Home to the dy­namic city of Toulouse, moun­tain re­sorts that ri­val those of the Alps and thriv­ing vil­lage com­mu­ni­ties, Haute-Garonne truly of­fers some­thing for ev­ery­one. Caro­line Bishop heads south to dis­cover all it has to of­fer

Living France - - Contents -

Moun­tains to ri­val the Alps, the dy­namic city of Toulouse and thriv­ing vil­lage com­mu­ni­ties – what more could you want?

As life­styles go, re­tired Bri­tish cou­ple Paul and Rose Broach have cre­ated a pretty good one for them­selves since swap­ping Hamp­shire for Haute-Garonne four years ago. Their home and gîte, the Vo­lets Verts in Cas­sagnabère-Tour­nas near Aurignac, is just an hour south-west of the depart­ment cap­i­tal of Toulouse and an hour north of the Pyrénées and the Span­ish bor­der. “We sit in bed and look out over the Pyrénées, so we wake up, have a look and say ‘it looks like a nice day, let’s go ski­ing!’” says Paul.

That sums up the de­light­ful di­ver­sity of Haute-Garonne: a depart­ment that boasts the bus­tle of a boom­ing metropo­lis – Toulouse, France’s fourth big­gest city – but segues into a ru­ral idyll beyond the city lim­its, with the AOP Fron­ton vine­yards to the north in the un­spoilt coun­try­side between the Garonne and Tarn rivers, and the foothills of the Pyrénées to the south, fin­ish­ing up at el­e­gant spa town Bag­nères-de-Lu­chon, a moun­tain-lover’s par­adise just a short hop from Spain. Add to that the close prox­im­ity of not one but two French coasts and you have a re­gion that of­fers a truly var­ied life­style – and myr­iad day trip op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“We are equidis­tant to the At­lantic and Med,” says Bri­tish prop­erty finder Na­dia Jor­dan, who runs Foothills of France ( foothill­sof­france.com) and has lived in the area for many years with her fam­ily. “Peo­ple think this is nuts but we look at the weather fore­cast the night be­fore we want to go to the beach, see whether it’s bet­ter on the At­lantic or the Med and then head off to wher­ever it’s go­ing to be sunny.”

Though far from be­ing a ‘Lit­tle Bri­tain in France’, as parts of Dor­dogne may ar­guably be called, Haute-Garonne at­tracts its share of in­ter­na­tion­als, from re­tirees look­ing for an ac­tive, out­door re­tire­ment, fam­i­lies want­ing a bet­ter qual­ity of life and young pro­fes­sion­als drawn here by the job op­por­tu­ni­ties in Toulouse who stay for the out­door life­style on the city’s doorstep.


In fact, Toulouse is one of France’s most in­ter­na­tional cities. Around three-quar­ters of the pop­u­la­tion in the ur­ban area weren’t born in the city: those in­clude many of the 100,000 stu­dents who at­tend the coun­try’s third largest univer­sity and thou­sands more who come to take up jobs: with Air­bus, which em­ploys 65,000 peo­ple out of its Blagnac head­quar­ters near Toulouse air­port; with lead­ing

Euro­pean cancer cen­tre IUCT On­copole, which brings to­gether 1,500 re­searchers and spe­cial­ists; and with the French Space Agency, op­er­ated out of the Cité d’Es­pace re­search cen­tre, lo­cated near the for­mer Aéro­postale air­field where pi­lots in­clud­ing The Lit­tle Prince au­thor Saint-Ex­upéry took off on air­mail flights in the in­ter-war years when Toulouse be­gan its pi­o­neer­ing as­so­ci­a­tion with aero­nau­tics. These days the city is still an en­clave for in­ter­na­tional pi­lots, in­clud­ing Na­dia’s hus­band, who com­mutes from the city to Heathrow for work. The pres­ence of a big in­ter­na­tional school in Colomiers, just west of Toulouse near the Air­bus fac­tory, has made the area “a real mag­nate for Air­bus em­ploy­ees and pi­lots,” she says. They’ll find a city that’s a rich com­bi­na­tion of his­tory and moder­nity. While these days its pros­per­ity comes from the high­tech aero­space and aero­nau­tics in­dus­tries, sev­eral cen­turies ago Toulouse’s wealth de­rived from Isatis tinc­to­ria – woad, or pas­tel. This yel­low-flow­er­ing plant is par­tic­u­larly adapted to the cli­mate of the Midi-Pyrénées, and in the 16th cen­tury its leaves were ground up to cre­ate a vivid blue pig­ment pop­u­larised by French aris­toc­racy. Cul­ti­vated to prein­dus­trial lev­els un­til 1562, this pig­ment made the city very wealthy in­deed.

