Things to Do in Midi-Pyrénées
The ancient Romanesque beauty that is the St. Sernin Basilica (Basilique Saint-Sernin) was once an abbey church dating back to about 1190. In fact, the basilica is the most complete Romanesque building in France. Its unusual eight-sided, five-tiered tower was added in the 13th century and was topped by a spire 200 years later. St. Sernin is huge, built of brick and featuring rounded apses and chapels, soaring barrels and rib-vaulted ceilings, as well as a chapel-ringed ambulatory encircling the nave.
The basilica was an important stop for pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela, and it houses the tomb of St Sernin beneath a sumptuous 18th-century canopy.
Flowing down from the Spanish Pyrenees all the way to France’s Atlantic coast, the Garonne is the most important river of southwestern France. Passing through two major cities—Toulouse and Bordeaux—the Garonne also runs into the Gironde estuary, the largest of its kind in Europe.
As the former seat of the Counts of Carcassonne, Carcassonne Citadel (Cité de Carcassonne) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of France’s most visited historic landmarks. Perched on a hilltop above the River Aude, the walled citadel is crowned by the Château Comtal.
France’s longest and oldest canal, the Canal du Midi is both a feat of civil engineering and a popular sightseeing destination in the southern Occitanie region. Built by engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet in the late 17th century, the 150-mile (240-kilometer) waterway connects the Mediterranean with the Atlantic Ocean via the Garonne Canal.
Place du Capitole, a huge pedestrianized open space in the heart of Toulouse, serves as the main city square. Flanked by grand municipal buildings, the square includes the long neo-classical facade of Capitole, the city hall, built in the 1750s.Cafes also cluster around the edge of the massive square, which hosts outdoor markets and is floodlit at night.
Along with administrative functions, the pink brick Capitole building also houses the Théâtre du Capitole opera house, as well as the Salles des Illustres, which includes many 19th-century paintings of the city’s famous citizens.
On the square’s western side is a series of roofed arcades; look up as you stroll to see the history of Toulouse represented on the ceiling panels, from prehistoric times through today’s aeronautics industry.
Appropriately situated just north of the Toulouse Airport and near the Airbus Factory, the aviation museum Aeroscopia features a wide variety of aviation-related exhibits. Here visitors of all ages can learn about everything from airplane design to air traffic control in a fun and interactive environment.
Built of red bricks in a mix of styles over the centuries, the Toulouse Cathedral (Cathedrale St-Etienne) is the seat of the Archbishop of Toulouse. The building is, in fact, a mixture of two churches, built on different axes and in different styles. The nave in particular is dwarfed by the more recent choir.
While hundreds of years of renovations and additions have left the building looking a little out of kilter and incomplete, with a sloping roof and mismatching brickwork, the cathedral does have several points of interest, including a beautiful rose window dating from 1230.
The red brick town of Albi is synonymous with the famous artist who was born here in 1864, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. This makes the town's Toulouse-Lautrec Museum only fitting, as it boasts more works by the diminutive Impressionist than anywhere else on earth.
The painter is best known for his posters and works delving into the Paris demi-monde, and at the museum you’ll see how Lautrec developed his artworks from pencil sketches into completed paintings.
The museum is located near the house where Toulouse-Lautrec was born and also features works by his contemporaries such as Degas, Matisse and Rodin.
While in Albi, be sure to visit the massive Gothic cathedral, Ste Cecile, next to the museum, and take a walk through the town’s narrow medieval streets.
The brick and stone Pont Neuf bridge was built over a period of several decades between 1544 and 1632.
The bridge is made up of a series of lovely low arches, each rimmed with stone and decorated with circular niches in each pier. Interestingly, the bridge’s arches are not symmetrical, and the level rises slightly as the two sides meet over the central arch.
The Pont Neuf’s arches and niches are floodlit from below at night, and the lovely views of Toulouse by day make a stroll across the bridge an essential Toulouse experience.
