Commissioned by France.fr / Atout France
Occitanie is a region in the Southwest of France. With it’s proximity to the Pyrenees and the border to Spain, Occitanie offers a culinary scene inspired by the Basque cuisine and the mountains seem to have superimposed this pro slow-living mindset to its people. As you can imagine, nature here is stunning. Driving around the region, you witness countless of rolling green hills, where the vines accentuate the lines of the landscape.
Flying in and out of Toulouse, one can easily combine city with nature. Spend a few days exploring Toulouse to uncover the pink architecture and its medieval stories, followed by days spent in the countryside. I went to both Ariége and Aude, two departments South of Toulouse, only a 1.5 hrs drive from the city. This allowed an on-point balance between urban and rural, where the food kept getting better and the wines more local.
Day 1 Copenhagen → Toulouse
Day 2 Toulouse → Saint Girons
Day 3 Saint Girons → Mirepoix
Day 4 Mirepoix → Couiza
Day 5 Couiza → Toulouse → Copenhagen
Toulouse - the pink city
Although Toulouse is the fourth biggest city of France, it is one which is often overlooked. It’s compact, meaning most of the city centre can be reached by foot. The streets are narrow and winding - it can sometimes feel like walking around a historical labyrinth of warm red hues from the surrounding brick buildings.
The old part of the city has lots of hidden courtyards, that are all visual gems. The buildings feature beautiful ornaments, some shaped like faces, others shaped in graphic patterns visually playing with the stone as a material through carvings. Remember to look up. There is a whole world of stories in the ceilings and on the facades.
— a plant from which the seeds produce an incredible blue dye, also referred to as woad plants. Toulouse experienced a golden age during the late medieval and Renaissance periods, founded on the trade of this pastel dye. However, as dye traders heard rumours about the infamous indigo, it soon began replacing the locally grown woad as the primary blue dye. Since this shift in trade, pastel was used in cosmetics and still is used to this day.
La Ville Rose
The city of Toulouse has a very distinct building tradition, which still shows it’s pride today. It is referred to as La Ville Rose - The Pink City, due to the use of bricks in the buildings.
This facade on the right translates very well the details and textures in the old buildings around Toulouse. Shades of pink and different types of bricks, that all add a different depth and level of detail to the facades.
On Place du Capitole, you’ll find a whole arcade of colourful art work in the ceiling. For every arch, for every marble pillar, there is a large painting that holds a story of the city, depicting its milestones through time.
No. 5 Wine Bar
A wife and husband and a fairly small two story cellar-like location for a restaurant and bar - all in all, a great premise for this now legendary wine spot in Toulouse named No. 5 Wine Bar. Anne is head of the kitchen and the mastermind behind what lands on the dishes served, and Thomas, master in enology, is the wine director. Together, they’ve created this authentic place serving an extensive tapas inspired menu, paired with wow kind of wine.
I must have had around 20 or so dishes during my seating, I lost count after the tenth. But I just embraced the food and forgot about the numbers. Common for them all was the local produce that was represented in every dish. The menu was divided up into 5 categories;
Vegetables, Sea, Truffle, Earth and Sweets.
Pictured below, some absolutely beautiful slices of truffle with celery and black garlic. Other memorable food moments that stood out was the pigeon (a first) with mayan butter of cocoa, black lemon and a sour green paste that tickled the tongue. Also, the sea bass with local greens, hazelnuts, lentils and cardamom seeds was incredible. It was paired with a red wine from 1991 with a combination of the three grapes - Grenache, Syrah and Carignan. It was a spicy, heavy red and I was in awe over how well it went with the fish. A gastronomic experience I will remember for a long time.
On the outside, this vast church and monastery complex looks fairly plain, like any other church. The numbers of bricks used in this piece of architecture is overwhelming, however but upon entering, the interior is even more overwhelming. Imagine a room, raised to the sky by numerous palm trees. In this case, giant columns. Structures so impeccable, that even Salvador Dali got a little inspired by these constructions, showing in his art work Santiago El Grande.
