Hidden France: Off-Radar Stops in the Pyrénées

by  Kym Backer | Aug 28, 2015

In the southwest region of France, the Midi-Pyrénées attracts throngs of French visitors each year. Yet, the area is unknown to many international travelers, and others who come through treat the area as a stopover on the 1,000-year-old Way of St. James pilgrimage. We think it's time that that changes. After all, those in the know come here in search of a new experience -- and are rewarded with gastronomy, history, and contemporary attractions. Here, a guide to the off-radar gems in the Midi-Pyrénées:

Toulouse: Toulouse is known as "La Ville Rose" (The Pink City), an ode to the rosy brick that can be spotted throughout the area. Though the town boasts a vibrant social scene that includes such seasonal events as the colorful Printemps de Septembre art festival and a two-week jazz festival in October, there’s always the lure of more leisurely pursuits. In the center of town, near the 11th-century Romanesque Basilica of Saint Sernin, scenic pedestrian alleyways lead to charming boutiques and large department stores like Galeries Lafayette. A stroll along the embankments of the Garonne river is the perfect pre-dinner pastime, before stepping into a local restaurant for a traditional dish of cassoulet or a rich stew filled with beans, duck, sausage, and fragrant herbs.

Albi: The river Tarn flows below The Episcopal City of Albi’s Pont Vieux (Old Bridge), a popular lookout that offers a panoramic view of the old city’s medieval buildings. Nearby, a pre-10th-century church stands testament to different influences ranging from Norman to Baroque, and the Goth beauty of the legendary Sainte-Cecile Cathedral. By the entrance to the old city sits a 10th-century grain store and, just steps away, half-timbered houses and cobblestone streets. The Musee Toulouse-Lautrec, located in the Palais de la Berbie and just a few streets away from the birthplace of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, displays many of the artist’s popular works and is a contemporary addition to the ancient city, now classified a World Heritage Site.

Conques: On approach, via a winding road that frames the village below, it’s easy to see why the 11th-century Conques has the official designation of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages in France). A stop along the aforementioned legendary Way of Saint James pilgrimage and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Conques’s original limestone and sandstone buildings include a central abbey -- known for its gold-plated, jewelry-embossed Romanesque statue that contains a relic of Sainte-Foy, and for a large cross that contains a relic of the cross of Christ. The village’s charm extends to the 4-star lodgings of Domaine de Cambelong, a boutique hotel set in an old windmill with an acclaimed Michelin-starred restaurant, Herve Busset.

Moissac: Another stop on the Way of Saint James, Moissac is home to the renowned Abbaye Saint-Pierre (St. Peter’s Abbey), a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose 900-year-old cloister is the oldest in the world. Inside the onetime home to an order of Benedictine monks, unique carvings top marble columns near a stained glass window painted by Marc Chagall and centuries-old illuminated manuscripts from the monks’ scriptorium. In town, you’ll find products from juice to wine that ably demonstrate why Moissac’s Chasselas grape was the country’s first fresh fruit to receive the coveted AOC designation -- an honor for food products that denotes quality, geographical origin, and heritage.

Getting there: Flights from Paris to Toulouse are just over an hour, and both regional and international carriers, from Easy Jet to Air France, offer regular departures.

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