Lot River, we stayed at the Résidélia Les Gorges de la Truyère (7, Route de Ville comtal [website in French only]), a self-catering apartment in a resort located on the edge of town.
Our one-bedroom apartment was spacious and had an adequate kitchen and a balcony. Be sure to insist on a room with a river view, as the rooms on the other side get the afternoon sun and are very hot in late summer, since there is no air-conditioning. Booked on the Internet, the apartment cost €62 ($77) per night, tax included.
Entraygues is a charming town which offers activities on the river, such as kayaking, in addition to a number of historical sites. From this village we drove to Conques, some 25 kilometers away.
Conques is listed as one of The Most Beautiful Villages of France. The town was a major stop on the way to Santiago de Compostela and provides outstanding examples of Romanesque architecture. The abbey church treasury contains the stunning medieval statue/reliquary of St. Foy.
Another town on The Most Beautiful Villages list is Estaing, also a short drive from Entraygues. This village, also on the Lot River, is situated at the foot of a château, itself a cultural site, as is the village’s 15th-century church.
These villages, although well recognized as cultural treasures, are not at all “touristy,” probably because of their remote locations. Parking was easy, and the villages all had public facilities.
Conques was the busiest, but the village center was pedestrian-only. The towns were generally busiest in the morning. Of course, from noon until 2 p.m. no shops were open, so we simply did as the French do and had lunch. The plate of the day was always a good choice and usually consisted of an entrée with potatoes or vegetables and a nonalcoholic drink. One of our favorites was duck with roasted chestnuts for €12 ($15), which was a typical price.
Overall, we were pleasantly surprised at the food prices, both in the restaurants and the local markets, as they were cheaper than those in the big cities. We enjoyed picnicking, and the pears and croissants alone were worth the trip!
In Espalion, we stayed for three nights at Hôtel de France (36 Blvd. Joseph Poulenc). Our room was small but clean and adequate, with excellent air-conditioning, for €89 per night, booked on the France-voyage website. The hotel was right in the town center and within easy walking distance of all the sights and shops.
This town of about 4,000 is an important crossroads for the area and bustles with the daily business of its residents. It has an excellent tourist information center.
On Saturday we enjoyed the local market offering goods and food. Situated on the Lot River, the town has a beautiful city park with a pleasant river trail.
From Espalion, we ventured to Calmont d’Olt, a small town with intact city walls and an interesting church.
We drove farther south to Bozouls, a small town located on the Dourdou River at what is called a “geological site,” in this case a spectacular gorge with ancient buildings right on its edge. This turned out to be a major surprise; the tourist information did not do it justice.
One of our longer drives was to Laguiole, about 20 kilometers from Espalion. Laguiole is famous for knife making, and its streets are lined with shops offering all types of knives, from the practical to art pieces. We stopped at the small factory of Coutellerie Benoit l’Artisan and were treated to an excellent presentation about the art of making knives by hand.
By this time, we were more than comfortable on the roads. The signage was excellent, and even though the roads were rural and narrow, they were well maintained. All too soon it was time to drive back to Rodez and return the car. Since it was Sunday, the rental office was closed, so we simply dropped the car keys in the slot and walked to the Ibis hotel.
The next day, we boarded the train to Aix-les-Bains, arriving 10 hours and three changes later.
Maybe we should have driven!