The Unknown Saint-Mont AOC
The small town of Aurensan (in the Gers – not to be confused with the town of the same name in Haute-Pyrenees, only 43-kilometers to the southeast) consist of only 135 inhabitants. This is the intermediate sprint along Stage 18 of the 2018 Tour and while it may be sleepy, it is the gateway to a lesser-known wine varietal called Saint-Mont. Aurensan is at the western boundary of the appellation, named for the more centralized town of Saint-Mont only 6-kilometers away. This portion of Southwest region consists of three appellations (Saint-Mont, Tursan, and Madiran), which offer a nice alternative to the larger vintners in Bordeaux. In this region, the growers tend to be more small family vineyards and much newer in recognition. Saint-Mont, for instance has only been given AOC status since 2011. But the monks at the Monastery of Saint-Mont started making this wine in the 11th century (and its fields still make it today). With only 1200 hectares (3,000 acres) in production, Saint-Mont is not large, but it is becoming an increasingly sought-after international varietal. About half of this production is red and half is white wine. And some fields even produce Armagnac, a local type of brandy. Stop by at the Château La Bergalasse for a local experience or travel closer to Saint-Mont and the appellation’s largest producer Plaimont for a true taste of this hidden wine gem.
Aulus-les-Bains to Cascade d’Ars
There is no shortage of scenery in the Pyrenees. The only question is what to see. Taking in the hot springs of Aulus-les-Bains inspires one to look for more. The hike to the spectacular Cascade d’Ars is one of many such waterfalls throughout the mountains but often regarded as one of the most beautiful. From the trailhead in Aulus-les-Bains, the path rises 574 meters along the Ars River to the base of the waterfall’s second stage. Here, the water flowing from the taller and more narrow first stage widen to a plume. In total, the three stages of the Cascade d’Ars falls 110 meters. With all stages in vision, however, the effect is a striking and powerful piece of art against a tree-lined landscape that effectively takes ones breath away. The entire roundtrip of almost 10 kilometers can take as short as 3 hours 30 minutes but leave yourself plenty of time to enjoy the many scenic overlooks along the way and time to explore the waterfalls.
Take Flight in Blagnac
Blagnac is a suburb of the wonderfully historic and populous city of Toulouse. Only five kilomaters away, Blagnac as a suburb has grown from a sleepy village of under 4,000 inhabitants in the early 1950s to a booming population of almost 25,000. Not terribly impressive from a numbers standpoint, but this 625% increase over the past fifty years points to a larger indicator. Blagnac is at the forefront of modern aviation. Toulouse-Blagnac International Airport is home to France’s (let alone Europe’s) dominant airplane manufacturer Airbus. Unlike its American competitors, European conglomerates founded Airbus in the 1960s in response to increased demand, regulator-allowed traffic, and European specialized needs for short intercontinental flights. Only later did Airbus become a leader in the skies once its A300 program got up and running. Regardless, it was at Blagnac that Europe’s industries took flight. Whether Airbus’ prototypes or the legendary Concorde, they all started here. It’s where you come if you want to be in the aerospace industry. In fact, some 80,000 people work in aerospace in the region. To celebrate this legacy, the Aeroscopia aviation museum opened in 2012 near Blagnac’s various airplane production facilities and the international airport. The museum itself visually resembles an aircraft hangar from the future covered in gray zinc. It houses planes that defined European aerospace in the past one hundred years, including military, commercial, and vintage aircraft. Visitors can also depart for a tour of the nearby AirBus plant from the museum. This museum is a unique and engaging way to experience one of France’s primary contributions to modern travel.
Coal Becomes Glass in Carmaux
Not far from Carmaux are tangible signs of the area’s primary industry, mining. There’s a sizeable open pit mine in Blaye-les-Mines and remnants of older underground mines in Cagnac-les-Mines. These are coal mines. Yet a museum in town presents a softer side to the jet black, dirty, and infamous rock. Carmaux’s Musée d’Art du Verre is truly unique. It presents visitors with glass art formed from the locally mined coal. Also called coal gasification, the process takes an organic or fossil fuel and converts it into a gas at high temperatures, which can then be utilized as fuel. It is this fuel that powers the glass and plastic making of the area. The museum is both a production facility for local artists and a showcase of their work. It houses workshops and exhibits filled with wonderfully colorful pieces of glass art and in spaces that are as unique as the process itself. Be sure to visit during the Tour de France for the center is only open From April to October.
