While it is easy to be impressed by the ancient history and the magnificent architecture of Rodez from the first glance, it took me some time to really name the reasons to appreciate this town. Maybe the weather was partly responsible for my unfavorable first impression of this historical town.
Rodez welcomed us in a cold, rainy afternoon that marked the transition to fall, in a manner that is signature to August. The drive up (since this town is located higher up in the mountain) is nothing exciting in terms of architecture and culture. The first sign of the metropolitan area was the Museum of Soulages (Le Musée Soulages) – a stunning group of blocks in rusty black steel which fit surprisingly well in the gloomy weather. The scene of the massive cathedral came in sight as we follow along the platan-clad avenue. Along the way, the architecture of the town did not seem to have the coherent and ancient appearance like Albi. Rather, Rodez looked like a busy, lively and ever-developing town where preserving the past and turning to the future has nothing to do with each other. Well, since cities witness so many ups and downs of history as well as changes in the public’s taste, doesn’t it make more sense for a city to have an accumulation of different architectural styles?
Indeed, the first walk we took, at 5pm on a rainy Friday, was perplexing. The cathedral was the first landmark of old Rodez (Vieux Rodez) that we saw; in fact, it is impossible to miss the sight of this massive red sandstone monument once you are in Rodez. Grandiose to the point of intimidating, exuberant in a severe manner, and intriguing for such a messy beauty – the cathedral’s exterior raised in my head the question of how such an architectural design came to form and immediately shut all possible answers. Unlike the Saint Cecilia Cathedral in Albi whose exterior stands in complete contrast of the interior, the Rodez cathedral carries a sense of austerity both inside and outside. However, the interior of the cathedral in Rodez is no less stunning. Similar to most Roman Catholic churches, the cathedral is divided into two halves – the nave for public gatherings and the chancel for clergy. Overall, the nave seemed darker than that in the cathedral in Albi; although the enclosed darkness, overwhelming size and surreal lighting is common in Gothic churches. The most stunning feature was probably the organ. With completely random luck, I visited the cathedral in the morning of August 15, the day when all churches and Christians in France hold special celebrations to mark the Assumption of Mary to Heaven. The sound coming from the massive organ above the West entrance was mesmerizing, beautiful and strangely spine-chilling at times. The magnitude of the organ’s sight and sound matched perfectly with that of the church. The sound bounced off the massive stone columns and bulky walls, resonated and defined the interiors of the church in a poetic way. Maybe it’s all planned by the interior designer who first put this mighty organ here.
The so-called hyper center in the Vieux Rodez is a feast for history and architect enthusiasts because it hosts many old, well-preserved houses in different styles. Many of them dated as early as 13th century and bore the names of rich, powerful families that once casted influence over this torn-by-powers town. I forgot which house belonged to who because there was too many; but I remember each of them vividly because they were all distinctive and different. There was one that looked like a castle from Disney Land: the wall was painted in pastel yellow and pink, the windows decorated with fairy curves. There was one that, although belonged to a rich merchant family, looked more like a brutal military blockhouse than a residence. There was one whose entrance looked like a medieval castle. From stone to brick and concrete, from sandy white, dark grey, deep red, pastel yellow to mixed colors – the congregation of such varied styles could be both alluring and misleading. I wonder if this town was once the Florence of the South – a town so rich and cultured that wealthy merchants cared to and could afford to hire architects to make a statement through their house.
Most stunning was probably the house that supposedly belonged to the Armagnac. Supposedly because the Armagnac did not live to see their house becoming a famous landmark in Rodez. In fact, the story of the Armagnac family once again reminded us of how brutal, violent and volatile life could be even in recent history. In the medieval time, two forces ruled Rodez – the bishops (masters of city) and the Counts of Rodez (masters of the villages). Until the 13th century, the house of Armagnac rose to ultimate power. They had everything from land and money to powerful allies, including the King of France whom they supported during the Hundred Year War. The Count of Armagnac went on establish their sovereign rights in the region. When their desire to become independent became too much for the French royal to tolerate, King Louis XI green-lighted a vengeance to effectively kill to the last male heirs of the Count of Armagnac and burn all of their possession. Within a span of two centuries, the Count of Armagnac rose to ultimate power and fell to ultimate extinction. By the end of the 15th century, the Armagnac was wiped out from history; the bishop of Rodez took power and commissioned the today’s Notre Dame cathedral. Still think the Red Wedding is an unbelievable plot twist?
