12 days of Christmas: day 1

We visited Castres again in January of this year, where this time I had a pleasant meander around its Goya museum. But that’s not what’s depicted in the photo. These houses in Castres’ handsome Old Town line its Agout riverbank. They’re brightly-coloured houses, with corbelled façades and basements immersed in the river, and have earned Castres the nickname of “Languedoc’s little Venice“.

The earliest houses date back to the end of 12th century and for hundred of years served as workshops for tanners, “chamoiseurs” and parchment-makers who used the water from the river to work the skins. The basements and sinks were found below, above the dryers or “soleliers,” between the two living floors. Faithfully restored, they are a photographers’ delight and provide the town with a link to centuries past. I confess I love photographs where the subject is reflected in water.

Thursday doors #13

I love spotting businesses, generally shops and restaurants, that have been around for decades. Usually they’re family businesses which have been handed down the generations.  As I was wandering around Castres in the January sunshine this door caught my eye.

If you’re wondering, the P stands for Pierre!

Thursday Doors is a weekly feature allowing door lovers to come together to admire and share their favorite door photos from around the world. Feel free to join in the fun by creating your own Thursday Doors post each week and then sharing your link in the comments’ on Norm’s site, anytime between Thursday morning and Saturday noon (North American Eastern Time).

Visit to Goya Museum, Castres

Castres is a stop-over along the St. James’s Way (El Camino de Santiago) which developed from 9th century around the Saint-Benoît abbey (opposite the Bishop’s Palace). Its two claims to fame are as the birth place of Jean Jaurès, former leader of the French Socialist Party, and as the home of the largest French collection of Spanish artworks outside the Louvre.

Castres is a former textiles town which gained its first mechanised wool mill in 1815. Initially the town specialised in luxury cloths later turning toward those with considerably larger markets. Around 1860, there were 50 wool mills in town, employing 3,000 people. At the end of 19th century, mechanical engineering industries appeared alongside those of textiles, and Castres became a major arsenal for the French army during WWI, when it was by far the largest town in the Tarn.

Like many former textile towns in Europe, Castres’ economy has been hard hit by change. Plus, it’s located in a dead-end at the foot of the Massif Central, far from the nearest motorway. Fortunately, it’s only an hour’s drive from Toulouse. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that the gilets jaunes have been very active here.

I first visited Castres when it was a start town for the 2013 Tour de France. The Village du Depart was situated in the gardens to the rear of the Bishop’s Palace, which also houses the Goya museum. By chance in 2015 my beloved acquired a business connection in Castres where, over a week-end, we more fully explored the town though not the museum.

I recently spent a pleasant couple of hours wandering around as its sole visitor, and thereafter the gardens. As I mentioned above, it’s housed in the splendid Bishop’s Palace, designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, one of Versailles many architects. It’s been a museum since 1840 but the Pierre Briguiboul legacy of 1894 (including works by Goya) determined its Hispanic vocation.

The collection has been enlarged over the years, notably from the Louvre itself, and now includes Spanish works dating from 14th century to the present day including some by  Vélasquez, Alonso Cano, Javier Bueno and Picasso. Though, on the day of my visit, the Picasso was out on loan.

The museum also has works of French artists who have copied or interpreted Spanish artists of the “Golden Age”, a Hispanic coin collection covering the Celtiberian period (100-200BC) until the reign of King Carlos IV (1788-1808), Iberian sculptures and a collection of arms. On my visit, there was also (fittingly) an exhibition of ecclesiastical robes.

It’s a perfectly charming museum although there’s not much here I’d willingly put on my walls, not even the Goyas. Afterwards, I took a turn around the garden (Le Jardin de I’Eveche) which  was designed around 1664 by Andre Le Notre, King Louis XIV’s gardener. The four quarter stylised flowerbeds consist of a Lys flower surmounted by a bishop’s hat, joined by an Occitan cross, invoking the association of Royal and Episcopal powers. The external box borders are heightened with trimmed yews of various shapes. This is a great example of 17th century French classicism inspired by the needle works of the women at court. The design is unchanged since the garden’s creation.

The Italianate Municipal Theatre also overlooks the gardens. Inaugurated in 1904, it was designed by the architect Joseph Galinier, a student of Garnier. The interior layout mirrors the “Opéra-Comique” theatre in Paris and its “trompe-l’oeil” dome dedicated to classic tragedy is quite eye-catching.

The houses on the other side of the Agout river from the gardens are nowhere near as attractive as those found further upstream in the handsome old town. These brightly-coloured houses, with corbelled façades and basements immersed in the river, have earned Castres the nickname of “Languedoc’s little Venice“.

The first houses along the river date back to the end of 12th century. For centuries they served as workshops for tanners, “chamoiseurs” and parchment-makers who used the water from the river to work the skins. The basements and sinks were found below, above the dryers or “soleliers,” between the two living floors. Faithfully restored, they are a photographer’s joy and provide a link to centuries gone by.