The re­sult is an Old Town packed with huge pri­vate man­sions built dur­ing this pe­riod by rich woad mer­chants, many with tow­ers and court­yards con­structed as an os­ten­ta­tious dis­play of their wealth. One of the most im­pres­sive was built for one such mer­chant, Pierre d’Assézat, in the 17th cen­tury and is now the Fon­da­tion Bem­berg art mu­seum.

Toulouse’s other ar­chi­tec­tural trea­sures in­clude the Capi­tole – city hall – whose im­mense 18th-cen­tury red brick and mar­ble fa­cade can’t fail to im­press; the beau­ti­ful Pont Neuf which, de­spite the name – ‘new bridge’ – is the old­est bridge in Toulouse, dat­ing from 1632; and the 11th-cen­tury St-Sernin basil­ica, a UNESCO World Her­itage site and an im­por­tant stop on the Camino de San­ti­ago pil­grim­age route.

And yet Toulouse is no mu­seum piece. A thriv­ing, lively city, its streets heave with shop­pers on a Satur­day af­ter­noon, its squares and restau­rant ter­races come alive at lunchtime, and there’s a vis­ceral en­ergy in the air as day tum­bles into night. Head to the Quai de la Dau­rade for sun­set and you can en­joy an al­most party at­mos­phere,

with peo­ple chat­ting, drink­ing and play­ing mu­sic as the sun slips low in the sky, mak­ing Toulouse’s dis­tinc­tive red­brick build­ings glow and con­firm­ing its nick­name as the ‘pink city’.

This warm glow af­ter a typ­i­cal sunny day is just one of the re­minders of this area’s prox­im­ity to the south. Another is the pres­ence of nu­mer­ous tapas bars, a legacy of the Franco era when thou­sands of Spa­niards fled north to seek refuge here. Menus com­bine tra­di­tional Basque pin­txos with Toulouse sausage, foie gras and other lo­cal prod­ucts to cre­ate a style of tapas that’s all Toulouse’s own.


It takes less than two hours to drive from the city down to the Span­ish bor­der just beyond Bag­nères-de-Lu­chon, a busy spa town linked via cable car to the Su­perbag­nères ski re­sort. It’s an area with all the ap­peal of the Alps but with­out the price tag, ac­cord­ing to Na­dia Jor­dan. “It’s a bit like a mini Cha­monix, very lively year round, prob­a­bly even busier in the sum­mer with walk­ers and cy­clists,” she says. “It’s got the spa there so peo­ple go for that, and then ski­ing in win­ter... It’s a fan­tas­tic in­vest­ment place for prop­erty.”

The train line from Mon­tré­jeau to Lu­chon, which was closed down in 2014, is ex­pected to re­open in 2021, mak­ing it even eas­ier to fly into Toulouse air­port and be on the slopes within hours – with­out having to ne­go­ti­ate a sin­gle moun­tain road.

In between Toulouse and Lu­chon are bastide vil­lages, grand châteaux, tra­di­tional pi­geon­niers and glo­ri­ous me­dieval sites, in­clud­ing the beau­ti­ful St-Ber­trand-de-Com­minges, whose Gothic cathe­dral is another land­mark on the Camino de San­ti­ago pil­grim­age route. There are nu­mer­ous cy­cle routes, from flat paths along the 330-year-old UNESCOher­itage Canal du Midi, which links Toulouse to Sète on the Mediter­ranean, to de­mand­ing cols made fa­mous by the Tour de France. Cavers can ex­plore the many grottes in this re­gion in­clud­ing the vast Trombe cave net­work, and there are

Toulouse is a city that’s a rich com­bi­na­tion of his­tory and moder­nity

end­less op­por­tu­ni­ties for walk­ing, horse rid­ing and re­lax­ing in the mild cli­mate that has Paul Broach in shorts for six months of the year. “You’ve got Toulouse where you go for the buzz,” says Rose. “But here you need to be some­one who en­joys the great out­doors to make the most of it and re­ally get the ben­e­fits. If you like walk­ing, cy­cling and ski­ing, it’s fab­u­lous.”

