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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.