What a stunning region! I had never heard of Tarn et Garonne prior to organizing this visit. The region is located just north of Toulouse. The main town of the region is the beautiful Rose Village on Montauban – called this because of the lovely pink colour of the clay of the area which was used to make bricks.
This region is all about agriculture – fantastic produce and wine. This is definitely an area to embrace “slow tourism” and to savour. Here are my top 14 Things to do in Tarn et Garonne.
1. Buy a hat in Caussade
Caussade is most famous for its straw hats. The story goes that Pétronille Cantecor worked in the fields of Caussade in the 19 century. Bothered by the heat she used the straw that at the time was for the horses to fashion a hat to protect herself. Her straw hat was admired by others and she was asked for more.
She then added the classic and chic black ribbon that created the classic style of Caussade, known as La Paillole. These hats were made most famous by Maurice Chevalier who always bought his hats from Caussade. In more recent years they have been worn by Hollywood stars like Johnny Depp and Rihanna.
The best place to gain an understanding of Caussade is by visiting Hats Block Laforest. Visiting Hats Block and meeting its owner Didier La Forest is like something out of a Hollywood movie. He has a beautiful store/gallery/workshop in the heart of the town in an amazing old house.
Didier makes hat blocks. These are wooden blocks upon which hats are shaped and made. The hat block determines the shape and form of the hat. He has been recognized by UNESCO as having a skill defined as “a living art”. And is one of only 4 people in the world to have this recognition.
Didier continues to make hat blocks in his workshop using a mix of the old and new. He is keen to use new technologies and machines to turn a block of wood into a hat block. However, nothing can beat the handmade detail he applies to the block to turn it from a shape into a block that will produce a hat of beauty.
Didier receives a “brief” or designs/looks from hat designers and then creates the hat block which will allow these designs to be made.
Part of his beautiful store is a gallery. Every year in July Caussade holds a hat festival which lasts 3 days. Each year a winner is chosen from entries coming from around the world. Several of these winners are on display in Didier’s store.
Didier has a delightful Russian wife. She complements his hat offer by making the most beautiful flower arrangements for women’s heads. She creates stunning dried flowers and fastens them to headbands and uses combs to create the most beautiful works of art. Her products are on sale in the store.
Didier’s chocolate box of a store sells a wide range of hats. Of course, he sells the classic Caussade straw hat. He also stocks more upmarket designs, children’s designs and all hats of which you can think.
There are three hat factories around Caussade. One makes high fashion hats and cannot be visited. However, the other two, Rey Willy and Crambes, may be visited. But it is much better to go and visit Didier!
Top tip: Ask Didier or his lovely wife what hat they think will suit you best. I bought a wonderfully chic chocolate brown hat that I will treasure!
2. Eat French Tapas
Saint Jacques is a French tapas bar in Montauban old centre across from the cathedral CHECK. This is a very popular spot with locals. The menu changes regularly. We enjoyed dock croquettes – duck is a speciality of the region and I believe I ate duck every day I was in Tarn et Garonne! They offer the most delicious mini toasted cheese and ham sandwiches.
We also enjoyed raw seared tuna and some rather amazing local cheeses.
Saint Jacques is known for its amazing cocktails but we went with local white wine instead which was so delicious. Every wine I tried in the region was fantastic – and so reasonably priced!
Saint Jacques doesn’t take bookings but can usually find space. And the kitchen is open till 11 which is quite late in this area.
3. Stay in a Unique Boutique Hotel
Hotel Commerce has a brilliant location on the 2nd main square in Montauban! The hotel has been recently renovated and the rooms are modern and very comfortable. They are also quite stylish in shades of brown and orange with several soft blankets. The rooms are a good size with a toilet separate from the main bathroom.
The highlight for me was breakfast. The breakfast room is so charming and wonderfully French with soft colours and lovely items on display.
There were fantastic fresh local bread and a selection of jams, croissants and pain au chocolate, good coffee, fresh juice, yoghurt and all wonderful quality French breakfast items. Eggs and bacon available upon request.
Chateau Peyrot is in the heart of the Fronton AOP vineyard. This old mansion has been a labour of love for its owners. I met the lovely Stephanie, one of the owners. She was a diplomat so the house is filled with art and treasures from her time in Russia aHungaryary.
The second floor of the house has four beautiful guest bedrooms. All the rooms have very high ceilings and are whitewashed – this gives such a sense of peace and space. And all the mod cons – I had a spa bath! The ground floor is beautiful – it looks like a museum but in a comfortable way.
