Art Ancient and
In Southwestern France
Story and Photos by Corinna Lothar
villages sit on hilltops overlooking fertile fields, rivers and lakes.
Medieval castles dot the landscape. For a thousand years, pilgrims have
crossed this southwestern French countryside, the Midi Pyrenees,
en route to Santiago de Compostela, stopping for food and shelter wherever
the scallop shell, symbol of St. James, is displayed.
Today, pilgrims continue along the same route via the
exquisite village of Conques, now as then a major stopping point for
pilgrims. They are recognizable by their walking staffs and the scallop
shell attached to their backpacks. A German couple, who spend their
summer holidays on the long trek from Cologne
to western Spain, explain that each year they walk part of the route,
until they finally reach the town where the apostle James is said to
View of Conques
Conques, classified as one of the most beautiful villages
of France, has not changed much over the centuries. Its lovely half-timbered
houses tumble down steep lanes behind the magnificent abbey of St. Foy.
As dusk falls gently on the surrounding hills, Brother Jean Daniel,
one of a handful of monks charged with keeping the abbey, lectures visitors
about the 12th century tympanum depicting the Last Judgment. He invites
his audience into the cathedral for an impromptu organ concert as the
last rays of the setting sun illuminate Pierre Soulages 20th century
windows. Its a moment of timeless magic.
The abbeys treasury is filled with jewel encrusted,
golden reliquaries, including one said to have been a gift from Charlemagne.
Just outside the village, the Domaine de Cambelong,
a hotel and restaurant owned by Herve Busset, is not only a lovely place
to spend the night, but chef Busset prepares outstanding meals. His
hotel is what visitors dream of: the charming little country inn with
haute cuisine prepared by a master chef.
The occasion for my visit to this region of France was
the opening of the brand new Soulages museum in Rodez, a small provincial
town near Conques, and the recently renovated Toulouse-Lautrec museum
in Albi, one of the Midi Pyrenees most impressive medieval towns.
Rodez and Pierre Soulages
Rarely does a city build a new museum honoring a single
living painter, but Rodez built a museum, designed by a Catalan firm
of architects, to house some 500 of the the 94 year old artists
works. Soulages, who was born in Rodez, calls it an unusual
museum, unusual in its steel walls and floor, in the large, light filled
rooms and the smaller, darker ones, and its restaurant reflecting Soulages
interest in light. Michel Bras, whose restaurant in Laguiole earned
him three Michelin stars, and his son, Sebastien, are responsible for
the fine cooking in the museums restaurant.
Aside from the Bras restaurant in the Soulages Museum,
Isabelle Auguy is the chef-owner of a first class restaurant in the
outskirts of town. Her elegant, modern restaurant overlooks the verdant
At the Rodez twice-weekly farmers market, you
can find gateau a la broche (cake on a stick), which resembles
the Bavarian Christmas Baumkuchen (tree cake). It is sliced
horizontally and baked in layers that look like rings on a tree. Legend
has it that the cake was brought to the Aveyron region from Germany
by Napoleons army. Fouace, a yeast cake resembling
a brioche, is another ubiquitous Aveyron specialty. Vendors at the Rodez
market sell aligot a regional specialty of mashed potatoes
mixed with a little cream, garlic and local Laguiole cheese, and spicy
vegetable pancakes called farcous.
Rodez market farcous seller
Menir "Lady" at Fenaille Museum
Rodez is a medieval city with an imposing pink cathedral
and a center of narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants. A shop
in the center of town sells the regions famous Laguiole knife,
invented iin 1829 by the son of a local innkeeper, who brought a knife
with a curved blade back from Catalonia. The Laguiole knife is hinged
with a spring closure.
The Fenaille Museum in Rodez has an outstanding collection
of pre-historic carved stones called menirs. They are mysterious
and enigmatic, dating back some 5,000 years, and the first time that
human beings are represented in sculpture.
Albi and Toulouse-Lautrec
Albi is dominated by the huge 13th century fortress-cathedral
St. Cecile. The Albigensian heresy was a movement that flourished in
southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Albigenses, or Cathars,
believed in the forces of good and evil with the material world considered
as evil; they were eradicated by the Pope and the king of France. The
cathedral was a reminder to the people of the power of the church and
View of Albi, Cathedral Sainte Cecile and old bridge
Albis medieval quarter consists of half-timbered
houses on narrow streets. A lovely garden restaurant awaits hungry visitors.
The family-owned Clos Sainte Cecile is located in what was once a school
and is close to the cathedral. An 11th century bridge spans the Tarn
river leading to the newer parts of town where visitors can delight
in the Academy of Miniatures, a museum of doll-house size
19th century rooms, constructed by Annie Juarez whose son-in-law now
runs the little museum-cafe. On the same right bank is another small
museum dedicated to the 18th century French explorer of the Pacific,
Jean-Francois de Laperouse.
The renovated Toulouse-Lautrec museum is located in
the 13th century archbishops palace. The extensive collection
includes the posters that made Henri, born in Albi in 1864, famous.
A few miles outside Albi in Camjac is the Chateau du Bosc where Toulouse-Lautrec
spent much of his childhood. The castle is open to the public and tours
are given by the painters distant cousin, a delightful old lady
who shows a visitor the drawings Henri made on the castles whitewashed
walls and tells animated tales of the his childhood.
