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THE OCCITANIE TOURIST FOR FOODIES + ART DE VIVRE
 
(2023 - Fall/Winter Issue)

Writer: ILONA KAUREMSZKY



Teetering between heaven and earth, there’s a rocky medieval mountain village that crowns one of southwest France’s valleys of riches. It’s a region where Harry Potter would feel right at home.

In the Albigensian walled town of Cordes-sur-Ciel that appears to float in the clouds, mysteries and legends of this 800-year-old hilltop hamlet are chockablock. 

Wander the steep storybook cobbled laneways passing whimsical timber facades and Gothic stone houses adorned in gargoyles and stags, and spot clusters of artist studios and craft shops. Outside these stone structures, medieval tin knights greet passersby as original artworks of sleeping dragons hover by blue pastel shutters, a hue that is as common as the pink shades sprucing up Toulouse, Montauban and Albi, a trinity of pink cities nearby. 

As one of France’s highly lauded Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (meaning most beautiful villages), a title bestowed only in 2021, day-trippers come for the scenic vistas, architecture, gallery hops and shops, and to savour the laidback living of escagoter (a local Tarn expression for “lounge around”). Of course, ice cream from Yves Thuriès, Cordes-sur-Ciel’s beloved son and renowned master chocolatier, is a must. His tiny ice cream stand abuts his confectionary shop and his sugar and chocolate musée happens to be in one of the oldest medieval houses in the city. I wonder if this foodie encounter meets art de vivre is by design.

THE BACKSTORY

Unlike the rest of France, this fearless realm in southwest France has a fierce pride of independence, thanks to religion and politics dating back to when counts living in Toulouse ruled the day from the late 8th century until 1271 and worshippers practised Catharism, which sparked the bloody Albigensian Crusade in the 13th century. Their distinct Occitan language (a hybrid of Spanish, Latin and Italian influences dating back centuries) is making a slow comeback; and today, you’ll discover a rich culture teeming with local legends and food traditions. 

I have made it to Occitanie, a region that is as distinct as the macarré (square macarons) eaten here. It’s duck country, foie gras land, the capital of the carb-rich cassoulet, a simmering comfort food of duck confit, pork sausage, white beans, and yes, more duck fat. Occitanie holds the top spot as France’s biggest wine and organic agricultural region, so naturally, it has its own brand of pain au chocolat, the chocolatine; the bubbly Crémant de Limoux, which is arguably older than champagne; and of course, there’s Armagnac, a robust fuller-bodied cognac version. And when satisfied after a meal, you say “On est coufle” and not “I’m full.”

In early June I arrived at La Ville Rose on board an inaugural flight to this not-so-distant land from Montreal to Toulouse with Air Canada, North America’s only direct year-round service. 

SLOW MEETS LOCAL

France has dovetailed slow tourism with sustainable travel and hyper-local experiences and Occitanie is ground zero. In the Gaillac region, Gaillac wine is considered one of its best-kept secrets. Along the serpentine Tarn River, vignerons (grape growers) at the Château Lastours share stories and offer complimentary wine tastings with a cheese and charcuterie plate while local outfitters by the Montech Canal invite you to pedal canal-side where turtles bob their heads, and depending on your travel style, you can go solo or take a compact group tour of other pretty places and explore the surrounds by rail, boat, bike or car. 

BONJOUR TOULOUSE

This is terroir central and the best place to sample the finest food and beverage scene is at a covered market. Toulouse has three. 

By the carousel at the leafy Jardin Pierre Goudouli, founder of “Taste of Toulouse” Jessica Hammer, an American expat, greets me and off we go to explore the endless purveyors at the Marché Victor Hugo, a gastronomic institution. The cheese shrine Deux Chavanne gleams; its white marble counter has a pageant of cheeses on display. Only the finest fromages get a separate pedestal. Violets, a local culinary favourite, are candied, crystalized and added to pastries at Pâtisserie B. Authié. 

At Maison Garcia, an entire corner is the cockpit of this acclaimed 62-year-old family-owned butchery. Specialties include their award-winning Toulouse sausage (there’s a plump gamey female saucisson sec and the milder skinnier male saucisse sèche) and the stand-alone prize winner, “Pata Negra Bellota,” voted best ham in the world in 2020. We tear into the traditional baguettes (a piece of UNESCO World Heritage), sample the Holy Grail of ham that retails for the price of a luxe Gucci sneaker, savour sharp cheeses akin to France’s king of cheeses, which is the Roquefort, produced here, and toast with a bubbly rosé from the locally grown Mauzac grape. 

“Santé,” proclaims Jessica, nodding her head, eyes fixed on the toastee (me). “Don’t ever cross your arms in a group and always gaze into the other person’s eyes,” she reveals about the French tradition.

Indeed. 

Throughout my Occitanie journey to this storied southwestern French region, I admit, there are loads of good memories. After all, closer to Spain than Paris, this corridor of plenty that spans west to the Atlantic and gurgles south into the Mediterranean Sea via the Midi Canal is rife with life’s finest pleasures, which are naturally wrapped around good eats and inspiring places bien sûr.

PRETTY IN PINK 

Montauban and Albi are both accessible by rail from Toulouse, but we snaked around the sleepy bends to these river valley villages by car where France’s acclaimed artists Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Antoine Bourdelle and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec once lived. 

In Montauban, get ready to wander pink arched colonnades, see two newly restored plazas, and spend time in the charming shops and stylish restaurants, after you visit the newly renovated Ingres-Bourdelle Museum. 

Continue the odyssey in jaw-dropping pink-popping Albi. The scenic panorama of this UNESCO city overlooking the Tarn River is eye candy that takes your breath away as soon as you set eyes on it. It did for me!

TRAVEL PLANNER 

For travel information to the Occitanie region, Toulouse and surrounds, visit Destination Occitanie tourisme-occitanie.com, Toulouse toulouse-visit.com, Tarn et Garonne Tourisme tourisme-tarnetgaronne.fr/en and Tarn Tourisme tourisme-tarn.com/uk. For general information on France, visit france.fr/en and for year-round air service see AirCanada.com

 
 
 
 
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