Les Jacobins served as the city’s first university. Today students use the cloister as a place for tranquility and for studying, so although this monastery dates back to the early 14th century it still serves the purpose of education.
Wandering the streets of Toulouse
Toulouse has lots of cute little shops and outdoor markets, where you can get fresh strawberries, a traditional cassoulet in a glass jar, sausages and foie gras and food inspired by Spain. This little corner not only invited me in for a picture, but also for a smell of churros. It always gets me. Roaming around the streets of Toulouse, you’ll also come to smell violets. It’s a big thing there - cakes and candy and syrups of violets. A little too perfumed for my taste, but you’ll end up with taking some with you because of their decorative packaging.
Lunch at Une Table À Deux
Local charm and a 3 course menu, written on a black board with chalk. This place reminded me so much of Barcelona and the way of eating a large lunch to really gear down half way through the day.
The banks of the river Garonne
For the locals, the Garonne river entails socialising, summer and incredible sunsets. The waterway might divide the city, but it also unites its people. You’ll find markets and pop-up food stalls at the riverfront, and large crowds of people enjoying a picnic or playing cards. It’s possible to view a bigger stretch of its scenery by taking a boat tour along the Garonne. Or you can settle for this splendid view during the evening, where the lights are reflected in the water.
The French boutique hotel chain recently opened this brand new Mama Shelter in Toulouse. It resides in an old movie palace on Boulevard Lazare Carnot - meaning an ideal location, within walking distance to most places of interest. The 120 rooms have been designed by Thierry Gaugain, an interior designer following the foot steps of Philippe Starck.
They have a good sized roof top terracce too, that is open for the public. They serve fancy drinks and ice cream - a perfect combo for a hot summer evening.
Right around the corner from Mama Shelter, you will find this gorgeous building, that makes a really great New York ‘The Iron’ kind of picture, don’t you think?
After 1.5 hours drive South of Toulouse, I reached the department Ariège, which lies right on the border to Spain. Especially the last half hour of the drive was super green and lush, driving on small roads rather than the highway.
Arriving to this Wes Anderson-like hotel in Saint Girons with individual room names, I knew I was in for a treat. The house is so special (and squeaky), with a restaurant just next door. So although one is in the countryside, food is close by. From the front of the hotel, you walk around the house into the garden, where a wisteria pergola leads you to the restaurant.
Open fire dinner
A traditional kitchen with an open fire and checkered napkins. So French, so romantic, so smokey! They only had a menu card in French and none of the staff spoke a word of English - but somehow we understood each other. The waiter recommended me a few things, which I said ‘oui’ to. I enjoyed a local speciality - a foie gras toastie (so good), followed by scallop risotto and ended in a melted chocolate heaven.
One of the routes of Santiago de Compostela in France, actually goes through this little village, Saint-Lizier. Although it is a very small place with few inhabitants, it has monuments that are listed as a UNESCO world heritage site since 1998 - namely the Saint-Lizier Cathedral, that dates back to the 11th century. It has an octogonal tower facing the street, one that can be seen from far away.
La Pharmacie du XVIIIeme Siecle
Right next to the Cathedral, through the medical garden, you’ll find an 18th century pharmacy. With cherry wood shelves around almost all four walls, a green marble-like surgery table in the centre and a cabinet of dangerous looking operational tools, it is one of the best preserved pharmacies in France.
On the shelves are beautiful ceramic style jars with hand-painted flowers and medicine names, as well as blue-green glass bottles made by glass blowers. In them used to be syrups and medicinal oils, some with very witch-like powers. One of the strangest ones was ‘Vinaigre Des Voleur’ meaning the Vinegar of Thieves. The legend says that it held the powers of protecting one from catching the pest. Apparently, thieves in Toulouse used to wash their hands with this antiseptic, prior to robbing dead people who had fallen from the pest, without getting infected themselves.
And then another one, which I didn’t quite get the full scope of; a puppy oil. Yes. An oil made from the corpses of new born puppies, macerated in tea. This absurd liquid was used to treat wounds on the battle fields.