Stephanie is an amazing cook and virtually everything is homemade – even the cream! I enjoyed a delicious lentil based coconut soup. Then delicious duck with potatoes dauphinoise. Next up were some amazing local cheeses.
I didn’t realise it but in a more formal dinner cheese is served after the main course in France – but there is still dessert coming! I attacked the delicious cheeses. And then there was chocolate cake with homemade cheese.
And wonderful local wine of course!
Breakfast was just as special. The most beautiful table filled with homemade jams, homemade yoghurt, fresh juice, local bread, homemade croissants and best of all homemade blinis with sugar – honestly food heaven!!!
Abbaye des Capucins is a 4-star historic building spa and resort with its own sommelier – and just a 10-minute walk from the centre of Montauban. Castle Boie Marie is a new luxury bed and breakfast in Montauban. It is is not in the main town centre but not far away. This private mansion has a swimming pool and a lovely open-air veranda.
4. Explore Montauban
What a stunning town! The old town centre is quite tiny and so delightful. The majority of the centre is pedestrianized so it is lovely to wander its small cobblestone streets. This is one of the oldest and best preserved of the medieval new towns in South-West France.
The town’s name means “White Mountain” but most of what you will see is pink! This comes from the local clay and its pink colour.
The city is full of local producers with the most beautiful stores. Their merchandising is so wonderful and you can feel the passion and love the merchants have for their products. There are some stunning cheese shops, flower shops, oyster shops and wow the chocolate shops!
5. Eat chocolate in Montauban
I visited two amazing chocolate shops. The first was Patisserie Alexandres. They had an amazing display of the most delicious cakes. This was then complemented with delicious looking chocolates. They are known for their chocolate boules – these are based on the cannonballs which hit the main cathedral – the marks of which can still be seen.
I visited Montauban at Christmas and Patisserie Alexandres had created the most lovely chocolate Christmas trees I have ever seen! Well, I had never really seen a chocolate Christmas tree before so this was a real treat!
Next up was Confiserie Pecou Les Delices. This busy chocolate store is in the centre of Montauban. It is a stunning store full of beautiful treats and is like something from a movie. A white drawer opens and it is filled with pastel coloured sugared almonds.
Don’t miss their hard coated chocolate caramels – the hard outside contrasts beautifully with the ooey gooey caramel interior – delicious!
I was lucky enough to take their storybook looking spiral staircase upstairs and see their preparation area. The story re-decorates for each season – spring, easter, summer, festivals etc – and has the most beautiful looking gift bags.
6. Learn about one of the world’s first feminists
Olympe de Gouges – this was my favourite story from the trip! This amazing woman was born in Montauban. She was part of the French revolution and may have been the first ever feminist. Once the revolutionaries had taken over they wrote the bill of men’s rights. In response, Olympe wrote the first ever declaration of women’s rights.
She was horrified by the actions of the victors and did not agree with their violent approach. Unfortunately, she was very open with this view – including in her writings – and alas this resulted in her being sent to the guillotine.
In recent years her profile has increased – particularly with the #metoo movement. The theatre is now named for her. Her father’s house can be seen. And last summer the town commissioned a stunning piece of street art featuring Olympe.
7. Visit Montauban’s Main Square or Place Nationale
This beautiful main square is the heart of Montauban. It was destroyed by fire twice in 1614 and 1649 and completely re-built! This was done by consuls so there was a focus on commerce – thus the unique covered colonnades that run along the square. These beautiful arches were built so that people could continue to shop even when it rains!
The square is one of the best displays of the beautiful pink buildings of the town – as well as the gorgeous contrasting pale blue shutters. The best way to enjoy the square is to relax! It is the place to sit and take your time over a coffee or an aperitif. It is said that is best enjoyed over breakfast!
8. Enjoy a meal at one of Montauban’s Top Restaurants
I had a fantastic lunch at Les Terrasses de L’Empereur which is quite a new restaurant. I asked the waiter to bring me what he thought was best to eat. This was some amazing salmon followed by risotto with prawn and st Jacques scallops (I ate a lot of st Jacques scallops during my stay). The lead chef here was the chef at the only restaurant in Montauban that had a Michelin star. He opened Les Terrasses de L’Empereur after that restaurant closed.