After an hour of intense reminiscing about history in the rain, I needed a beer. My husband randomly picked Cafe du Commerce because it was right outside of the hotel, one block away from the Rodez cathedral. The atmosphere was better than expected – few tables are filled with tourists, judging from the weather and walking-friendly shoes they wore. The bar was filled with locals. They all seemed to know each other and talked freely from one end of the cafe to the other. New people walked in and the first thing they did was to salut the bartender. A group rose from a table by the window, headed to the bar and lingered for fifteen minute to chat to another group. There was a chill and friendly environment going on. There was nothing outstanding about the quality of the beer but it was not the point. I felt extremely content to be enjoying a cold beer in the middle of this local social scene.
The restaurant gave a completely different vibe. Located on the same Place de la Cite, one small block away from the Cafe du Commerce, L’Aubrac is a well-reviewed restaurant serving regional food. The food was probably as good as in the reviews. But the place was packed with tourists and the service was sadly robotic. The waiters made absolutely no eye-contact throughout the entire course of the meal. When asked about the choices of ice-cream, one waiter spurted out a full list within a second and expected a baffled diner to immediately choose one, while his eyes were busy checking on the next table at the same time. The interior was as exciting as a countryside brasserie trying to be modern. If I need to give them one star for my experience, it would be for their aligot – a specialty of the region made with melted cheese and smashed potato, garnished with a hint of garlic. It may not sound like rocket science to you but, if made right, there is something soothing about the taste that instantly put you in a good mood especially in the rainy, cold weather.
On Saturday, we woke up to a sizable, popping farmer’s market in the Place de la Cite. Oftentimes in big, touristic towns, farmer’s market does not necessarily means the goods are sold by farmers. Instead, traders sell products that may come from small to industrial scale producers. If you don’t look closely, the supposedly regional fruit of the season may actually come all the way from Spain and Italy. But the one in Rodez is not one of those. There were plenty of regional producers selling their own stuff. What’s more reaffirming is that the Southwest of France is renowned for aware producers. In this region, you can find producers with “hippie” mindset who willingly go organic and start movements against GMOs. Indeed, the market that day was a feast of reasonably priced organic fruits and vegetables, artisan cheese and farm-produced cold cuts. A kind producer who sold his melons 3 for 5 euro (about $4.5) gave me an extra melon when I asked what’s the difference between the big and the small type that he sold, as if to make sure I could feel his sincerity. A busy cheesemaker spent time giving detailed advice to a customer who knew the kind of taste she wanted but was not sure what to pick in the 30 different types of cheese offered on that small cart. I bought the ugliest, also the tastiest, beefsteak tomato (coeur de boeuf) from a young producer with Bob Marley hair. I have heard a lot about how healthy and hippie California is – and this place gave me a similar feeling.
The whole point of the trip, however, was to visit the Soulages Museum. My husband came across his work during his art-school education and had been an admirer ever since. I saw a few of his paintings in the Museum of Modern Art in St. Etienne but never came to understand and fully appreciate his talent. Until we visited the museum in Rodez. The building was designed to reflect Soulages’ iconic style; both the inside and outside were clad with steel panels, each with a different shade of black based on its construction and where (or whether) the light hits. The museum took us from his early works where he experimented with rustic metal block printing, through the walnut paint period when he lived in Paris, to the prominent black paintings and the one-of-a-kind church window project. Soulages is a master of light manipulation, with acute eye for graphic and thorough appreciation of the technique. Given my humble understanding of this field, I would not venture into art criticism. But like after any rendezvous with a genius, I felt several shades smarter after almost two hours in the museum.