Top to bottom: One of France’s Castelnau-deMontmirail is an historic village with a strong local community; colourful houses overlook the River Agout in Castres along both banks of the River Tarn to produce delicious vintages of international acclaim. Ample tasting opportunities arise while exploring the waymarked Route des Vins, which is littered with independent wine-producers who welcome in passers-by for cellar tours.
Right in the heart of the department, on the banks of the River Agout, lies Castres – home to top-level rugby club Castres Olympique. It’s one of the Tarn’s most unassuming towns, with a gentle pace of life that feels authentically French. The sense of local camaraderie is palpable at its morning market, which spills over Place Jean Jaurès; the central square named after the socialist leader born in Castres. Here you’ll find local vendors exchanging bises with passing punters and selling sun-swollen fruit and seasonal vegetables, foraged ceps and dusty-pink garlic from the nearby village of Lautrec.
The market is where Chef Simon Scott often picks up ingredients for his local restaurant Le Bistrot des Saveurs. He’s famed in the area and beyond for being the only British chef living in France to have been awarded a Michelin star; no small feat in a country famed for its culinary nationalism. Simon has been living in the area for more than a decade after moving from London with his wife, Marie-Hélène, who is from Castres. “At first, being a chef in France was a bit daunting,” he recalls, “but once we got past the initial period, and got the Michelin star, it got much better.”
The couple opened their first restaurant in the foothills of the Montagne Noire before deciding to move to a more central location in Castres six years ago. “Living here is great,” Simon says. “We’ve got a good circle of friends and strong links to the rugby team, another great passion of mine. There are many international players living here, who we’ve got to know. This is partly why we close the restaurant at weekends – to go and watch the rugby.”
Aside from rugby, a favourite Castres pastime is packing up a lunch hamper and heading down to the river. Overhanging the water are picturesque houses painted in multi-colours that are vestiges of Castres’ former textile trade. Here, in warmer months, you can board a traditional miredame wooden boat for a leisurely 20-minute meander downstream to the Gourjade Park – a fantastically verdant expanse of grassland perfect for a picnic. Like much of the Tarn, it’s an experience to be savoured as an example of the endless joys of rural France at its very best.
Tarn tourist office Tel: 00 33 (0) 5 63 77 32 10 tourisme-tarn.com
Where to stay
Hostellerie du Grand Saint-Antoine 17 Rue Saint-Antoine 81000 Albi Tel: 00 33 (0) 5 63 54 04 04 hotel-saint-antoine-albi.com
Hostellerie du Vieux Cordes 21 Rue Saint-Michel 81170 Cordes-sur-Ciel Tel: 00 33 (0) 5 63 53 79 20 hostelleriehvc.com
Where to eat
La Table du Sommelier 20 Rue Porta 81000 Albi Tel: 00 33 (0) 5 63 46 20 10 latabledusommelier.com
Bistrot des Saveurs 5 Rue Sainte-Foy 81100 Castres Tel: 00 33 (0) 5 63 50 11 45 bistrot-saveurs.com
The nearest airport is Toulouse. Regular flights run from various UK airports by carriers including Flybe, easyJet and Air France.