Toulouse, 100 minutes from Gatwick, is the stylish gateway to Occitanie. But pause in France’s fourth largest city, for a day or two, to visit the aromatic Food Market, The Victor Hugo museum explaining how blue dyes made Toulouse rich and a gastronomic dinner river cruise on the Canal du Midi.
Beyond busy autoroutes, unwind in Auch in the quiet department of Gers. Auch’s cathedral began with a 1489 Gothic interior but fashions change and the exterior was completed in Renaissance style over a century later. Linger over a leisurely lunch at the Plainmont Restaurant on the square, finishing with a basil sorbet on a sea of lemon yogurt and crushed meringue.
D’Artagnan, the flamboyant musketeer honoured by a statue, is the local boy made good, the face on the poster for many of the city’s concerts and cultural productions.
Ascend to “paradise” at the Delord Armagnac distillery in Lannepax: that’s the nickname for the loft where liqueur distilled from white grapes is stored. After tasting you may be tempted by the White Armagnac; freezer-stored, remaining liquid, it is perfect for cocktails or drizzling over sorbets.
Unhurried Occitanie welcomes visitors. Stay at a Chambres d’Hôtes such as the charming Les Bruhausses near Condom. Hosts Jean and Helene will eat with you, talking of their crops and choice of wines.
Enter Grand-Designs-Dreamland at Domaine de Perches, Gaillac – poolside views across the vines – where Allain and Howard host magnificently. As you dine they explain that the original grape presses, integral to the chateau’s structure, remain.
Along the road at Chateau Mayragues, Duncan Geddes, over glasses of the family’s wine, explains how his Scottish father purchased a chateau without a roof in 1980, undertook an epic restoration whilst the family camped out for a decade, then revived the estate with organic wine production. The cross of St. Andrew, on the wine labels, is a reminder of their heritage. Or time-travel at the Les Chambres d’Hôtes de Pharamond giving a sense of the ornate age of Marie d’Antoniette.
Jean-Emmanuel Rigal, a friendly sixth generation farmer, with son and dog in tow, takes you for a walk through his Chasselas vines. Nearby at the elegant Manoir St John, renovated with passion by Anne-Marie Morgades, the chef will explain how the sweet Chasselas table grapes are key ingredients in their signature desert.
The Canal des Deux Mers
Some cycle 750km along the two canals linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, others cruise while the adventurous row or kayak – but a two-hour serene trip along the tree-lined canal from Moissac gives a flavour of the epic journey.
Travelling on, Cordes-sur-Ciel, officially one of France’s “plus beaux villages” is a time-capsule of a beautiful medieval village sometimes appearing to float in the clouds – a sight not to be missed.
Religious and secular
The simple but impressive Cistercian Abbaye de Flaran is a reminder of more spiritual times; silence, celibacy, prayers at 2.30 am and merely one austere meal a day. Michael Simonow’s magnificent art collection including Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso and Monet, displayed in the monks’ former dormitories, presents a more colourful vision of mankind.
Art aficionados will also appreciate Ingres’ work on display in Montauban, marvelling at how the portrait specialist uses distorted postures, particularly of hands, to reveal psychological insight. Tick off the UNESCO listed Cloisters at Moissac too: certainly, the oldest cloisters in the world and probably the best.
Food and wine
Occitane’s fertile lands produce bold flavours. Learn about foie gras at Terre Blanche, a duck farm paying homage to the white limestone based soil, and stay for a lunch of duck breast and cassoulet.
The negrette grape flourishes in this verdant region. “Pouring away wine is never a waste. With every sip you are broadening your education,” we are told at Chateau Bellevue La Foret as we sample our way through their cellar. Meanwhile at Chateau de Saurs, with its Italianate architecture and landscaped gardens, you see how generation after generation has enhanced both the wines and the estate. While from Fronton you can explore the vineyards: slow travel on horse and cart or with an adrenaline buzz on quad bikes.
Sample seasonal pumpkin soup and perfectly cooked veal at Montauban’s Nous or an inspired Foie Gras and Pistachio Creme Brûlée as a Fronton chef brings delicate refinement to the region’s traditional robust foods.
Occitanie – new name, traditional values. Rapidly British visitors are learning that there is another France that exists beyond Bordeaux. The four departments of Gers, Haut-Garonne, Tarn et Garonne, and The Tarn – all with their warm Spring and mild Autumn are too good to resist.
Occitanie fact box
Domaine de Pharamond
A room at Domaine de Pharamond starts from £70 approx (€75) per night including breakfast, based on two sharing ; +33 (0)6 07 53 33 16.
For more information please visit Haute-Garonne Tourisme
A room at Les Bruhasses starts from £79 to £88 approx (€89 to €99) per night including breakfast, based on two sharing; +33 (0)562683835.
For more information please visit Le Gers Tourisme
Domaine de Perches
A room at Domaine de Perches starts from £115 approx (€150) per night including breakfast, based on two sharing; +33 (0)5 63 56 58 24.
For more information please visit Le Tarn Tourisme
Le Manoir Saint Jean
A room at le Manoir Saint Jean starts from €160 per night including breakfast based on two sharing; +33 (0) 5 63 05 02 34.
For more information please visit Tarn et Garonne Tourisme
Last modified: June 10, 2021