I’ll openly admit that I had little clue about Occitanie until visiting the region earlier this year in Spring. Lying in the south west corner of France, bordered by the Mediterranean on the east and the Pyrenees mountains on the south, Occitanie was formed as recently as 2016 when the regions of Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées were merged together. What can you expect? The region has all the fairytale charm that France is famous for : colourful food, fabulous wines, medieval castles, tons of culture plus some of the country’s prettiest villages and market towns. One key notable differences was the lack of crowds which was refershing. I set out on a 5 day roadtrip earlier in April with Bjorn aka the Social Traveler to see what we could discover and I’ve come up with a list of cool experiences we discovered. While this is not by no means comprehensive list and guide to the region, this post will give you some idea of the range of cool things to do in Occitanie plus I’ve shared a guide below to some budget friendly cool places you can stay in while travelling through the region.
1.Have a Coffee and Watch the People Go by in Place du Capitole, Toulouse
This is Toulouse’s central square, overlooked by a grand neoclassical palace replete with elaborate frescoes. The Capitole houses the city hall, the Theatre du Capitole de Toulouse opera company, and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. The brick and marble facade looks equally pretty by day, or lighted up at night.
Top tip: Soak up the views with a coffee at the terrace of the historic Le Florida cafe and restaurant. Decorated in the Belle Epoque style, the interiors of this cafe are fantastic and another good excuse to stop by here for a drink.
2.Visit the Famous Palm Tree of Toulouse in ‘Convent des Jacobins’
You can discover the beauty of the famous ‘palm tree of Toulouse’ in the beautiful Dominican Church- Convent des Jacobins. A number of slender columns support the vaulted Gothic roof of the lofty church. One of the columns supports the 22 ribs of the vaulted roof of the choir- giving rise to an ornate structure resembling a Palm Tree.
3. Admire the Pastel Blue Shutters and Doors of Toulouse
Despite being known as the pink city, the pastel blue shutters and doors of Toulouse’s homesteads will assail you on your city wanders. Dating all the way back to the Renaissance, native traders of Toulouse developed a trade in ‘cocagne’ – little balls of pastel blue derived from a yellow-flowered plant that yielded a blue dye. These were highly coverted by the aristocracy of Toulouse, Albi and Carcassonne, bringing unprecedented wealth into the area.
4. Have a Glass of Wine in the best wine bar in the world
Elected the Best Wine Bar in the World in June 2017 by The World of Fine Wine the ambience of the No 5 Wine Bar is to die for, as are its formidable range of fine wines. Either choose from a range of pre-selected wines by the glass or by the bottle accompanied by aptly paired finger foods.
5. Be an Astronaut for a Day at Cité de l’espace
Cité de l’espace or City of Space is a wonderful theme park situated on the eastern outskirts of Toulouse. It is the perfect place to spend a day having fun with the family. A number of outdoor and indoor exhibits and installations dot the park. These range from full-scale models of the Ariane 5 rocket, Mir space station and Soyuz models. The installations are both informative and interactive, which doesn’t make learning feel like a chore. Highlights include a 280 seater planetarium and a 300-seat IMAX cinema.
Top tip: Entry fee of €24 is a bit steep so keep aside a few hours to make the most of your investment.
PS: If you’re keen to read more about Toulouse, checkout my earlier post about how to spend a few hours in Toulouse.
The historical capital of Gascony, Auch is 70 kms west of our previous stop, Toulouse.
Never heard of this city? Neither had I but wandering the narrow streets of this beautifully preserved medieval town was a real treat.Perched at dizzying heights on a hilltop, the small town overlooks the Gers River. ‘Haute-Ville’ is so high up that in olden times, villagers had steep stairways built down to the river banks. For a small town, it packs a lot of history and has some very interesting connections- from Napolean III to D’Artagnan and the Modern Circus movement thanks to Circa- here’s a low down of the best things to do in Auch.
Things to do in Auch
6. Cathedrale Sainte-Marie
When in Auch don’t neglect to visit the Cathedrale Sainte-Marie, best known for its sonorous organ and rose stained-glass windows along with the 1500 intricately carved wooden stalls. The organ was commissioned by Napoleon III. Do take a look at the Renaissance masterpieces on show there.
7. Checkout the Steel Sculptures of Jaume Plensa
I was privileged to have seen Jaume Plensa’s work ‘Alma del Ebro’ (Soul of the River Ebro) earlier last year during my 24 Hours in Zaragoza so I was pleasantly surprised to discover his presence in Auch. In Auch, Jaume put down on the ground a vast cast iron plate engraved with the Latin text from the Old Testament quoting the Deluge episode in memory of the tragic floods that hit the city in 1977. You will see the sculpture while descending the monumental staircase of Auch.
