Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, on the southern edge of the Auvergne, lies the wild, green plateau called the Aubrac—remote, pristine, timeless. It’s a tiny, volcanic territory, just under a thousand square miles, but it seems to stretch to infinity under everchanging skies.
The enchantment peaks in spring, when the plateau is a riot of myriad species of flowers, hundreds of which have been collected in the botanical garden in the village of Aubrac, which takes its name from the plateau. In March the landscape is covered with carpets of daffodils, in May with the inebriating narcissus that will supply the fragrance industry of Grasse in Provence. It was the extraordinary aroma of the Aubrac pastures and the luminous quality of its sky that inspired the late Annick Goutal to become a perfumer, and create the scent called Eau du Ciel.
With its shooting stars in August, blazing hues in autumn, snow-covered winters and sapphire-tinted streamlets in spring, the Aubrac is a nature lover’s paradise—albeit one with some unpredictable shifts. Whether it’s the thick ground fogs that may suddenly rise and veil the hills, or the treacherous bogs concealed beneath the daffodils, the Aubrac is a playground for the elements. Whether you hike, ski or snowshoe, it’s best to avoid exploring its wilder areas unaccompanied.
Paradoxically, despite its geographical distinctiveness, almost entirely encircled by the Lot and Truyère rivers, the Aubrac has always been shared by three separate territorial authorities, going back to the very early Middle Ages. Today it straddles three départements in three different regions: the Aveyron in Midi-Pyrénées, Lozère in Languedoc-Roussillon and Cantal in the Auvergne.
Back in the 6th century the ancient territories of Rouergue, Gévaudan and Clermont shared the plateau. Their meeting point is marked by a cross—La Croix des Trois Evêques, now on the D15 road between Laguiole and Aubrac—where the bishops of the three provinces held a council in 590 AD to arbitrate a matrimonial case.
The Aubrac’s main town, Laguiole, has some 1,300 inhabitants and is home to the renowned knife that bears its name (derived from the Occitan la gleizolle, or little church, it’s pronounced la-yole). The knife is on view everywhere here, even flashing from the rooftop of its manufacturer, La Forge de Laguiole, in a 26-foot-tall version designed by Philippe Starck. Originally the navaja was introduced here by seasonal migrants from Catalonia, and eventually was dubbed capuchadou, meaning a tool to do everything. Its characteristic curved handles were made from the lyre-shaped horns of the Aubrac bull, whose bronze statue by sculptor Georges Lucien Guyot presides over the marketplace.
When a folding awl was added to the knife in 1840 it became the indispensable multipurpose tool of every Aubrac peasant. The folding corkscrew, in 1880, proved equally handy for those Laguiolais who migrated to Paris and found success in its cafés and bistrots, notably the Café de Flore and Brasserie Lipp.
Severely battered in the 1950s by competition from the cutlery town of Thiers in the Auvergne, the Laguiole knife was resuscitated thanks to the opening of La Forge de Laguiole in 1987. The collaboration of Philippe Starck elevated the Laguiole knife to international stardom and the status of a museum piece—it’s even made its way to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Laguiole is also known for La Coopérative Fromagère Jeune Montagne, the fromagers who produce AOC Laguiole, an aged cow’s-milk cheese whose origins date to the 12th century. They also make the creamy tome fraîche that is used for aligot, a regional specialty of melted cheese, mashed potatoes and garlic. (Both the Forge and the Coopérative are open to visitors and offer guided tours.) The town’s historic center, Vieux Laguiole, has preserved its regional architecture, with houses of striped volcanic stone and pitched roofs covered with the heavy, hand-hewn slabs of schist known as lauzes. On top of the hill, the 15th-century church of Saint Mathieu stands on the site of the old castle, affording sweeping views of the Plomb du Cantal and the Puy Mary peaks in the Auvergne to the north, the Quercy to the west, and Rodez and the hills of the Lévézou to the south. The coquille Saint Jacques (scallop shell) carved in the stone above the church’s porch, and the pilgrims’ staffs displayed inside, are reminders of the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, which passes nearby.
