Carcassonne and Narbonne
First on the list has to be Carcassonne, an hour’s drive away and a major French icon with its UNESCO World Heritage. This medieval city was built on the ruins of an old Roman fortress and its skyline, with 52 towers and 3km of ramparts, looks like something straight out of a Disney fairytale. For a taste of local life, head to the market on Place Carnot – or visit during the festival (June to August), which unites theatre, circus, dance and opera.
In the afternoon, head to the seaside at the traditional family resort of Narbonne. At the foot of the Clape massif, Narbonne-Plage, it boasts 5km of beaches fringed by fragrant pine forests, and a selection of small shops, lively terraces and intimate restaurants. Active types can enjoy sailing, deep-sea fishing and horse-riding here.
Albi and Cordes
Clinging to the banks of the River Tarn, the blushing red-brick town of Albi is another photogenic gem, with its old bridge and Saint-Salvi quarter all testimony to its development in the 10th and 11th centuries. Built in a unique southern French Gothic style in the characteristic red and orange brick, the lofty cathedral dominates the town skyline – but there’s a real juxtaposition of old and new here, as skateboarders show off their skills on the large piazza in front of it, and the streets buzz with cafés, well-priced restaurants and independent shops. Don’t miss the museum dedicated to Impressionist painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who was born nearby.
If you’re looking for the quintessential Occitanie hilltop village, look no further than Cordes-sur-Ciel, so-named for its vertiginous position overlooking the Gaillac vineyards and which, when shrouded in mist, looks like it’s floating in the sky. Much of the Gothic architecture in Cordes is intact so you can walk up (no cars are allowed) one of two the main streets and look at the Grand Ecuyer, where the 13th-century gargoyles are preserved. Stock up on local delicacies – foie gras, wine and cheese – and stop by at the artisan boutiques of ceramics, leatherwork, sculpture or calligraphy.
In the countryside of neighbouring Gers, Auch is so steep that, in medieval times, special stairways were built to help its citizens get down to the river safely. These so-called ‘pousterles’ are unique to Auch, and five remain today. Don’t miss the iconic statue of local character d’Artagnan, and Auch’s cathedral, resplendent with Renaissance masterpieces – then stop off at a local Armagnac distillery.
Armagnac is France’s leading eau de vie, skilfully crafted exclusively in Gers. From late October to mid-December, you can visit local estates for tastings and cocktail masterclasses. During the ‘Flamme de l’Armagnac’, the height of the distillation period from November to December, some estates organise festive dinners beside the stills.
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