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MIDI-PYRENEES - an area guide

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A guide to the Midi-Pyrenees area of Occitanie

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Map of the Midi Pyrénées regionSince 2016, "Midi Pyrenees" has been merged with neighbouring Languedoc into a new super-region called "Occitanie" - a historical reference to the part of France where until the nineteenth century most people spoke varieties of Occitanian French, not the standard French of northern France.
   Unlike many areas of France Midi-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 was made up out of 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 was the largest administrative 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 in Aquitaine. However this is not one of France's greatest wine producing areas.
Aubracthe Aubrac plateau
    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.

  Access: by train (TGV) from Paris Gare Montparnasse or Gare de Lyon.  For train tickets and timetables, visit Trainline.com
Access by car from the UK, via any of the Channel ports, from Roscoff (Brittany) to Calais. See route map from Calais.
Access by air: Toulouse-Blagnac is one of the best served of France's regional airports. There are also airports at Lourdes, and Rodez with flights from the UK. See Flights to France

Main tourist attractions in Midi-Pyrénées

  • 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, Fondation Bemberg gallery  More on  Toulouse
  • Albi: (81) UNESCO world heritage site - Historic city on the Tarn, with a unique medieval redbrick fortified cathedral. Also the Toulouse Lautrec art gallery, old town, and riverscape on the Tarn.  More on Albi
  • Castres (81). Goya museum, with a major collection of Spanish art.
  • Cordes sur Ciel. (81) Small medieval 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
  • Niaux: (09) Grotte de Niaux, fine prehistoric cave paintings. One of the rare sites of prehistoric art where the actual caves are open to the public
  • Mas d'Azil (09)  Underground river. Drive right through a massive cavern on the D119. Visit the prehistoric grotto, one of the earliest human habitats in Europe.   See Prehistoric France
  • Rodez: (12) capital of the Rouergue. Large 14th century cathedral, old city centre. Musée Fénaille with world class collection of prehistoric carved menhirs. Soulages museum. Brand-new museum with 500 works by contemporary master Pierre Soulages. More on Rodez.
  • Roquefort: (12) visit the caves, where the famous cheese is matured.
  • Millau (1 2) The Millau viaduct, the world's highest road bridge, and southern entry point for the Gorges du Tarn 
  • La Couvertoirade (12) 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). See gallery Conques
  • Cahors (46) The capital city of the Lot department is famous for its old streets and its unusual fortified medieval 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.
  • Pech Merle (46) near Cahors. Underground gaves with prehistoric paintings and stalagmites. See Prehistoric France
  • Padirac (46)  near Gramat. Huge natural sinkhole leading to an underground cave system with river and rock formations
  • Montauban (82) Medieval bridge, 18th century cathedral and renowned Ingres Museum, devoted to the great French neoclassical artist.
  • Bastide towns:  Many of these famous fortified medieval towns are in this region
  • Gers department (32):  See Gascony

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

Holiday cottages & gites  in south Midi-Pyrenées
- many with English speaking owners
 Toulouse:  Click for a choice of hotels in Toulouse
Click for a choice of Small hotels in Midi-Pyrenees

High Pyrenees national park
The High Pyrenees National Park

Famous fortified medieval bridge over the Lot, at Cahors

Photos on this page, copyright About-France.com
except for the Rocamadour and High Pyrenees pictures, which are published under the GNU licence.

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Occitanie region -
Midi-Pyrenees area

The capital city Toulouse, lying in the centre of the Midi-Pyrenees area, is the only big metropolitan area  in the region which is otherwise a region of small towns, villages, and rolling countryside.

Toulouse, Place du Capitole - one of Europe's finest urban piazzas

Bucolic Ségala
In the depths of rural Tarn

Map of France

Millau viaduct, Aveyron
The Millau viaduct, in the Aveyron department
Carved tympanum, Conques
- part of the remarkable medieval tympanum  (More photos: see Conques photo gallery)

Rocamadour, in the Lot
Photo Patrick Clenet

Saint Cirq Lapopie
Saint Cirq Lapopie, in the Lot - one of the "plus beaux villages de France" which really deserves the title.

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