Toulouse and the Languedoc

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  • 1. Abbaye St-Martin du Canigou

    Visitors, tackling a steep, mile-long climb from the parking area, come to make a pilgrimage—aesthetic or spiritual—to this celebrated medieval abbey. It's one of the most photographed in Europe thanks to its sky-kissing location atop a triangular promontory at an altitude of nearly 3,600 feet. St-Martin du Canigou's breathtaking mountain setting was due, in part, to an effort to escape the threat of marauding Saracens from the Middle East. Constructed in 1009 by Count Guifré of Cerdagne, then damaged by an earthquake in 1428 and abandoned in 1783, the abbey was diligently (perhaps too diligently) restored by the Bishop of Perpignan early in the 20th century. The oldest parts are the cloisters and the two churches, of which the lower church, dedicated to Notre-Dame-sous-Terre, is the most ancient. Rising above is a stocky, fortified bell tower. Masses are sung daily—Easter Mass is especially joyous and moving—but the Abbey can only be visited by guided tour (with French narration only), offered five times daily; reservations are not needed unless traveling as a group of 15 or more.

    Casteil, Vernet-les-Bains, Occitania, 66820, France

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €6, Closed Jan. and Mon. Oct.–May
  • 2. Basilique St-Sernin

    Toulouse's most famous landmark and the world's largest Romanesque church once belonged to a Benedictine abbey, built in the 11th century to house pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Inside, the aesthetic high point is the magnificent central apse, begun in 1080, glittering with gilded ceiling frescoes, which date to the 19th century. When illuminated at night, St-Sernin's five-tier octagonal tower glows red against the sky. Not all the tiers are the same: the first three, with their rounded windows, are Romanesque; the upper two, with pointed Gothic windows, were added around 1300. The ancient crypt contains the relics and reliquaries of 128 saints, but its most famed treasure is a thorn that legend says is from the Crown of Thorns.

    Pl. St-Sernin, Toulouse, Occitania, 31000, France

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free, Closed during Sun. Mass
  • 3. Capitole/Hôtel de Ville

    The 18th-century Capitole is home to the Hôtel de Ville and the city's highly regarded opera company. Halfway up the Grand Escalier (Grand Staircase) hangs a large painting of the Jeux Floraux, the "floral games" organized by a literary society created in 1324 to promote the local Occitanian language, Langue d'Oc. The festival continues to this day: poets give public readings here each May, and the best are awarded silver- and gold-plated violets, one of the emblems of Toulouse. At the top of the stairs is the Salle Gervaise, a hall adorned with a series of paintings inspired by the themes of love and marriage. The mural at the far end of the room portrays the Isle of Cythères, where Venus received her lovers, alluding to a French euphemism for getting married: embarquer pour Cythères (to embark for Cythères). More giant paintings in the Salle Henri-Martin, named for the artist (1860–1943), show the passing seasons set against the eternal Garonne. Look for Jean Jaurès (1859–1914), one of France's greatest socialist martyrs, in Les Rêveurs (The Dreamers); he's wearing a boater-style hat and a beige coat. At the far left end of the elegant Salle des Illustres (Hall of the Illustrious) is a large painting of a fortress under siege, portraying the women of Toulouse slaying Simon de Montfort, leader of the Albigensian crusade against the Cathars, during the siege of Toulouse in 1218.

    Pl. du Capitole, Toulouse, Occitania, 31000, France

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free
  • 4. Cathédrale Ste-Cécile

    One of the most unusual and dazzling churches in France, the huge Cathédrale Ste-Cécile (also known as Cathedrale d'Albi), with its intimidating clifflike walls, resembles a cross between a castle and an ocean liner. It was constructed as a symbol of the Church's return to power after the 13th-century crusade that wiped out the Cathars. The interior is an astonishingly ornate contrast to the massive austerity of the outer walls. Maestro Donnelli and a team of 16th-century Italian artists (most of the Emilian school) covered every possible surface with religious scenes and brightly colored patterns—it remains the largest group of Italian Renaissance paintings in any French church. On the west wall you can find one of the most splendid organs in the world, built in 1734 and outfitted with 3,500 pipes, which loom over a celebrated fresco of the Last Judgment.

    Pl. Ste-Cécile, Albi, Occitania, 81000, France

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €6
  • 5. Chateau de Peyrepertuse

    If you have time to fit only one of Languedoc's bevy of Cathar castles into your trip, formidable Peyrepertuse is the one to go for. High above the pretty village of Duilhac, its jagged ramparts command amazing views.

    Lieudit Le Chateau, Perpignan, Occitania, 11350, France

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €7
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  • 6. Ensemble Conventuel des Jacobins

    An extraordinary structure built in the 1230s for the Dominicans (renamed Jacobins in 1216 for their Parisian base in Rue St-Jacques), this church is dominated by a single row of seven columns running the length of the nave. The easternmost column (on the far right) is one of the finest examples of palm-tree vaulting ever erected, the much-celebrated Palmier des Jacobins, a major masterpiece of Gothic art. Fanning out overhead, its 22 ribs support the entire apse. The original refectory site is used for temporary art exhibitions, dance performances, and community events. The cloister is one of the city's aesthetic and acoustical gems, and in summer hosts piano and early music concerts.

