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Last updated : Nov 2009
Midi-Pyrénées - TravelPuppy.com
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 Pyrénées.

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.

Toulouse, 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.

Albi 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.