A romantic medieval city, Rodez is stacked with culture and owes its magic to the vibrant pink sandstone used in its buildings.
One of the grandest is the warlike cathedral that looks like no church you’ve seen before, and was made to keep attackers out as much as invite worshippers in.
The city is the hometown of Pierre Soulages, one of France’s most acclaimed living painters who has been honoured with a brand new museum full of his painting and sculpture.
Just as enthralling as the big attractions are the old streets of the city, bursting with medieval and Renaissance mansions, with ornate stonework that looks as fresh now as when it was centuries ago.
Lets explore the best things to do in Rodez:
1. Rodez Cathedral
Completely rebuilt in that pink sandstone in 1276, Rodez Cathedral is an awesome blend of Gothic finesse and military might famed for its 87-metre bell tower.
Unlike almost any other church in the world, the western facade is completely closed off by a menacing sheer wall of stone, with nothing more than arrow loops until you reach the rose window soaring above the Place d’Armes.
You can blame this severe appearance on the cathedral’s position right on Rodez’ western city wall.
You might lose track of time browsing the rich interiors, where the choir stalls and rood screen possess astounding 15th-century workmanship, and the various chapels have marble tomb sculpture and murals from the 1300s.
2. Musée Fenaille
The Renaissance Hôtel de Jouéry is among the oldest and most elegant residences in the city, with mouldings and pilasters on its facade and a courtyard with gorgeous wooden galleries.
It’s all a noble backdrop for a museum that maps out the history of the Rouergue, going back to the Neolithic period.
The showpiece here is the Dame de Saint-Sernin, a statue menhir discovered in 1888 in nearby Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance and estimated to be around 5,000 years old.
There are also mosaics, tomb sculptures and everyday objects from the later Gaulish Ruteni tribe, Renaissance tapestries commissioned by the Bishops of Rodez and masterful furniture from the 16th and 17th centuries.
3. Old Town
Rodez’ Centre-Ville demands a closer look for its ancient street-plan and profusion of fine old houses.
In the southern part of the old town, around the Place du Bourg, these residences belonged to merchants and nobility.
While the quarter around the cathedral and episcopal palace further north was the Cité, reserved for the clergy.
The roll-call of medieval and Renaissance treasures is long and will keep curious souls occupied for hours.
Just to skim through the must-sees, there’s the Maison de Benoît, a Renaissance house with an older Gothic gallery and the Maison de Guitard, 14th-century banker’s house that you’ll know by its muscular tower.
And just up from the cathedral is the Hôtel Delauro, an splendid residence for canons built in the 1500s.
4. Musée Soulages
One of the most notable figures to come out of Rodez in recent times is the artist Pierre Soulange, identified by his predilection for the colour black.
After a long construction this stylish museum was unveiled not far from the cathedral in 2014 at a ceremony attended by President Hollande.
Since the project was announced more than a decade ago the artist has donated hundreds of works in two batches valued at millions of Euros.
So in an enthralling setting you can spend some time in the company of Soulanges’ celebrated painting, sculpture, lithography, screen prints and photography.
5. Episcopal Palace
A sight to admire from the outside, Rodez’ Episcopal Palace was one of the monuments that anchored the medieval city and is now the home of Aveyron’s General Council.
This residence for the Bishop of Rodez originally joined with the cathedral and ramparts but had to be moved when the cathedral expanded in the 15th century.
It had a turbulent time at its new location, and was destroyed in the French Wars of Religion.
The entire complex was restored again in the 19th century, and the oldest remaining element is the Tour de Corbières, which dates to 1443. Pop into the courtyard for great vistas of the cathedral’s bell tower.
6. Maison d’Armagnac
Worthy of its own entry, the Maison d’Armagnac is one of the most photographed sights in Rodez and can be found on Place de l’Olmet.
This glorious four-storey house was built between 1525 and 1531 by a rich local merchant.
Take as long as you like to study the masterful stonework, with its corbels, pilasters and medallions representing Rodez’ nobility.
The house is right where the castle for the Counts of Armagnac used to be, which is how it got its name.
7. Musée des Beaux-Arts Denys-Puech
The local sculptor Denys Puech was very active during the French Third Republic (1870-1940), when he received many official commissions from the government.
In 1903 he founded this museum, and its Art Nouveau building commands a sensational view over Rodez from the elevated part of the city.
As well as Puech’s sculpture there are also permanent collections of paintings by Maurice Bompard and engravings by Eugène Viala, both of whom were Aveyron-based artists working at the beginning of the 20th century.
