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
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