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Small Wonder: A short break in
Tarn et Garonne
Linger at a table beneath the red brick arches of Montauban’s glorious Place Nationale and it’s easy to imagine yourself back in the 17th century. Look past the 21st century fashions and café furniture, the discreet electric street lights and ubiquitous TV aerials, and you realise that very little has changed in almost 400 years.
Conceived in 1144 when the town was founded, the Place Nationale was the centre of Montauban’s commercial and judicial life in the Middle Ages until two catastrophic fires in 1614 and 1649 destroyed large sections of its timber buildings and columns. But their red-brick replacements have proved infinitely more durable and today, the vaulted arcades, elegant facades and lively cafés ensure that this enchanting square remains at the heart of the buzzing local community.
County town of Tarn-et-Garonne, Montauban welcomes visitors with open arms and then instantly manages to make them feel at home. Maybe it’s the pedestrian shopping area that skirts that famous square or the beautiful buildings that dot the town’s heritage trail. Perhaps it’s the reflected warmth of the russet bricks or the sparkle of the Tarn river as it sweeps beneath the arches of the Pont Vieux.
Whatever the reason, I’ve always had a soft spot for Montauban, once home to our own Black Prince who built a stone castle beside the river. All that remains of his stronghold is the imposing vaulted hall which now lies beneath the 17th century bishops’ palace. Today it’s the Musée Ingres, atmospheric home to a magnificent collection of paintings by Dominique Ingres.
Enjoy Montauban and you’ll almost certainly enjoy the rest of Tarn-et-Garonne, one of the country’s smallest departments that lies nestled in the centre of the Midi-Pyrénées region. Despite being barely an hour’s drive from Toulouse, Tarn-et-Garonne is one of the most sparsely populated departments in France, a largely agricultural area with an average of 55 inhabitants per kilometre – just half the national average.
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Montauban - with some 55,000 inhabitants- is its biggest town, but then there’s a hefty drop to the two runners-up – Moissac and Castelsarrasin with barely 12,000 apiece. Some rural hamlets have less than 20 permanent residents and yet you rarely feel isolated in this pleasant landscape of orchards, vineyards, and meadows.
The department takes its name from two major rivers, but is criss-crossed by a whole network of waterways, large and small, natural and man-made. The Tarn itself flows down through Millau and Montauban to join the Garonne at Moissac, an important stopping place for centuries on the pilgrims’ trail from the Le-Puy-en-Vélay to Saint-Jacques de Compostelle in Spain.
Moissac’s main claim to fame is the abbey church of St Peter with its
magnificent main entrance and a spectacular cloister with 76 stone
columns, each one intricately carved with a different selection of
flowers, birds and fabulous beasts.
Don’t leave without strolling through the shady riverside park overlooked by the Moulin de Moissac. There’s been a mill on the site since the Middle Ages but in the 1920s, it became a luxury hotel offering a unique package of attractions to wealthy clients who flocked to try la cure uvale – a grape-based programme which involved eating large quantities of local Chasselas grapes to cleanse the bodies of toxins.
When they weren’t scoffing grapes, the rich and famous could play tennis, play the casino tables, or go dancing in the open air. Sadly the cures came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of World War II, but you can still see the circular pavilion in the park where grapes were served and stay at the mill which has been revamped again into a stylish modern hotel.
Turn your back on the mill and follow the signs along the river bank to the Pont Canal, built in 1845 to carry the Canal de Garonne over the river Tarn. This man-made waterway joins the Canal du Midi at Toulouse and its completion marked the last link in the Canal des Deux Mers that joins the Atlantic with the Mediterranean.
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A vital commercial route in the late 19th century, the canals now provide an important source of tourist income with both catered and self-catering boats available for holiday hire. Or just spend a leisurely afternoon on a guided tour with commentary. Already popular with French holidaymakers, the waterways received a huge boost in Britain from Rick Stein’s gastronomic glide along the canals for the BBC series Rick Stein’s French Odyssey.
