From the quaint city life of Albi to the rustic vineyards of Gaillac, the Tarn gives you a sophisticated adventure
A two-hour flight from Manchester to Toulouse-Blagnac, the closest international airport to the Tarn region of France, and you reach this undiscovered gem in the south-west of the country. Take everything you love about rural France – the food, the wine, the picturesque views and the laid back way of life and add in an alluring mix of character and charm and you arrive at the Tarn. Here are 14 things to do while you are there.
1.Explore the delightful city of Albi
Albi sits north-east of Toulouse, about an hour’s drive from the airport, and it’s probably one of the most unlikely cities you’ll ever encounter. Pretty red stone buildings and meandering paths give it a village-like atmosphere but with a bustling shopping district and an interesting cultural appeal, it certainly earns it city status. Local life is relaxed and contagious, the people are pleasant and the town steeped in historical relevance. It has more than enough character to satisfy a gentle stroll of a morning.
2. Have breakfast overlooking the river in Albi
I stayed at the Mercure Albi which sits nestled on the river bank in the city’s old town – there are two distinct districts in the city, the old town and modern Albi – with a wonderful view across the water, ideal to bring you round in the morning over a coffee and a croissant. You are perfectly situated to marvel at the town’s three idyllic stone bridges, which connect the two sides of the river Tarn running peacefully through the middle of the city. The bridges date back as early as 1040 and at one point had houses built on top but now they provide a postcard-perfect backdrop and it isn’t hard to understand why this place has had a UNESCO world heritage listing since 2010.
3. Stop for wildlife watching
Peering over the bridge and looking across the river Albi is great for the view but it’s also the best spot to catch sight of the gigantic catfish (some up to 3m long) pouncing on the pigeons drinking from the shore.
4. Marvel at the Sainte-Cécile Cathedral
The real draw to the city sits at its heart – a towering red brick cathedral, not your conventional structure but a stark reminder of the turbulent religious times in which it has its origin. The exterior is not dissimilar to a fortress complete with gargoyles protruding from the top to keep demons at bay. It took over 400 years to complete the Sainte-Cécile Cathedral, dating back to around 13th Century, which is still a working place of worship to Albigensians with daily services taking place, as well as a focal point of the tourist trail in the city.
5. Sample delights at The Marches Couvert
If you have the pleasure of waking up to Albi on a Saturday morning, you simply must pay a visit to the Marches Couvert, an indoor food market that has been established since 1901, selling a vast array of fresh local produce from bread and pastries to fruit, vegetables, fish and meat, as well as traditional French and local delicacies.
6. Eat Michelin-standard food at affordable prices
Boutique hotels, traditional cafés and Michelin-standard restaurants are where the modern Albi comes to life. La table du Sommelier (20 Rue Porta, www.latablesusommelier.com) was awarded the Bib Gourmand in the 2017 Michelin guide and is the perfect example of Albi’s laid back but sumptuous gastronomy vibe, while l’Epicurien (42 Place Jean Jaurès, www.restaurantlepicurien.com) helps lift the city onto a much more contemporary path with influences from Belgium and Sweden bringing a Bavarian and Nordic flair to the cuisine.
7. Take a cookery class
Gastronomy is undeniably a major part of this region and if it’s something you particularly enjoy discovering then there is also chance to learn to cook traditional French cuisine (and eat it after) with the amiable Chef Franck Auger at his cookery school, Les secret Gourmands (72 Avenue General de Gaulle, 81220 Realmont), not far from the city of Albi.
8. Sample the cheeses of the Black Mountain
About an hour south-east, the Montagne Noire (the Black Mountain) is a sparsely populated landscape where locals build trade between themselves by exchanging their produce, as well as supplying the region with largely organic produce. It’s a simplistic way of living where each morning nearby farms can be seen dropping off bread in exchange for cheese. Visiting one of the farm’s in this area is certainly worth it, especially Le Rodier Rouairoux (81260 ANGLES) where Marie and Sebastian Dubouchard will talk you through the wonderful art of making delicious unpasteurised cheeses like camembert, and tomme. Go on an empty stomach because of course you get to sample it too!
9. Climb the steps to the windmill of Lautrec
Les Plus Beaux Villages de France is an association recognising the beautiful settlements that shape the French countryside, there are around 155 of these in France and four of those are in the Tarn. The Bastide village of Lautrec being one, a small medieval village in the heart of the region, well-known for its pink garlic, timbered houses, windmill, and for holding the family heritage of Toulouse Lautreac. It has a wonderful mix of modern charm and historical beauty and if you can climb the steep steps to reach the windmill, the view is breathtaking.
10. Feel like you are on the set of Beauty and the Beast at Castelnau de Montmiral
Actually, you very nearly will be but the village declined the production team because it would interfere with their busiest season but you can understand why they wanted to film here. It’s a very tranquil setting with marvellous views, and beautiful stone pathways leading up to a picturesque square and a charming little church dating back to the 15th Century.
11. Wine tasting in Gaillac
Château de Mayragues (81140 Castelnau de Montmiral www.chateau-demayragues.com), a great place to go for the obligatory wine tasting trip. It’s special because it’s actually more of a boutique vineyard, at just 13 hectares, it produces only around 30,000 bottles a year, and the setting is idyllic, sitting on slopes which lead down to the Tarn river. It’s one of the oldest vineyards in France and the first to become bio-dynamic in the region.
12. Have Sunday lunch at Chateau de Salettes
Chateau de Salettes is probably the best place to go for Sunday lunch, it is very regularly greeted with nods of recognition when you share your intent to visit. Dating back to the 13th Century, and set in 32-hectares of thousand-year-old vineyards, the castle has been beautifully restored into a stunning setting for weekenders and families. Polish Head Chef, Ludovic Dziewulski joined in 2016 and serves up an adventurous and promising repertoire of dishes using locally sourced ingredients where possible and the house Sommelier paired the food excellently.
13. Have dinner with strangers in the country
Trust me, they won’t be strangers for long. The magnificent Domaine de Perches (2083 Route de Laborie – 81600 GAILLAC) is a unique take on your average B&B style accommodation. The white stone chateau, ran by the delightful, Howard and Allan, of British and French descent respectively, was originally a white wine producing farm but since they took it over, it has been transformed into a guest house of exquisite design. You are invited to enjoy dinner with the owners as part of your stay, where excellent food and good conversation come naturally to them. A stay here will provide all the quality you need – sit poolside and marvel at views of stunning meadows, fields and woods, take a walk through the vineyard.