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’.
Rising from the crystal clear azure waters of il Golfo di Napoli, the island of Ischia has been a sough-after destination by visitors for centuries. Covered with lemon trees, vineyards and olive groves, Ischia is a beautiful, volcanic island that’s a haven for those seeking a beach holiday off the beaten track, but also for those interested in its vibrant, often violent, history dating back thousands of years. Here, glamorous hotels mix with more secluded accommodation dotted along its rugged coastline, all juxtaposed with healing hot springs, traditional residential neighbourhoods, religious street parades and zooming Vespas.
The history of Tarquinia is inextricably connected to the history of the Etruscans. It was here that one of the first settlements of their civilisation arose, made up of a gathering of small groups that clustered together into a complex social structure and formed a city-state. Although little is visible of the once-great wealth and extent of the ancient city, today Tarquinia is famous for its ancient Etruscan tombs in the widespread necropoli, or cemeteries. However, Tarquinia offers so much more. Surrounded by its imposing ancient walls, within the city there are numerous beautiful Romanesque-Gothic churches, a 13th century Palace, and a Baroque priory. Most surprising of all though are the numerous towers, very similar to those found in San Gimignano to its north.