Travel Guide Europe France Occitanie

edit

Introduction

Occitanie or Occitania (Occitan: Occitània) is a warm and sunny region of southern France. This is a land of stark contrasts, where the landscape, climate and atmosphere are never the same from place to place. From the canal du Midi making its shady journey from rose city Toulouse along the sun-drenched Languedoc plain to the Mediterranean sea, to the towering majesty of the Pyrénées and wild beauty of the Cévennes. Diverse too is the tourist situation: Carcassonne, the Pont du Gard and Lourdes pull in the crowds, and are among the most-visited sites in Europe. Elsewhere, you will come across many quiet, little-travelled spots, where traditional agricultural practices and folk traditions are maintained by bastide-dwelling locals who revel in enjoying and sharing the wealth of the land and sea - food and wine. Occitanie also has a rich heritage of art, poetry and architecture, and its history is turbulent and fascinating to anyone who cares to discover it, while its customs and cuisine blend very well with neighbouring Spain.

Top

edit

Geography

Occitanie is located in the south of France and is the second-largest region in metropolitan France. Its departments are Ariege, Aude, Aveyron, Gard, Gers, Haute Garonne, Hautes-Pyrénées, Hérault, Lot, Lozère, Pyrénées-Orientales, Tarn and Tarn et Garonne. The region is bordered by Spain and Andorra to the south, Nouvelle-Aquitaine to the west, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur to the east and to the north, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes.

Top

edit

Cities

  • Toulouse - the capital of the region is a vibrant and youthful city with a large student population and correspondingly hectic nightlife, and a palpable atmosphere that can feel more Spanish than French. The spiritual home of French rugby and of the Airbus, Toulouse is above all known for its warm brick and terracotta architecture that have given the city its nickname - la ville rose / the pink city
  • Albi - although it often looks like a film set from Game of Thrones, Albi's character is very much grounded in south-west France. Its UNESCO World Heritage listed old city is based around a fortified cathedral, and it serves as an excellent accommodation base for exploring the Tarn department. The painter and illustrator Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born here, and his legacy is ever-present.
  • Béziers - in the heart of Languedoc sits a hilltop warren of medieval streets that offer brilliant views over the landscape. All around, there are day trips to suit any taste, from beach days to vineyard tours and pouring over Roman relics in the dust. In August, travellers are drawn to the drama and spectacle of the feria (bullfighting festival), which as an arena bloodsport is in many ways a living Roman relic.
  • Carcassonne - this fortified medieval town is iconic in France. Though it is a genuine citadel from the 13th century with walkable ramparts and many period towers and rooms to explore, its distinctive fairytale look of conical roofs comes from a series of 'corrections' made by the 19th-century architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. These days, it's a little bit like Disneyland minus the mouse, but is nonetheless a must-see for anyone visiting the region.
  • Montpellier - second city of the region and another lively university town, with many fine old streets and landmarks to discover, including one of Europe's oldest botanical gardens. Mere minutes from the beach, Montpellier is Mediterranean in climate and feel, while the drinking and dining scenes are cosmopolitan and internationalist.
  • Narbonne - to the Romans, it was known as Narbo Martius, and today's archaeology buffs won't be disappointed with what they left behind, including the Via Domitia. Nor will the bulky (and forever unfinished!) cathedral and tightly-packed Medieval quarter let you down. For relaxation, a stroll along the canal, café on the square, or trip to the beach are at the top of any local's list.
  • Nîmes - probably the finest Roman remains outside Italy. The amphitheatre is second only to the Coliseum in terms of sheer splendour, while the Maison Carrée ("Square House") temple looks as though it hasn't aged in 2,000 years. Even the local parks have statues and other ruins, while there is a trio of museums documenting different facets of the city's long life.
  • Perpignan - a slice of Catalonia in France that has kept many of that nation's traditions - the Festa Sant Joan is a bigger deal than the Fête nationale, while paella is on more menus than cassoulet. Numerous narrow streets and squares make exploring the city's churches and monuments a real pleasure, while a trek up to the palace of the kings of Majorca is rewarded with panoramic views.
  • Cahors
  • Lourdes
  • Millau
  • Saint-Gaudens
  • Saint-Girons
  • Tarbes

Top

edit

Sights and Activities

The charm of Occitanie is captured in hundreds of villages, each with a unique character. Predominantly a wine-growing region, this is in fact the most productive viticultural area in France; expect to see many hectares of vineyard stretching ahead of you! Many villages are famous for excellent individual wines.