Laguiole’s other claim to fame is native son Michel Bras, the Michelin three-star chef, who comes from the Puech du Suquet (bald peak), a few winding miles above town along the Route de l’Aubrac. The Bras family’s modern and minimalist hotel-restaurant complex, designed by architects Eric Raffy and Philippe Villeroux, mirrors and blends into the surrounding landscape. The balmy breeze, the aroma of wild herbs along the footpath, the green moors slanting down towards the dark forest below, the aperitif made of local gentian roots sipped leisurely at sunset in the glass-walled lounge are all perfect preparation for what arrives on the table.
You might choose the chef’s renowned gargouillou, a mix of vegetables, fruits, nuts, grains and herbs all gleaned from nature and topped by a delicate, edible “butterfly”. A side dish of aligot is unexpectedly as light as a feather; for dessert the coulant au chocolat is a culinary interpretation of volcanic lava—every detail is a celebration of the Aubrac and a seamless marriage of modernity to its old traditions.
It’s in the village of Aubrac, southeast of Laguiole, that old traditions trace their roots, precisely to the year 1120, when the pilgrim Adalard, on his way from Le Puy-en-Velay to Compostela, was attacked by brigands. As befits a moralistic tale, he was unharmed and vowed to build a monastery on the site where future pilgrims would find shelter and safety. The monastery became the Dômerie of Aubrac, so called after its head monk, the Dom.
This is also why the region is now an empty plateau, for in 1120 it was covered with thick forests, which the friars set out to clear in order to breed sheep for cheese. When the monastery was destroyed during the French Revolution, cheesemaking continued under a new organization in the burons, the picturesque stone huts still scattered on the pastures. Cattle were substituted for sheep to increase the volume of milk production. Conditions were harsh on the windswept plateau, demanding a rigid hierarchy and strict discipline among the cowherds and buronniers; at the bottom of the scale was the roul, a mere youth, like Marcellin Cazes, who ran away to Paris and eventually took over a small Left Bank café that became the celebrated Brasserie Lipp. Today cheesemakers of the Coopérative Jeune Montagne have replaced the buronniers, the last of whom retired in 2003.
The Dômerie was also the birthplace of aligot, which was initially made of bread and cheese—the bread was replaced by potatoes in the 18th century, after they were introduced to France. The fouace, too, may have originated here. This very popular hearth cake keeps longer than bread, which was why the friars gave it to pilgrims as they departed—its ring shape allowed them to hang it from a string round their necks.
Today the pilgrim road, the Via Podiensis, still leads from Le Puy-en-Velay to Nasbinals before reaching Aubrac, where a few austere houses and a handful of residents occupy the vestiges of the old Dômerie. The village’s oldest building, the church of Notre Dame des Pauvres, dates from the end of the 12th century, making it almost the contemporary of Adalard, whose life story is told today in the delightful wall paintings of our own contemporary, artist Hervé Vernhes, who lives nearby in the Aveyron village of Peyrusse-le-Roc.
The bell in the 15th-century belfry—la cloche des perdus—used to guide lost pilgrims to safety in foggy weather or after dark, but it has itself been lost—melted down in 1772. The Tour des Anglais, also built in the 15th century, was never occupied by the English—the name alludes to the ruffians who scoured the countryside after the Hundred Years’ War and were referred to as les Anglais as a matter of course. Today the Tour des Anglais is a basic gîte d’étape (stopover site) used mainly by pilgrims.
For administrative purposes, the villages of Aubrac and Saint-Chély-d’Aubrac, a little farther down the pilgrim route, have been merged. And in case you are confused by Aubrac the region, Aubrac the village and Aubrac the cheese, you might note that the beautiful local breed of cattle also goes by the name of Aubrac. The breed was nearly extinct as recently as the early 1970s but, like the Laguiole knife, it was resuscitated by the region’s enterprising farmers. Today the cows are admired for their beauty and sought after for the quality of their meat and milk.