These houses are in complete contrast to the handsome stone properties which line the town’s main streets and border its main square, testament to the town’s former prosperity, overseen by none other than its most famous son, Jean Jaurès.

Postcard from Castres

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 (pictured above), 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!

Sete edit
Sete “Old Town”

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.

The sky really was that blue!
The sky really was that blue!

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).

Castres Town Square
Castres Town Square

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. .

Goya Museum
Goya Museum

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.

Houses overhanging Agout river
Houses overhanging Agout river

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.

Interesting wood panelled shop-front
Interesting wood panelled shop-front

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!

It's a whopper!
It’s a whopper!

Albi’s most famous son is Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the neighbouring Palais de Berbie houses the largest collection of his works.

The rose coloured town of Albi on the banks of the river Tarn
The rose-coloured town of Albi on the banks of the river Tarn

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.

2015-11-01 Albi half-timber
More half-timbered houses than Stratford-upon-Avon

Plus further examples of delicious wrought iron work, like this balcony pictured below.

2015-11-01 Albi iron


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.

You can see for miles
You can see for miles

Its buildings were largely made of honey coloured brick rather than the stone of Castres, or the red bricks of Albi.

2015-11-01 Cordes hill

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.



Venturing into the unknown

I’m fond of saying the bike often takes me places I’d never go to in the car. The same can be said of watching live racing.  I spent a few idyllic days last week following the Tour de France, revisiting areas such as Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Montpellier and Ax 3 Domaines. But I also had the opportunity to make maiden visits to Albi, Castres, Carcassonne and Mazamet – birthplace of the now tarnished Laurent Jalabert.

UNESCO site, Albi (image: Tourist Office)
UNESCO site, Albi (image: Tourist Office)

Plan A was to follow the Tour thanks to my press accreditation but when this looked unlikely to be forthcoming I reverted to Plan B, accompanying my girlfriend who’s working for Eurosport. Luckily I didn’t cancel my hotel bookings because my accreditation came through at the last moment and my place in the Eurosport car was taken by two of their bigwigs. So I was flying solo!

My plan each day was to get to the Village du Depart as soon as it opened; “hors course” parking enabling me to leave the car nearby. I would pick up a bowl of fresh fruit salad from one of the stands, a glass of water from Vittel, L’Equipe from Credit Lyonnais and find myself a shady corner in which to enjoy all three.

The early inhabitants of the Village tend to be the Tour Caravan and I was somewhat amused one morning to hear Monsieur Cochonou – one of the Tour’s long-term partners – exhorting his team. I generally avoid the Caravan, I have no interest in any of the freebies. I still recall being tackled on the Galibier in 2006 by a large gentleman intent on getting his hands on one of the Cochonou hats which had fluttered in my direction. Frankly I wouldn’t be seen dead in one but thanks to the overzealous attentions of said gentleman I was almost seen dead without one.

Beautiful location for Village du Depart in Castres
Beautiful location for Village du Depart in Castres

The television and video crews are next, grabbing something for breakfast and working out who they want to speak to for that morning’s soundbites. Inevitably most want to speak to the same riders and staff which has prompted more of the teams to employ PR folk with whom slots have to be booked.  It’s difficult to chat to the riders with the attendant scrum of the press pack all of whom earn their living from this. Me, I’m just doing it for my own amusement. As a consequence, I look on it as an opportunity to make contacts which I’ll  renew later in the year when everything is much less pressured.

It’s not that it’s been warm for the time of year but more that, thanks to the wet Spring and delayed onset of summer, I’ve not had time to become acclimatised. I’ve therefore chosen to hover as much as possible in the shade.

While I have a number of friends working on the Tour again it’s hard to do much more than wave from a distance or say a quick hello when everyone’s so busy and intent on their job. However, I have had fun taking loads of photographs, not all of them successful, but I live and learn.

When I’m watching cycling I’m out all day and generally only have time to sleep in my hotel room. I arrive, zonk out, get up the next morning early, pass on breakfast and leave. Consequently, I set myself a budget of no more than 75 Euros a night. Most times the hotels are fine but occasionally I really land on my feet. On Friday evening I stayed about an hour north of Albi, in a walled town in the Aveyron region called Najac. It was a charming family-run establishment – always the best kind – with an excellent restaurant. On my drive there I had passed loads of vineyards and just three cars on undulating terrain, perfect for the bike. I shall return.

After an exciting finish atop Ax 3 Domaines – I kept my eyes closed on the way up and down in the cable car – I decided to head for home rather than go onto Bagneres-de-Bigorre, a place I’ve already visited a few times. As I drove back I realised I would have to make an overnight stop and found an unprepossessing motel just off the motorway outside of Montpellier. But you really can’t judge a book by it’s cover. The rooms were spacious, had recently been refurbished and had those all-important (to me) free WiFi and air-conditioning.

I quickly sent my beloved a message to let him know I’d be back Sunday afternoon telling him that I’d “crashed out” in Montpellier but I omitted the all-important word “out” and he was worried as to how I was going to get back having crashed Tom III! Ah, the perils of texting……