  • Bastides are a particular sort of medieval town built during the 12th and 13th centuries. They are generally walled towns built from local stone along a grid plan of streets (unusual for the European Middle Ages), with a central market square, which is often covered. Many of Occitanie's towns and villages are considered bastides.
  • Côte Vermeille (Vermillion Coast) - the southernmost stretch of coast in mainland France is 20 km of beaches, coves and cute harbour towns.
  • The Grotto at Lourdes - where the spirit of the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared eleven times to a young girl, who became Saint Bernadette. Now one of the major Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world, second perhaps only to the Vatican itself; expect crowds.
  • Mountains - the Pyrénées are second in height only to the Alps in all of western Europe, and in this region run west to east through Hautes-Pyrénées, Haute-Garonne, Ariège and Pyrénées-Orientales. Generally, the mountains' highest peaks mark the border with Spain and Andorra. The Massif Central is a lower range that dominates Occitanie with rocky, almost arid landscapes, as well as forests. It runs north to south through Lot, Aveyron, Lozère, Gard, Tarn, Hérault and Aude.
  • Roman ruins in Occitanie are many and varied, and can be found all over the place. That said, the most intact (and most famous) are all in the Gard.
  • Cévennes - This national park is a fine area of chestnut-wooded low mountains, where the reintroduced griffon vulture can be seen soaring overhead, and where you might just hear the howling of wolves. To the west is France's only desertscape, while there is a great meteorological exhibition on Mont Aigoual. As well as natural wonders, there is plenty of human heritage - stone hamlets and traditional crafts and trades.
  • Parc National des Pyrénées - Boasting a huge array of fauna and flora (including the critically-endangered brown bear), this national park will suit a wide range of visitors from climbers to naturalists, and is a perennial favourite among mountain bikers and skiers. The Pyrénées-Mont Perdu UNESCO world heritage site straddles the Franco-Spanish border, and the summit itself is in the neighbouring region of Aragon.

Top

edit

Events and Festivals

  • Fête Nationale (14 Juillet) is celebrated on 14 July to commemorate the storming of the Bastille prison, during the French Revolution, with festivities on the Champs-Élysées attended by the President of France and other dignitaries. There are fireworks displays in many cities, with the largest display in Paris against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. This holiday is informally known as Bastille Day.

Top

edit

Weather

There are three distinct climate zones in the region. All along the coast, there is a Mediterranean climate, which is known for its dryness and its warmth, with long and hot summers and brief winters dominated by chilly winds and rain. This zone in particular is known to be expanding north and west due to climate change, and the region has suffered from an increase in forest fires. Further west on the plains and hills, the climate is cooler and influenced by the Atlantic, with more rain. The Pyrénées have a mountain climate, which is cooler still and characterised by much greater precipitation, including snow in the winter. Overall, Occitanie has a lot of sun, and is generally warmer than most parts of France, so barring any seasonal activities is good to visit any time of the year.

Top

edit

Getting There

By Plane

Occitanie is well-served by international airports, though with very few long-haul options. If travelling from outside Europe, your best bet is to transit via a major European airport (e.g. Frankfurt, London Heathrow or Paris Charles de Gaulle). Alternatively you can arrive at Barcelona El Prat Airport and take the excellent railway connections from there to Perpignan and onwards on slightly slower trains. The two main airports of the region are at Toulouse and Montpellier:

  • Montpellier Méditerrannée. This airport has flights from a fair few European cities including Amsterdam (Schiphol), London (Heathrow and Gatwick) and Stockholm (Arlanda). Good links from the Maghreb, as well as domestic flights from the rest of France.
  • Toulouse Blagnac. This airport has flights from most European cities including Berlin (Schönefeld), Birmingham, Bristol, Brussels, Frankfurt, Istanbul (Atatürk), Lisbon, London (Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted), Manchester, Rome (Fiumicino), Warsaw (Chopin). Seasonal services from Montreal (Trudeau). Hub of low-cost airline easyJet.
  • Béziers Cap d'Agde. This airport is served primarily by Ryanair, including year-round from London (Luton and Stansted), and seasonal from Bristol, Edinburgh and Manchester.
  • Carcassonne. This airport is served mainly by Ryanair, including year-round from Charleroi, Dublin, London (Stansted) and Manchester, and seasonal from Cork, East Midlands and Glasgow (International).
  • Nîmes. Served year-round Ryanair from Charleroi, Fez and London (Luton and Stansted), with seasonal from Liverpool (John Lennon).
  • Pau Pyrénées. chiefly domestic (Paris CDG/Orly, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes), with the only regular international service coming in from Marrakesh.
  • Perpignan. Year-round service only from Paris Orly and Charleroi, but a wider range of seasonal flights: Birmingham, Dublin, London (Stansted), Madrid (Barajas), Metz/Nancy, Southampton, Southend.
  • Tarbes-Lourdes-Pyrénées. Flown to year-round from Kraków (John Paul II), London (Stansted), Paris (Orly) and Rome (Ciampino). Seasonal flights come in from Beirut, Brussels, Maastricht/Aachen, Madrid (Barajás) and Rome (Fiumicino).

