Long before Lourdes became France’s most famous pilgrimage location, St-Bertrand de Comminges was an important religious destination in the central Pyrenees and a stopping place on the route to Santiago de Compostela. First a Celtic settlement and later occupied by the Romans, northern barbarians left the town in ruins until the eleventh century when Bertrand began building the massive Gothic cathedral of Ste-Marie de St Bertrand de Commingues.
St-Bertrand de Comminges on a naturally fortified spur beside the River Garonne has been likened to Mont St Michel, so dominatant is this wonderful building skirted by medieval houses. An austere exterior gives no hint of the treasure-trove of craftsmanship within. Notice particularly the carved capitals of its twelfth century cloister, sixteenth century Renaissance organ and 66 superb sixteenth century choir stalls - each worked by a different Toulousain craftsman. Carvings are everywhere, some representing the cardinal sins in satirical detail, others depicting the life of St-Bertrand. Outside the views are spectacular and there are remains of Roman baths, a theatre and temple. Across the river in Valcabrere, the lovely Basilique St-Just was partially built with material from the Roman city. It has perfect acoustics for concerts which take place as part of St-Bertrand’s annual summer music Festival du Comminges. Concerts are held at various venues around St-Bertrand annually in July and August. Find more on this from the Tourist Office or www.festival-du-comminges.com
There’s something for everyone in this vibrant, fast growing city, once famous for its troubadour culture. There are theatres, cinemas, galleries, and museums with interests ranging from natural history, medicine, the Resistance, Egyptian archaeology to antiquities of Toulouse. Don’t miss the fantastic Museum of Contemporary Art at Les Abattoirs. Flea markets, boutiques and department stores sell everything from designer fashion to traditional crafts created around pastel (woad), violets and chocolates. Given the city’s love of the game, there’s even a specialist rugby shop. The atmosphere is definitely Mediterranean. Enjoy Toulouse’s restaurants and café culture around place du Capitole. If not only the policemen look young, it could be because Toulouse has one of the largest student populations in France and a university dating back to the thirteenth century. Explore the town’s old quarter and beautiful gardens of Jardin Royal, Jardin des Plantes and Jardin Japonaise or wander down to the River Garonne quays and hire a boat to explore the Canal du Midi.
Known as La Ville Rose due to the rosy hue of many buildings built with the local red bricks, Toulouse is a treasure house of architectural splendours such as the fortress-like churches of Les Jacobins and St-Sernin, and Cathedrale St-Etienne. Monuments and bridges are floodlit at night bringing a new dimension to the town. An aviation centre from the beginning - Concorde was developed here. Booking is essential if you’d like to tour the long-haul Airbus A330-A340 aircraft at the Clement Ader factory where the first Concorde was produced. Tel: (00 33) 5 34 39 42 00. A variety of guided tours and city pass valid for one year are available at the Tourist Office. Tel: (00 33) 5 61 11 02 22.
The outskirts of Toulouse now house a high-tech amusement park devoted to space travel, Cite de l’Espace.
Set in the heart of the Lauragais region south east of Toulouse, where the landscape of rolling hills and sunflower fields has been likened to Tuscany, St-Felix Lauragais is a walled Bastide market town of picturesque streets set on a high plateau. The region was an important Cathar stronghold and the town’s ruined castle, built in the Middle Ages, was the venue for the first council of the Cathar Church in the 1167. Visit St Felix’s fourteenth century church and enjoy glorious views across the Montagne Noir (Black Mountains) and Pyrenees as far as Canigou and Pic du Midi d’Ossau from the castle terrace. A guided tour of St Felix will explain its beginnings as a Roman camp and Visigoth fort before becoming a Bastide. Discover the English cemetery at Three Mill Hill where troops from Wellington’s army were buried in 1814. The Lauragais region has a reputation for first-rate craftsmanship. The annual Cocagne festival during Easter weekend celebrates this plus telling the history of the town and production of pastel (woad) used in fabric dyeing. The plant grows well in the limestone soil between Toulouse, Albi and Carcassonne and brought wealth to the area in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries until the dye was replaced by indigo.
Another Bastide market town, Revel St-Ferreol, dates from 1342. Many of these medieval ‘new towns’ set out in a grid pattern with a market square at the centre were created as fortified strongholds during France’s 100 Years War. Revel, at the foot of the Montagne Noir, has a fine fourteenth century covered market with wooden pillars topped by a bell-tower. The Saturday morning market which spreads into surrounding streets of medieval houses is known for clothing and local produce. However, since master cabinetmaker Alexandre Monoury from Versailles began work here with his students in the late nineteenth century, Revel has become best known for its fine Reveloise furniture and marquetry. A local school trains cabinetmakers from across the region. Revel Art et Meuble has a furniture exhibition, workshops and displays and the town and surrounding area are a rich source of furniture shops and warehouses. If you’re seeking leisure activities, there’s an open air swimming pool and Lake St-Ferreol to the south is great for watersports, hiking and picnics. The Cine-Get theatre and library was originally the production plant for Get 27 - a popular mint aperitif created here in 1796 and now manufactured in Beaucaire in Gard.
Originally home of the Garunni tribe who gave their name to the River Garonne, the little mountain village of St Beat occupies a naturally strategic position between the Cap de Mont and Pic d’Ayre mountains. It has been called the ‘key to France’ as any Spanish invaders would need to first pass through the valley. In 75BC the Roman General Pompey founded a fort here. White marble was mined from the mountains to take to Rome and later mined for used in the gardens at Versailles. Ancient houses overhang the River Garonne, and the town clock tower - all that remains of St Beat’s eleventh century castle - and Romanesque church are amongst many buildings made from local marble. St Beat makes a lovely centre for summer hikes and outdoor mountain activities and is close to the winter ski resort of Mourtis. Ask at St Beat’s Tourist Office about visits to the Roman marble quarries and the July marble festival including street sculpture and workshops. Tel: (00 33) 5 61 79 45 98.