The twisting, turning road through the plane tree contours of countryside south of Réalmont en route to our chambre d’hôte for the coming days is an absolute delight. We are in the heart of the Tarn département, deep in Cocagne country, and the picturesque route beyond the robust planes is flanked by fields of gold as far as the eye can see. Wheat, corn and sunflowers carpet the landscape, the latter now scorched and with heads bowed low as late summer slopes upon us bringing the once brightly smiling flowers to the end of their lifespan.
We swoop round another curve along the scenic way, and all at once there she lies – Lautrec – huddled on a hilltop, her medieval ramparts draping down from the rocky peak and into the Agout Valley below, the views stretching panoramically to the Montagne Noire range silhouetting the southern rim in the distance and the regal Pyrenees beyond.
Located between Albi and Castres, the Cité Médiévale of Lautrec is classified as one of France’s most beautiful villages in the official listing and was the birthplace of the family of renowned French artist, Toulouse-Lautrec. It is also France’s main producer of l’ail rose, and is certified with the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) for its famed pink garlic.
We wind along the narrow cobbled paths of the village and park up in the pretty place where the 14th-century church lies. La Terrasse de Lautrec, our home for the next few days, flanks the façade to the north of the square, a 17th-century manor house as subtle from the roadside as it is sumptuous on the inside. Ever-excited about staying away, Jem – a sprightly four-year-old that summer – enthusiastically pushes with all the might he can muster on the mammoth wooden doorway and we step inside the cool bulk of the building and immediately back in time.
In a hallway oozing history and crammed with charming curios, we adjust ourselves to the dusky interior, a world away from the dazzling afternoon sun dribbling in through the open French doors to the garden at the far side. A serenity suddenly takes hold; a sanctuary swathed in tranquility, the only sound a tinkling of a fountain from afar, and then Jem’s puckish laughter parading the peace as he gleefully plays with the property’s fluffball of a pet cat out on the patio.
Our friendly hosts, Dominique and Philippe, take us on a tour of their enchanting bed and breakfast, once a former bishop’s palace, and which they bought over and beautifully restored some twelve years back. First, their jewel of a garden. The brilliance of the sun bathes us again as we step outside onto the magnificently manicured terrasse and amble through the box-lace and rose-covered formal garden originally designed by Le Nôtre to gracefully enhance the village ramparts they are built upon. Secluded corners and shaded vine trellises purport the perfect shelter for long hot days lazing on strategically placed sun loungers with the spectacular vista of the surrounding countryside as a picture postcard setting; and so too the inviting swimming pool is a haven in the afternoon heat. On cue, Jem carps on and on for his swimming shorts; until he spots the delightful koi pond, source of all that tranquil tinkling, and Dominique lets him feed the fish.
It’s time to stroll back to the house, set as a sturdy backdrop to the stunning garden. Philippe leads us up the wide stone staircase to our suite, courteously carrying our two small cases; Jem scuffling up the steps behind us with his Lightning McQueen case, resolute on lugging it up all by himself. En route, we are acquainted with the salon on the first floor, an impressive lounge stuffed with yet more antiques, especially bird cages, for which the proprietors evidently have a penchant; and more striking still the extraordinary history behind the room, which has ornate ceilings and a traditional charm, and is decorated in the original 1810 frescoes depicting the Incas; the wallpaper is even listed historically for its design.
Back on the landing, we discover Jem hunched down and digging his swimsuit and goggles out of his case. Somebody is more than ready for a dip in the cool and welcoming waters. But not before we have the chance to settle into our room – the Suite Caussade. Behind a thick oak door, we enter an ante-chamber – Jem’s bedroom on this occasion, or else a small salon if staying without children – and beyond a smaller wooden door, the large and luminous main bedroom. Overlooking the 200-year-old garden and rolling hills, the room is airy and high-ceilinged and the décor assumes a predominantly pink theme in a nod to the renowned l’ail rose of the region. The open casement windows have their hinged shutters half-closed against the heat, and the serene resonance of the fountain drifts up and fuses with the chime of the nearby church bells striking the hour.