Note: Only the tourist office has the key to this place, so make sure to check their opening hours.
A fine lunch from here. And a fine view too, overlooking Saint-Lizier, the beautiful roof tops and the Pyrenees in the far background. They have a really great outdoor terrace, where these views and the afternoon sun can be enjoyed from.
Saint Girons Market
In the village of Saint Girons, the Ariège people have the privilege of going to the market every Saturday, all throughout the year. It was raining when I was there, but that did not seem to have lowered the numbers of locals buying or selling local produce. It is massive, and the main food bit of the market stretches along the riverbank, whilst the sidestreets have other things, such as clothes and objects.
The asparagus especially were beautiful, and I got plenty of tasters of ham, cheeses, jams and and sweet things such as Le Millas - a traditional dessert. If you have a kitchen where you are staying, I’d kindly suggest you spend your Saturday here - there is everything you need. Also, bare in mind that by doing so, you are supporting the community, since nearly all of the food you’ll find at the market are from the surrounding region.
This place and its people reminded me of Christiania in Copenhagen. Not just because of their hippie looks and dreads, but because of their attitude and their smiles. And for the fact that they have their own local currency! A tight knit community, with very beautiful values - that was my impression at least.
Second hand book store
Herve Douillet is a second hand book store on one of the side streets of the Saint Girons market. Although all of the books were French, you should visit this little gem because of the incredible interior.
Horseback riding at Soularac
Ariége is located in the Mid-Pyrenees, and the green mountainous views are bountiful. Apart from hiking, canoeing and biking, horse riding is also one of the popular outdoor options. With so many rolling green hills to play around in, I can understand why Soularac Centre have their stables in this part of Occitanie. First, I got to meet the black horses and their foals on the field nearby and then we went out for a 45 min. ride out into the countryside. Quicker than hiking, and the view on a horseback isn’t bad either! It gives you a new perspective. I really loved this experience, and didn’t want those last minutes to end.
In the heart of Mirepoix lies the most authentic French villa with a welcoming front patio and an outdoor pool on the backside of the house. All the 4 rooms, located on the first floor, have individual themes. I stayed in the Romantic Suite, a 40 m2 room with an ensuite bathroom, a lounge area with a wood stove and a desk to work from. On the ground floor where you enter, there is a large open plan kitchen and living room where you can relax and read some of the many books that are filling up the shelves. I loved the atmosphere here - it felt like a home, owned by a very kind woman with the warmest of smiles. Sadly, I didn’t have time to try out the pool nor the hammam sauna they had available and included in the price, but this place really was all about slow living. A warm recommendation!
A lovely view from the room
This place stood out to me on 1) the use of colour in the architecture 2) the urban planning of the town.
In comparison to the strict colour policies of the facades in Toulouse, Mirepoix on the other hand, makes itself noticed by showing the complete opposite: an array of multicoloured facades. The more colour, the merrier, it seemed! It reminded me of an old Western movie scene, like a theatre, with the tall, narrow half-timbered houses standing on pillars.
When you look at a map of Mirepoix, you’ll notice the network of streets are aligned in a grid, like New York’s Manhattan. This of course makes it easy to find your way around, but it felt so unlike a small town in the French countryside to be so ‘square’. My guide told me it was because it was a ‘new town’ and they wanted to mark this the layout of the town.
The heart of the Bastide town of Mirepoix is the market square Les Couverts. It is one of the finest surviving ones in France and dates all the way back to the 13th and 14th centuries. From here you get a 360 degrees view of all the beautiful houses, that are raised on gorgeous timber pillars, allowing for an arcaded walkway below. Looking at the old timber work and the typical medieval wood carvings, felt really special, knowing its age.
One cannot visit Mirepoix without also visiting its impressive Saint Maurice Cathedral. It does not go unnoticed when inside this cathedral, that the width of it is immense. No surprise that it is one of the widest Gothic arches in Europe. They are currently renovating it, trying to restore the wall paintings and the colourful arches in the ceiling. Incredible architectural experience.
