The World Heritage Site of Conques has not only been a staging post on the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela for over 1,000 years but, in the Abbey church of Ste-Foy, is one of the great pilgrimage churches of France. This lovely medieval village is in a wooded gorge of the River Dourdou, and grew up around a community of Benedictine monks founded by hermit Dadon at the end of the eighth century. History has it, a monk from Conques stole bones of the young martyred Sainte-Foy from the monastery at Agen to bring pilgrims to the village.
A visit to eleventh century Ste-Foy is a must. Look for the wonderful tinted twelfth century carving of the Last Judgement over the west door. Light changes colour through the modern abstract glass windows created by Pierre Soulanges, illuminating Ste-Foy’s stunning Romanesque interior. Three chapels ensured large numbers of pilgrims could all access an altar. During the French Revolution, the ninth century reliquary housing the bones of Ste-Foy - a glittering gold statue studded with precious medieval jewels - was hidden for safety by local villagers. Reliquaries are now kept in a separate room only open at certain times.
Tourists replace the throng of pilgrims who for centuries walked Conques’ steep cobbled streets within its ancient walls. They also largely visit on foot as the streets are too narrow for many motor vehicles. The slender grey towers of the abbey-church and village houses look most picturesque from high across the valley. For serious hikers, the GR65 and GR62 long distance pilgrim routes pass through the village.
The church is illuminated and stays open on summer evenings for concerts and there’s a festival of classical music in the village in August.
Conques’ Tourist Office has details of guided tours, times to view the jewelled reliquaries and seasonal bus to get to the village for those without transport. Tel: (00 33) 8 20 82 08 03.
There is evidence as far back as the fifth century of a Celtic settlement at Rodez in the old Occitan region of Rouergue. This town on the River Aveyron has a colourful history of occupation from the Romans, Franks, Visigoths, Arabs, to the English during the 100 Years War. Today, foreigners come to Aveyron’s capital to explore its history and enjoy its wonderful Gothic architecture. Most outstanding is the red-sandstone Cathedral of Notre-Dame built between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. Its 87m landmark bell-tower with ornate decoration and statue of the Virgin Mary is said to be the most beautiful in France. Both buildings are illuminated at night in July and August. Well worth seeing are the baroque seventeenth century Jesuit Chapel, Maison Cannoniale, and the town’s sixteenth century mansions. Visits to the cathedral and belfry are free. Find out the bell-tower’s connection with the invention and naming in the 1790s of the unit of measurement we know as the metre.
Contact Rodez’s Tourist Office about a walking tour of the old town. Tel: (00 33) 5 65 75 76 77. Musee Fenaille has a collection of archaeological artefacts, art and history including a 5,000 year old standing stone (menhir) - the oldest known in Western Europe, whilst Musee Beaux-Arts Denys-Puech holds exhibitions of modern paintings and sculpture. Both are open all year. See Culture and Events for details of a medieval market and Occitan music festival in July.
North of Rodez, the upper valley of the River Lot between Entraygues and Grand-Vabre is a beautiful unspoilt area within easy reach. Quiet level roads along this stretch of the river make it ideal for a cycling trip to explore pretty villages. Canoes can be hired at Vieillevie.
Once a Roman ford crossed the river Tarn here; now travellers marvel at the Millau Viaduct, an exceptional piece of civil engineering with masts reaching 340m - higher than the Eiffel Tower. It even has its own weather forecasting system. Designed by British architect Norman Foster to complement the magnificent landscape, the viaduct can be viewed from the rest area upstream from the Millau tollhouse. Nearby, the picturesque old tanning town of Millau, previously a major glove producer, has shady squares, cafes and restaurants, an interesting church and Beffroi Tower. Close to the tower, a free museum (open all year) is dedicated to models of famous French bridges like le Pont d’Iena of Paris, Pont Neuf of Toulouse and, of course, the Millau Viaduct. Get a different angle on the real viaduct by boat, canoe, helicopter and even quad bike. Contact Millau Tourist Office for more.
Set on the banks of the Rivers Lot and Truyere and watched over by a thirteenth century chateau, Entraygues is an ancient tanners’ village. The village makes a great centre for outdoor leisure pursuits such as rambling and mountain biking. It is also an ideal watersports base for canoeing, kayaking and boating through the gorges of the River Lot.
Relax in Entraygues’ peaceful surroundings including historic houses, bridge and chapel.
Espalion lies along the Santiago de Compostela pilgrim route from Puy where it descends from the Aubrac Plateau into the Lot Valley. Its picturesque thirteenth century pack horse bridge is now part of this World Heritage Route. Ancient houses on the right bank of the Lot, their wooden balconies overhanging the river, were once the heart of Espalion’s tanning industry.
A surprise perhaps in land-locked Aveyron, the town’s Musee du Scaphandre (diving suit museum) has been created around the work of locals Benoit Rouquayrol and Auguste Denayrouze, who developed the first diving suit in 1864. The 2 made their first dives in the River Lot and the museum gives a history and displays rare diving memorabilia. About the same time, other Espalonnais made restless by the region’s slow pace of life, moved away taking their culture as far afield as Canada. Many became Parisian café owners. Espalion also has a folklore museum and interesting church. The steep climb from the town to Chateau de Calmont d’Olt is worth it for great views over the Lot Valley. Children will enjoy demonstrations of medieval war machines and other summer activities. www.chateaucalmont.org
Najac is one of France’s Plus Beaux Villages. The village and its ruined thirteenth century chateau are set on 2 separate hilltops. The picture perfect keep dominates a narrow gorge along the River Aveyron with great views. This Bastide village consisted of a single street of half-timbered houses widening into a square at one end. Note the windows of the church of St-Jean carved from solid stone and the remains of a Roman road leads down to a thirteenth century bridge over the Aveyron. The river here is ideal for canoeing.
Another of Aveyron’s 10 Plus Beaux Villages de France, Sauveterre-de-Rouergue, is a wonderful example of a thirteenth century royal Bastide. Ramparts and gates remain from later fortification and beautiful half-timbered houses enclose its stone-arcaded square.
Take a guided tour to learn more about the history and architecture of this exceptionally fine example of a medieval new town. (Bastides were built in strategic places to try and tame the wildernesses of unruly south west France and many were later fortified). Torch-lit guided tours visit the night-time street market on Friday evenings in July and August where you can sample local produce and listen to traditional music. Fete de la Lumiere on a Saturday evening in August has theatrical street performers and fireworks. See details of the October Chestnut Festival in Culture and Events.
French artist Toulouse-Lautrec was born into a provincial, aristocratic, land-owning family. He probably would not have stepped out of this privileged environment to study painting in Paris had he not suffered falls and a genetic bone disorder which left him a cripple at age 15 and unable to pursue the active life of a country gentleman.
Toulouse-Lautrec spent his childhood at Chateau du Bosc in the Viaur Valley, far removed from the late nineteenth century Parisian nightlife he made famous in his paintings. A bedroom is set out with his games and puppet theatre, drawings and a model boat made by him. Pencil marks still scribbled on the nursery wall show his final height of 4ft 11in at age 17 compared to other family members. Medieval Chateau du Bosc has been in the same family for 800 years and is still owned by distant relatives who will show you round and entertain with a wealth of intimate stories about the fascinating little-known early life of Toulouse-Lautrec and his family history. Tel: (00 33) 5 65 69 20 83.