The Garonne River starts in the Aran Valley in Spain, way up in the Pyrenees, and then heads north until it meets the Atlantic near Bordeaux. Although this means that the river “hangs a left” just above Toulouse to do so, it's where the river meets up with the southern canal system heading southeast that has made the Garonne so important. That's because this connection runs straight to the Mediterranean – in other words, it's like the Panama Canal of Europe, taking goods from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean without having to go through the Strait of Gibraltar.
Both Bordeaux and Toulouse are on the Garonne, which plays an important role in both cities, as a location for events and leisure, as well as for barges and boats. In Toulouse in particular, the riverside has lots of open public green spaces that feature everything from outdoor art installations to a skate park.
Although some form of fortification has been on this specific tract of land since the Roman era, the fortified city of Carcassonne as it is seen today was constructed throughout the 12th century. It stayed an impregnable fortress for the next several hundred years and was saved from being dismantled in the mid-1800s through a program of complete restoration.
In the ensuing centuries the city outgrew its walls, and today visitors will find a fully modern French town leading up to the gates. But great care has been taken at this UNESCO World Heritage site to keep the grounds surrounding the fortified city as they were, allowing for spectacular views from many vantages. In fact, while it is tempting to stay in one of the few hotels within the walls, it is recommended that you stay outside and enjoy the view of the city.
Due north of Carcassonne, just a little over two hours away from Toulouse, are the Lastours Castles (Châteaux de Lastours). Not much more than ruins now, during the height of Catharism in the 13th century these four castles played a major role in the defense of, access to and passage through the area.
The Lastours Castles each have a name: Cabaret, Quertinheux, Surdespine and Tour Régine. Perhaps most astounding to visitors is their location, situated as they are on an alarmingly narrow ridge. Equally surprising is that archaeologists continue to find historical artifacts near the castles that tell us more about the Cathars.
The Basilique Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile d'Albi, commonly known in English as the Albi Cathedral, looks quite a bit different than most of the churches in France. First, it is made from clay brick instead of stone, giving it a pinkish hue rather than grey. Second and more noticeable still is the bell tower, which looks more like a fortress lookout than the usual intricately carved spires that visitors may be used to.
There's a reason for its fortified presence–it was built after the Church vanquished the Cathars, whose desire to create a new church was considered heretical. Although the site had housed other religious sites (including one that burned down in the year 666!), it is this one that has remained since its construction in the 13th century. Included on the grounds is the Berbie Palace, where bishops once lived and where the Toulouse-Latrec Museum sits today.
The Albi Cathedral, with its fortress-like Palais de la Berbie, brings architecture fans and Cathar history buffs to this small town in southwestern France. But there is another reason to visit as well: the astounding Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, which showcases over a thousand of his works.
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa is best known for capturing the fin-de-siecle decadence of the end of the 19th century in Paris' artsy, bohemian Montmartre district, most notably at the Moulin Rouge cabaret. But he was also accomplished in other media, and the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum is a fantastic way to take an in-depth look at his prolific career.
The red brick town of Albi is synonymous with the famous artist who was born here in 1864, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. This makes the town's Toulouse-Lautrec Museum only fitting, as it boasts more works by the diminutive Impressionist than anywhere else on earth.
The painter is best known for his posters and works delving into the Paris demi-monde, and at the museum you’ll see how Lautrec developed his artworks from pencil sketches into completed paintings. The museum is located near the house where Toulouse-Lautrec was born and also features works by his contemporaries such as Degas, Matisse and Rodin. While in Albi, be sure to visit the massive Gothic cathedral, Ste Cecile, next to the museum, and take a walk through the town’s narrow medieval streets.
Part of the Haut-Languedoc regional park and the southwestern tip of Massif Central, Montagne Noire is a mountain range that overlaps four French departments: Tarn, Hérault, Haute-Garonne and Aude. It is called the Black Mountain because of the dense forest that covers its entire northern slope, an extreme contrast with its typically Mediterranean southern slope, capped in scrubland and olive trees.
Montagne Noire culminates at 3,969 feet (1,210 meters) high with Pic de Nore, from which visitors can admire the splendid panorama that extends all the way to the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees on clear days. The mountain is home to several sites of archaeological interest, starting with Grotte de Limousis, the most impressive developed cave in the department. The cave is made up of eight chambers (one of which contains an exceptional formation of aragonite crystal in the shape of a 13-foot-high (4-meter-high) chandelier) and a series of five stalagmite barriers.
While not the most famous nor the most popular wine appellation in southern France, Cabardès is not one to be overlooked either. Huddled in the arid rolling hills surrounding the medieval fortress of Carcassonne, Cabardès has a surprisingly large array of flavors depending on the climate, as the 1,360-acre (550-hectare) appellation is positioned on the cusp between the Languedoc-Roussillon and Sud-Ouest regions. This duplicity in flavors, aromas, climates and landscapes can easily be perceived in the Cabardès wines, with a noticeable Bordeaux grasp, yet a typically Languedoc depth.
Wine production remained relatively local here until the completion of the Canal du Midi in 1681, which completely revolutionized the winemaking methods in the region, instantaneously making exportation an important part of the game. But despite Cabardès’ medieval origins, the appellation is one of the youngest in France, having only become official in 1999 – a newborn by oenology standards.