    Pl. des Jacobins, Toulouse, Occitania, 31000, France

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Church free; cloister €5 June–Sept., €4 Oct.–May, Closed Mon.
  • 7. La Cité de Carcassonne

    La Cité

    La Cité de Carcassonne is the original fortified part of the town, often first glimpsed as a fairy-tale-like castle floating on a distant hilltop when approaching by car. Legend has it that Charlemagne laid siege to the original settlement here early in the 9th century, only to be outdone by one Dame Carcas—a clever woman who boldly fed the last of the city's wheat to a pig in full view of the would-be conqueror. Thinking this indicated endless food supplies (and an endless siege), Charlemagne promptly decamped, and the exuberant townsfolk named their city after her. During the 13th century, Louis IX (St-Louis) and his son Philip the Fair strengthened Carcassonne's fortifications—so much so that the town came to be considered inviolable by marauding armies and was duly nicknamed "the virgin of Languedoc." A town that can never be taken in battle is often abandoned, however, and for centuries thereafter Carcassonne remained under a Sleeping Beauty spell. It was only awakened during the 19th-century craze for chivalry and the Gothic style, when, in 1835, the historic-monument inspector (and poet) Prosper Mérimée arrived. He was so appalled by the dilapidated state of the walls that he commissioned the architect, painter, and historian Viollet-le-Duc (who found his greatest fame restoring Paris's Notre-Dame) to undertake repairs. Today the 1844 renovation is considered almost as much a work of art as the medieval town itself. No matter if La Cité is more Viollet than authentic; it still remains one of the most romantic sights in France. There’s no mistaking the fact that 21st-century tourism has taken over this UNESCO World Heritage site. La Cité’s streets are lined with souvenir shops, crafts boutiques, restaurants, and tiny "museums" (a Cathars Museum, a Hat Museum), all out to make a buck and rarely worth that. But you should still plan on spending at least a couple of hours exploring the walls and peering over the battlements across sun-drenched plains toward the distant Pyrénées. Staying overnight within the ancient walls lets you savor the timeless atmosphere after the daytime hordes are gone. There's an annex of the city tourist office at 21 rue Cros, just inside the Porte Narbonnaise.

    Carcassonne, Occitania, 11000, France
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  • 8. Marché Victor Hugo

    This hangarlike indoor market, where you're sure to find the ingredients for almost any French recipe, is always a refreshing stop. Consider eating lunch at one of the five upstairs restaurants; Chez Attila, just to the left at the top of the stairs, is among the best.

    Pl. Victor Hugo, Toulouse, Occitania, 31000, France

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Closed Mon.
  • 9. Musée d'Art Moderne

    Some of the town landscapes captured in paintings by Picasso, Gris, Dufy, Braque, Chagall, Masson, and others are on view in this fine museum.

    8 bd. Maréchal-Joffre, Céret, Occitania, 66403, France

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €10, Closed Mon.
  • 10. Musée Toulouse-Lautrec

    In a garden designed by the renowned André Le Nôtre, creator of the "green geometries" at Versailles, the landmark Palais de la Berbie (Berbie Palace), between the cathedral and the Pont Vieux (Old Bridge), is the setting for this exceptional museum. Built in 1265 as a residence for Albi's archbishops, the fortresslike structure was transformed in 1922 into a museum to honor Albi's most celebrated son, Belle Époque painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901). Toulouse-Lautrec left Albi for Paris in 1882 and soon became famous for his colorful, tumultuous evocations of the lifestyle of bohemian glamour found in and around Montmartre. Son of a wealthy and aristocratic family (Lautrec is a village not far from Toulouse), the young Henri suffered from a genetic bone deficiency and broke both legs as a child, which stunted his growth. But it was the artist's fascination with the decadent side of life that led him to an early grave at the age of 37. The museum's collection of artworks—more than a thousand, representing the world's largest Toulouse-Lautrec corpus—has been deftly organized into theme rooms, including galleries devoted to some of his greatest portraits and scenes from Paris's maisons closées (brothels), with paintings stylishly hung amid the palace's brick ogival arches. There are other masterworks here, including paintings by Georges de la Tour and Francesco Guardi.

    off Pl. Ste-Cécile, Albi, Occitania, 81000, France

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €10, gardens free, Closed Mon. Oct.–Apr.
  • 11. Parc Natural Régional du Haut-Languedoc

    Stretching from Revel (51 km/32 miles west of Toulouse) to Bedarieux (40 km/25 miles north of Béziers), the Haut Languedoc Regional Natural Park embraces some 3,100 squre km (1,200 square miles) of thickly wooded hills and valleys and is home to diverse wildlife. Its slopes are traversed by Grande Randonnée long-distance walking trails.

