Sunny days in the golden tri­an­gle


The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - VIC­TO­RIA LANE THE SPEC­TA­TOR

WHY didn’t I know about the Tarn Val­ley? I’ve of­ten been right next door. But here, north­east of Toulouse, be­tween the bak­ing fields of Gers and the rocky moun­tains around Car­cas­sonne, is this best-kept se­cret.

It’s a lush re­gion of great rivers, rolling green hills and towns with mag­nif­i­cent red-brick gothic ar­chi­tec­ture and is some­times re­ferred to as the Tri­an­gle d’Or (mostly by real es­tate agents). The sea is three hours away in ei­ther di­rec­tion, which is a boon, mean­ing that even in peak-sea­son Au­gust it is eerily de­void of tourists.

If the points on the tri­an­gle are the towns of Gail­lac, Albi and Cordes sur Ciel, in be­tween are any num­ber of re­ally beau­ti­ful bastide vil­lages. We are stay­ing near Gail­lac, which is pretty low-key, a proper work­ing town best known for its lo­cal wines — it has its own ap­pel­la­tion. There’s no ma­jor draw for sight­seers but it is very at­trac­tive. The first thing you see as you drive in over the bridge is the 13th-cen­tury church of St Michel, a soar­ing pink ed­i­fice of Ro­manesque brick.

There was an abbey here, which is now a mai­son des vins and tourist of­fice, and the old streets be­hind the church are an­cient and wind­ing, lined by over­hang­ing houses with tim­ber beam and her­ring­bone brick fa­cades. There is a cob­bled colon­naded square with a foun­tain. And skirt­ing the town like an im­mense moat is the Tarn, edged by densely wooded banks and criss­crossed by drag­on­flies.

Fol­low the river and you get to Albi, which peo­ple know about be­cause of its ex­tra­or­di­nary cathe­dral, built in the 13th cen­tury to put the stamp of Catholi­cism on the city fol­low­ing the Al­bi­gen­sian cru­sade against the Cathars. It is ridicu­lously im­pos­ing, built en­tirely of hot red brick, set in a vast square and flanked by the equally for­mi­da­ble Ber­bie Palace.

This is now the Toulouse-Lautrec mu­seum, and houses an ex­tremely com­pre­hen­sive col­lec­tion of paint­ings by Albi’s most fa­mous son.

As the heatwave builds over the course of the week, we give up on go­ing places and spend our days at a bathing lake in a quiet green val­ley. There are chil­dren and the way to keep them nice is to put them in wa­ter.

The lake is adorable — boats, frogs, a sandy beach and a splash slide — and well run, as you might ex­pect, but with ec­cen­tric open­ing hours, as you might also ex­pect. Af­ter a few hours cool­ing down we ven­ture to the nearby bastide towns for din­ner — Castel­nau de Mont­mi­ral, Puycelsi, Bruniquel. All lovely, all empty. Where is ev­ery­one?

The an­swer is that they are in Cordes sur Ciel, as be­comes clear when we go there on the last day.

This hill­top town is full of new-age crys­tal heal­ers and artists in a kind of me­dieval theme park.

It’s beau­ti­fully re­stored, but all the shops sell soap or toy knights and the streets are thronged with vis­it­ing English.

It seems strange, af­ter see­ing the de­serted bastide vil­lages all around, and it is an un­pleas­ant re­minder of our own es­sen­tial an­noy­ing­ness, so we scut­tle away quickly.

Mr & Mrs Smith is a travel publisher and bou­tique ho­tel book­ing ser­vice. More: mrandmrs­

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