Physical distancing is a way of life in this part of France

In my summer series reminiscing about previous holidays and travel both before and during the pandemic, my latest post is on post-lockdown life in one of France's most sparsely populated regions.

In my summer series reminiscing about previous holidays and travel both before and during the pandemic, my latest post is on post-lockdown life in one of France’s most sparsely populated regions. For other posts, do check out the previous posts on California, Morocco, Ukraine and Mexico. We can but hope and wish to one day soon enjoy (ethical) travel, without all the associated fears we now carry with getting on a boat, train or plane.

Travel teasers continued

Being physically distanced is a way of life in Aveyron, one of the least densely populated départements in France. Andrew Kaye explores a region steeped in history – including Jewish history – in the heart of the French countryside.

Aveyron is known for its idyllic villages and medieval castles, but relatively few French people take their vacations there. Even fewer tourists from abroad know about the region, which is a two hour drive from Montpellier and Toulouse.

This is ‘la France profonde’ – deepest France – with its vast expanse of meadows and pastures grazed by pedigree Aubrac cattle.

In fact, Aveyron is so sparsely populated, it’s said the population of cows far outnumbers the quarter of a million people who live in the area. It makes it an ideal holiday destination when social distancing restrictions remain in place. And being home to so many bovine denizens means there’s an impressive selection of restaurants that serve tender cuts of Aubrac beef. The meat produced here is served in some of the best restaurants in Paris.

At Le Belvedere in Bozouls, there was none of the haughty service typical of some Parisian style brasseries, but instead a warm Gallic welcome, and to follow, a steak to savour. After an un-rushed lunch, you can walk the meal off by taking a circuit of Bozouls’ 300 foot canyon.

Aveyron is a right old carry on

For a convenient base, my partner and I based ourselves in Golinhac, a village located on the world famous Camino de Santiago. Forested trails were lined with lavender and dotted with scallop shells. The shells are a wayfinding symbol for pilgrims to keep to the right route. You even come across some of the famed pilgrims as they determinedly make their way to Spain, but we went at our own pace and gasped at Golinhac’s view of the horizon, beneath which farms were carpeted yellow under the sun.

In a département which boasts a disproportionate number of villages ranked as the prettiest in France – ten in fact – it’s the village of Conques that must be prioritised. Conques is not unique in appearing straight out of the Middle Ages, but it’s the half-timbered houses and Romanesque Sainte-Foy abbey, which make it a truly exceptional day-trip.

The abbey is full of relics of a young woman who was martyred in the 4th century, when the Roman Empire persecuted her for refusing to make pagan sacrifices. Jews, too, were persecuted in this part of France, but in the Middle Ages. Jews originally flourished in merchant quarters in towns like Saint-Antonin, even acting as tax collectors for the King. By the 14th century, though, this role was gradually taken over by Italian bankers. In the middle of the 1300s, the Papal Inquisition targeted Aveyron’s Jews.

Conques sees fewer visitors this year, including pilgrims, but arrive in the evening and you can still see a remarkable light show projected on to the abbey’s facade. The carved depiction of the Last Judgement features Christ, of course, but Abraham in Heaven too, shown holding the souls of the righteous. The kaleidoscopic colours to the show make it fun for children to watch and there’s no shortage of art on offer in Aveyron for culture vultures.

History repeating

A visit to Rodez, the municipal capital, saw us take in its superb Soulages Museum, dedicated to Pierre Soulages and his gooey ganache paintings. It was Rodez’s grim recent history, however, that resonated most; in April 1944, the Gestapo, dissatisfied with the lack of “zeal” of the local authorities, arrested 38 French nationals because of their Jewish faith. 37 were sent to the Nazi extermination camps.

For its bucolic charms, but above all to walk within the vanishing walls of its synagogue, Peyrusse-le-Roc to the west of the département, is worth a visit too. The ancient synagogue has long been disused; barely lit under the canopy of hanging trees, it’s possibly the least conspicuous shul I’ve ever come across. After all this history, a browse in Brocante Peyrusse, the village antique dealer, was what we fancied most. We were surprised to meet a Glaswegian expat running the place.

Like everywhere, life in France has changed dramatically since Covid emerged, but except for the hand sanitizer stations fitted into the local shops, ambling around Peyrusse le Roc and similar villages has a dream like effect. You can easily forget the world beyond. To cap it all, Aveyron has thousands of kilometres of rivers to dip your feet into. The rivers Aveyron and Lot provide stunning views – and swimming opportunities – for the inevitable moment you want to pause on your pilgrimage.

If you are interested in reading more of Andrew's blogs and other published work, do take a look here.