A gorgeous Day in Rodez – an unknown gem of France
Almost every year, we visit my family in Occitanie in France. It is a highly under-rated region. As we get to know it bit by bit every year, we venture further out to explore its beautiful countryside and charming towns. Rodez is little-known small city with great charme and attractions spanning well over 5000 years.
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Where is Rodez and why is it a great place to visit?
Rodez is the capital of the Departement Aveyron Region, a region characterised by high plateaus with river gorges, agriculture and heavenly heavy food. It is also little known outside France so you don’t need to worry about streams of tourists here. Quite the contrary! Rodez is a small cathedral city two hours drive from Montpellier and Toulouse in the south. Driving north, you get into the wide opens spaces of the Aubrac plateau. We recently visited on a day trip from Cordes-sur-Ciel and loved the relaxed city pace, two outstanding museums and great food and scenery. Tourist magnets of Carcassonne, Lourdes and the region bordering Provence aside, Occitanie is mostly visited by the French, and remains a true off the beaten path destination.
Our Day in Rodez
We set off after an almost ritual Saturday morning coffee and a stroll across the market on Cordes, and drove for an hour and a half through a diverse, relaxed green countryside and quaint villages. Upon reaching the (toll-free) Route National near Carmaux, things became slightly less picturesque, but also a lot faster. Soon we headed for the hill with the Cathedral on top, and parked easily in a street leading to the Cathedral. Around here, most shops and attractions close for lunch.
First things first: Lunch!
So we did the same, sat in the shade of the cathedral viewing gargoyles and eating food we had never heard of. When in France, eat first.
Where can you eat all this for a very reasonable price of 50EURO for two? The Restaurant is called La Gargouille – follow the Gargoyles by the Cathedral and you find it! The restaurant is small-ish and family run and very friendly, though it gets busy at peak times, so bring at least an hour for a leisurely lunch.
We made a reservation (+33 5 65 68 87 16) but it is very casual, no one else seemed to have bothered. This is a rare place where they will offer a vegetarian main course, too. I am pretty much vegetarian although I eat fish and seafood sometimes on holiday, hence the tuna.
The Cathedral of Rodez
It was hard to get up again! Sitting right next to the cathedral and having spent lunch gargoyle-viewing, we looked a the interior of the Cathedral – much lighter and delicate inside than its fortified exterior suggested. You can climb the tower but carrying an extra kg of food or so we didn’t bother, as there was some serious shopping, cafe-hopping, and two exceptional museums to pay attention to.
The Musee Fenaille is basically a local history museum done very well.
The Aveyronais also have the advantage of being in a zone with a lot of menhirs, or standing stones. You’ll find them all over Western Europe – most famously Stonehenge, and most numerously, in Brittany. The Aveyron menhirs are special as they depict human-like figures with faces, armour and accessories, and represent the early depiction of humans in history. Although they have always been around, they’ve only been investigated in the past century. They date back to the late Neolithic period about 2500-3500 years BC. The purpose they were created for – purely ornamental human portraits, deities, protective figures – remains somewhat unclear.
They are very intriguing! The way the museum is laid out is very clever, too. After the ticket desk (get a combination ticket with the Musee Soulages) you are directed to the Fourth Floor, right to the earliest exhibits and greatest attractions, the menhir-statues, who occupy a light-flooded modern attic. They are small but incredibly captive – small oblong statues with a lot of detail, the earliest depiction of humans ever.
Local farmers knew of their existence for centuries, but they attracted the interest of scholars only a century ago. Since then, about hundred more were found, and the most famous now reside in the museum. Copies now stand where the originals were removed.
The most famous one of a lady, of course. La Dame de Saint Sernin, named after the village where she was found. She’s diminutive but fierce-looking with her facial tattooes – not a moustache.
I really like this one, too. I think this is a male. Just look at his tiny face. I wonder if it served as inspiration for Daft Punks genius “Around the Wold” video?
The whole concept of the museum is great – a lovely Renaissance family home with modern extensions here and there, and a nicely spaced local history exhibition starting with the famous menhirs to Auguste Rodins portrait f Madame Fenaille, with some very sympathetic interiors of creaky wooden flooring and elegantly corniced rooms.
Retail Interlude -and some thoughts on cruelty-free cosmetics
Every trip to France always includes stocking up on cosmetics for me. It’s not that I cannot find anything in Germany, but French Pharmacy skincare represents the best value for money.
How can you identify cruelty-free brands (other than by obvious certification)?
Things have become a bit harder since I decided not to buy anything where animal testing is involved. Of course, no one tests in Europe, as it is outlawed. However, mandatory testing is still required to sell product in China, although changes are on the horizon, so a lot of large companies do just that. So, firstly, the major cosmetics brands still test, somewhere, and secondly, a lot of smaller brands that may not test are owned by large companies that test. Some small brands, for example Embryolisse, don’t invest in cruelty-free certification yet are cruelty-free , and others emphasize on their use of plant extracts but aren’t exactly transparent and not cruelty free (That’s you, Klorane). I often go to a website that lists cruelty-free. Cruelty-free Kitty is the most comprehensive but is quite US-centric and it is not instantly obvious whether their parent company is cruelty-free.
Buying French cruelty-free scent
Anyway, my favourite perfume brands are now no longer an option to me as Frederic Malle is now owned by Estee Lauder, Le Couvent des Minimes by L’Occitane, and Aqua di Parma by LWMH… time to look for new favourites. I found them in Parfum d’Empire, whose sharp “Yuzu” Fou has graced my shelf for some years. After not finding much online, I wrote to them and they confirmed that they do not test on animals and do not retail in China, and they also helpfully told me where their creations are retailed, so off I blazed to a small independent perfumery, where, unless Liberty of London and a tiny basement perfumery of Different Scent in Berlin, they had about six of Parfum d’Empires creations ready to try. I took a load of citrussy notes on all available exposed bits of skin to the menhir,s then left my husband to drink coffee in one of the numerous sidewalk cafes, and bought a new fresh scent.
