This article covers Carcassonne, Albi, Villefranche-de-Conflent, and Toulouse in the French southwestern region of Occitanie.
Carcassonne ♥♥♥ is an imposing medieval town, recognized on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Its historic core is grossly overrun by tourists in high season, but nonetheless, it is a very picturesque and impressive destination.
Basilique Saint-Nazaire ♥ is not overly ornate but contains impressive mosaics. In the evenings, it is often the venue for classical music concerts.
Château Comtal ♥♥ was heavily restored in the mid-19th century. The castle itself does not offer many exceptional exhibits but it allows access to two different routes along city walls, which are more than worth the price of entry to the complex.
There are many interesting buildings and a few fascinating shops on the central streets. Musée de l’École, recreating the atmosphere of local schools in the late 19th to mid-20th centuries, is a point of interest for a future visit.
Leaving the walls of Cité, you can descend to Pont Vieux ♥, for an expansive view of the city above.
It is also worthwhile to walk across the river and explore La Bastide Saint-Louis ♥, the less glamorous part of town that nonetheless dates back to the 13th century. The grid of streets surrounds the lively and popular Place Carnot ♥, and there are a couple of churches and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in the vicinity. Smaller kids can enjoy a wading pool with jumping fountains as well as a carousel and a couple of swings on Place Gambetta ♥, while adults can contemplate the surrounding statuary.
One definite recommendation is L’Ostal des Troubadoures (on Rue Viollet le Duc not far from the castle entrance), an eatery slightly tucked inside from the main thoroughfare, where some meats are finished on the open hearth right in the dining room and the traditional cassoulet has to be the choice.
Albi ♥ town center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. While commercialized and not raising to the level of exceptional, it offers two major attractions and a number of other things to see and do.
Cathedrale Sainte-Cecile ♥♥♥ is simply incredible. Monumentally towering above the town, it can be seen from afar from every perspective. It is one of the largest brick buildings in the world. Every inch of the cathedral’s interior is painted with vivid frescoes, which have never been in need of restoration according to the very thorough and enjoyable audio guide.
Musee Toulouse-Lautrec ♥♥ is a must for any aficionado of Impressionist art. It boasts a well-structured and not overwhelming collection, which centers on the famous local son but also includes works of other painters. The art museum is located in the former archbishop’s Palace Berbie, but there is not much of a palatial interior to view. However, Les Jardins de la Berbie ♥♥ are very beautiful and offer a couple of high-bank perspectives over the opposite side of town.
Pont Vieux ♥ provides looking-up perspectives to both sides of town.
In the comparatively busy town core, Cloisters of St-Salvy ♥ is a serene oasis.
There is a number of smaller museums in Albi – they all appear as potentially pleasant diversions – such as Musee Laperouse, the Fashion Museum, or Academie des Miniatures.
Villefranche-de-Conflent ♥♥♥ is a tiny walled town that appears on two important registers: It is both a member of Le Plus Beaux Villages de France and a UNESCO World Heritage site through the serial Fortifications of Vauban property.
The village is literally two streets and one square. Stepping on every single stretch of pavement in town is a matter of an hour. You will certainly find yourselves on the pleasant Place de l’Église, flanked by the city hall and the church of St-Jacques ♥, which is worth a look when open. You will undoubtedly step onto Saint-Pierre bridge ♥ over the Têt.
The ramparts ♥ are the basis for the town’s UNESCO recognition. While impressive from the outside, they are slightly disappointing on the inside. You get to walk long fortified passages along the walls, but there are very few good looks onto the city and, except for some historical information presented at a dozen of landings, the passages are devoid of any artifacts or decorations.
Cova Bastera ♥ is another part of the fortifications, located just outside the town walls. It is a cave complex adjoining a fortified chamber with porthole views over the town.
Finally, Fort Libéria ♥ is a self-contained well-preserved military installation high above the town. Climbing up there will take around 20 minutes even for the most athletic. There are several points of interest inside the fort, such as barracks, service areas, and a church. The descent can be made along underground passages with over 750 steps connecting the fort and the town; from an open-air landing in the middle of the descent, you can get the best panoramic views over the town.
Another impressive attraction in Villefranche is located half a kilometer away from the town walls. Grotte des Grandes Canalettes ♥♥♥ is a breathtaking series of caves with thousands of stone and calcium formations, an underground lake, and a couple of chambers too grand to describe. Linger for the classical music in the main chamber.
Also in Occitanie
The capital city of the region, Toulouse looks attractive enough to warrant in-depth exploration. I only had one quick stop to date which was centered on Basilique Saint-Sernin ♥, a top attraction in town which is part of the World Heritage serial property of the French route of Santiago de Compostela. It is exquisite and imposing on the exterior, but the interior is relatively both spacious and not too exceptional. There is a soaring chapel behind the altar, but you can only see it from between grilles or from afar.
Eglise Notre-Dame-du-Bourg ♥♥ is an important part of the French Santiago de Compostela route in Rabastens not too far from Toulouse. The church is brilliantly painted, although some of the frescoes are in need of restoration.
Canal du Midi begins in Toulouse and I made a few driving stops in and around town to view it from various bridges. It is a tranquil waterway but no recommendations can be made from those stops. The canal needs to be explored on a boat.