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Wednesday 21 August 2019

What's the rush? Living on Tarn time

Tarn, France

The spire of Saint Cecile rises above the town of Albi
The spire of Saint Cecile rises above the town of Albi
Henri de Toulouse Lautrec
Constance on the Pont du Tarn, Albi
Le Jardin du Clocher founded by Sandrine and her chef husband, Yorick Hardjani

Constance Harris

When was it that holidays became as objective-focused as the rest of life? I mean, really, what's all the rush? Isn't life what happens while we make plans?

This was brought home to me on a recent trip to the Tarn area of southern France, in the Midi-Pyrenees, a place that is the epitome of a slow down, relax, everything will be still there tomorrow, kind of ethos.

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Geographically, the Tarn seems to undulate; gently sloping green or golden fields, leafy roads and winding rivers, ringed in the distance by the Pyrenees and the Montagne Noir. It is often referred to as the 'petit Tuscany' of France due to its Florentine-like cities such as Albi, the capital of the region, and Castres, both of which are built on rivers creating striking vistas.

Tarn has good public transport, but if you want to really luxuriate in discovering, hire a car. Or cycle.

The area is ideal for cyclists who like to enjoy the landscape as they ride (drivers there don't speed) and for walkers; it has 8,000km of hiking paths. So you can have a good, (pretend!) active holiday before you get to the real business of les vacances - excellent food, wine and sleeps.

As you drive around Tarn, you will see everywhere signs for foie gras, vineyards, various kinds of accommodations and activities. As this is a strongly agricultural area, food is hearty; dishes such as cassoulets are popular, as are fish dishes which tend to be light and fresh and served with gorgeous salads or cooked vegetables.

What truly impressed me on my sojourn was that most of the restaurants, unlike my experiences in the rest of France, were willing to deal with finicky eaters such as vegetarians (although sometimes the concept that bacon was not vegetarian food did stump them). And they really did try for the coeliacs. Tarn is a customer-friendly region.

If you love pottering around, Tarn is full of quirky, often fascinating, chateaux in various states of restoration with quirky owners keen to share their stories of rehabilitation.

Some are still wineries, such as Chateau de Salettes (chateaudesalettes.com), which has several modern bedrooms with views over a gorgeous valley and most importantly, an excellent restaurant that serves its stunning wines. It felt sophisticated, quiet and adult.

Others, such as Chateau de Mauriac (chateaudemauriac.com), are uniquely personal. It was bought 50 years ago by artist Bernard Bistes, who undertook a massive restoration project funded entirely from selling his art work. His son Emmanuel now runs the castle and shows visitors around this truly eccentric and unique, 11th Century chateau.

I loved Chateau de Ronel (chateauderonel.fr). Restored and run by husband and wife Christophe and Lydie Gay, who are dedicated to a sophisticated, yet nature-friendly, organic way of living - described as biologique.

Each of the seven suites and two gites are uniquely decorated and have lovely views over the countryside. As part of its ethos, the chateau has the most beautiful, naturally filtered swimming pool with crystalline water.

For a half day, or even a full day trip out, I recommend the extraordinary former Royal Military School - Abbaye-ecole de Soreze (abbayeecoledesoreze.com) which was founded by order of King Louis XVI - for a fascinating history of the French bourgeoisie from an unusual perspective.

It is also home to a gallery dedicated to the beautiful, naturalist tapestry art of former monk Dom Robert (1907-1997). The tapestries were woven at Aubusson and are exquisite.

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Henri de Toulouse Lautrec

The landscape here constantly reminded me of Claude Monet's Haystacks. Tarn's most celebrated son is that other famous French artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (above). Toulouse-Lautrec's family history (his father was the Comte de Montfa) is fascinating and embedded in the region - from his former family home, Chateau de Montfa (chateau-montfa.com), in the countryside (now a ruin but a young couple have used crowd funding to rescue and rebuild it) to his uncle's home in the city of Albi where he spent a lot of his youth; to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum (musee-toulouse-lautrec.com) in the Palais de la Berbie in Albi. It is here one can truly appreciate the scope of Toulouse-Lautrec's modernist vision, his extraordinary private life and his genius.

The Tarn has always been rich agriculturally. It was the exclusive producer of a rare and costly blue dye called wode which was hugely important in the Middle Ages, thus adding to the Tarn's reputation, importance and wealth. Trade was strong and as a result, the landowners and church were powerful.

Religion is a significant part of the area's history, in part due to the persecution of the Cathar Christians by Catholic inquisitions during the Middle Ages.

Albi, known as the 'red city' was added to Unesco's list of World Heritage sites as an episcopal city due to its imposing fortified cathedral of Sainte Cecile (cathedrale-albi.com). I think its beautiful riverfront, waterfall and medieval streets deserve some credit, too.

Having said that, the cathedral is extraordinary and well worth spending time in. The ceiling alone took artists from Bologna more than 30 years to complete.

Albi is a delight to amble around. It has lots of unique shops and businesses, including a bijoux fashion museum (musee-mode.com).

Meal wise, I highly recommend Le Pont du Tarn (lepontdutarn.com), an unassuming, excellent small restaurant near Albi's beautiful bridge. For a more upscale, regional culinary experience Le Lautrec restaurant (restaurant-le-lautrec.com) offered fabulous vegetarian options. Both are in the old quarter.

Albi is utterly French. It closes early and people socialise at home. We stayed in Hotel Alchimy (alchimyalbi.com) one of Albi's rare 'in' places.

A stylish boutique hotel with lovely staff and good food, it matched our perfect, leisurely Tarn holiday - perfectly.

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Constance on the Pont du Tarn, Albi

 

Getting  there

* To plan your visit to the Tarn region, contact the Tarn Tourism Board - tourisme-tarn.com.

* Aer Lingus offers direct flights between Dublin and Toulouse up to seven times a week during the summer - aerlingus.com

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Le Jardin du Clocher founded by Sandrine and her chef husband, Yorick Hardjani

* For a leisurely day trip, visit the medieval village of Lautrec where you can learn the history of wode; buy good souvenirs and enjoy a gorgeous meal in Le Jardin du Clocher founded by wife Sandrine and chef husband, Yorick Hardjani

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