The boys are poolside in no time, but I stay back awhile to take in my surroundings. I busy myself with some unpacking and listen to their footsteps crunch on the gravel pathway of the garden below, paired with Jem’s shrieks of pleasure at the anticipation of his favourite part of any day when on holiday – pool time.
The afternoon passes in a perfect pall of reading, relaxing and romping about the pool. And later, settled under the grape arbor with the sweeping valley views as our backdrop, Dominique serves us an apéritif, before we take an early evening stroll around the village and up to the 17th-century windmill roosted right at the top, which is to become Jem’s preferred spot in the village, and where we proceed to take une promenade every evening thereafter. Winding down a cobblestoned lane from the windmill, we stop by for dinner at a great value little place serving local fare, Au Pied du Moulin. It’s a Sunday and the only restaurant open for business, so its open-plan setting is bubbly with all the other village visitors too.
The next morning, sleep-satisfied and serene, we breakfast on the terrace of our abode to the tune of twittering birds and bees droning about the abundance of roses as we indulge in delicious pastries, home-made confiture and freshly-baked bread.
We are here, in the Tarn, to take in the outstanding heritage and natural riches of this lesser-known corner of southern France. A selection of the départements in proximity – Dordogne, Lot, Lot-et-Garonne and Aude among them – are pretty prominent on the French tourist trail, but the Tarn is still somewhat unscathed by the circus of commercial tourism that sullies other areas of the south west in peak season, and this gives it an unblemished and bucolic charm that is getting harder and harder to find in the hectic hotspots at the height of a French summer.
Lautrec is the ideal locale from which to explore the area, and over the next few days we enjoy a tantalising circuit of trips encompassing first the city of Albi – an architectural gem of a place celebrated for its UNESCO-listed Episcopal cité comprising the Sainte-Cécile cathedral and Palais de la Berbie, which together form the largest brick structure in the world; the palace also houses the museum of Albi’s most famous son, the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Also on the agenda, the Route des Bastides Albigeoises, the most wonderful drive through an undulating verdant landscape of vine-cloaked and sunflower-clad hills hailed as ‘la petite Toscane’ taking in a wealth of perched medieval bastide villages listed as ‘les plus beaux villages de France’, including Castelnau-de-Montmiral, Puycelsi, Bruniquel, Monestiés and Labastide-de-Lévis. And as voted by the French public on a scintillating TV show in the summer of 2014 as the crème-de-la-crème of the country’s prettiest villages – Cordes-Sur-Ciel, a honey-coloured village of half-timbered, Gothic and Romanesque houses hovering grandly atop a hill, its chocolate-box charming buildings cascading graciously down the fringes and into the fertile plain below.
Following our sightseeing stints, we return to our retreat that is La Terrasse de Lautrec each afternoon rewarded with the beauty we have seen, and ready for some well-earned repose, and some very deserved pool time for Jem after being dragged around historical landmarks for the best part of each day.
La Terrasse de Lautrec:
- 3 bedrooms and 1 suite (rates from 85 euros per night inc breakfast)
- Gîte for 4–6 persons (rates from 700 euros per week)
- Dominique prepares a delicious table d’hôte of regional cooking for 4 people of more
- Cooking workshops available and run twice yearly by English actor, Robin Ellis, of original Poldark fame
- Closed November–March
Things to do:
- Lautrec: listed as a ‘plus beau village de France’ | the first Friday of every August is the garlic festival, dedicated to the iconic l’ail rose of the region | 17th-century windmill, one of only a handful still working in southern France | pastel products – items coloured with the pastel blue dye extracted from the pastel woad plant for which the region is famous
- Albi: a Unesco-listed city | Episcopal cathedral of Sainte-Cécile | 13th-century Palais de la Berbie and gardens | Toulouse-Lautrec Museum | Tarn river trip in a Gabarre boat
- Drive the Route des Bastides Albigeoises and visit a wealth of other bastide villages in the vicinity, including celebrated Cordes-Sur-Ciel
- Wine tasting in Gaillac, on the banks of the River Tarn
- The Goya Museum in Castres