By Train

France's brilliant TGV (train à grande vitesse - high speed train) network is only just starting to infiltrate the region, though the eastern parts are fortunate to be on the main route from France to Spain, so many Occitan cities have a TGV service even if the line speed is a little slow at present. As a consequence of this, Paris-Toulouse is France's busiest air route despite Toulouse not being even close to the second biggest city, simply because travel by train is comparatively slow due to the lack of LGVs.

Carcassonne, Montpellier, Narbonne, Perpignan and Toulouse all have direct trains from Paris, Lyon, Marseille and Barcelona, as well as a range of other destinations, particularly around southern France (e.g. Bordeaux, Nice) and Spain (e.g. Madrid, Zaragoza). The best online source for ticket sales and journey information is the SNCF. As a starting point, count on 3.5 hours from Paris (Gare de Lyon) to Montpellier, 5½–7 hours from Paris (Gare Montparnasse / Gare d'Austerlitz) to Toulouse (Gare Matabiau), and about 3 hours from Barcelona (Estació Sants) to Montpellier.

By Car

From Paris, it's 680 kilometres to Toulouse, following the E9 European route (on road signs, these are green route numbers displayed alongside the red national route numbers), while the distance to Montpellier is 750 km, via the A10, A71 and A75 autoroutes (red route numbers).

The A9 (E15) brings traffic in from the direction of Lyon, and then hugs the Mediterranean before crossing the Spanish border, and this is the way most traffic from Barcelona and the rest of Catalonia enters. Traffic from the east (Marseille, Nice and Italy), should come from the A8 via the A54. The A62 links Bordeaux to Toulouse, while the A64 brings traffic from the Basque Country and the rest of northern Spain.

If you're driving from the United Kingdom or Ireland, count on 9-12 hours non-stop from Calais or Roscoff. It can be done in one long slog, but many people prefer to take an overnight stop or even a couple of days' rest halfway down the country, for instance in the Loire Valley.

Top

edit

Getting Around

By Train

Occitanie's rail network is good value for money, and so extensive that it penetrates all but the most remote areas (such as the Cévennes). While the TGV and Intercités ply the region's long-distance routes, the backbone of the local system is provided by TER Occitanie. TER also operate the Train Jaune (Yellow Train), a tourist route which climbs from Vernet-les-Bains into the Pyrénées to a height of almost 1,600 metres.

By Car

While a car is not necessary for most of the region, if you're planning on doing a lot of rural trips or touring with a caravan / campervan, Occitanie's roads should suit you. The vast majority are maintained to excellent standard, though streets in old towns and country lanes have the propensity to be narrow, which may take some getting used to if you're from the New World. Some remote mountain routes in the Pyrénées can be positively hairy, especially those that are unpaved and clinging to the edge of a steep drop, while maintaining a relentless gradient!

However, most distance driving you undertake in the region will be with the use of the autoroute (motorway) network, which are mostly tolled. The major routes of Occitanie are:

  • A9 (parallel to the coast): Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, from A7 for Lyon), Avignon, Nîmes (A54), Montpellier, Béziers (A75), Narbonne (A61), Perpignan, Spain, towards Girona, Barcelona.
  • A20: Nouvelle-Aquitaine, from Limoges, Brive-la-Gaillarde, Montauban, A62 (for Toulouse).
  • A54: Nîmes (A9), Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, Arles, towards A7 (Aix-en-Provence/Marseille).
  • A61: Toulouse (A62, A64, A68), Carcassonne, Narbonne (A9).
  • A62: Nouvelle-Aquitaine, from Bordeaux, Montauban (A20), Toulouse (A61, A64, A68).
  • A64: Nouvelle-Aquitaine, from Bayonne, Pau, Tarbes/Lourdes, Pyrénées, Toulouse (A61, A62, A68).
  • A66 / N20: A61 (for Toulouse), Ariège (Foix, Pyrénées), Andorra.
  • A68 / N88: Toulouse (A61, A62, A64), Albi, Rodez, Cévennes (A75).
  • A75: (north-south through the Massif Central): Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, from Clermont-Ferrand, Cévennes, Montpellier (via A750), Béziers (A9).

