Aveyron is located in the southerly Midi-Pyrénées region of France, and it is one of the most beautiful and activity-packed departments of the country, drawing many tourists every year.
Aveyron is paradoxically one of the smallest and largest departments in the country, with a population of less than 300,000 spread across a huge land area of 8,735 km². The largest city is the prefecture Rodez, but even there the population stretches to just over 25,000. Other notable communes include the following:
Established in March 1790, the department's contemporary visage recalls its long, colourful, and rather violent history. Although there are many remains pertaining to prehistory, with evidence of life some 12,000 years ago, the first recorded inhabitants were the Roman Rutenii tribe. With the Roman takeover around the late 2nd century BC came considerable prosperity, largely due to the trade between Italy and Spain on the adjacent Via Domitia.
However, the demise of Rome inaugurated a series of takeovers which continued well into the Middle Ages, with the Visigoths, the Franks, the Moors and the Knights Templar all controlling the area prior to its absorption into France. The influence of these differing cultures, flavoured by the experiences of the Hundred Years' War and the Albigensian Crusades, are there for all to see today. Indeed, despite Aveyron's small size, the area is still a popular tourist location due to its many picturesque sights and natural beauty.
Although it is situated in southern France, Aveyron's climate is more reminiscent of northern France, with markedly cooler temperatures during the summer. However, this is somewhat tempered by the calm, relatively dry winters. Rodez gives you a sense of average quarterly temperatures across the department:
Average temperature in Aveyron
Much of Aveyron draws on its past as part of the Rouergue province, and there is no greater symbol of that era than the Cathedral of Notre Dame in the former capital Rodez. Built between the 12th and 14th centuries, the imposing Gothic-style is exacerbated by the Cathedral's 80-metre height and adjoining 87 metre tall bell tower, not to mention the statue of the Virgin Mary. If you decide to reside in Rodez, there is no better sight in the city.
A remarkable 10 communes in Aveyron can be found on the 'most beautiful villages in France' list, the largest proportion of any department in the country. Arguably the best of these is Conques, remarkable for the outstanding Sainte-Foy Church and Abbey. A UNESCO World Heritage site and a listed Historical Monument, the abbey was built in the 10th and 12th centuries according to Romanesque designs and, as well as its delightful interior, is lit up by the tympanum on the doorway, depicting the battle between God and the Devil. In plain terms, the Abbey, and Conques as a whole, is one of the best areas in the Midi-Pyrénées province.
The medieval façade of other honoured villages like Najac, Brousse le Chateau and Sauveterre de Roergue is reason enough to spend time visiting. However, there are notable edifices which further illustrate their beauty. Estaing, for example, is home to the 15th century Church of Saint Fleuret, Belcastel contains an 11th century castle of the same name and the 10th century Church of Sainte Eulalie, in Romanesque and Gothic style, is a highlight of Sainte Eulalie de Cernon.
Beyond the many fine villages, the city of Millau also contains some excellent architecture. Rebuilt in the 17th century, the Church of Notre-Dame-de-l'Espinasse once claimed to have a part of the Crown of Thorns and became a major pilgrimage site. Sylvanés Abbey is another fine spot, a Historical Monument deriving from the early 12th century. Quite simply, Aveyron as a whole is littered with hidden treasures for the tourist to discover.
The geography of Aveyron is such that watersports feature heavily, with opportunities for canoeing, kayaking and rafting around Millau, as well as fishing in the lakes of the Lot and Aveyron rivers (the department itself has some 7000 kilometres of streams and rivers).
The range of activities certainly doesn't end there though, as Millau is an excellent location for paragliding and rock-climbing. The many leisure and theme parks are also an option for family days out, such as the Kangaroo Children's Holiday Centre in Villefranche de Rouergue, the many animal parks around Rodez and Le Domaine de Combelles.
Museums, galleries and culture
The main museum in Aveyron is Rodez's Fenaille Museum, focusing on the archaeology and history of Rouergue. Emphasising the territory's prehistory, the museum also specialises in menhir statues, dating back some 5,000 years ago and some of the earliest life-size representations of humans (includes the famous Dame de Saint Sernin statue).
Elsewhere, the outlook is even more provincial, with Rodez also hosting Denys Puech Fine Arts Museum (predominantly local contemporary art) and Millau contributing the Micropolis naturalist museum and the particularly esoteric Glove Museum. For something a bit different though, one decent option is the caves of Foissac.
A number of festivals and events are held during the year such as Millau's Jazz Festival in July.
Lacking the luxury boutiques of larger areas in France, Aveyron largely compensates with local arts and crafts, including special enamelled pottery and porcelain, gloves from Millau (try around the Place du Maréchal Foch) and the famous Laguiole knife.
There are also a number of decent antique shops in the old district of Lou barry del Therral in Saint-Côme d'Olt, not to forget a good Monday market for local produce in Millau.
Aveyron boats some 780 kilometres of signposted trails, including the pays de Roquefort route (approximately 13 kilometres), the Cent Vallées (11 kilometres) and L'Aubrac (8 kilometres). The area around Rodez is also excellent, with trails across the Brienne Valley, the Aveyron gorges and many other landmarks. As a whole, the department is one of the best areas for hiking in the province.
There are also plenty of fine parks and gardens such as Vabre Park in Onet le Château, Layoule Park in Rodez and the gardens of the 23 medieval châteaux (over half of which can be found around Millau and Rodez).
There are just 2 courses in Aveyron. These are Golf de Mezeyrac in Laguiole and Golf du Grand Rodez in Onet-le-Château.
As well as the Marcillac AOC wine-makers, Aveyron's contribution to the wine-industry centres around the VDQS quality range from Côtes de Millau, Estaing and d'Entraygues, which is predominantly made up of excellent reds.
Food and drink
As the home of the famous Roquefort and Laguiole brands, Aveyron is chiefly known for its cheese. However, menus are also stocked with historical Rouergue dishes like Aubrac beef, fritons de porc (pork brawn) and confits de canard. Local products like aligot (puree with cheese, potatoes and butter), tripous (sheep's feet in pieces of sheep's stomach) and duck conserves also feature in many dishes.
This is topped off by some excellent desserts like gateau a la broche (a type of cone-shaped cake), croquande à l'amande (a type of almond biscuit) and fouace cake (otherwise known as brioche).
Ease of access
If you're travelling from outside France, the best option is Rodez-Marcillac Airport, connected to London through Ryanair. However, access is made easier still by the TGV high-speed train line, which runs to nearby Toulouse, where you can take another train to Aveyron.
Value for money
Prices are increasing in Aveyron due to foreign investment, and the effects aren't just evidenced in property. Accommodation in the area is rather expensive, with a room in a 3-star hotel costing around 80 to 90 Euros per night, and can reach as high as 275 Euros. There is a wide range of villas, farmhouses and apartments available to rent; alongside an excellent choice of hotels, campsites, and bed and breakfasts.
Aveyron is one of the most surprising parts of France. Belying its small population and sleepy exterior, the department has so many opportunities for outdoor pursuits, not to forget some of France's most beautiful villages and plenty of lovely sights. If you're looking for a taste of rural France, you could do a lot worse than Aveyron.