A former slaughterhouse has been given a much more positive lease on life at the Les Abattoirs Museum, now a contemporary art showcase for Toulouse and the Midi-Pyrénées region. The Modern Capital collection centers on the World War II period and the 1950s.
The museum’s permanent collection includes a wall-sized work by Picasso, while its various exhibition spaces display contemporary artworks that promise to confront, challenge and inspire. This imaginatively restored space also hosts a wide range of cultural expositions.
More Things to Do in Midi-Pyrénées
Due north of Carcassonne, just a little over two hours away from Toulouse, are the Lastours Castles (Châteaux de Lastours). Not much more than ruins now, during the height of Catharism in the 13th century these four castles played a major role in the defense of, access to and passage through the area.
The Lastours Castles each have a name: Cabaret, Quertinheux, Surdespine and Tour Régine. Perhaps most astounding to visitors is their location, situated as they are on an alarmingly narrow ridge. Equally surprising is that archaeologists continue to find historical artifacts near the castles that tell us more about the Cathars.
Housed in a former Augustine monastery, the extensive Museum of Augustins (Musée des Augustins) collection brings together paintings and sculptures from the medieval era through the 20th century. Its Gothic interior and 14th-century cloisters form a marvelous backdrop for artworks by French masters such as Ingres, Delacroix, Corot, Courbet and Toulouse-Lautrec himself.
The collection also includes works by other European artists, including Perugino, Crespi, Reni, Rubens and Murillo. Visit the cloisters to admire the medieval garden, and don’t miss sculptures by Rodin or the collection of Romanesque gargoyles.
The Space City (Cite de l'Espace) lets you realize your dreams of visiting space without having to undergo years of astronaut training. Here, you can explore inside a space station or space rocket; try on a space suit; and experience the sensation of walking on the moon.
The Albi Cathedral, with its fortress-like Palais de la Berbie, brings architecture fans and Cathar history buffs to this small town in southwestern France. But there is another reason to visit as well: the astounding Toulouse-Lautrec Museum (Musée Toulouse-Lautrec), which showcases over a thousand of his works.
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa is best known for capturing the fin-de-siecle decadence of the end of the 19th century in Paris' artsy, bohemian Montmartre district, most notably at the Moulin Rouge cabaret. But he was also accomplished in other media, and the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum is a fantastic way to take an in-depth look at his prolific career.
The Basilique Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d'Albi, known in English as the Albi Cathedral (or, more formally, as the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Cecilia), looks quite a bit different than most of the churches in France. First, it is made from clay brick instead of stone, giving it a pinkish hue rather than grey. Second and more noticeable still is the bell tower, which looks more like a fortress lookout than the usual intricately carved spires that visitors may be used to.
There's a reason for its fortified presence–it was built after the Church vanquished the Cathars, whose desire to create a new church was considered heretical. Although the site had housed other religious sites (including one that burned down in the year 666!), it is this one that has remained since its construction in the 13th century. Included on the grounds is the Berbie Palace, where bishops once lived and where the Toulouse-Latrec Museum sits today.
The Neo-Classical columns and pediments of the Basilica of Our Lady of the Daurade (Notre-Dame de la Daurade) are an impressive sight on the riverfront promenade of Toulouse. The best views can be found from the river itself or on the opposite bank of the River Garonne.
The history of the church goes back to 410 AD, when a pagan temple was converted, but the current building is actually from the 19th century. Classical and orchestral concerts are staged here, featuring music from the basilica’s famous grand organ.When taking a stroll around the structure, seek out the chapel, housing the rare Black Madonna of Toulouse.
Fronton isn't simply yet another French wine region; far from being ordinary, it’s considered to be one of the oldest wine productions in the country, having started during the Roman Empire. It now covers over 20 municipalities and 5,090 acres (2,060 hectares) of dry, sandy soil that is counterbalanced by sunny weather and high altitude. Located in the valleys overlooking the Tarn River just north of Toulouse, Fronton wines only gained international recognition in the 18th century, once the heavy taxes were lifted on wines going through Bordeaux for export to foreign markets.