Apart from that, Rodez has mainly small independent shops – I’d say its not exactly a shopping destination, unless you’re looking for something specific and know you can find it here. The shopping area is in the old town, which is very pleasant to wander and frequently stop for a drink.
Modern Art and I are not the best of friends, but if you come across a rusty-looking edifice that looks like a square caterpillar, you wonder what might lie behind its walls, and hearing the museum is a shrine to the “greatest living artist” (in the opinion of France Hollande, and he might be slightly biased), AND it currently houses an exhibition of Yves Klein who managed to create world-famous art using an intense shade of Blue alone, then you walk in to see what it is all about. Or at least this is how I came to look at a lot of monochrome modern art, and, surprise, surprise! I really like it.
A few words on Pierre Soulages
Pierre Soulages is a native of Rodez and will turn 100 at Christmas this year. Like his fellow monochrome lover Yves Klein, Soulages has a strong preference for Black. Modern art eejits like me might now go and take a look and find great pleasure in the harmonious strokes and lattices of Black and dark brown with their almost zen-like quality, from small pieces of graphic art to 3m canvases.
Pierre Soulages decided to give his entire collection of own works to the city of Rodez and they gratefully built a new museum to display it. How they came to the rusty bits of metal, called Corten Steel in the engineering world, is a myth to me, but amazingly, the low unobtrusive structure built into a gentle slope in the city park, just metres away from the Cathedral and Old Town, works really well. The architects won the Pritzker Price for it, by the way. They must spend a ton on air conditioning the high bare rooms with floor to ceiling windows, but this is one of the most pleasant museums I’ve visited.
We sauntered from the Cathedral through the very pleasant park to the main entrance. Right next to the entrance is the reputed restaurant Cafe Bras, should you require a bite before seeing all this lean modern art.
The Conques Abbey Window Project
I had never heard of St Foy Abbey before, and getting a modern artist to make a stained glass window for a religious building is nothing new, but this little Romanesque church on the Way of Saint James has a unique story.
It was neglected and partially destroyed after the French Revolution. Prosper Merimee (who wrote “Carmen”), in his role as Inspector of French monuments at the time, saved the church and many other historical buildings from demolition in the 1830s and had the church listed. After a lengthy renovation, new stained glass windows were inserted in the 1950s, but soon were criticised for being too colourful for a former Benedictine Abbey. They were eventually replaced by Soulages’ pared down designs, manufactured in Germany, and today just over 100 windows of the abbey bear the Soulages design. I wanted to jump back in the car straight away and go admire them, but Conques is actually 40km north and far off a main road. It is definitely on my itinerary next time, as is nearby Laguiole.
Temporary Exhibition: Yves Klein
Another large space at the gallery is dedicated to exhibitions by other artists. At the time of our visits, it was Yves Klein, fellow lover of monochromes. He became famous using a hue of ultramarine blue which was named “International Klein Blue” after him, citing that pure blue is traditionally the colour of the Holy Spirit in Christian religion and reminiscent of blue sky and deep sea. There were a lot of plaster replicas coated in the colour (yawn) but the “Anthropometries” look quite pleasing… they were made by asking nude female models to dip into the colour, then press their bodies onto the canvas… staged as a performance with visitors and cocktails. This is how the picture in the background was made (by five very sedentary females, I guess), and also the front one… presumably with the model being dragged over the canvas?
And Rodez isn’t reduced to Cathedral, two museums and shopping…
This was just our idea of a bloody good day out in lesser visited France, but this is by far no comprehensive guide to Rodez. I would say you could easily spend a day or two there, and it makes a convenient stop between the Massiv Central and Toulouse or Montpellier.
And with that, I would like to encourage you to walk of the beaten path and find gems where you don’t queue to get into an attractions, where you got to look hard to find a fellow tourist, yet who hold gems well worth a trip for. Do you know any? If so, please let me know. I am always on the lookout for new inspiration!
Disclosure: This trip was entirely self funded. I have received no monetary or non-monetary rewards for linking aside from some affiliate links to Booking.com. I will only recommend products I have purchased myself and places that I have stayed in myself, unless otherwise stated. You can trust me for the whole, unbiased truth. More details on my affiliate link policy are here.
How to get to Rodez
If you have no own transport, the easiest way to get to Rodez is by train. The Midi-Pyrenees Rail network of SNCF covers Rodez, making it easily accessible on three railway lines: the Toulouse line (M2) that also stops in Albi, another beautiful city, the line from Millau (M8) and another regional line from Figeac (M7). You can also take an intercity from Paris directly which stops in Orleans and Albi. More info at SNCF or Trainline. Both let you book trains easily in your preferred language for many European rails network wat no extra cost.
There is also a small airport, Rodez-Aveyron (RDZ), with flights within France and to the UK and Ireland.
Where to Stay
We went to Rodez on a day trip, so we didn’t actually stay here. Let’s say that chains, business hotels and apartments dominate the hotel scene in Rodez. If I were to stay, I would chose one of these:
Hotel Mercure: Beautiful old building with funky tile work almost next to the Cathedral. The interior has been given the typical corporate Mercure makeover. But outside there is a buzzing cafe, and the public park with the Musee Soulage in it right opposite.
Hotel du Midi-Logis International: Great Location between the Cathedral and Musee Soulages. It’s not going to win prizes for design, but the location is probably the best in town.