Chateau de Foix
Foix is a seemingly obscure city in the south of France, but one with royal ties and a storied past. Overlooking the Ariege River and in fact controlling access to the foothills of the Pyrenees via the Ariege Valley, Foix was a stronghold on the western outpost ruled initially ruled by the Count of Carcassonne. Over time, its rulers became wealthy and powerful landowners in their own right and acquired much political sway. The Count of Foix, for example, grew to inherit the principality of Andorra by the late 1200s. By 1589, the Count of Foix, Henry of Navarre, became Henry IV King of France. Needless to say, Foix was not a remote outpost. The impressive Château de Foix is indicative of this power and quite possibly one of the best medieval castles in France. Perched high on a commanding overlook, the castle commenced construction around 987 on top of an earlier fortress. The magnificent structure was initially bequeathed with two square towers and a third was added later. A massive wall wrapped the outside of the hill and surrounded the fortress. In total, the castle made for a dominating overlook of the valley, an impenetrable force, and a statement of the Count’s wealth, determination, and strength to opposing forces.
Exploring the Tarn’s Local Wonders
Gaillac is a historic city on the Tarn River perhaps most famous for its riverside Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Michel that was founded in 972. Like most cities medieval cities with a strong religious foundation, enlightenment bleeds into other aspects to form a rich fountain of knowledge. In Gaillac, this is tangibly visible in the town’s small but diverse museums. The ancient Abbey houses its own historical museum. But then there’s the Gaillac Musée deBeaux-Arts in the stately Chateau Foucaud that boasts paintings from an assortment of local well-known painters. I find the most interesting to be the Musée d’histoire naturelle Philadelphus-Thomas. The expansive collections of animal specimens present a natural history that spans fields of biology, botany, geology, local Pyrenean paleontology, and even prehistoric anthropology. The collection belonged to Dr. Philadelphus Thomas. Thomas’ collection is unique in that it combines all types of historical knowledge about a localized region in one place. The museum remains vibrant and relevant by continuing to develop new exhibits that expand the knowledge of the local area in the philosophy of its founder. One such exhibit discovers the historical and innovative use of gardens throughout defined neighborhoods within Gaillac with consideration of the scarcity of water. This exhibit will run through December 2017.
A River Runs Through It
There are many prehistoric caves in France and we’ve explore many of the most famous over the years. The 2018 Tour de France even gave us yet another opportunity to discover the country’s important prehistoric sites at Grotte du Mas-d’Azil. Carved by the Arize River and traced by the D119, both linear forms make this cave accessible and beautiful at the same time. In fact, it was the construction of this road that led to the discovery of the archaeological site. Simply approaching the limestone monument cave on either end is an impressive experience. Entering the cave from the north, drivers drive through a narrow portal than seems to transport the visitor to another dimension, one of darkness and mystery. Just inside the southern, larger, gaping entrance is the cave museum, where this underground world truly comes alive. Meandering pathways lead visitors to seemingly stacked and towering rooms where both prehistoric and historic residents lived. The Grotte du Mas d’Azil offers visitors a fantastic opportunity to see how such caves were utilized by various peoples over the course of history, going back to 9,500 BC. Such overlapping history has yielded impressive and significant archaeological artifacts like paleolithic decorated bone discs and wall paintings on par with more familiar and famous cave dwellings in this part of France.
Relaxing in Luchon
The small mountain town of Bagnères-de-Luchon, also simply called Luchon, is a big stop in the Pyrenees. Its relatively large population of over 2,500 residents is an indication of this status as one of the best resort towns in the Pyrenees. Indeed, it is centrally located to three ski resorts, several beyond category climbs (as the peloton knows), excellent hiking including over the Port de Venasque to Spain, and of course, the thermal waters that give the town its name and fame. The Romans discovered the healing powers of the hot springs here nearly 2,000 years ago. The baths were reinvigorated in the late 1700s and with the strategic endorsement of members of the royal court, created a foundation for a thriving business. The introduction of a rail line cemented this place during the belle epoch resort boom of the late 1800s. Over the years, the rich and famous flocked to Luchon to bath in the waters and so can you. The thermal baths are still available for medical purposes but can also be enjoyed by the general public. And Luchon also boasts a rare natural cave sauna, the Vaporarium, that was constructed in 1973.
