Occitania draws you in with alluring landscapes of all shapes and sizes; its ancient regions are blanketed in unique heritage, and spotting of towns and cities where you can well and lose yourself. Happily, though, we can witness its locals relish in the beauty of the areas, the traditions that still hold firm, and their fascinating dialect that is today still considered a ‘romance language.’ Occitania has everything waiting for you; you must step off the deeply indented paths.
In southern France, Occitania is the second-largest region and the 4th most popular tourist destination. However, while it has a history dating back to the 10th century, with many battles against its land and its language, it was only known to be its region very recently. In 2014, the French Press announced to the country that there were plans to initiate a change to reduce the areas in metropolitan France. The National Assembly then approved this at the end of that year. By September 2016, 21 regions were cramped down to 13. This brought together Ariège, Aude, Aveyron, Gard, Haute-Garonne, Gers, Hérault, Lot, Lozère, Hautes-Pyrénées, Pyrénées-Orientales, Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne and after much deliberation, was named Occitania.
The region sits on the border of Spain and takes up a little less than half of the south coast. With Toulouse inland and Montpellier touching the water, these two major cities have many typical “things to do and see.” But we can’t forget the places hidden amongst the known, the villages leaning on hillsides, and the treasured small towns waiting for visitors that make Occitania not just a place to visit but inevitably a place to discover.
We must begin with the impeccable UNESCO heritage sights. Not that they aren’t the already prominent places that tourists far and wide venture to when visiting a country, but they are an essential part of history and, therefore, a must-see in Occitania. We start with the Canal du Midi, recognized by UNESCO as “an exemplary expression of human creative genius.” In 1666 – 1681, an artificial canal was produced to link the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean. Starting in Toulouse and finishing at the lagoon Étang de Thau, it is an impeccable piece of the Occitania puzzle. To the west, you’ll uncover another part of the Cirque de Gavarnie puzzle: a natural wonder with scattered snow-capped peaks, a 3,000-meter accentuated cirque, and an approximately two-and-a-half-hour loop trail. In the heart of it all, one of Europe’s highest waterfalls sits at 427 meters high, and if that wasn’t enough, an array of extra waterfalls glide down to the earth right beside it. It’s one for the books in the summer and the wintertime.
Few And Far Between
All over the country, there are areas ready to be seen, yet our eyes continually flutter to the place already well-experienced and that thousands have already found. So while visiting Occitania, we must wander a little bit to the left and a little to the right to find those towns and villages that will capture our senses in ways we’ve never seen. Saint-Cirq-Lapopie is one of those places. The consensus is the small town looks as if it comes out of a storybook, and unsurprisingly, the country confirms this by listing it as a member of the Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. We are known as the list of the most beautiful villages in the country. Saint-Cirq-Lapopie sits still on the edge of extravagant lime stone cliffs perched on the River Lot. Its highest point has the remnants of its fortress and, below, 13 buildings listed as historic monuments. With only around 250 inhabitants, along your walk, you’ll find 12th to 14th-century well-preserved steep-roofed houses, a 10th-century castle, a museum, and the Pelissaria Gate, which also has the best views. Don’t forget to learn about its beautiful artistic history.
A small stroll back into the UNESCO heritage sites, but what is truly a place to see and feel is the fascinating small city of Albi. Also known as the ‘La Rouge,’ you have yourself a distinguished red-bricked town speckled with deep and violent religious roots that make this area precisely what it is. The 13th-century cathedral stands dominant in power, and the oldest yet protective castle, Berbie Palace, is home to a museum and exquisite garden. It’s the tip of the iceberg, with plenty more to see in its thousand-year-old Pont Vieux Bridge, quaint streets, and of course, its Albigensian meaty gastronomy. However, it’s much less touristy than its UNESCO neighbor to the south, Carcassonne. This village built, with its tightly 10 to 12-meter double-ringed walls, differs significantly from Albi. From above, it’s an astonishing sight. From below, you are witnessing what was once Europe’s largest fortress. Inside, you’ll find the castle – what will most likely be your leading destination along with its beautiful vantage points – the Gothic-Romanesque St. Nazarire Basilica and the charming cobblestones streets you wander through. They are UNESCO for a reason.
Much More To See
While these important cities in Occitania are enticing to visit, that doesn’t mean there isn’t more to see while discovering this thriving region. For instance, Europe’s most considerable chasms, le Gouffre de Padirac, located an hour north of Albi, or the well-known ancient Roman bridge Pont du Gard and Roman Amphitheatre of Nimes. You also have a righteous opportunity to walk along the Santiago de Compostela route, which can be done through France and Spain. However, religious people who can appreciate a well-crafted church can also find impeccable architecture in the Sanctuaries Notre-Dame de Lourdes and the Basilique Saint-Sernin de Toulouse.
As 2023 has become the year of freedom in traveling, don’t step into your old habits, but open yourself up to a new adventure and lose yourself in the newly recognized region of the Occitania. Occitania isn’t like Paris, Marseille, or Bordeaux, yet it breathes a life of its own and welcomes you in with open arms. Step outside your travel comfort zone, and you’ll find yourself in history, architecture, people, food, and wine.