France From The Top
The country bearing the brunt of terrorism has a well-kept secret: its undulating countryside offers surprises even to the well-travelled
IT IS RAINING a welcome as we enter Toulouse. From Chamonix to the heart of the Midi Pyrenees region is a journey that happens in the mind as well as in space. Rain-washed Toulouse is quite a change from the tiny town ringed by snow-flecked mountains that we’ve left behind.
Three trains have carried us through the changing countryside. From Geneva to Lyon to Montpellier, we jump from the intercity to the TGV and back into an intercity. Though it looks like a provincial small town, Toulouse is one of France’s bigger cities, second only to Paris. For us, it is the takeoff point for a whirlwind tour of the Midi Pyrenees region.
The itinerary is packed with things to do, and see. By the time we come to the end of the sheet, we have driven through much of the region, and stopped to take in sights and experiences that are not just varied but amazingly so.
Of these, we share a sampling.
THE TWO CHURCHES OF TOULOUSE
From outside, the perfect shape of the crucifix sets the building apart from the others we have seen.
The walls of the Saint Sernin Basilica hold many whispers. The building in its earliest form was constructed in the 4th century. Since then, it has undergone many changes. After King Charlemagne donated some relics that still lie within the building, the Basilica became one of the most important in Europe, with thousands stopping to kneel on the cold floor. Pope Urban II dedicated the altar of the still largely incomplete building in 1096, and the crowds to the Basilica swelled in number. The high, vaulted ceilings, the columns and the sculptures make the building an architectural delight. We stop to marvel at the high altar, which we are informed is a rare Romanesque survival. Etched on it is the exact date it was consecrated, May 24, 1096, as well as the signature of Bernardus Gelduinus, its creator.
We leave the Basilica, a UNESCO-protected heritage site, and walk the pretty streets to find ourselves at another, very different church. Tall, palm tree-like pillars stretch upwards to hold a beautifully arched ceiling inside the Toulouse Cathedral. Each of the ‘palm trees’ has 22 ribs. As we strain and stretch our necks to count them, the geometric pattern created on the ceiling by the columns distracts us. Perhaps some kindly soul thought to spare our necks, for we soon discover a mirror cleverly placed around the bottom of one of the columns so we can look into it and admire the perfect symmetry of the radiating ‘branches’ above.
The church has a double nave, which has over the years been the cause of much debate thanks to the ingrained suggestion of discrimination it holds. The French revolutionaries used the place as barracks. Fortunately no evidence of that exists, though much of the once brilliant mosaic that decorated the walls has vanished. Yet we marvel at the light that streams in through the stained glass windows, and bow our heads in respect of the fact that the church holds the relics of St Thomas Aquinas.
A MICHELIN MEAL WITH LOVE
A ride on the undulating motorway leads us to Albi, where we stop at L’Épicurien for lunch. A surprise awaits us. For the tiny restaurant in what seems a forgotten town is packed to the last table.
We start with an avocado, prawn, greens and citrus salad that gets us excited with its blend of flavours. The main course consists of cod with tomatoes, olive, cheese and sea urchin sauce, laced with ol-