The sub-region of the Baronnies presents rolling hills but not yet high enough for skiing and other winter activities. It truly is a place less traveled. But the town of Capvern-les-Bains provides a great opportunity to see two great sites in one. The 11th century Château de Mauvezin occupies a commanding view from atop one of these hilltops, and for good reason. It was the object of several assaults over the years that resulted in a constant changing of hands. Down the hill, within 2 kilometers, sits the equally iconic and picturesque 12th century Abbaye de l’Escaladieu. This Cisterncian monastery was the first in southwest France and specialized in agricultural production in the Baronnies. Both sites experienced adversity in the past 100 years and are lucky to even welcome visitors today. Take advantage of this fact and stop by to experience the beauty of the Baronnies.
A Pyrenean Cheese Tour
As the peloton makes its first foray into the high mountains, Stage 12 is an excellent example of the mountains’ finest products. That’s cheese of course. I’ve explored the infinite world of French cheese before, but it seems that the high mountains are more diverse in their cheese production. The Pyrenees alone have well over twenty-five highly localized cheeses. While the first half of Stage 12 dabbles in the foothills, the riders make a dive into the meat of the stage at Loures-Barousse. The second half of the stage’s next 100 plus kilometers allows us to sample some of the rarest and most interesting cheeses in France.
Some cheeses are so distinct that only one farm produces it, usually after centuries of tradition. Our first cheese of the stage comes from the Barousse Valley town of Cierp-Gaud at the Ferme de Cap del Mail. This cheese, Fromage de Chevre Fermier, is a soft goat cheese and even smell of goats. It’s the real deal, an authentic “from the land” cheese, big in flavor in a small package. The cheese is produced to be only 6 centimeters in diameter. Compared to its neighbors eight kilometers to the northwest, this is a relatively small Pyreneean cheese.
Unlike the soft goat cheese produced in Cierp-Gaud, Barrouse and its sister cheese Esbareich are hard cheeses made from cow’s milk. This wasn’t always the case, however. These two cheeses fall within a family known as the Vache des Pyrenees. Importantly, Vache des Pyrenees originated as a sheep’s milk cheese but as cattle grazing became prevalent in the region, the cows supplanted the sheep. Today, Vache cheeses can be made with either milk but is characteristically cow. While named for its origin in the Barousse Valley, this cow’s milk cheese is often produced in higher elevations, particularly the village of Sost. Sost is some four kilometers off the main road to the Peyresourde, but its remoteness and exoticism is half the enticement. The taste of Barousse varies depending on the feed of the cows, i.e. the time of year, fresh grass or fodder in sheds. It’s a strong smelling cheese but don’t let that stop you.
Along the stage’s cheese tour, it will be instructive to taste the Barousse’s sister cheese, the fruity and nutty tasting Esbareich. Produced only one kilometer from Sost, the main difference with this cheese is its affinage, or time to ripen. Esbrareich requires an at least two and a half months whereas Barousse is ready after only one and a half months. Even so, only after four months does Esbareich’s skin harden and turns the characteristic yellowish color.
Even further up the mountain at 1,300 meters is the Fromage de Montagne. In the hamlet of Poubeau, two farms specialize in this Vache des Pyrenees hard cheese. Here, the affinage is at least three months and results in a cheese that is strong smelling on the inside but less pungent on the outer crust. The cheese is subjected to constant washing and rotating throughout its affinage period, making the cheese quite moist and filled with minute holes. The finished product is a distinctive pinkish and orange color. Visitors are encouraged to visit the Fromagerie de Poubeau for a cellar tour, tasting, and of course selling.
With any of these cheeses, they pair nicely with essentially any local red wine (a Jurancon AOC perhaps) and a picnic with a backdrop of the high Pyrenees capping the experience. This cheese tour illustrates that cheese is really just another French way to slow things down and experience the wonders around us.
Caving in to Roquefort
More than any other place on Earth, France is synonymous with its gastronomical delicacies, the majority of which were developed centuries or millennia ago and remain unaltered. Perhaps more exemplary of this historical novelty is Roquefort cheese. The town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, with less than 1,000 residents, sits below the Larzac Plateau, a volcanic formation that left its interior filled with caves. Somehow, the process of curing sheep’s milk cheese in these immensely humid caves at a constant temperature of 7 degrees Celcius, Roquefort has amazed visitors for as long as can be remembered. American scientific journals were writing about the Roquefort process since the mid-1800s, but Romans were praising the region’s cheese since the first century and Charlemagne fell in love with this blue cheese in the 700s. Indeed, the French crown awarded protection of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in 1411, long before it was awarded the first AOC status in 1925. There’s so much more to discover here, but the best way is to visit. See how the cheese is cured. Can’t get there? Pick up some at your local provider and taste for yourself.
