The mystery of Aveyron

Vanessa Couchman explores the little-known department of Aveyron and finds a captivating area that will steal the hearts of visitors and househunters alike

Until recently, Aveyron was one of the least-known departments in France. Bridging the gap between the mountainous Massif Central and the south of France, it remains one of the most rural areas. It enjoys varied and beautiful scenery, from flower-studded moors and rugged plateaux to rolling hills and dramatic river valleys.

Ancient meets modern in this department. A plethora of dolmens and standing stones bears witness to prehistoric occupation. Aveyron also claims the highest number of Plus Beaux Villages de France with no fewer than 10. Contrast those with the magnificent, state-of-the-art Viaduc de Millau, opened in 2004, or the avant-garde glass and granite structure of Michel Bras’ three-Michelin-starred restaurant near Laguiole. Nonetheless, these modern structures blend in without striking a jarring note.

Accessibility to this area has greatly improved over the past decade. The opening of the A20 motorway to the west and the completion of the A75 motorway to the east have spelt the end of Aveyron’s former isolation. The expansion of the former aerodrome at Rodez into an international airport, served by Ryanair from Stansted, has also opened up the centre of the department. Even so, it remains unspoilt and peaceful.

Aveyron divides broadly into three areas: the high plateau of the Aubrac and the upper Lot valley in the north; the southern zone around Millau with the empty Plateau de Levezou, the Causse de Larzac and the Gorges du Tarn; and the area west and south of the prefecture, Rodez. I’ll focus on the latter, which is a fruitful area for househunters. The climate is temperate and access to international airports at Rodez and Toulouse is good.

At the time of writing, Notaires de France figures show that the average price of an old house in Aveyron is €126,500 compared with the national average (excluding Paris) of €165,000. The Aveyron average is €23,500 lower than that in neighbouring Tarn-et-Garonne, although there is obviously local variation.

The Aveyronnais architecture is as varied as the landscape. The colour of the stone ranges from creamy white to dark honey to umber red around Rodez. On the higher plateaux, the roofs are steeply pitched and covered with split stones – lauzes. In the western sector, where the ancient provinces of Rouergue and Quercy meet, the farmhouses have tiled roofs and external stone staircases leading to a covered balcony or bolet. Many have pigeonniers (dovecotes) or barns, which can be converted to additional accommodation.

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“As elsewhere, property prices in Aveyron peaked and then started dropping in July 2007,” says Steven Weller of Forgotten France in Najac. “The market probably bottomed out in 2011 with prices around 25% lower than in 2007. It’s warming up but there are definitely some bargains to be had in the area.”

Traditional homes

Charles Smallwood of Agence l’Union in St-Antonin-Noble-Val (Tarn-et-Garonne) also covers this area of Aveyron. He says “People’s property wishlist usually includes a restored, traditional house with a garden and views, from which they can walk to the boulangerie. This combination is not easy to find but Aveyron offers good examples.”

If you’re looking for a restoration project, Aveyron has plenty of farmhouses with outbuildings that need renovation. They fall mostly into the €150,000 or less price bracket. An unrestored village house, depending on its size and location, will cost around €50,000 before restoration. The department also has some beautiful, massive barns in the local stone from €50,000 - €70,000. “There are still restoration opportunities here,” Charles Smallwood says. “But for people who prefer a property already restored, some superbly renovated houses are available.”

Our tour of the area starts at Rodez, Aveyron’s main town. It is dominated by its hilltop cathedral, part of which collapsed in 1276 and had to be rebuilt. The River Aveyron meanders around the base of the hill below. On Rodez’s doorstep there is some stunning countryside and a series of Plus Beaux Villages strung out along the upper Lot valley to the north-east – well worth the detour.

Working round anti-clockwise from Rodez to the north-west you come to the green and rolling Vallon de Marcillac, noted for its wine. Blessed with a warm and sunny micro-climate, the burghers of Rodez built their imposing summer residences here. One hamlet is even called Le Petit Versailles. Further along the valley nestles the Plus Beau Village of Conques with its three-towered abbey church, on the pilgrimage route to St-Jacques-de-Compostelle.

