Just an hour’s drive from her home in Lot-et-garonne brings Julie Savill to the borders of Tarn – yet it feels like a beautiful new world
A whistlestop tour of some of the finest towns this department has to offer
The medieval town of Cordes-sur-ciel
Ajaunt down the road into Tarn feels at once familiar and excitingly foreign to me. I live in the east of Nouvelle Aquitaine, a well-trodden, cosy region close to the heart of many seeking a more leisurely way of life. If you’ve spent childhood holidays and summer breaks in the familiar rolling hills of Dordogne or the vine and sunflower-filled fields of Charente, the more pronounced hills and valleys of Tarn tell you instantly that you are on new ground. Indeed, the department is named after the majestic river that meanders through it.
A recent weekend trip took me on a winding circular journey through Tarn, looping round some of the most scenic parts of this inherently beautiful département, including three towns so admired that they form an area known as the ‘golden triangle’.
Mirandol-bourgnounac I rocked up in Mirandol to collect a friend and off we set. It is a great work-a-day town surrounded by amazing countryside and good value property. It’s an antidote for those less keen on the tourist hotspots. Set right on the border of adjoining Aveyron, Mirandol is set in an area of wide open and sweeping landscapes. If you are looking for a room (or a property) with a view you almost can’t fail round here. Property prices are very reasonable and from the quiet of a countryside retreat you are just half an hour from the national treasure that is Albi. Expect to pay €100,000 upwards for a three-bedroom house with garden.
Cordes-sur-ciel From Mirandol we took the road to Cordes-surCiel which, along with the towns of Gaillac and Albi, forms Tarn’s so-called ‘golden triangle’ for reasons that should soon become obvious. As you round a bend and the town comes into sight it takes your breath away, perched on top of its rocky hill. This might not be the only time you lose your breath in Cordes!
If you visit (and I recommend that you do), leave your car at the bottom of the hill, fortify yourself with a drink at a bar, then take a leisurely wander up the steep hill to the bastide at the top. Take it slowly – there’s lots to look at in the myriad tiny medieval streets – and choose your moment to visit. If you want the (very good) guided tour offered by the tourist office, then July and August is your window.
This is a photographer’s paradise with ancient stone buildings, weathered doorways and medieval arches framing pretty street scenes. Keen photographers and those who dislike crowds might choose to go in spring or autumn when it is still looking beautiful and the tourists have dissipated.
In 2014, Cordes-sur-ciel was voted the favourite village of the French and it’s easy to see why. The medieval stone houses are sought after but the town is big enough to mean that there is always a selection of property available. As with most bastide towns, houses in the centre tend to have little or no outside space. A three-bedroom house full of character might cost around €300,000.
On the River Tarn, but just over the border into Tarn-et-garonne, lies this gem of a medieval city. Being this close (30 minutes away) we bent our Tarn rule just a little to take in this special town.
The approach brings you into the spectacular Gorges de l’aveyron and the town of St-antonin nestles right in the bottom, alongside the river and looking up at the towering limestone cliffs. Confusingly, the Aveyron gorges are primarily in Tarn-et-garonne while the famous limestone Gorges du Tarn are mostly located in Lozère.
Visit on a Saturday if markets are your thing – the town centre is taken over by fruit and vegetable stalls, clothes and some really good artists selling paintings and other creative goodies. Over lunch we teased ourselves with the idea of selling up (again!) and moving to this pretty town. A renovated stone house with its medieval character preserved might cost anything from €250,000 to €500,000.
This is a photographer’s paradise with ancient stone buildings, weathered doorways and medieval arches framing pretty street scenes
From St-antonin we headed off in search of our next photo opportunity and pulled into Gaillac, a town that forms the south-western corner of the golden triangle and is on the route of every wine connoisseur. With its toes in the waters of the River Tarn, the town originally developed around a Benedictine abbey.
The most visit-worthy parts are clustered beside the river, including the Abbey St-michel, the 13th-century St-peter’s church and many noteworthy townhouses built in the distinctive local red brick. Pick up a leaflet from the tourist office that suggests a very good route around the centre.
These days, Gaillac is known for its vineyards and the excellent wines they produce; not surprisingly there are many places where you can taste and buy them. The Maison des Vins has more than 100 to sample. And then, of course, there is dinner to be considered, where a glass of red, white, rosé, dessert or sparkling wine would go down well. Book yourself into one of the many very good local B&BS and try a different one with each course.
What can I say? This town is so beautiful and so architecturally significant that the episcopal centre, around the Cathedrale Ste-cécile, was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 2010. No wonder it forms the southeastern tip of the golden triangle. Straddling the River Tarn, the town is largely built of red brick and deserves a whole day to do it justice. Buy an Albi City Pass from the tourist office for €12 if you plan on visiting the most significant buildings such as the cathedral nave and the Toulouse-lautrec museum. The pass also offers discounts in certain shops and restaurants as well as river boat trips.
As the département capital for Tarn, Albi has a full calendar of events. You are in for a treat if you visit in July for Bastille Day. A magnificent firework display takes place over the river between two of the bridges.
A three-bedroom house in the immediate Albi area might cost €300,000-€400,000. Venture a little further afield and you still have all the attractions of Albi within a 30-minute drive but prices are a little lower and there are fewer tourists to deal with.
Albi back to Mirandol was another half-hour drive (the Tarn seems to be quite miraculous in that everywhere appears to be about half an hour from the next major point of interest!) where we reflected on two days of amazing sights. We really only scratched the surface of this beautiful department. Oh, well, we’ll just have to lose ourselves in the Tarn triangle another time.
Julie Savill is Marketing Director at Beaux Villages Immobilier Tel: 0800 270 01 01 (freephone from the UK) beauxvillages.com
St-antonin-noble-val on the Tarn river
St-antonin was the setting for recent film The Hundred-foot Journey
View of Albi on a summer evening
Gaillac forms one corner of the ‘golden triangle’