| The Midi-Pyrénées
area, with its magnificent mountain scenery, lies between Aquitaine
to the west and Languedoc-Roussillon to the east.
It encompasses part of the Causses, the high plateau
country and most of Gascony. Included in it are
the départements of Lot, Aveyron, Tarn-et-Garonne,
Tarn, Gers, Haut-Garonne, Ariège and Hautes
The Midi-Pyrénées is a land of plains
dotted with hillocks, sandy stretches, moors and pine woods, desolate
plateaux cleft by magical grottoes, and little valleys covered with
impenetrable forests. The northeastern section is a rough, mountainous
land, known as the Rouergue. It is located on the
frontier of Aquitaine, formed by the plateau of
the Causse, where game and wild birds feed on the
thyme and juniper growing wild in the chalky soil. As a result,
these little animals and birds develop a delicious and individual
flavour. The principal town, Rodez, is severe and
very beautiful. The crenelated summit of its red tower, one of the
marvels of French Gothic architecture, rises above a confusion of
narrow streets and small squares. From here, there are views of
the high plateaux beyond the Aveyron, a majestically
stark landscape of granite outcrops and steep ravines. The farmhouses
and villages, built of local rock, often mimic the rock formations
to the extent that they are all but invisible to outsiders.
To the southeast is Millau, gateway to the Tarn
gorges, and to the south lies Roquefort
with its windy caves that store the famous ewe’s-milk cheese.
These damp cold winds are the secret that has created the ‘cheese
of kings and the king of cheeses’. Auch was
the ancient metropole of the Roman Novem Populena,
one of the most important towns in Gaul, long rivalling
Burdigala (Bordeaux) in importance. The cathedral
has two Jesuit towers, choirstalls carved in solid oak and a 16th
century stained glass window. The people of Auch
have erected a statue to le vrai d’Artagnan,
the famous Gascon musketeer immortalised by Dumas. Cahors,
situated on a peninsula formed by the River Lot,
has a famous bridge, Pont Valentré, with
its 6 pointed arches and 3 defensive towers rising 40m (130ft) above
the river. It is the most magnificent fortified river span that
has survived in Europe and was begun in 1308. Legend has it that
the construction work was plagued with problems and the bridge still
remained unfinished after 50 years. Then one of the architects made
a pact with the devil and the bridge was finished without another
hitch. A small figure of the devil is visible on the central tower.
A fine, very dark red wine bears the name Cahors.
It is made from grapes of the Amina variety brought
in from Italy in Roman times.
one of the most interesting cities of France, is an agricultural
market centre, an important university town, an aero-research centre
and one of the great cities of French art with 7 fine museums. After
the Middle Ages, the stone quarries in the region were exhausted
so the city was built with a soft red brick which seems to absorb
the light. As a result, it is called the Ville Rose
and is described as ‘pink in the light of dawn, red in broad
daylight and mauve by twilight’. There are many beautiful
public buildings and private dwellings, like the 16th-century Renaissance
Hôtel d’Assezat and one known as the Capitole,
now used as a city hall. The finest Romansque church in southern
France is located here. The first Gothic church west of the Rhône
was built in Toulouse, the Church of the
Jacobins, and the first Dominican monastery
was founded in Toulouse by Saint Dominic himself.
Toulouse is a vibrant city with much activity, with its long rue
Alsace-Lorraine being its axis. It is here in the
early evenings that Toulousians and visitors alike sit for an apéritif
at one of the large sidewalk cafes. The region was an important
part of the Roman Empire, subjected for 800 years to Arabic influence,
the Moors holding substantial parts of Spain just across the Pyrénées,
and the cuisine has therefore developed from both Roman and Arabic.
Toulouse sausage, a long fat soft sausage whose filling must be
chopped by hand, is one of the ingredients of the local cassoulet
as well as a very popular dish in its own right.
is another red-brick city, smaller but no less interesting than
Toulouse, situated on the River Tarn.
The first extraordinary thing about Albi is its
brick church. Albi was the centre of violent religious
wars (the Albigensian Heretics resisted the Catholic crusaders for
decades). The mammoth red-brick Cathedral of Saint-Cécile,
towering above all the other buildings of the town, was built as
a fortress to protect the cruel bishop who imposed the church on
the populace. Inside is a large hall, subdivided by exquisite stonework
embellished with statues. The nearby 13th-century Palace
of the Archbishop is now a museum containing the largest
single collection of the works of Toulouse-Lautrec.
The town of Lourdes has acted as a magnet for the
sick in need of miracle cures, ever since the visions of Bernadette
Soubirous in the mid 19th century. Apart from the famous grotto,
there is also a castle and a museum.