When we think of French châteaux, we tend to think, first and foremost, of the Loire Valley . If you have explored those many glorious palaces in their magnificent garden settings, and love the idea of doing a châteaux-focussed trip elsewhere in France, may I strongly suggest you consider at least some of the huge number in the Gironde region just south of Bordeaux. Unlike most of the Loire châteaux, many of those in the Gironde started off very much as fortresses before becoming splendid residences for royalty, the aristocracy and the occasional Pope. Today, many are open to visitors, and all are magnificent!
An hour’s drive north of Toulouse lies the medieval town of Moissac at the confluence of the Garonne and Tarn rivers, at the Canal de Garonne. We had been to Moissac a few years ago, drawn by the town’s medieval Abbey. It was classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 as a landmark church on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Renowned for its magnificent sculptures, and especially for its beautiful cloister, the Abbey is one of the country’s jewels of Romanesque art. To add to its attractions for the visitor, Moissac also has one of the highest concentrations of Art Déco buildings in South West France. It was an obvious choice for an overnight stopover as we headed towards Bordeaux from the Languedoc.
We have been travelling around the Languedoc region on and off for many years, and this time, as well as returning to some old favourites, we were keen to seek out a few places and sights we hadn’t visited before. We thought we would drive from Marseille up towards Bordeaux, and during our research, we kept coming across the name of what sounded like a most interesting town. Located about 73 kms east of Toulouse and 45 kms south east of Albi, lies the picturesque town of Castres, intersected by two rivers, the Durenque and Agout. The town developed around an early Benedictine Abbey and became famous in medieval times for its tanneries and textile houses, particularly for the wool trade, that depended on the flow of the river Agout. Today, known for its 12th century coloured houses built along the banks of the river, Castres has often been dubbed ‘the Venice of Languedoc’.
Situated high above the flat plain of northern Picardy, is the medieval city of Laon, known as the ‘Montagne Couronnée’ (the Crowned City). It sits isolated atop a 100m high limestone rock, surrounded by the low, flat plains below. The high town, encircled by 8 kms of walls and formidable gates, is France’s largest protected historic centre. The town’s crowning glory is the early 12th century Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Laon, visible for kilometres in every direction. It’s one of the earliest and greatest Gothic monuments in France.
The City of Lille in the north of France is one of the loveliest in the country. Although largely unknown outside France, Lille has so much to captivate the visitor. From a beautiful historic quarter, much of which is pedestrianised, to great food, excellent shopping possibilities, and an enormous number of cultural attractions. Two of these are Art Deco gems, located outside the city in the suburbs of Roubaix and Croix, just a quick metro or tram ride from the city centre.