Mme. Nicole Berangere Tapie de Celeyran with Touloouse-Lautrec's
childhood drawings, Chateau du Bosc
Albis wealth in the 14th and 15th centuries was
built on the dark green leaves of a small plant which flourished in
the region: woad the French call it pastel used to
make an indelible pale blue dye. Toulouse soon took over preeminence
in the woad trade, and from the mid-15th to mid-16th centuries, the
merchants of the city built fabulous mansions with towers that served
no purpose other than to show off wealth and good fortune. Prosperity
came figuratively crashing down when cheaper indigo arrived from India.
Today, in a minor renaissance, woad is again being cultivated for the
production of cosmetics.
Toulouse, art and cuisine
Toulouse, Frances fourth largest metropolis, is
said to be pink at dawn, red at noon and mauve at dusk.
Toulouse is a university town and the center of Frances aerospace
industry. The old, central part of town is graced with red brick buildings
and amusing towers. The great central square in front of the imposing
18th century Capitole (City Hall) is a center of civic activity.
The city is famous for its violets, the first flower to grow in winter,
and shops sell everything from violet sweets to scents. Violets were
brought from Italy by Napoleons soldiers, and the thrifty Toulouse
merchants sold them all over France and Europe. Today, there are 10
The city has many museums, including the fine art Augustin
museum housed in a former convent, its cloister guarded by a display
of fierce gargoyles. The 16th century Renaissance Hotel dAssezat
houses the Bemberg collection of art; the modern art museum is located
in the former slaughterhouse on the bank of the Garonne.
Gargoyles guarding cloister
One of the splendors of Toulouse is the former Dominican
church with its beautiful murals, stained glass windows and ribbed vaults,
especially the 22-branch palm tree vault in the apse. The large St.
Sernin Romanesque basilica was built in the 11th and 12th centuries
to accommodate all those pilgrims. Theres a lively flea market
outside the church on week-ends.
remains Frances number one dining destination, with Lyon considered
a close second, Toulouse has its share of first class restaurants. Toulouse
is known for its cassoulet, a soul-satisfying rich stew of white beans,
duck, pork, vegetables and sausages, but restaurants also offer far
more sophisticated fare. Chef Michel Sarrans two star restaurant
bearing his name, for example, is elegant both in decor and in the presentation
of complex haute cuisine. The chef incorporates the best in local produce,
game and fish into his unique dishes.
Le Bibent, a brasserie on the central Place du Capitole,
is a marvel of art nouveau decor, dating to 1882. The food is innovative
and delicious, the surroundings magnificent. Michel Bras has opened
a unique fast food cafe-restaurant in the center of Toulouse,
called Le Capucin signe Bras. Bras serves a variety of sandwiches in
pancake-like bread, called capucins because
they resemble the Capuchin monks hoods.
An unusual Toulouse neighborhood restaurant is Chez
Navarre, where patrons sit at tables shared with strangers, and help
themselves to a French home-style buffet of hot and cold dishes. The
fare changes daily but there are always half a dozen salads and three
or four main dishes, soup and, of course, cheese, and dessert.
Foie gras is a regional specialty. At Restaurant Emile,
a diner can splurge on a first course of pate de foie gras with mango
chutney, followed by ravioli filled with foie gras in a scrumptious
mushroom sauce. The rest of the duck, grilled or in a cassoulet, is
available as well.
Touloouse has several covered markets. The 120 year
old Victor Hugo market has over 100 stalls and houses not only an extraordinary
array of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meat and wines, but also stalls
selling foie gras, black pork sausages and fancy ice creams. There are
several lively bars in the market. The smaller, Carmes market, is equally
interesting and filled with beautiful produce. Like the Victor Hugo
market, its nineteenth century metal structure has been replaced by
Fishmonger at Victor Hugo covered market, Toulouse
Midi Pyrenees region is famous for a number of specialties,
including Roquefort, the sharp blue cheese, which is sold in differing
degrees of sharpness, and the wines of Marcillac.
A peculiarity of the region are the bastides, fortified
villages, usually round, built by the French and English in the thirteenth
and fourteenth centuries. In exchange for protection from the reigning
lord, the villagers would promise fealty. Cordes sur Ciel is one of
the earliest, high up on a hilltop. Its a trek up the cobble-stoned
streets to the village, but worth the climb. One of the local legends
holds that a dragon lived in the hill and prevented construction of
the village. So the local people called on St. Michael for help; he
slew the dragon and Cordes was built. It is called Cordes-sur-Ciel because
at certain times of the year, the cloud cover is below the village,
which then sits above the clouds.
Regardless of whether you have come to this region of
France for business, for pleasure, or as a pilgrim, there are delights
If You Go:
Should you be returning home on Air France, and happen
to be lucky enough to be in business class, you just might get a slice
of foie gras with your dinner. Its a little piece of France to
take home (as long as you eat it before you get to U.S. customs). Air
France, which flies from several American cities nonstop to Paris, has
a premium economy class of service between economy and business, which
is almost as good as business but considerably cheaper.
Hotel de lOpera in Toulouse is an excellent, elegant, old
fashioned hotel with splendid views of the Capitole square. The Domaine
de Cambelong in Conques is highly recommended for its charm and
superb cuisine. In Albi, the Hotel
Mercure offers lovely views of the old city, has a good restaurant
and offers fresh self-squeezed orange juice at breakfast. The Mercure
chain is reliable for clean, business style rooms and service throughout
For more information, contact www.tourism-midi-pyrenees.co.uk
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the Footsteps of the Duke of Burgundy; Pyla-sur-Mer;
Southwestern France; Montagne,
Southwestern France; Champagne