See more of this lovely region in my Youtube Video on the region
9. Drink Wine
The Tarn et Garonne region has 6 different appellations for wine! Producers in this area are smaller than neighbouring Bordeaux and other parts of France. This means the wine here is quite cheap compared to the rest of France – but still fantastic! One of those appellations is Fronton. This is a red or rose wine type characterised by the use of Negrette grapes. It is rather delicious – imagine the very berry taste of a pinot noir with the richer body of a Shiraz!
I visited the lovely Le Chateau St-Louis. This is a beautiful winery with the most stunning wine cellar! The owner and her late father have done an amazing job over the last 15 years turning what was a very plain looking building into a stunning rustic property.
The space is stunning and they often hold weddings. It is possible to stay at the winery. There is also a middle eastern style “tower” with a lovely roof terrace.
Then the wine! They have some fantastic examples of the Fronton appellation which were just delicious. I am more a white drinker and I took away a bottle of their delicious Chardonnay!
If you’re visiting in the summer a number of wine events and festivals run in the area.
10. See some art at La Cuisine
La Cuisine was originally a military building. This 13th-century building has now been incorporated with modern architecture using materials from the region by award-winning architects. The goal was to bring nature in and out. They also have the stunning kitchen and often develop menus in line with their art exhibitions.
My favourite part of La Cuisine was the amazing Reading Room which is open to the public. The centre also organises educational activities and cultural events.
There is no permanent collection. La Cusine tends to host two exhibitions at a time and likes quirky and modern art. When I visited one of the exhibitions was titled Who eats Johnny Depp? Johnny Depp was a bull whose life centred around his ejaculations. He sired over 4500 calves during his life.
The exhibition shows all those ejaculations in a scientific manner and features a map of where all of Johnny’s “children” are now located across Europe. The point of the exhibition is to creatively display how cruel we can be in the treatment of animals.
The art at La Cuisine is normally local to the area so agriculture is a common theme.
The second separate exhibition, Le Nouveau Ministere de l’Agriculture, used the look and feel of government marketing but talking about how badly we treat the animals and was very clever. I believe an extended version of this exhibition will run in 2019.
11. Have a delicious lunch by the Aveyron River
Le Moulin de Varen is located on the river in the small super cute town of Varen. It is a very lovely modern restaurant with relatively new owners. The food was amazing! enjoyed some more scallops, St Jacques, to start and then moved on to local fish for my main. The chef is actually English which was a surprise!
The restaurant itself is a lovely simple design with great big windows overlooking the river. And at lunchtime, it was full of locals which is always a good sign!
12. Go Instagram mad at Beaulieu Abbey
This twelfth-century Cistercian abbey is on a rather large piece of land about a one hour drive from Montauban. Beaulieu Abbey has lovely gardens to explore with a small stream and ducks. The abbey itself is just stunning. The outside of the Abbey has plants growing over the lower stones and some gorgeous discolouration.
Inside the Abbey is empty! Literally no pews, no nothing. There is something a bit magical about this giant Abbey with nothing inside – it seems to highlight the beauty even more.
Well, it isn’t completely empty. Every year since 1970 a modern art exhibition has been held in the Abbey. This region does a fantastic job of taking magnificent old buildings and matching them with modern art. I didn’t really get what this exhibition was about but I loved the ladders with characters inside the Abbey – so photogenic!
The Abbey also has a separate gallery space that is also focussed on modern art. It holds bi-annual exhibitions.
13. Go to a fattened poultry market
I had never heard of a fattened poultry market before visiting Tarn et Garonne! I had visions of obese chickens! Noisy and colourful, there is a lot going on at these markets. The markets are held in several cities in the region on different days of the week. Caussade is Mondays, Montauban Saturdays etc. Check the dates before you go as the markets only run certain months of the year.
14. Go to the Sunday market in Saint Antonin Noble Val
The city is situated on the Aveyron river – don’t miss the beautiful bridge with its reflection in the river. Cate Blanchette rode across this in Charlotte Grey!
However, the city is best known for its famous Sunday Market. I enjoyed my trip to the market and visit to Saint Antonin Noble Val I wrote an entire blog post about it!
I visited this beautiful region in December so my trip itinerary was quite influenced by the weather! Tarn et Garonne also has a wealth of outdoor activities which are of course best explored in warmer months – particularly the Aveyron Gorges. Check out the tourism board’s great website for more fantastic things to do in Tarn et Garonne.
How to get to Tarn et Garonne and getting around
The main airport for Tarn et Garonne is Toulouse.