Like the most celebrated dish of this area, cassoulet, the southwestern region of France is made up of diverse ingredients. Just as it would be a gross oversimplification to refer to cassoulet merely as a mixture of baked beans, southwestern France is much more than just Toulouse, the peaks of the Pyrénées, and the fairy-tale ramparts of Carcassonne.
For here you'll also find, like so many
raisins sweetening up a spicy stew, the pretty seaside town of Collioure, the famed Côte Vermeille (where Matisse, Picasso, and Braque first vacationed to paint), and Albi, a hilltop town that honors its hometown hero, Toulouse-Lautrec, with a great museum. But in most cases, every traveler heading to this area begins with the regional gateway: "La Ville Rose," so-called for Toulouse's redbrick buildings.
Big enough to be France's fourth-largest city and yet with the look and vibe of a gorgeous small town, Toulouse is all that more famous regional capitals would like to have remained, or to become. The cultural hub of this corner of France, the city has a vibrancy that derives from its large student population and lively music scene, plus a rich heritage of sculpture and architectural gems. Snaking along the banks of the Garonne as it meanders north and west from the Catalan Pyrénées on its way to the Atlantic, romantic Toulouse has a Spanish sensuality unique in all of Gaul. The city began as the ancient capital of the province called Languedoc, so christened when it became royal property in 1270, langue d’oc meaning the country where oc replaced the oui of northeastern France for "yes."
If you head out in any direction from Toulouse you'll enjoy a feast for the eyes. Albi, with its Toulouse-Lautrec legacy, is a star attraction, while Céret is the gateway to a fabled "open-air museum" prized by artists and poets, the Côte Vermeille. The Vermilion Coast is centered around Collioure, the lovely fishing village where Matisse, Derain, and the Fauvists—the "wild beasts" of the early-20th-century art world—threw out the pretty pastel rule book, drawing inspiration instead from the savage tones found in Mother Nature hereabouts. When you see picturesque Collioure's stunning Mediterranean setting, you can understand why Matisse went color-mad. Sheer heaven for painters, the town's magic did not go unnoticed, and it soon drew vacationers by the boatload, who quickly discovered that everything around here seems to be asking to be immortalized on canvas: the Mediterranean, smooth and opalescent at dawn; villagers dancing Sardanas to the music of the raucous and ancient woodwind flavioles and tenores; and the flood of golden light so peculiar to the Mediterranean.