It seems odd to have a few days away yet not be watching any bike racing. Though, in a way, our visit has a cycling connection. I was in Castres for a stage start of the 2013 Tour de France, found what little I saw charming, and made a mental note to return. My beloved had a business meeting here on Monday, so we decided to spend the weekend enjoying the area, including the neighbouring UNESCO World Heritage site of Albi.
We stayed in a delightful and beautifully restored 19th century property, within walking distance of the old town, which has some magnificent old cedar trees in its garden. Our charming hosts made us feel more like invited, and not paying, guests. I’ve given them a glowing reference on Booking.com which generally means we’ll never be able to stay there again as it’ll be constantly fully booked!
We drove down via Sete, an old fishing village just south of Montpellier. I have a beautiful pastel of the Old Town hanging on the wall in my lounge which, while it was painted nearly 20 years ago, is still easily identifiable today. We sat in a beachside restaurant down the coast, enjoying the unseasonably warm sunshine, where I had a seafood salad.
Yes, I’m still on my new regimen which is working its magic. Just in time for Halloween, my face no longer frightens small children and I can lose the hat and sunglasses I’ve hidden behind for most of 2015. I reckon my energy levels are back to 75% capacity, meaning I’m ready and willing to take on all comers, including my friends’ children.
Back to Castres, which comes from the Latin word Castrum meaning fortified place. Pretty much nowhere was safe from the Romans! I’m going to let the photographs speak for themselves. I took these with my phone, as my official photographer forgot to pack his camera! As a side note, he also forgot to pack the chargers for his phone and laptop (again).
There’s a statue of Jean Jaures, Castres’ most famous son, a famous French socialist and newspaper publisher, standing guard over the town square while the town has turned his birthplace into a museum in his honour. .
Like me you might be wondering why there’s a museum dedicated to the Spanish artist in France. Located in the former 17th century Episcopal Palace – the town had flirted with both Catharism and Protestantism – it features a wide range of Spanish works up to the 20th century. The museum was established off the back of a donation to the town by a local art collector, Pierre Briguibol, of three paintings by Goya. This small collection was then boosted by works gifted from the Louvre in 1949 and subsequent acquisitions, such as Joan Miro’s Gaudi series.
The Agout river divides the medieval town which has plenty of cobbled walkways, timbered houses, warm yellow-stone buildings with highly decorative wrought iron balustrades and balconies to delight the eye.
Next on my list was Albi, a town I’d driven through early one morning en route to the Tour start in Castres. It’s another medieval city, on the banks of the river Tarn, the source of the clay for the town’s pretty red-bricked buildings and its truly magnificent 13th century Sainte Cecile Cathedral. It’s Europe’s largest brick building. The colourful painted interior is fabulous and unlike any other I’ve seen before – and I’ve seen a few!
Albi’s most famous son is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the neighbouring Palais de Berbie houses the largest collection of his works.
While the cathedral dominates the town and its skyline, there’s plenty of winding cobbled streets lined with more half-timbered houses, many dating back to the 16th century, to explore.
Plus further examples of delicious wrought iron work, like this balcony pictured below.
The patterned red brick and green paint work on the house to the left echoes that of Albi’s main covered market. As far as I’m concerned, no visit is ever complete without a mooch around a town’s main market.
We also drove over the rolling countryside to Cordes-en-Ciel, a steeply walled town, and allegedly one of the prettiest in France. The views from the top of the Old Town were breathtaking.
Its buildings were largely made of honey coloured brick rather than the stone of Castres, or the red bricks of Albi.
This corner of the Midi-Pyrenees is well worth a visit with its undulating countryside, vineyards and plethora of medieval villages to potter around. It’s excellent cycling countryside thanks to the low volume of traffic and afore-mentioned rolling hills. I have a feeling we’ll be back.