France From The Top

Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch - - TRAVEL - Text by Sathya Saran; Photos by Supriya Kan­tak

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-

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.