The department of Aveyron is an ancient and slightly strange place. It’s main town of Rodez is a fascinating place to visit and is well away from the beaten track. Then there is the famous Roquefort chees and the amazing Millau viaduct. Many tourists bypass Aveyron and Rodez but if you’re looking for the real France you can’t go wrong here.
Although it doesn’t attract mass tourism Aveyron is the top département for walking in France. There are more than 900km of long distance Grande Randonnée footpaths and a network of 4,000km of shorter walks, which enable everyone to benefit from the great open spaces.
What is Aveyron like?
Aveyron is a hummocky place of contrasts and many stories, From the volcanic uplands of the Aubrac in the north-west to the undulating landscape of the Parc Naturel Régional des Grands Causses in the south.
Aveyron has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Over the centuries, Man has left his mark in the form of statues-menhirs (this is the richest département in France for the number of megaliths), to Middle-Age new towns. Not to mention the abbeys, and sites of the Knights Templar and Hospitaler that commemorate the arrival of military orders.
With 10 villages, Aveyron is the department with the largest number of listed villages in France. They are a perfect and enjoyable way to discover the architectural heritage in all its diversity.
In the west lie a group of fortified medieval communities designed for defence, law and order – the wonderful bastides towns. In the south-east lie the towns and villages that have strong links with the Knights Templar. In the centre, lies the great cathedral city of Rodez from which roads splay out like the spokes of a wheel leading to all parts of the département.
The region has wonderful diversity of scenery, and as you cross the département, you are struck by the many changing landscapes: from the arid land of the Causses du Larzac to the high volcanic plateau of the Aubrac.
Walk around the “Trou” de Bozouls (Bozouls “hole”), make out the shapes of the rocks at the chaos of Montpellier le Vieux, descend the meanders of the prehistoric caves at Foissac, go for a romantic walk on the Presqu’île de Laussac (Laussac peninsula).
The department contains a part of the Cévennes National Park. Well-known tourist attractions are the castle of Najac, a medieval ruin perched high on a hill, and the many beautiful old castles and monasteries such as Conques.
The upstart town of Millau
And now, the modest town of Millau is pulling in tourists by the thousand to see its startling new creation, the Millau Viaduct, which carries the A75 autoroute across the Tarn gorge.
For more info read our Millau tourist and visitors guide.
It’s here, too that you will find the producers of the famed Roquefort cheese.
Roquefort cheese – not for the faint hearted
South of the Parc Naturel Régional des Grands Causses, at the foot of Combalou mountain, a unique village awaits. It is here, within the rock, that you will find the cellars wherein the famous Roquefort cheese slowly matures.
Unmissable, a visit to the cellars of plunges you into an underground maze that formed naturally after the collapse of Combalou mountain.
Converted into vast cellars ventilated by fleurines, natural cracks that allow air circulation underground and maintain a constant air temperature, they contain thousands of ‘cakes’ of Roquefort, tended by the refining masters, owners of know-how and tradition dating back over a thousand years.
There are six producers of Roquefort cheese and most of them have guided tours. If you’re visiting Aveyron one of the tours will be a great addition to your itinery.
The town of Rodez in Aveyron
Physically and administratively, Rodez is very much at the centre of things in Aveyron. Yet this fascinating town is remarkably unaffected by mainstream tourism.
If anything this is a centre for discerning travellers, those who appreciate the vast Gothic architecture of its cathedral, and the almost quaint idiosyncrasy of its narrow streets and market squares.
It’s like a tourist destination in waiting, content to let Millau take the brunt of it for now.
Yet there is much to see for visitors in search of ‘everyday’ France; the rituals of lunchtime, fêtes, markets and the occasional protest (anything but quiet) at the lowering of milk prices, the social contract, and the gastronomic peril of ‘McDomination’.
It isn’t difficult to spot the cathedral, it literally dominates the town, and at night is splendidly floodlit. Intrepid visitors may like to climb the belfry, one of the most beautiful in France.
Not far from the cathedral, overlooking a peaceful, fountained square is the Musée Fenaille (Place E. Raynaldy, 12000 Rodez. Tel: 05 65 73 84 30; www.musee-fenaille.com), a museum quite unlike any.
To begin with it houses some truly outstanding menhirs, carved standing stones, which are a joy. Then, it’s not at all the stuffy arrangement you might normally associate with museums.
This is bright and airy, modern, technologically advanced, and begins at the top rather than the bottom. You simply take the lift to the top, and let gravity do the rest. If museums inspire aversion, the Musée Fenaille could change all that.
But, opened in 2014, the strikingly modern Musée Soulages, set in a public garden creates an historical link with the centre of Rodez, housing exhibitions of art.
You must visit the Tarn Gorges
The Gorges du Tarn is a magnificent canyon formed by the Tarn river between the Causse Méjean and the Causse de Sauveterre, in southern France.
The canyon, between 400m to 600m deep, links the Lozère département, and Aveyron, and is about 53km (33 miles) long, extending from the village of Quézac to Le Rozier.
The gorges cut through the limestone plateaux (causses) to the south of the Massif Central, and are truly one of France’s most spectacular landscapes.
The river Tarn itself (381km/237 miles long) rises 1,575m (5,167ft) in the granitic uplands of Lozère, bullying a way down the slopes of the Cévennes to enter the most amazing stretch of its journey at Florac.
The region is justly popular with those who enjoy walking, canoeing, climbing, horse riding, bird watching, canyoning, paragliding, entomology, mountain biking, caving, fishing.
And although you can admire the scenery from a canoe or a boat, going with the flow, you can also follow the river on foot, or by car, on the right-bank, weaving through many kilometres of meanders that reveal a succession of rocky cirques and mountain landscapes.
Swimming, walking, water activities, fishing and many others are among the numerous possibilities provided by the site.
The Tarn Gorges are an attractive transition between Lozère in Languedoc-Roussillon and Aveyron in Midi-Pyrenees.
The road along the gorges is narrow and often congested. So, allow extra time for the trip.
Places to visit in the Tarn Gorges
Chaos de Montpellier-le-Vieux (18km/11 miles NE) – a ‘ruined city’, but actually comprised entirely of natural rock formations.
Caves de Roquefort (25km/15½ miles SW) – a must for lovers of this delicious blue-veined cheese).
Grands Causses Natural Park
This is a magnificent area of limestone steppes, rocky chaos, river gorges and a bewitching light. It is, in effect, the southernmost bastion of the Massif Central, a breathtaking and inspirational limestone plateau, well worth seeking out.
The park was established in 1995, and embraces 94 towns and villages, and over 66,000 inhabitants. It is a place where you’ll find over 1,500 plant species, including many orchids as well as protected fauna, including the griffon vulture.
There is, too, a magnificent heritage of historic buildings from Neolithic dolmens more than 7,000 years old to…the Millau viaduct!
The aims of the Regional Natural Park is to protect and enhance the natural environment whilst encouraging use of the land and sustainable, environmentally friendly development.
All such parks are established where there in predominantly rural areas that require protection to maintain the cultural heritage and natural environment.
Where is Grands Causses Natural Park?
The Grands Causses Regional Natural Park, in the southern Aveyron, borders the Cévennes National Park and the Haut-Languedoc Regional Natural Park. To the north is the Lot valley and to the south the Lacaune mountains.
The area is divided in four major plateau (called here causse): Causse Mejean, Causse Noir (black causse), Causse du Larzac and Causse de Sauveterre. These causses encircled by gorges and towering cliffs are known for their beautiful wild landscape of dolomitic limestone plateau and their old and rustic medieval hamlets.