And all this for far less than the UK or other parts of France. Paul and Rose bought their four-bed house with 1.75 acres of land for con­sid­er­ably less than the price they got for their Hamp­shire bun­ga­low. “What you get for your money is re­mark­able,” says Paul.

The cou­ple have found in­te­grat­ing in lo­cal so­ci­ety more chal­leng­ing than they ex­pected; Na­dia Jor­dan, how­ever, who brought up her four chil­dren in the area, feels it’s par­tic­u­larly wel­com­ing to fam­i­lies, es­pe­cially in the smaller vil­lages. “I think what’s so amaz­ing about Haute-Garonne is you get loads of young fam­i­lies re­ally set­ting up lives there, putting their chil­dren in the lo­cal schools, spend­ing money there, us­ing the lo­cal fa­cil­i­ties. These lit­tle vil­lages are all boom­ing and their schools are stay­ing open whereas in other ar­eas they’ve lost their lit­tle pri­mary school be­cause there’s not enough chil­dren.”

Polly Tyrrell has cer­tainly found it wel­com­ing. She and hus­band Bruce moved to Es­tadens near the pop­u­lar moun­tain vil­lage of Aspet 15 years ago and have since had two chil­dren. The day-to-day ne­ces­si­ties of fam­ily life have helped them get to know the lo­cals, whether at the school gates or in the doc­tor’s surgery, and they’ve found a sense of com­mu­nity they didn’t have back home in Bri­tain. “Even just in our road, our neigh­bours are in­cred­i­ble,” says Polly. “The first day we ar­rived here they turned up to say hello, and then when we had chil­dren they were all lin­ing up at the gate with gifts. It was the most touch­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and I would never have got that in the UK. We lived in Eng­land in one house for five years and we didn’t ex­change two words with ei­ther of our neigh­bours.”

Bruce runs a con­struc­tion busi­ness and the cou­ple have re­cently set up a gîte ( gite­colombe­des­bois.com), but life in Haute-Garonne al­lows for plenty of time to play as well as work. The fam­ily ski re­sort of Le Mour­tis is half an hour away, Bruce en­joys conquering the lo­cal peaks on skis or on two wheels, the kids have grown up ski­ing, cy­cling and fish­ing, plus the Tour de France passes by ev­ery year “lit­er­ally at the end of our road”.

It’s a slower, less hec­tic and bet­ter qual­ity life­style than the one they had back home and the fam­ily wouldn’t swap it for any­thing. “It’s like how it was in the UK in the 50s,” Polly says. “It’s ru­ral and lovely and ev­ery­one just helps each other out. There’s no keep­ing up with the Jone­ses. We love that.”

The area is par­tic­u­larly wel­com­ing, es­pe­cially in the smaller vil­lages

Above: The for­ti­fied vil­lage of St-Ber­trandde-Com­minges in the foothills of the Pyrénées

Right: The red-brick fa­cade of the Capi­tole build­ing in Toulouse

Top right: Aurignac is a lively his­toric town with all ameni­ties

Main photo: El­e­gant red-brick build­ings in Toulouse

This page, from top: Su­perbag­nères ski re­sort; aerial view of Lu­chon’s ther­mal spa build­ing; spa-go­ers make the most of the hy­drother­apy treat­ments; moun­tain bik­ing in the Pyrénées

Top left: Wait­ing for sun­set at Place de la Dau­rade in Toulouse Above: The peace­ful Canal du Midi

are the main Pork, red wine and gar­lic sausages, which are in­gre­di­ents in Toulouse cas­soulet, a rich and tra­di­tion­ally used in the pot ( casse­role) hearty dish named af­ter in which it is made

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