A local favourite to go out for dinner is the restaurant called L´Autre Jardin. I say a local favourite because the people I met at the horse stables earlier that day, said it was their absolute favourite! I had a lovely evening here, with healthy vegetarian dishes (which are rare to find in this part of France).
Vineyards and green hills
The neighbouring department to the East of Ariège is Aude. This drive from one department to the other (Mirepoix to Limoux), was unbelievably beautiful. I allowed myself to stop the car along the way to witness the vineyards on the rolling hills, the swaying grasses in the flower fields and the fresh spring air. That car ride actually felt like driving through one of Van Gogh’s paintings of cypress trees.
Limoux is known for its bubbles under the name Blanquette. Around the small town, you’ll find traces of this tradition showing in charming old signs and door paintings. Pictured below is a photograph taken from the bridge, where you can see the river Aude running alongside the town.
Bubble tasting at Maison Guinot
Just as you cross the river Aude, you’ll find Maison Guinot - the most ancient Blanquette wine production of Limoux. It has been run for generations now, from father to son, and they are the only ones left in Limoux that still uses the traditional hand-turning method.
From the beautiful green garden across the road and through the green house, one is taken down into their 2500 m2 wine cellar, displaying an impressive gallery of ageing bottles. One is entertained by both 3D animated movies (in French) of how the production takes place and then finally, a dramatic instrumental show with disco lights and high volume in the wine cellar. The forefather Guinot loved to put on a show.
The tour was really well informed, by a gentleman speaking great English, and the tasting took place back on the opposite side of the street. I filled my suitcase with a couple of these bottles from here - great taste and great stories!
Hiking in Couiza
Couiza is located at the foothills of the Pyrenees and is a hilly place offering astonishing views of the mountains. Around the area you will find lots of possible hiking trails, ranging from 1-2 hours and up to 8-9 hours, depending on your fitness and of course, how much time you have at hand.
I started in Coustaussa and did a 1.5-2 hr circuit that took me past the rural village of Cassaignes, walking both on earthy paths, gravel roads, through green fields and a few metres or so on asphalt at the very end of the hike. I was lucky with the semi-clear skies to be allowed to see the snowcovered mountaintops in the distance.
One thing to note is to bring a map - the routes are poorly marked and I consulted my map plenty of times to keep on track. Frustrating at first, but then I kind of embraced the thought of getting a bit lost in the wild.
Château des Ducs de Joyeuse
In Couiza you’ll see lots of typical French houses and then a giant castle next to two giant football fields. That’s Château des Ducs de Joyeuse - a rectangular monument with 4 round towers for every corner. I stayed in one of the towers, facing the river Aude. All of the interior mirrored this castle-like spirit and of course, the tower room had a four poster bed. I slept so well here in the dark.
The Château also has a restaurant, where I had a most wonderful 3 course dinner accompanied by bubbles from Limoux and then local white wine. This was another one of those unforgettable gastronomic experiences from my stay. Warm, sincere recommendations to go spend the evening here for dinner.
This place was not part of my original itinerary, however, I wanted to see this fortress with my own eyes. So I skipped a few cloisters and cathedrals (I figured I’d seen plenty already) and drove to Carcasonne.
Carcasonne is a fortified city, located roughly around 80 km from Toulouse. It was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1997. It consists of a concentric design of two outer walls with 53 towers. It's like one gigantic theatrical stage, taken out of a Disney movie. From the ‘back’ of the city, you enter the castle and you’re guided through a maze, that finally ends with a walk on a small stretch on top of the fortified walls. From here you can enjoy spectacular views of the city roof tops, the nearby vineyards, the amphi theatre and be in eye height with the cathedral.
In the summertime this place is most likely flooded with tourists from near and far, coming to the epicenter of castle fairytales. So prepare to queue if you go there during high season. I was lucky to visit in mid May, to capture this place without herds of people everywhere.
A friend of mine told me that there is a very popular board game called Carcasonne. So if you would like to visit this place in a miniature format, look out for the game!