Thursday, 11 April 2013

Tourist attractions in Midi Pyrénées region

Midi-Pyrénées  regional information

Map of the Midi Pyrénées region     Unlike many regions of FranceMidi-Pyrénées is not a historic province. It is actually a 20th century invention, created as a result of the "regionalisation" process that took place in the 1970s. Like the Pays de la Loire region further north, Midi-Pyrénées was established in order to create a region around a regional metropolis, in this case the city of Toulouse.

       The modern Midi-Pyrenees region encompasses all or a large part of different historic areas, including parts of the large former provinces of Guyenne, Gascony, and Languedoc, and smaller areas, within these larger areas, such as Rouergue and Quercy,  the Albigeois, and the county of Foix

The largest region in France:
     Midi-Pyrénées is the largest region in metropolitan France, in terms of surface area, and equal largest in terms of the number of departments covered. It incorporates eight departments, which are Ariège (09), Aveyron (12), Haute-Garonne (31), Gers (32), Lot (46), Hautes-Pyrénées (65), Tarn (81)  and Tarn-et-Garonne (82).  The region covers a total surface area of 45,348 km², making it larger than either Belgium or Switzerland; and stretching some 400 kilometres from north-east to south-west, it is not surprisingly a region that somehow lacks any strong regional identity. Within this region, towns and traditions tend to identify themselves more with the historic provinces to which they once belonged, than to the modern-day region.

Regional towns and cities
      The city of Toulouse, lying more or less in the centre of the region, is by far the biggest city. Although this is the largest region in France, over a third of the entire population live in the Toulouse urban area, and the Haute Garonne department, surrounding Toulouse, accounts for well over 40% of the regional population. The region's second largest urban area, surrounding the city of Tarbes, capital of the Hautes Pyrenees department, is ten times smaller than the Toulouse urban area. The only other towns with a population of over 40,000 are Montauban, Albi and Castres.

A rural region
Alpine AriègeAlpine scenery in the rural Ariège Pyrenees
     From all the above, it is not too hard to understand that Midi Pyrénées is essentially a rural area. In fact, apart from the Toulouse hub, it is a very rural area (just 54 inhabitants per sq. km, half the national average), and the leading agricultural region in France. Stretching from the Massif Central in the north east, to the Pyrenees in the south, it is an area that includes a wide diversity of agricultural land and production. The lower lying area in the Haute Garonne, Gers and Tarn departments is one of the richest and most productive agricultural areas of France, producing a variety of crops including maize, sunflowers and wheat. But recent dry summers have begun to cause a rethinking about the viability of growing maize in the region, as it is a crop that needs copious watering in this southern climate.
     The region also has sizeable vineyards, such as in the areas round Gaillac, north of Toulouse, and  the Armagnac area, which lies partly in Midi-Pyrenees, partly inAquitaine. However this is not one of France's greatest wine producing areas.
    The southern and northeastern parts of the region are very different from the plains. While traditional houses on the low-lying land have a classic southern-European look, with red "roman" tiles on their roofs, those in the higher regions look very different, with their roofs of slate or "lozes" - thin slabs of stone.  Drive northeast from Toulouse, and after Albi, a beautiful little city on the Tarn, the road rises towards the Ségala and the Ruthénois, and villages here look very different. This is a region of gently rolling hills and valleys, and livestock farming. Cattle in the lower area, but increasingly sheep farming as one moves further up into the "Causses", fairly dry limestone plateaux famous as the production area of France's most famous cheese, Roquefort (a blue cheese made from ewe's milk). In the extreme north of the Aveyron department, the land rises to about 1200 metres, the southern flank of the Aubrac moors, a fairly desolate area of the southern Massif Central, where the granite rocks are never far below the surface.
      At the southern end of the region, the Pyrenees, rising to over 3000 metres on the Spanish border, offer all the attractions of a high mountain area - in both summer and winter. This is real mountain country, where wooded foothills give way to mountain pastures and open terrain at higher altitudes. This area is popular with skiers in winter, and with ramblers and other outdoor enthusiasts in the summer months; it also containes one of the few National Parks in France., as well as the world-famous pilgrimage centre of Lourdes.

Main tourist attractions in Midi Pyrénées

(A selection of the main sites:  this is a very big region, and to list them all would take more than a single web page...)

Albi cathedral - Midi Pyrenees
The historic centre of Albi, a UNESCO world heritage site, dominated by its unique mediaeval fortified St. Cecelia's  cathedral.

High Pyrenees national park
The High Pyrenees National Park

Famous fortified mediaeval bridge over the Lot, at Cahors

  • Toulouse (31), Regional capital; the "Ville rose", or pink city, on account of the warm colour of the local brick. Cathedral, Canal du Midi, Place du Capitole. Musée des Augustins.
  • Albi: (81) UNESCO world heritage site - Historic city on the Tarn, with a unique mediaeval redbrick fortified cathedral. Also the Toulouse Lautrec art gallery, old town, and riverscape on the Tarn.
  • Castres (81). Goya museum, with a major collection of Spanish art.
  • Cordes sur Ciel. (81) Small mediaeval town perched dramatically on a hilltop above the river Cérou.
  • Tarbes: (65) genteel town in the foothills of the Pyrenees
  • Lourdes (65) The most famous Catholic pilgrimage centre in France, where the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant girl in1858
  • Pyrenees National Park (65) spectacular area of high mountain, including the Cirque de Gavarnie.
  • Foix: (09) historic capital of the Ariège, with impressive "Cathar" castle
  • Rodez: (12) capital of the Rouergue. Large 14th century cathedral, old city centre. Musée Fénaille with world class collection of prehistoric carved menhirs. Opening June 2013 : Musée Soulages. Brand-new museum with 500 works by contemporary master Pierre Soulages
  • Roquefort:(12) visit the caves, where the famous cheese is matured.
  • Millau (12) The Millau viaduct, the world's highest road bridge.
  • La Couvertoirade Old fortified village of the Knights Templar, on the Larzac plateau
  • Conques. (12) One of the finest romanesque churches in France, with remarkable sculptures. (UNESCO world heritage site).
  • Cahors (46) The capital city of the Lot department is famous for its old streets and its unusual fortified mediaeval bridge.
  • Martel (46) : Haut Quercy railway. Scenic railway, 6.5 km long, offering steam trains most days from mid July to end of August.
  • Rocamadour (46): A major pilgrimage and tourist site, this small town clings to the side of the Alzou canyon, in the Lot department.
  • Saint Cirq Lapopie (46) : beautiful and unscathed historic village in the valley of the Lot. Certainly worth a visit - but very crowded in peak summer season.
  • Bastide towns:  Many of these famous fortified medieval towns are in this region