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Big Read: A feast of art, food 
and architecture in Rodez


Soulages museum

Soulages museum

Pierre Soulages

Pierre Soulages


Soulages museum

There was a bit of a to do in Rodez the week before I visited.

A gathering of farmers decided to let their feelings be known to President Holland, when he arrived in town to open the Soulages Museum, home of the largest collection of art by France's oldest living artist Pierre Soulages. It got a little out of hand, but thankfully peace prevailed the sunny evening I arrived into this beautiful medieval town.

I flew to Toulouse then journeyed through rich farming land, rolling hills and rocky crags, to Rodez. Despite it being "rush" hour, there was little or no traffic on the road, other than an occasional tractor. On the horizon the medieval town of Rodez appeared before us, dominating the hills of Rouergue, the red filigree sandstone cathedral drawing us upwards to its historic centre. As we started our climb through the more modern suburbs, a man appeared from one of the apartment blocks wearing the distinctive bleu de travail of France (blue work overalls) a wide grin and a large green parrot perched on his shoulder. What a wonderful Pythonesque start to my visit, I was looking forward to a feast of art, architecture and gastronomy, and I was not disappointed.

Dinner that evening was in The Kiosque, a buzzing restaurant beside the Soulages Museum. We ate a very tasty roulade of squid, followed by meltingly tender veal and desserts included a small cherry tart, very appropriate during this cherry season. Replete, I was happy to retire to my peaceful room in the Hotel Mercure, where, from my window I had a fantastic view of the impressive Rodez cathedral, illuminated by over 500 floodlights.

Built on what had been a car park, The Soulages museum, a decidedly contemporary building, was designed by Catalonian firm RCR Arquitestes when Pierre Soulages decided to donate a collection of over 500 of his pieces to the town of his birth. The museum is a brave and fabulous affair, a wonderful home for this permanent collection. The cubed structure is entirely wrapped in Corten steel, the rusty red material producing a palate of colours that goes from red to brown to black. Inside, dark native steel covers the walls and floors and is a perfect backdrop for Soulage's work which consists of paintings, prints, etchings and sculptures, the plans for the windows in Conques Cathedral, as well as films, photographs and books. There is a smaller space, to house temporary exhibitions, and it is fitting that the first show in this room is entirely devoted to Soulage's Outrenoir, his idea of creating light and "colour" within black through the use of different textures and materials.

Born to a tradesman (his father was a carriagemaker) Soulages grew up in an area of Rodez where he was surrounded by trade and crafts. He remains fascinated by the method of creativity, the techniques and tools used to create a piece. He often uses house paint brushes, pieces of wood, cloth or even the soles of shoes to apply paint, creating sculptural pieces where the heavy application of bold vertical and horizontal monostripes can produce what looks like a large piece of metal. Reflected light on the surfaces changes depending on where one stands, and Soulages is more interested in the relationship between the viewer, the painter and the object rather than the finished product. This is mirrored in the museum, the light and reflections playing tricks with the perspective, and, despite the size and material, the building integrates perfectly into the environment.

Visually we were sated, so time for lunch, which we had in the wonderful Café Bras within the museum, with food created by 3 Star Michelin chef and local man Michel Bras. The emphasis here is on natural and authentic cuisine at Soulages's insistence, costing only what art students could afford (a la carte items are priced from €5 to €20) and the café was crowded with visitors and local families. We dined on cheese soufflé, velvety beef, cherry tart and the stunning locally produced Roquefort. Attempting to walk off my lunch indulgence, I spent some time rambling through the lovely cobbled streets of the medieval town centre, visiting the powerful Notre Dame Cathedral dating from the l5th century, and spending some time in the Fenaille Museum with its collection of statue-menhirs, 3,000 year old monoliths or carved standing stones which were found scattered throughout the Aveyron region.

The next day I travelled to the village of Conques, which dates from the 8th century when it was a Benedictine Monastery, specialising in the development of the Marcillac vine. The arrival of the relic of St Foy to the abbey increased visitors until it became an important site of pilgrimage on the route to Santiago de Compostela. Scallop shells and walking sticks abound as current pilgrims walk through the fortified gateways to view Romanesque fountains, slate covered houses and the stunning Abbey of St. Foy. I was there to see the stained glass windows designed by Soulages.

Nothing is simple for Pierre Saulages. When the windows were commissioned in l994, he did not want to design the usual coloured depictions of religious stories. He spent 4 years developing different transparencies of glass, baking it at various temperatures to produce thicker or thinner glass, creating textures to let light in, keep light out. The resulting windows are very graphic, with vertical or horizontal "stripes" of glass. An undoubted benefit of the windows is the enormous amount of light flooding into the Abbey as the sun travels around the building, allowing us to see some of the remarkable stonework, the 250 Romanesque capitals and the simple vertical lines of the architecture of the church.

My short visit could be called an amuse bouche for the area. There is so much to see and do in this region steeped in history, art, natural beauty and gastronomy However, my return journeys will always have to include some time in Rodez, I might even catch a glimpse of that elusive green parrot again.

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