Romanesque on the Slopes
Not far from Bagneres-de-Luchon, only 6-kilometers uphill in fact, is the town of Saint-Aventin, perched on the slopes of the Lys Valley. Here the town sits several hundred meters above the One River. For this reason, Saint-Aventin is a picturesque cross-section of a village. Perched like a sentinel above the Tour route, Saint-Aventin’s claim to fame is its notable Romanesque church. Perhaps because of its location on the Spanish border, not to mention along a former pilgrimage route that would have brought international travelers and ideas, the Eglise Saint-Aventin is the largest in this part of the Pyrenees. The was dedicated to a local 8th century shepherd named Aventin, who evangelized the surrounding hills and Moors, becoming a martyred saint in the process. The church was built in the 11th century to house the remains of the saint. The church is really a relatively complex example of Romanesque architecture. It features not one, but two steeples and Lombard chevets, or ornamental semi-circular rotundas behind the altar. The overall effect is a striking structural composition that is rather unique for such an isolated small village setting. Where Saint-Aventin, however, is truly unique is its iconography. As opposed to the portals that we previously explored at Chartres, the representation and symbols used to depict Christ are a variation more closely utilized in examples at Burgos, Santiago de Compostela, and a few others in southern France. In any case, the stone-carved figures and general architectural novelty of the Eglise Saint-Aventin are worth discovering.
St. Lizier’s Pharmacy is a Cure
Saint-Girons is the outgrowth of the pre-Roman and subsequent Roman stronghold of Saint-Lizier, just one kilometer to the north. Located on the Salat River, this location was crucial to the defenses of the empire in the foothills of the high mountains. Saint-Lizier has much to show from this and later periods when it was a frequent stop along the Route de Compostela. Indeed, the town features the typical sites: two cathedrals and ramparts. It also includes a museum, however, that is unexpected for a town that otherwise celebrates its Middle Ages religious legacy. In the old hôtel-Dieu, or hospital, is a pharmacie to showcase the antidotes of the 18th century. This was an age when medicine was being discovered but clashed with an existing medical tradition based on populist commercialism instead of science. Hence the pharmacy is filled with bottles of herbal and pseudo-science medicines that could cure thievery and provide the secret for long life. Immaculately preserved with its original wood furniture, the hospital’s pharmacy is opposite from the sterile pharmacies seen today. Tours are available, but call ahead for reservations. It’s not the most famous site in town, but it is off the beaten path and one worth seeking out to complete your Saint-Lizier experience.
The Marble of Sarrancolin
For lovers of fine furniture and architecture, Sarrancolin is renowned for the marble that bears its name. While Sarrancolin marble dates to Roman times, it wasn’t until the 17th century that it became a household name. This was almost entirely due to its use at Versailles. As the most lavish palace in Europe, the materials and objects used at the royal court became sought-after across the continent. Needless to say, Sarrancolin marble, with its strong red flaming patterns, were a particular draw. Even today, museums across the world hold remnants of the Versailles inventory that contain Sarrancolin marble – from bedside tables of oak topped with slabs of Sarrancolin marble to carved and gilded console tables again topped with marble, the exquisite marble accents put the little riverside Pyrenean town on the world map. Sarrancolin Fantistico, with pink-beige hue, has become the most revered type of marble, albeit originally reserved for royal use. The marble continues to be used in spectacular international projects, from the Empire State Building to developers in China, India, and Middle East seeking that extra special something for their luxury buildings. Visiting Sarrancolin today, peer up to the hillsides around the villages of Ilhet and Beyrède and you can still see the quarries at work on both sides of the Aure Valley.
A Celebration of Transhumance
Following the Salat River up the mountain to Seix, visitors witness the important role that livestock grazing plays in Pyrenean society. Also known as transhumance, Seix prides itself with this heritage. Each June, the city reenacts the annual migration of sheep, goats, horses, cows, and their human guides from the warmer foothills to the high mountains in search of fresh grazing and cooler temperatures. In 2017, the Fête de Transhumance en Haut-Salat takes place on June 9-11. To begin, five groups journey from as far as Betchat near the Haute-Garonne border lead their respective herds of animals along five different routes. This is an opportunity for the age-old herding tradition to continue as both old and young alike participate in this pilgrimage. Descending on Seix at once, the highlight of the festival is the Grand Parade. This is the triumphant return for the family that spent the winter at lower elevations and an opportunity to celebrate their profession. Here, the shepherds are proceeded by folk groups, bands, and of course their herds, all in a grand display of Basque culture. Around these main events are communal meals, demonstrations of the mountain trades like sheep shearing, craft fairs, and musical performances. In all, it’s a wonderfully unique method of learning about the Basque culture and the ancient traditions that define these communities. The summer here in Seix and other mountain towns is then capped by the annual Foire a la Dscente on October 22 that marks the return to winter pastures and the onset of winter.
