Until the 1960s, RODEZ and the Rouergue were synonymous with backcountry poverty and underdevelopment. Today it's an active and prosperous provincial town with a charming, renovated centre, even though the approach, through spreading commercial districts, is uninspiring.
Built on high ground above the River Aveyron, the old town, dominated by the massive red-sandstone Cathédrale Notre-Dame, is visible for kilometres around. No matter from what direction you approach, you'll find yourself in the place d'Armes, where the cathedral's plain, fortress-like west front and the seventeenth-century bishop's palace sit side by side – both buildings were incorporated into the town's defences. The Gothic cathedral, its plain facade relieved only by an elaborately flowery rose window, was begun in 1277 and took three hundred years to complete. Towering over the square is the cathedral's 87-metre belfry, decorated with pinnacles, balustrades and statuary almost as fantastical as that of Strasbourg cathedral. The impressively spacious interior, architecturally as plain as the facade, is adorned with a magnificently extravagant seventeenth-century walnut organ loft and choir stalls that were crafted by André Sulpice in 1468.
Leaving by the splendid south porch, you find yourself in the tiny place Rozier in front of the fifteenth-century Maison Cannoniale, whose courtyard is guarded by jutting turrets. From the back of the cathedral to the north and the south, a network of well-restored medieval streets connects place de-Gaulle, place de la Préfecture and the attractive place du Bourg, with its fine sixteenth-century houses. In place Foch, just south of the cathedral, the Baroque chapel of the old lycée is worth a look for its amazing painted ceiling, while in place Raynaldy, the modern Hôtel de Ville and the médiathèque are interesting examples of attempts to graft modern styles onto old buildings.
For reasonable hotel accommodation, try the Hôtel du Clocher, off the east end of the cathedral at 4 rue Séguy (Tel:05.65.68.10.16, Web: www.hotel-clocher.com ; Price: 51-65). More upmarket is La Tour Maje, on boulevard Gally behind the tourist office (Tel:05.65.68.34.68, Web: www.hotel-tour-maje.fr ; Price: 51-65), a modern building tacked onto a medieval tower. Hotel Le Broussy, recognizable by its beautiful Art Deco facade on avenue Victor-Hugo next to the cathedral, provides stylish accommodation and a leisurely terrasse restaurant (Tel:05.65.68.18.71, Web: hotel.broussy.monsite.orange.fr ; Price: 51-65; menus from 11). Rodez' municipal campsite (Tel:05.65.67.09.52; closed Oct– May) is on the riverbank in the quartier Layoule, about 1km from the centre.
As for eating, one of the best places to sample local cuisine is La Taverne, 23 rue de l'Embergue (closed Sun & Mon lunch; menus from 18), with an attractive terrace at the back, while the place to go for more gourmet food is the classy Gots et Couleurs, 38 rue Bonald (closed Sun & Mon), where menus start at 34. Le Bistroquet, 17 rue du Bal, off place d'Olmet (closed Sun & Mon), does good salads and grills for around 14. For a drink, head for the Café de la Paix, on place Jean-Jaurès, or Au Bureau, in the Tour Maje. The most central internet access, Resolument Plus Net, is at 11 rue Béteille (Tel:05.65.75.66.87; Tues– Thurs 11am–10pm, Fri– Sat 11am– midnight).