Words Winsor Dobbin
Published Autumn 12
Paris will be on the itinerary of just about everyone visiting France. Nice, Cannes and the French Riviera are de rigueur for the chic set, while the vineyards of Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy are irresistible. Provence has its many fans, too, as does the Dordogne.
Spread your wings a little wider, however, and there is a very different France waiting to be discovered: a France in which the menus are not printed in six languages and the daily markets are not over-run by busloads of tourists playing “if this is Monday it must be Marseille”.
Exploring “La France Profonde” – the real France – takes a bit more time and effort, but there are some amazing cities and great wine and food to be savoured.
For your consideration, I offer Albi, Cahors and Pézenas, three market towns that have charm by the bucketload, history, and plenty to please even the most discerning gourmand.
The secrets of albi
Albi, just a short drive from the major city of Toulouse in the Midi-Pyrenees region, is one of France’s great remaining secrets. The birthplace of the artist Toulouse Lautrec and explorer Jean-Francois de la Perouse, it is home to a remarkable cathedral, superb museums and historic buildings. The city centre was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 2010.
Even better, Albi is surrounded by vineyards (think names like Gaillac and Cotes du Frontonnais), and is also home to one of France’s hottest chefs.
Albi’s history dates back to the Bronze Age, but it blossomed after 51 BC following the Roman conquest of Gaul. The building of the Pont Vieux (Old Bridge) in 1040 saw the city expand and construction of the Cathedral of Sainte-Cecile began in 1282 (although it was not completed until the 16th century). It is the largest brick cathedral in the world.
Unlike many French cities, Albi’s rich architectural heritage has been retained and a walk around town is a step back in time with the Old Bridge still in use after almost a millennium.
Older than the much better known Palais des Papes in Avignon, the Palais de la Berbie, which was once the bishop’s palace, was completed in the 13th century. One of the best preserved castles in the country, it is now the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, home to over 1000 works of art.
For those who wish to explore at a slow pace – and Albi is a town that lends itself to leisurely exploration – you can easily cover most attractions on foot or on the petit train (small tourist trains on wheels that are ubiquitous throughout France). The town is served by two train stations on the line from Toulouse to Rodez, with Gare d’Albi Ville the most central.
The Echappée Verte (Green Escape) includes three kilometres of walking tracks along the Tarn and Caussels rivers and offers several great views of the city, while there are several river cruises on offer on the Tarn using gabarres, flat-bottomed barges once used by local merchants. Choose between a 30-minute trip or a two-hour journey to Aiguelèze (June to September only).
Eat, rest and play
Despite Albi not yet being a mainstream tourism destination, there are over 20 hotels in and around the town, including the Hotel la Reserve, a luxury Relais & Chateaux property on the road to Cordes, the Grand Hotel d’Orleans and the Hotel Saint-Clair, a member of the reliable and affordable Logis de France group. There are also several chain options, including a Mercure and an Etap.
When it comes to dining, you can’t go past the delightful L’Esprit du Vin where rising star David Enjalran has earned a Michelin star for dishes like pigeon stuffed with pig’s trotter and oysters.
Enjalran is known for his use of luxury ingredients like black truffles and foie gras, but also shines with simple dishes like a ‘gazpacho’ of wild strawberries. Lunch here is an absolute bargain for 23€, while set dinner menus cost 60€ or 98€. As the name suggests, there is a good list of local wines.
There’s a covered market open Thursday-Sunday and an open-air one in Place LaPerouse six days a week (closed Mondays), where visitors can try local specialities like pastries called janots, gimblettes and navettes, or perhaps radishes with salted pork liver.
Pretty Cahors in the Quercy district, reached from Albi via the Villefranche-de-Rouergue, is the capital of the Lot department, famous for the ‘black’ Malbec wines that have been grown in the region since the Middle Ages.
It dubs itself the global ‘Capital of Malbec’ and Château de Haute-Serre and Château de Lagrezette are two local producers who welcome visitors.
Lagrezette has a tasting facility right on the riverbank in Cahors, while Haute-Serre offers tastings (and has an on-site restaurant) at nearby Cieurac.
The medieval quarter of Cahors, with its many narrow streets and alleyways and the unique 14th-century fortified Valentré bridge, is popular with history buffs and it hosts a major blues music festival each July.
Surrounded on three sides by the River Lot, Cahors was founded in the 1st century BC and was once home to a massive Roman amphitheatre. Pope John XXII, who was born Jacques Duèze, was born in Cahors in 1249.
The Valentre Bridge, the symbol of the town, was completed in 1378 after 70 years of work. The Tourist Office offers walking tours that take it in, along with the Saint-Etienne Cathedral, a national monument surrounded by lovely gardens, that dates back to the 12th century.
There is, inevitably, a petit train (May to September), while street markets are held on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the shadows of the cathedral – and are considered one of the best country markets in France, which is no mean feat. Many sell local wine, a perfect match with regional charcuterie.
The Grand Hotel Terminus, near the railway station, offers rooms from 70-160€ and is also home to the upmarket Le Balandre, regarded as Cahors’ finest dining room.
We also much enjoyed the atmospheric Auberge de Vieux Cahors (try the duck foie gras tart or the scallop salad on menus from 18€–40€), while Le Marche comes highly recommended and Le Vinois is surrounded by vines.
Like Albi, Cahors is a great walking town and is served by six trains a day linking it with both Toulouse and Paris.
A bewitching destination
Smaller than Albi and Cahors, but equally beguiling, is Pézenas in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of south-west France.
Visit the markets here and you’ll find keen locals sampling cheeses, sausages, hearty fougasse breads and the local petits pâtés de Pézenas, small sweet/savoury pockets that were the original mince tarts.
Several local vignerons offer their wares, and while Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhône produce some of the finest wines in the world, it is actually Languedoc that is France’s most productive wine district.
There are three times as many vineyards here as there are in Bordeaux and nine times as many vines as in Burgundy. One in every 10 bottles of wine sold worldwide comes from here and around 30% of all French wine.
Pézenas, a charming country town known as the Versailles of Languedoc, is a great base from which to explore larger towns in the Languedoc, including perennial favourites Carcassonne, Narbonne, Montpellier and Beziers as well as the many surrounding vineyards.
Pézenas’ old town centre, where many artisans operate out of old studios, is dotted with narrow streets and grand townhouses from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries when this Herault Valley town was the seat of Languedoc’s governors.
Satiated in Pézenas
There are several excellent places to dine with the best probably being the Restaurant L’Entre Pots, rustic and charming and a favourite with local vignerons for its sophisticated use of local produce. There are daily menus starting from 21€ featuring dishes like skewered prawns and ginger with a tomato gazpacho and lemon/ginger ice cream.
Just across town is the delightful Hotel de Vigniamont, a privately owned guest house that features lovely rustic and atmospheric rooms set in a beautiful 17th-century townhouse.
La DorDine, a friendly B&B in the historic old Jewish quarter, is another affordable accommodation option and also offers authentic local cuisine as well as having its own wine tasting cellar.
Among the most familiar wine regions nearby are Corbieres, Minervois, Banyuls, Fitoux, Limoux, St Chinian and Coteaux de Languedoc, although many wines are just labelled Vin de Pays d’Oc or Languedoc AC.
Pézenas’ nearest railway station is in the attractive university town of Montpellier, from where you can hire a car and drive thorough some remarkable Languedoc scenery en route.
So next time you’re thinking of going on holiday au Francais, contemplate taking the road less travelled. The reward will be a veritable feast of not only beautiful produce, but also the charm of historic towns and stunning scenery.