    1 pl. Foirial, Carcassonne, Occitania, France

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free
  • 12. Réserve Africaine de Sigean

    On a hot summer day, a drive through the vast compounds of this open-air wildlife park can (almost) feel like a real African safari. Lions, rhinos, zebras, and giraffes roam at large while flamingoes, pelicans, and storks nest and soar above the lagoons (don't miss pelican feeding time).

    19 Hameau du Lac, Occitania, 11130, France

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €33
  • 13. Abbaye de St-Michel de Cuxa

    One of the gems of the Pyrénées, this medieval abbey's sturdy, crenellated bell tower is visible from afar. The remains of its cloisters are divine in every sense of the word—if they seem familiar, it may be because you’ve seen the missing pieces in New York City's Cloisters museum. A hauntingly simple, six-voice Gregorian vespers service held (somewhat sporadically) at 7 pm in the monastery is medieval in tone and texture; next door, the 10th-century pre-Romanesque church (France’s largest) has superb acoustics that make it an unforgettable concert venue.

    Prades, Occitania, 66500, France

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: €6, Closed 2 wks in late Jan.
  • 14. Ancienne Cathédrale St-Nazaire

    Rebuilt over several centuries after the sack of Béziers, the cathedral's western facade resembles a fortress for good reason—it served as a warning to would-be invaders. Note the medieval wall along Rue de Juiverie, which formed the limit between the cathedral precincts and the Jewish quarter. Inside the cathedral, look for the magnificent 17th-century walnut organ and the frescoes representing the lives of St-Stephen and others.

    Plan des Albigeois, Béziers, Occitania, 34500, France
  • 15. Antigone

    At the far-east end of the city loop, Montpellier seems to transform itself into a futuristic metropolis designed in one smooth, low-slung postmodern style. This is the Antigone district, the result of city planners' efforts (and local industries' commitment) to pull Montpellier up out of its economic doldrums. It worked. This ideal neighborhood, designed by the Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill, covers 100-plus acres with plazas, esplanades, shops, restaurants, and low-income housing constructed out of stone-color, prestressed concrete. Don't miss Place du Nombre d'Or—symmetrically composed of curves—and the long vista that stretches down a mall of cypress trees to the glass-fronted Hôtel de Region.

    Montpellier, Occitania, 34000, France
  • 16. Arc de Triomphe

    Looming majestically over the peripheral highway that loops around the city center, this enormous arch is the centerpiece of the Peyrou. Designed by d'Aviler in 1689, it was finished by Giral in 1776. Together, the noble scale of these harmonious stone constructions and the sweeping perspectives they frame make for an inspiring stroll through this upscale stretch of town. At the end of the park is the historic Château d'Eau, a Corinthian temple and the terminal for les Arceaux, an 18th-century aqueduct; on a clear day the view from here is spectacular, taking in the Cévennes Mountains, the sea, and an ocean of red-tile roofs (it's worth coming back at night to see the entire promenade illuminated).

    Montpellier, Occitania, 34000, France
  • 17. Cathédrale St-Étienne

    The cathedral was erected in stages between the 13th and the 17th century, though the nave and choir languished unfinished because of a lack of funds. A fine collection of 16th- and 17th-century tapestries traces the life of St-Stephen. In front of the cathedral is the city's oldest fountain, dating from the 16th century.

    Pl. St-Étienne, Toulouse, Occitania, 31000, France
  • 18. Cathédrale St-Jean-Baptiste

    Note the frilly wrought-iron campanile and dramatic medieval crucifix on the Cathédrale St-Jean-Baptiste.

    Pl. Gambetta, Perpignan, Occitania, 66000, France
  • 19. Cathédrale St-Just-et-St-Pasteur

    The town's former wealth is evinced by the 14th-century Cathédrale St-Just-et-St-Pasteur—its vaulting rises 133 feet from the floor, making it the tallest cathedral in southern France. Only Beauvais and Amiens (both in Picardy) are taller, and, as at Beauvais, the nave here was never completed. The "Creation" tapestry is the cathedral's finest treasure. Enter from the back side (Rue Gustave Fabre) for an especially impressive look at the unfinished nave and insight into the construction process.

    Rue Armand-Gauthier, Narbonne, Occitania, 11100, France
  • 20. Cathédrale St-Pierre

    After taking in the broad vistas of the Promenade de Peyrou, cross over into the Vieille Ville and wander its maze of narrow streets full of pretty shops and intimate restaurants. At the northern edge of the Vieille Ville, visit this imposing cathedral. Its fantastical 14th-century entry porch alone warrants the detour: two cone-top towers—some five stories high—flank the main portal and support a groin-vaulted shelter. The interior, despite 18th-century reconstruction, maintains the formal simplicity of its 14th-century origins.

    Pl. St-Pierre, Montpellier, Occitania, 340009, France

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