Proximity to Rodez Airport adds a premium in this sector. But you can pick up a one-bed character pied-�-terre with a balcony, terrace and small garden with a view in a medieval hamlet for €103,000 (Selection Habitat). At the other end of the scale, a four/five-bed ochre stone ch�teau is on the market with Agence Immobili�re de Villeneuve. At €749,000 it has been tastefully restored and has extensive views over the valley. Agence l’Union is selling a 16th-century manor house on the edge of a hamlet 10 minutes’ drive from Rodez Airport. Priced at €585,000, the fully-restored property has a superb vaulted dining room and four bedrooms.

Medieval festival

Continuing anti-clockwise round to the west, you arrive at the medieval town of Villeneuve d’Aveyron. Set on a dry plateau not far from the border with the Lot department, Villeneuve has an arcaded central marketplace and a church with 14th-century wall paintings. Every July, the town celebrates its origins with an evocative medieval festival. Right in the centre, a renovated two-bedroom house offering a total living area of 110m� with a large living room/kitchen and laundry room is priced at €102,000 (Selection Habitat).

The countryside around Villeneuve is dotted with pretty villages in the honey-coloured stone of the area. At Peyrusse-le-Roc, the twin towers of the ruined ch�teau overlook this medieval village from their dramatic rocky pinnacle. A three-bed terraced cottage here can be yours for €65,000 (Michel Tranier). The village is about 35 minutes’ drive from Rodez Airport.

Moving southwards, Villefranche-de-Rouergue, an atmospheric riverside town in western Aveyron, is one of the two sub-prefectures. Founded in 1242, the town became the administrative capital of the ancient Rouergue region. It is a splendid example of a bastide, which were founded to concentrate the growing population, promote trade and provide protection in turbulent times. The streets formed a grid pattern radiating from a large, central square.

Stone merchants’ houses surround Villefranche’s arcaded square, overlooked by the massive collegiale (cathedral), completed in the 14th century. One of the largest and most authentic markets in the region is held here every Thursday. Smallholders rub shoulders with bigger producers and you can still hear Occitan spoken. In the centre of Villefranche, a three-bed apartment with a terrace in a traditional stone house is on the market for €132,000 (Michel Tranier). Some delightful villages and hamlets are within easy reach of the town.

Autumn morning

Fifteen kilometres south of Villefranche, Najac is a property hotspot and another of les Plus Beaux Villages. Built on a hill, its ruined 13th-century ch�teau dominates the skyline for miles around. Rising from the mist on an autumn morning, it’s an impressive sight. Najac is also a bastide but its position on a steep ridge made it impossible to follow the usual grid pattern of streets.

“The commune of Najac is very popular,” says Steven Weller. “People get captivated by the magic of the village and the surrounding countryside. It’s a bit like going back in time. Second-homers who want a lock-up-and-leave property choose the village itself. Gardens are at a premium but many houses have a small terrace or balcony. People who move over full time prefer to be further away but still close to a hamlet or village.” According to Weller, the Plus Beaux Villages factor can add a premium of 10-15% to prices.

In Najac, Forgotten France is selling a 12th-century two/three-bedroom house beneath the ch�teau for €220,000. An ideal second home, it has the additional advantages of a garden, large terrace and garage. A few kilometres away, between the villages of La Fouillade and St-Andr�-de-Najac, Forgotten France has a farmhouse with an attached barn, a delightful pigeonnier and 10 acres of land priced at €290,000.

East of Najac is the S�gala area, where the soil was formerly so poor that rye (seigle) was the only crop to thrive. It is also called ‘the land of a hundred valleys’ because of its rolling hills and clear streams. The sector around Naucelle and the picturesque town of Sauveterre-de-Rouergue, another bastide, has good access to both Rodez and Toulouse, via the N88 trunk road. Agence l’Union is selling a restored farmhouse with four en-suite bedrooms, 15 minutes from Rieupeyroux for €329,000. The property also has a pool and superb rural views.

Aveyron has a lot going for it. As Charles Smallwood says: “This is a beautiful and unspoilt area with a wonderful peace and quiet factor. There are some superb historic places, a low crime rate and prices tend to be lower than in better-known neighbouring areas.” So if you’re after some R&R in a rural location, you could do a lot worse than look here. n