8. Climb the Monumental Staircase of Auch and Have a Chance to Meet the Real D’Artagnan!
Also to be discovered in Auch is the Monumental Staircase. This is a grand neo-Renaissance style staircase bridging the lower and more lofty parts of the town in a grand fashion. 374 steps will have you bypassing several gardens, fountains and terraces and a handsome statue of D’Artagnan, the character in Alexandre Dumas’ well-loved books and based on a real-life person, Charles de Batz who was born in the Chateau de Castelmore.
9. Visit the Birthplace of the Modern Circus
Another the cool fact about Auch is that is home to the modern circus movement and to CIRCa: the Circus Innovation and Research Centre which is dedicated to supporting the innovation process behind contemporary circus.
CIRCa is a national hub that supports efforts in the contemporary circus movement. Every year, thirty teams of would-be circus artists create future shows, work on techniques, write and hone their skills in Auch. At CIRCa they can install their apparatus (trapeze, ropes…), their scenography, or put up their big top for a while to create or rehearse shows which helps them break new grounds in circus arts or devise new circus techniques. Circa or the Circus Innovation and Research Centre is an ideal place for supporting the innovation process behind contemporary circus.
If you are curious to find out more and visit the centre drop them a line here and also do consider checking out the festival of contemorary circus held here every year: the dates this year are from the 19th to 28th October
Tarn & Garonne region: MOISSAC & AUVILLAR
On pilgrims route to Santiago Compostela lies Moissac which is home to the historic UNESCO world heritage Saint Peter’s Abbey. Here’s a list of things to do in Moissac including a trip to the picturesque Auvillar.
Things to do in Moissac
10. Cycle the Canal de Garonne
The Canal de Garonne is a mid-19th century canal connecting Toulouse with the Castets-en-Dorthe. The route is a tranquil passage from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic, enabling many small boats to cover the stretch safely. There are a number of spots to discover along the 193 km stretch of canal way. Cycling along the canal way is a pleasurable way to take in the sights of the region. The canal historically had about 53 locks in its entirety, along with several bridges and aqueducts. A total of seven aqueducts permits the canal to cross the Garonne and its tributaries at different points. The 23 arched Agen aqueduct and the 13 arched Cacor aqueduct at Moissac are notable.
11. Abbey of St Peter
Checkout the Abbey of St. Peter: this church is a former Benedictine priory dating back to the twelfth century. Featuring beautiful Romanesque apses, a choir and a carved wooden altarpiece along with many treasures of religious art in the chapel, the Abbey of St Peter should be on your itinerary.
12. Sample the Grand Dore at Pâtisserie Cédric Moretto
Pop into Pâtisserie Cédric Moretto to sample their signature chocolate – ‘the Grand Dore’- a mix of dark chocolate, local chasselas grape and armagnac. Rich and perfectly melt in the mouth- these were such a decadent treat!
13. Visit one of France’s most beautiful villages: Auvillar
You will pass through some very scenic and beautiful stretches of Occitanie countryside enroute to Auvillar. There are several scenic photo opportunities overlooking the Garonne on this ancient pilgrims route. I loved Auvillar. Guarded by a beautiful 17th century clock tower , this is definitely one of France’s most beautiful villages with picture postcard half timbered houses & monuments like its historic circular hall where corn and other grains used to be exchanged , the clock tower and the Church of St. Pete. Right at the end of the village tucked away is a panoramic viewpoint which offers beautiful views of the Garonne and its valley.
I highly recommend lunch at Petit Palais in Auvillar: their fixed seasonal menu for 20 euros, including wine is super value.
Despite the despondent mizzle of rain, the episcopal city of Albi was a revelation- from hidden Romanesque cloisters, half-timbered houses in narrow streets, to its brick red beautiful cathedral and the fantastic Toulouse Lautrec Museum- there was so much to discover in this place. Everywhere we turned to in this city, we found beauty. The city became extremely wealthy because of the pastel trade and that still shows today. The medieval city with one of the oldest bridges in the world is perfect for a weekend getaway. You’ll find yourself wandering narrow alleys, dreaming away at Berbie palace and admiring the grandeur of the cathedral in the heart of the city. Here’s a few cool things to do in Albi
14. Taste the local Pastry ‘Petit Jeanot’
What better way to start the day than sampling the local pastry? I nibbled the ‘petit jeanot’ at the local market hall. This is an anis based sweet that is typical of the region. I found it to be an acquired taste but I did gorge on a splendid selection of the local cheese. I could easily have spend the entire day, grazing through the fabulous local market.
15. Visit the Church of St Salvy
There is a beautiful Romanesque cloister hidden behind the Church of St Salvy . While the church itself is a feat of Gothic-Romanesque architecture, it is the quiet cloister to the rear of the church that provides a serene space. The cloister has fine history-laden capitals built by Vidal de Malvesi. One of the oldest parts of Albi, this is the perfect place for reading a book and quiet contemplation.