By Boat

The Canal du Midi runs for 241 kilometres from Toulouse to the Étang de Thau near Sète, effectively linking the Atlantic Ocean (via the river Garonne) with the Mediterranean. Known for its distinctive plane tree-lined towpaths, the canal was originally built for transporting goods in the 17th century. Trade declined throughout the 20th century until ceasing operations in the 1970s. It was about this time the canal caught the attention of a group of eccentric British barge-lovers, who were already working on saving the United Kingdom's industrial canals for leisure purposes. Leisure boating finally started booming in the 1980s, and the canal is now very popular, especially among British, Dutch and German tourists. In 1996, it was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

Many towns along the route offer boat trips on the canal, and there are even restaurant boats which ply the waters. However, it also is possible to hire your own boat and cruise the entire length, which can be a relaxing week's journey. Major boat hire companies along the Canal du Midi include European Waterways, Le Boat and Locaboat.

Top

edit

Eat

The region's gastronomy is as diverse as its landscapes. Broadly speaking, the western half (corresponding to the old Midi-Pyrénées) has a typical south-western French cuisine, while closer to the sea (the former Languedoc-Roussillon) tastes are more Mediterranean.

Traditional south-western meats include duck, goose and pork. The Toulouse region is known for its cuisine based around specially fattened duck, or canard gras raised in the rural regions of Gers and Landes, west of Toulouse. There is no denying the deliciousness of this duck, just as there is no denying the cruel force-feeding that fattening the birds up involves. If you are in any way reluctant to support these practices, you should stay clear of any duck- or goose-based foodstuff, just as you might avoid a bull ring during the Feria.

Into Roussillon (Pyrénées-Orientales), the food becomes characteristically Catalan. Expect tomato bread, rice dishes such as paella, chicken, rabbit and plenty of alioli! Anywhere along the coast is also good for olives, and many towns have their own preferred varieties and methods of stuffing and cooking them.

Much like the rest of France, everywhere you go will have its own bread, pâté, charcuterie and cheese specialities, and available varieties vary widely. More famous examples of the latter include bleu des Causses, cantal, pélardon (and indeed many different goat's cheeses) and roquefort.

It's safe to say that this is a meat and fish eater's paradise, and indeed on most plates vegetables are a bit of an endangered species. Even local salads tend to be on the meaty side of things! Vegetarian and vegan travellers will have an even harder time finding decent restaurant fare than elsewhere in France. However, you shouldn't have too much trouble finding suitable restaurants in the larger student cities, particularly Montpellier and Toulouse, and the Mediterranean cuisine is much more vegetarian-friendly in general.

Aside from restaurants, a trip to any local market will see you inundated with a bewildering variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as so much meat, bread and cheese produce; cooking for yourself will become a very tempting prospect.

Top

edit

Drink

Meet the biggest wine field in Europe. In this region, vineyards are everywhere. The passion and traditions that go into making wine reflect the region's history and culture. In the Languedoc especially, the long, sunny summers and brief, windy winters combine to make the land perfectly suited for viticulture.

All this being said, the wine of this region is considerably less well-known than others; there are certainly no 'big names' in the manner of Burgundy or Bordeaux. You can still find local wine of exceptional quality however, especially reds and rosés. Some regional highlights are Gaillac, Corbières and Gard. Fitou is a red which makes a good accompaniment to the meaty cuisine of the region. Picpoul de pinet is a white that goes perfectly with seafood. For those with less discerning palates who still want to support the local economy, look for anything with Vin de Pays d'Oc on the label.

As well as wine, Occitanie has a tradition of distilling liquor. Cartagène is a grape-based spirit which is a typical apéritif, though it is also recommended for consumption with foie gras and roquefort, both delicacies of the region. Other spirits include mint liqueur brand Get 27 and Noilly Prat, a type of vermouth.

Top

edit

Sleep

The region is popular with tourists, so the accommodation base is extensive and even small towns usually have at least one hotel and a variety of B&B (chambres d'hôte) and self-catering options (gîtes). There are lots of campsites too, in keeping with the rest of the country.

Top

Contributors

as well as Peter (5%), Beausoleil (1%)

Occitanie Travel Helpers

  • Beausoleil

    Occitanie, the former Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées has been a favorite vacation destination for us for over 20 years. We usually rent a gite (country cottage) in a rural area and make day trips throughout the region. Before GPS we got lost a lot so we have plenty of off-the-beaten-track travel information.

    This is a marvelous part of France and a good way to escape the hordes of tourists in some of the more well-known regions. If you enjoy your fellow tourists (as we do), there are plenty in places like Carcassonne and Collioure with tourists aplenty. These places are popular for a reason. However, there are equally lovely places with not a tourist in sight for no reason we can discern.

    Ask Beausoleil a question about Occitanie

This is version 12. Last edited at 7:06 on May 17, 19 by Beausoleil. 3 articles link to this page.

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, content of this article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License