Fronton is an appellation (which was once called Côtes du Frontonnais up until 2005) for red and rosé wines made predominantly (at least 50 percent) from Negrette vines, a variety that’s almost endemic to the area, having been enhanced by the mavro grape brought over from Cyprusin the 1300s. Other varieties included in the making of Fronton are a trio of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and syrah, giving the wines distinct aromas of berries as well as spicy overtones. Red Frontons reach their fullness four to seven years after production.
Part of the Haut-Languedoc regional park and the southwestern tip of Massif Central, the Black Mountains (Montagne Noire) are a mountain range that overlaps four French departments: Tarn, Hérault, Haute-Garonne and Aude. The area is called the Black Mountains because of the dense forest that covers its entire northern slope, an extreme contrast with its typically Mediterranean southern slope, capped in scrubland and olive trees.
The Black Mountains culminate at 3,969 feet (1,210 meters) high with Pic de Nore, from which visitors can admire the splendid panorama that extends all the way to the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees on clear days.
The mountains are to several sites of archaeological interest, starting with Grotte de Limousis, the most impressive developed cave in the department. The cave is made up of eight chambers (one of which contains an exceptional formation of aragonite crystal in the shape of a 13-foot-high (4-meter-high) chandelier) and a series of five stalagmite barriers. This cave has been in use since the Prehistoric Age, while close by is the Gouffre de Cabrespine, one of the largest natural caves in the world open to the public. Lastly, the Oppidum de Berniquaut is an archaeological site with history that goes back 30,000 years. A trekking site allows visitors to explore the remains and learn more about life as it was from the Neolithic era to the 13th century.
While not the most famous nor the most popular wine appellation in southern France, Cabardès is not one to be overlooked either. Huddled in the arid rolling hills surrounding the medieval fortress of Carcassonne, Cabardès has a surprisingly large array of flavors depending on the climate, as the 1,360-acre (550-hectare) appellation is positioned on the cusp between the Languedoc-Roussillon and Sud-Ouest regions. This duplicity in flavors, aromas, climates and landscapes can easily be perceived in the Cabardès wines, with a noticeable Bordeaux grasp, yet a typically Languedoc depth.
Wine production remained relatively local here until the completion of the Canal du Midi in 1681, which completely revolutionized the winemaking methods in the region, instantaneously making exportation an important part of the game.
But despite Cabardès’ medieval origins, the appellation is one of the youngest in France, having only become official in 1999 – a newborn by oenology standards. The wines are the only ones to mix a minimum of 40 percent Atlantic varieties (like merlot and cabernets) and 40 percent Mediterranean varieties (like syrah and grenache), with the remaining 20 percent consisting of côt and/or fer servadou, a unique composition heightened by the dominant winds of this mountainous region. To this day, there are over 300 winemakers in Cabardès, most of which have wineries and vineyards open to the public.
With its network of underground caverns dotted with dramatic stalactites, stalagmites and draperies, the Pech Merle Cave is a remarkable feat of nature, but the natural wonder is most famous for its prehistoric rock art. Dating back to around 25,000BC, the cave’s fascinating artworks include drawings, paintings and etchings depicting humans, horses, mammoths, bulls and bears.
The impressively preserved images include a red hand stencil, a large red fish and a striking horse’s head, and archeologists estimate that the oldest date from the Gravettian era, while others date from the later Magdalenian culture (around 16,000BC). The cave is one of few of its kind in France open to the public and visitors can learn about the caves at the adjoining museum, before following a 2km long trail to explore the underground galleries.
In the shadow of the hilltop chateau of Rocamadour, Durandal Park offers a different kind of medieval attraction, with a spectacular schedule of equestrian shows. Daring, high-speed tricks and stunts, jousting displays, and medieval reenactments are all performed on horseback, ensuring a thrilling experience for all ages.
Join the untold number of travelers who have passed through the Lombrives Cave (Grotte de Lombrives), used by humans as far back as the Neolithic era. The cave system, located near the Spanish border in the Pyrenees, is among the largest in Western Europe and is known for its caverns, rock formations, and crystals.
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