16. Enjoy the artworks at Musee Toulouse Lautrec
The Musee Toulouse Lautrec has the largest collection of the great artist’s works in the world. I enjoyed my brief time exploring the museum and viewing highlights like the paintings ‘La Belle Helene’ and ‘Au Salon de la Rue des Moulins’. Equally beautiful was the location of the museum- in the 13th century Palais de la Berbie, overlooking the River Tarn.
17. Admire the Grandeur of Saint-Cecile Cathedral
Another jewel in Albi’s crown is the 13th century Saint-Cecile Cathedral, also known as Albi Cathedral. I couldn’t help but admire the grandeur of the cathedral in the heart of the city. Built in the southern Gothic style and built almost entirely of brick, the beautiful bell tower forms a prominent feature. The ornate, elaborate stands at marked contrast with the stark, brick exterior. Make sure to notice the beautiful cathedral organ, Renaissance frescoes in the huge vaulted ceiling and detailed filigree stone work in the choir.
Carcassonne is a fortified, medieval city, perched on a hilltop. It is most famous for its medieval citadel- La Cité, whose early walls date back to Gallo-Roman times. You may notice the controversial concentric neon, yellow stripes on the walls of the fortress- the brainchild of the contemporary Swiss artist Felice Varini. The artwork will be on display till September 2018. The perfectly preserved medieval citadel houses 50 residents including a very illustrious knight-local instructor and expert historian, Jean-François Vassal.
18. Learn the noble code of chivalry at ILC Carcassonne
My trip to Carcassonne was quite brief but in that time I learnt how to be a knight thanks to Jean-François who runs ILC Carcassonne. We even donned some armoury and marched across the citadel. Fab fun! Jean-Francois’s talk covered everything from the 13th century clothing that knights ( learning stuff like the metallic coat that knights would wear in battle would be a heavy mesh, weighing up to 15 kgs! providing excellent protection but must have been drag to wear ) and their ladies would don plus the types of weapons used and their noble code chivalry. If you are interested in learning to become a knight, Jean runs a number of workshops and classes-checkout his Facebook page for more details
Budget places to stay in Occitanie
1. Hotel Ibis Toulouse Centre
Address: 2 Rue Claire Pauilhac, Toulouse
This hotel, part of the Ibis Chain, is conveniently located in Toulouse city centre, close to Jeanne d’Arc Metro Station. Despite the impersonal exterior, the hotel interior is very modern, with a welcoming 24 hour reception. A plentiful buffet breakfast is on offer each morning with a range of sweet and savoury dishes. The in-hotel Wi-Fi is excellent and the bar is open 24/7.
Prices start from €70-€80 mark via Booking.com
2. L’hôtel de France, Auch
Address: Place de la Liberation, 32000, Auch.
This is a historical hotel located in the heart of the old city of Auch, in the heart of Gascogne. The period details have been retained wherever possible in the hotel, particularly in Le Restaurant, offering fine dining and Brasserie Le 9eme, serving up regional dishes. The staff are multilingual and the hotel offers high speed internet.
Prices start from €80 mark via Booking.com
3. Le Moulin de Moissac, Moissac
Address: 1 Promenade Sancerre, Moissac.
In operation since 1474, this historic hotel is a great choice with comfortable rooms and views of the barge-filled Canal du Midi. The majestic hotel has wonderful ambience due to its enviable views, decorated interiors, piano bar and spa services. All rooms have views of the River Tarn and hotel guests have the option of indulging in riverside leisure activities like canoeing and boating. The city centre of Moissac is very close by and provides opportunities for visiting the Abbey of St Pierre.
Prices start from €100 mark via booking.com
A more budget friendly alternative is a bed and breakfast called Elika situated also in Moissac’s town centre. Prices start from €65 via booking.com
4. Maison de Julia, Albi
Address: 28 Rue du Capitaine Julia, Albi
This boutique design hotel was probably my favourite place to stay in the whole trip. The hotel is situated in Albi city centre, just 800 m away from the renowned Toulouse-Lautrec Museum. Rooms are aesthetically pleasing, minimalist and modern with air-conditioning and a terrace. There is a seasonal outdoor pool and a fabulous continental breakfast is served each morning. The hotel staff are welcoming, making this hotel stay seem like a home away from home. Highly recommend.
Rates start at €90 mark via Booking.com
If budgets do not permit, alternatively you can book the lovely Hotel Les Pasteliers situated in the heart of Albi. Rates start at €55 via Booking.com
Big thank you to Birgitte and everyone at Tourisme Occitanie for bringing me to Toulouse. Also a huge hug and thanks to Bjorn for inviting me on this amazing trip. More stories and moments from this trip-please checkout the hashtag #TourismeOccitanie #DestinationChallenges