Surprise Finds in Sévérac-l’Église
Sévérac-l’Église may only have 500 inhabitants, but like so much of France, it’s amazing what finds lurk behind the scenes. Less than two kilometers from the center of this tiny village are prehistoric monuments called the Dolmen des Cayroules. Hidden from the sleepy N88 on top of a shallow hill is just two of the Aveyron’s many limestone dolmen. A dolmen, as opposed to a megalith, is a unique and mysterious piece of prehistoric architecture. In fact, the Monument Historique register lists these sites as building structures. But dolmen were specifically used as burial tombs or funerary monuments and date to between 2,000 and 4,000 B.C. While some may not look like much in their present state of decay, they have the basic elements of a tomb. Some dolmen are more complex than others but the ones in this part of the Aveyron are simplistic in design without a corridor. The interesting thing is that dolmen dot the Causse de Séverac. In fact, the Aveyron contains more dolmen than any other department. An 1880 inventory identified some 435 dolmen and that list has been expanded since then to 800. Most of these open to the east and are grouped in clusters, separated by only a few meters. The Cayroules site is indicative of this trend. The next closest dolmen is a little more than two kilometers away in Gagnac, which has two dolmen less than 500 meters apart. At one point, Sévérac-l’Église had at least five dolmen. These pieces of history are perfect reminders to keep your eyes open along your travels.
Slowing Things Down in Tarbes
Not much remains of historic Tarbes. But the city is not without its charms: Place Jean Jaures and Place du Verdun to name a few. There is another that rises above the rest and that is Jardin de Massey. This island of tranquility sits in the middle of this departmental and historical capital is free to explore and is known as one of the best gardens in France. The garden was designed by local son Placide Massey, a renowned early 19th century botanist who served royalty throughout France, including at Versailles. Following retirement in the mid-1800s, Massey returned to his hometown and continued his studies and plantings on his own land. Upon his death in 1853, he bequeathed all his land to the City of Tarbes with the yet complete Pyrenees observation tower that became the home to the Musée Massey. Today, the garden continues Massey’s legacy as a showcase of natural and architectural beauty in full balance, full of nurseries, greenhouses, walking paths, water features, countless flowers, and even a cloister. Bring the kids and take a ride on le petit train. Indeed, Tarbes and the Jardin Massey invite you to take a break from sightseeing and enjoy the Pyrenees at their doorstep.
A Bastide Introduction
The south of France is known for its Medieval towns, or bastides, and while the town of Trie-sur-Baïse may not be the largest or most provocative, its story is illustrative of this unique political, economic, and social structure. In fact, whether watching on TV or traveling with the Tour, a stage in the south is bound to be essentially a tour of bastides. The 2018 Tour de France Stage 18, for example, went through no fewer than five, with another half dozen or so around the route, making Trie-sur-Baïse an ideal place to set the stage, literally. First, a bastide specifically refers to a master-planned Medieval town developed in the southwest of France between 1222 and 1373. Don’t let their Medieval origins fool you, these were complex but essentially commercial developments between landowners and a sovereign power for both mutual protection and, perhaps more importantly, mutual economic gain – simply another form of feudalism but without the castle. In the case of Trie-sur-Baïse, its charter, or paréage, was signed in nearby Duffort in 1322 between four landowners, including the Abbot of L’Escardieu Abbey, 25-kilometers away. With each entity giving up land, only then could the new city be developed, occupants attracted, and taxes imposed on the products traded. With the charter signed, and mutual protection assured by the King of France, Jean de Trie – after whom the town would be named went to work. Knowing that a bastide’s purpose were commercial and defensive for both the sovereign (king) and landowners (i.e. Lords or Abbot), it is easy to see the characteristics of a bastide development in Trie-sur-Baïse, namely perpendicular streets surrounded by agricultural fields for residents to sow and a central marketplace square to facilitate a lucrative trade (and income potential for the town’s patrons and protectors. As the peloton traverses southern France, see how many of these characteristics you see across the landscape.