The cattle’s annual migration to summer pastures, the transhumance, begins on the third Sunday of May, and is celebrated with colorful festivities. The cows are decked with flowers and French flags, and occasionally European Union flags too. There’s folk music played on accordions and bagpipes, and folk dancing in traditional costumes. A basic lunch is served in a buron, with aligot always included. Several burons have been converted into restaurants that are open for lunch during the summer months. Le Buron de Born, beyond Nasbinals, has the prettiest position, with a lovely view over Born Lake, which is surrounded by ravishing wildflowers in spring. To get there, make your way toward Saint-Germain-du-Teil, turn left after the little Pont des Nègres and continue for roughly a mile to the end of the road and the last, lost corner of the lovely Aubrac.
No visitor to the Aubrac should miss the string of beautiful villages along the Lot River at the southern foot of the plateau, most of them historic stopping points on the pilgrim route to Compostela:
A fortified village of honey-colored sandstone, whose 16th-century Gothic church is famous for its curiously twisted conical spire.
An exquisite town with an 11th-century stone bridge across the Lot and a mouthwatering market on Friday mornings, it is also the home town of the famous Poulenc family, notably composer Francis Poulenc, whose grandfather, father and uncle were partners in the Rhône-Poulenc chemical company. Visit the Romanesque church of Perse, and climb up to the ruins of the medieval Château de Calmont d’Olt for breathtaking views. A short detour along the D556 road leads to the 16th-century church of Saint Pierre at Bessuéjouls, tucked away in a leafy haven, a pink sandstone gem with a remarkable Romanesque chapel.
Huddled beneath its fabulous and colossal château, the village is named after the Estaing family, who built both the castle and the bridge. (No blood relation to former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, whose family obtained authorization to adopt the name in 1922.) This is winegrowing territory, boasting decent regional wine produced by what may be the smallest wine cooperative in France, La Maison de la Vigne, du Vin et des Paysages, definitely worth visiting.
Founded in the 13th century at the junction of the river Lot and the ancient trade route to the Auvergne, it’s also the gateway to the spectacular gorges of the river Truyère. It’s noteworthy for its privileged position between the two rivers (the name means between two waters), as well as for its wines. Some of the vines grow on spectacularly steep slopes, creating one of the most dramatic vineyard landscapes in France. There are stunning views of the valley from the hamlet of Le Fel, from Roussy and from the Domaine de Méjanassère—a winery and a fantastic farmhouse restaurant with a splendid terrace, chambres d’hôtes and a rental cottage, divinely situated above the Lot. 05.65.44.54.76. website
La Forge de Laguiole Route de l’Aubrac, Laguiole, 05.65.48.43.34. website
Coopérative Fromagère Jeune Montagne Laguiole, 05.65.44.35.54.
Bras The three-star restaurant of chef Michel Bras, and an elegant Relais & Châteaux hotel. Route de l’Aubrac, Laguiole, 05.65.51.18.20. website
La Ferme de Moulhac A beautiful, friendly and reasonably priced chambres d’hôtes run by Philippe and Claudine Long, who will offer you a generous taste of their homemade produce. Moulhac, Laguiole, 05.65.44.33.25. website
Comptoir d’Aubrac A luxury chambres d’hôtes run by Catherine Painvin, founder of the Tartine et Chocolat children’s clothing line. The six rooms have Himalayan, African and other fanciful themes. Aubrac, 05.65.48.78.84. website
Hôtel de la Dômerie A five-generation family-run hotel, with affordable rooms and a cozy, rustic restaurant that celebrates the region’s produce and traditional cuisine. Aubrac, 05.65.44.28.42. website
Chez Germaine The backbone of the village, run by the late Germaine’s daughter Adrienne, serving not only aligot but also Adrienne’s soupe au fromage and tarte aux fruits rouges. Aubrac, 05.65.44.28.47.
Le Buron de Born Lunch and dinner May–October with a view over Born Lake. La Route des Lacs, Commune de Marchastel, near Nasbinals, 04.66.32.52.20.
Thirza Vallois is the author of Around and About Paris (recently also published in an updated eBook edition), Romantic Paris and Aveyron, A Bridge to French Arcadia. www.thirzavallois.com
Find Thirza’s books in the France Today bookstore: www.francetoday.com/store
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of France Today