To bring the museum up to date there are also temporary exhibitions for contemporary artists.
8. Église Saint-Amans
Another proud sandstone edifice, this church near Place du Bourg originated in the 1100s, but started to fall apart in the 1600s.
So it was closed down and rebuilt using the same stones in the Baroque style in the middle of the 18th century, while the Romanesque interior were left mostly unchanged.
The 5th-century Saint Amans was Rodez’ first bishop, and a range of miracles are attributed to him.
You can learn about these in the best way possible by poring over the astounding 16th-century tapestries that adorn the church’s chancel.
9. Weekly Markets
Rodez’ two main squares, Place du Bourg and Place de la Cité burst into life on market days.
There are two a week at the period setting of the Place du Bourg, on Wednesday and Saturday.
At the midweek market you have around 60 traders selling regional produce and food like pizza and paella prepared on the spot.
The big one though is the Saturday market, which sets up on both squares and has up to 160 stalls.
This is a real sight to take in as together with fruits, vegetables, cheese, charcuterie, pastries and freshly-made meals they also sell live poultry here.
10. La Chasse aux Monstres
Medieval architecture can be a bit dry for the littler members of the family.
But Rodez’ tourist office has come up with a way to get children involved.
All around the old town are centuries-old carvings of strange and whimsical creatures, many of which are hidden high on buildings or burrowed in dark niches.
So with the help of an expert guide and a pair of binoculars kids can go on a monster hunt around the centre, finding the city’s quirkiest gargoyles and getting a history lesson without realising!
11. Haras National de Rodez
Rodez has had a branch of the French National Stud since 1809. And the location couldn’t be more dignified, as the institution is housed in the former buildings of a Carthusian monastery, dating to the 16th and 17th centuries but disbanded in the Revolution.
If you’re an equine enthusiast you should check with the tourist office to find out when the next guided tour is scheduled.
You’ll delve into the stud’s 200-year history as you go, and there are Selle Français sport houses, Arab thoroughbreds as well as regional draft horses in the stables.
And at the end the Haras’ riding school will put on a dressage exhibition.
12. Outdoor Recreation
You can consult the tourist office for details of more than 22 walks in the Rodez Agglomeration.
The goal of many of these trails is a beautiful piece of heritage like a monastery, church, historic hamlet or war memorial.
For a tremendous natural site close to the city check out the Tindoul de la Vayssière, a chasm eroded over hundreds of millions of years to a depth of almost 70 metres.
The site is a big draw for climbers and there’s an information board detailing the science behind this natural wonder.
If golf is your game the Golf du Grand Rodez club is an 18-hole par 70 with phenomenal views of the cathedral and old town.
13. Belcastel and Estaing
Rodez has two of France’s most beautiful villages in its vicinity.
Closest is Belcastel, a brief jaunt to the west and crammed onto the precipitous left bank of the Aveyron River in the Ségala range . You can park at the cafe on the right bank or stand on the medieval bridge to contemplate the rustic houses with wooden galleries protected by the vast bulk of the Château de Belcastel above.
Estaing, amid the green mountainscapes by the River Lot, is a bit further at around 30 kilometres, but worth every minute of the drive.
A little larger than Belcastel, Estaing has darting lanes where Renaissance houses push in from both sides, and the bridge has UNESCO designation as an ancient landmark on the Way of St James.
14. Aveyron Region
A world of sightseeing and mind-blowing natural scenery awaits you in the rest of the Aveyron department.
If historic Rodez has kindled a love for medieval architecture you can journey to the Château de Najac, a 13th-century castle dwarfing a picturesque village from its promontory.
Conques Abbey is also sublime and is a UNESCO site and ancient stop on the Way of St James pilgrimage route.
But another of the unmissable sights is from the 21st of Century: The Millau Viaduct in the Cevennes National Park is the tallest bridge in the world rising above the Tarn River to a height of 343 metres.
15. Local Food
In the market you have to pick up some Roquefort or Bleu Comtal, as these famed blue cheeses don’t have to travel far to the stalls at Rodez.
And if you want to sample some unpretentious regional fare, farçous are typical pancakes made with chard, while aligot is an unctuous puree of melted tome fraîche and potato that goes perfectly with grilled local sausage.
Meanwhile, looking at gâteau à la broche you may not realise the amount of effort that goes into one of these cakes.
These can take hours to bake, and are made by spinning batter flavoured with rum and orange blossom on a spit over a wood fire until you get this large knobbly cone enjoyed on special occasions.