If a canal holiday seems a tad too sedate, you can still enjoy the waterways of Tarn-et-Garonne by walking or cycling the canal towpaths, taking a canoe along the gentle waters of the Garonne, or just watching the antics of nautical folk. Locks are always great places to people-watch but for the ultimate fascination visit the Pente d’Eau on the Canal de Montech, a 13 km link between the Tarn at Montauban and the Canal du Garonne at Montech.
This ingenious feat of engineering enables larger boats to climb a 45-metre slope in less than 10 minutes, thus bypassing a chain of five locks. The boats are pulled by two-self propelling engines and moved in their own cushion of water – quite a spectacle if you’re lucky enough to catch a cruise boat passing through.
The fertile plain around the two rivers is dotted with orchards and market gardening. Tarn-et-Garonne is the third most important department in France for its fruit, as well as being renowned for its lamb, beef and veal. Enjoy seasonal asparagus and strawberries, melons, peaches, and sweet Chasselas table grapes. Great for self caterers, they also feature prominently on local menus.
Valence d’Agen is a particularly sensuous place to be on market day with piles of plump, sweet smelling produce in a rainbow of colours, fresh from the fields and bursting with flavour. Don’t miss those succulent Agen prunes, a tasty souvenir to enjoy long after the holiday is over. And if you’re visiting the town in August, buy a ticket for Au Fil d’Eau, the annual waterside pageant which involves more than 400 actors.
Head to the north-east of the department and – less than an hour from Montauban – the landscape changes dramatically as you approach the pretty town of St-Antonin-Noble-Val. Here the Aveyron river flows down from the limestone plateau through a picturesque gorge, a popular descent for canoeists who can book guided excursions through a number of operators in town.
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Tarn-et-Garonne is promoted as ‘The land of soft adventure’ and St-Antonin-Noble-Val is a great place to try out a new sport or pick up an old one. We enjoyed an afternoon’s horse riding along woodland trails past the ivy clad ruins of ancient water mills, but you can also book caving, climbing or canoeing. No previous experience necessary.
St-Antonin is one of many delightful small towns scattered among the patchwork landscape. We stayed in the mushroom village of Vaissac, famous throughout the area for its ceps, but try the pretty red brick town of Verdun-sur-Garonne, the bastide settlements of Dunes and Castelsagrat, and hilltop Montricoux, home to artist Marcel-Lenoir.
Little known outside France, Lenoir came to Montricoux in 1898 and died there in 1931 at the age of just 59. You may not know his work which ranged from symbolism to Art Deco, but you can enjoy his entire collection in the homely comfort of the old Templar chateau where visitors are encouraged to relax on the sofas and enjoy the artwork – which you certainly will.
Montricoux is just a short drive from Bruniquel, one of three showpiece villages in the department classified amongst Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. Pick up the free walking trail leaflet from the tourist office and climb the winding streets between ancient houses to the imposing hilltop chateau and viewpoint.
Across the department near the border with Lot, the Plus Beaux Village of Lauzerte commands sweeping views from the rocky slopes of the Coteaux du Quercy. A halt for pilgrims on the Compostelle trail, this Medieval village boasts an enchanting cobbled square, the Place des Cornières, surrounded by arcades. Look out for the cobblestones that ‘peel’ back like the corner of a carpet and the peaceful Pilgrims’ Garden.
my personal favourite is Auvillar which stands on a cliff above the
Garonne river, just south of Valence d’Agen. Another pilgrim stopover,
Auvillar was a popular target in a succession of conflicts that ravaged
the region across the centuries, eventually settling down to become a
centre for fine pottery. The residents extracted tolls from boats
passing on the Garonne, but the construction of the Canal des Deux Mers
and the coming of the railways turned Auvillar into a sleepy backwater,
its clifftop fortress long since destroyed and forgotten.
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