Day Two — The French department of Aveyron is a place few visitors have ever heard of, much less visited. Sprawling across the southern edge of the mountainous Massif Central to reach the South of France, it remains one of the most rural areas of the country, and one of its least populated. Even its capital, Rodez, counts barely 25,000 inhabitants.

Rodez through the Ages

Interior courtyard of Benoit House (circa 12th or 13th century).

The first recorded settlers of the Aveyron were a tribe of Celtic origin who came to the area during the Iron Age. Around the 5th century B.C., they established the fortified settlement that would over time become Rodez atop a high plateau overlooking a gorge of the Aveyron river. Few traces remain of the successive invaders, Romans, Visigoths, Franks and Moors, that laid claim to the area over the following millennium. It was not until the high Middle Ages (10th to 12th centuries A.D.) that the city acquired regional significance.

The Cathedral

The west facade of the cathedral was originally a part of the  town’s ramparts.

Rodez was christianized in the 5th century A.D.. The first mention of a cathedral appears shortly thereafter, although little is known of its features. What is well documented is the collapse of its bell tower and the roof of its choir on the 16th of February 1276. The work started shortly thereafter on the construction of the current pink sandstone cathedral. Its soaring bell tower has been the town’s symbol since its completion in the early 1500s. The construction, hampered by the plague and the Hundred Year War, took almost three centuries to complete, which accounts for the evolution of the architectural style of the edifice.

The ibell tower is a masterpiece of Flamboyant Gothic and Renaissance stone lacework.

The eastern half of the cathedral was reserved for Chapter.

The iconic bell tower is a masterpiece of Gothic Flamboyant and Renaissance stone lacework and, at a height of 87 meters (285 feet) one of the highest flat bell towers in France. In stark contact, the west side façade — the traditional entrance of Gothic cathedrals — which was originally a part  of the town’s ramparts, looks all the more foreboding. Therefore, the entrances are located in the north and south facades. Whichever side you enter, you are standing at the halfway point of the 100-meter (328-foot) long nave, and contemplating an unusual sight: two main altars facing off.

The altar for the cathedral chapter (and by extension the clergy) is at the eastern end, and the parish altar (for the common folks) at the western end. They stand as a reminder of the rivalry between the Counts and the Bishops, who for centuries exerted their authority in different sectors of the city.

 

Altarpiece of the Holy Sepulcher Chapel.

Once you grasp the layout, prepare to be amazed by the richly sculpted and decorated 15th century stalls of the choir, the abundance of wooden statuary and the many side chapels. Most stunning of all is the monumental 16th century altarpiece of the Holy Sepulcher Chapel and its polychrome stone carvings of the Entombment of Christ. We owe this masterpiece to Galhard Roux, a canon of the cathedral who had incurred the wrath of his bishop for his life of debauchery. He commissioned the chapel as a very public  act of repentance. It’s interesting to spot his coat of arms, seal (roses and stars) and initials integrated into various decorative elements throughout, as a none too subtle reminder of the identity of the patron.

Highlights of the Old Town

The corner tower houses a spiral staircase.

Benoit House — The historic city center reveals itself in the narrow lanes and tiny squares within the old ramparts behind the cathedral, starting with the Place d’Estaing where a vaulted passageway at the corner of the square beckons you back into the Middle Ages. You are in the cobbled courtyard of the Benoit House (named for its 19th century owner). Built in the latter part of the 15th century, it has retained its gothic style, including its corner tower housing a spiral staircase. The building is privately owned and not open to visitors but the courtyard, with its red sandstone facade and lineup of gargoyles, is well worth a look.

The Armagnac House has retained its residential and commercial functions since Renaissance times.

Armagnac House — Although not related in any way to the famous brandy, this elegant manor house on the Place de l’Olmet is the finest example of Renaissance architecture in Rodez. Built in 1530 by a wealthy and recently ennobled merchant, the house was intended to reflect the social ascent of its owner. It is especially notable for its ornate facade. With a commercial ground floor and residential upper floors, it has retained the same layout and usage to this day.

Detail of the turret pf the Annunciation House.

Annunciation House — Another 16th century commercial and residential Renaissance gem, the Annunciation House owes its name to the remarkable bas-relief representing that scene from the gospels adorning the base of its turret.

 

 

Fenaille Museum

The internal courtyard of the Hôtel de Jouéry.

Another exceptional Renaissance mansion is the Hôtel de Jouéry, now home to the Fenaille Museum., a small archeology museum retracing the history of the area from the Paleolithic times to the 17th century. It is organized around four main themes: the statue-menhirs, Roman times Rodez, the Rouergue in the Middle Ages (as the Aveyron was then called), and the 16th century and the Renaissance. 

The Fenaille Museum houses a unique collection of prehistoric standing stones.

However, it is its unique collection of 17 statue-menhirs (standing stones) that has earned it international fame. Created almost 5000 years ago, these enigmatic sculptures are the oldest depictions of life-size humans found in Europe. Little is known about the tribes that inhabited the area between 3000 B.C. and 2000 B.C., other than their remarkable ability to create these monumental sculptures. Striking for their intricate carvings on both sides, these elongated forms with oval or rounded heads portray both men and women, adorned with clothing, jewelry, weaponry, and even scarification marks.

Without any surviving oral traditions to provide insight into their meaning or purpose, the true significance of these megaliths remains an intriguing matter of conjecture.

Rodez – Panoramic view.

Good to know

  • Getting there — Rodez is an easy couple of hours’ drive north of metropolitan Toulouse or Montpellier.
  • Getting around — The entire historic center is pedestrians only.
  • Visiting — The Fenaille Museum 4 Place Eugène-Raynaldy.12000 Rodez, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm.  It is closed on Monday, January 1, May 1, November 1 and December 25.

Location, location, location!

Rodez