The Languedoc region has a great mix of history, culture, nature and food and wine.
Like the rest of the South of France, summers in the Languedoc Rouissillon are extremely hot and the winters are mild and comfortable. It’s an easy weekend break from the rest of Europe because French airline manufacturer Airbus is headquartered near Toulouse airport. When our daughter spent a few months studying French in the area, we would visit her on the weekends. We got to know the area just enough to realise that if we were ever to live in France, we would want to live in this region.
Where is the Languedoc-Rouissillon?
The Languedoc Roussillon is located in the Southwest of France. The region extends from France to the Pyrenees (and borders with Spain and the Mediterranean).
A map of the Languedoc Roussillon region. Together with the Midi-Pyrenees next door, the area is now known as Occitanie.
The Languedoc-Roussillon region has been an important area since Roman times.
The Languedoc was its own important kingdom until it got annexed by the kingdom of France after the defeat of the Cathars in the 13th century. The Roussillon section was actually part of Catalonia until it was given to the French in the mid-17th century as part of a larger treaty between Spain and France.
Catharism is a form of Christianity that grew alongside Roman Catholicism during the early years of Christianity. It deviated from Catholicism in several important ways, such as for example, stating that men and women were equal.
In the tolerant and liberal Languedoc kingdom, Catharism flourished. Worse, Cathars called out the Catholics for being corrupt (which they were) and refused to pay the Catholic church any taxes.
The Roman Catholics couldn’t have that. Pope Innocent III declared them heretics and ordered a crusade against the Cathars. The French saw the opportunity for a land grab as well as bonus points to get into heaven. After two generations of fighting, the Cathars were decimated and the land annexed by France.
The walled city of Carcassone was a Cathar stronghold.
In 2016, the Languedoc-Rouissillon was merged with the midi-Pyrenees region to form Occitanie, a massive region that is the largest in all of France. The people in this area had all spoken Occitan in the past (which is related to the Catalan language).
Getting To the Languedoc-Roussillon
There are several airports in the area including Carcassone, Perpignan and Montpellier. We have always flown into Toulouse though because it is a main regional airport with a choice of flights and airlines.
Things To Do in the Languedoc- Roussillon
What To Do in Carcassone
The historic center of Carcassone is a UNESCO world heritage site. The walled city retains its medieval charm with the world’s largest medieval castle and 54 towers. Carcassone is the second most visited tourist attraction in France (the top spot is the Eiffel Tower). You will find plenty to occupy you in the narrow streets of historic Carcassone.
The UNESCO world heritage listed Canal du Midi connects Toulouse to the Mediterranean over 264 kilometres (164 miles). The advent of the railroads made the canal obsolete and now it is primarily used for recreational purposes.
Other Places to Visit in Languedoc Roussillon
Montpellier is the fastest growing city in France and the regional capitol. Some of the Montpellier attractions include the Cathedral St. Pierre, Roman-era aqueducts, the Montpellier Zoo and the Musee Fabre (containing European Old Master paintings).
Nimes is famous for its well-preserved Roman archeological remains including the UNESCO world heritage listed Roman aqueduct, Le Pont du Gard.
Le Pont du Guard, a well-preserved Roman aqueduct, is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Fun Fact – Denim gets its name because it’s fabric that comes from Nimes (serge de Nîmes).
Beziers was where the ill-fated Cathars (and any unfortunate Catholics with them) were slaughtered wholesale. Nowadays it is known for its wine and bullfighting.
Narbonne is a laid-back seaside town famous for its Gothic cathedral and its wine industry. During Roman times, it was the capital of Gaul and a crossroads between the rest of France, Spain and Italy.
The Cathedral of Saint-Just and Saint-Pasteur in Narbonne.
Perpignan is the last city in France before the Spanish border and so it has an interesting mix of cultures. Things to do in Perpignan include visiting the Palace of the Kings of Majorca, the Basilica Cathedral of St. Jean the Baptist and the Arab and Gypsy quarter.
Food and Drink
The Languedoc region produces 1/3 of all French wine – thats approximately 2 billion bottles a year. It is also fertile farmland with a number of excellent local products – oysters, anchovies, beef, lamb, cheeses and foie gras to name a few.
You can find Europe’s biggest river delta at the Camargue which borders Provence. These 900 square kilometres (approximately 350 square miles) of wetlands are famous for their pink flamingoes, wild horses and bulls.
The Cévennes is a national park of almost 800,000 acres with its main entrance by the pretty little town of Florac. With mountains, gorges and plateaus, this area is a nature-lovers paradise of wild, unspoiled countryside.
There are miles of beautiful sand beaches sprinkled with little towns edging the Mediterranean. The Espiguette is the Languedoc’s largest sand beach and backed by sand dunes. Cap D’Agde has Europe’s largest nudist beach. The beaches near Beziers are also excellent (Portiragnes and Serignan). La Franqui is popular with windsurfers. Argeles is said to be one of the best beaches in all of France – it’s wide, sandy and has stunning views of the Pyrenees.
Right before you hit the Spanish border, you have the Cote Vermeille, the undisputed star of which is the pretty little artsy town of Collioure. Note that the beaches here are pebbly.
The Cote Vermeille or the Vermillion Coast is so-called because of its red rocky coastline.
Tips for Visiting the Languedoc-Roussillon
Although we have explored Carcassone, undertaken a pilgrimage to Lourdes, visited the beaches in the summer, this region of France is vast with plenty of things to do.
Isn’t this perfect for an evening stroll after indulging in a fantastic dinner and wine?
Who better to ask for advice on visiting the Languedoc-Roussillon than travel bloggers who have been there? Below are the recommendations and travel tips for this region of France from five fellow travel bloggers.
Cathars, Castles & Carcassonne
While France is well known for her châteaux, the castles of the Languedoc-Roussillon region are truly the stuff of legends and fairy tales. Immediately the Cathar Castles spring to mind. Here in the Languedoc during the 12th century Catharism became a major religion. They were regarded as heretics by the Catholic church and Pope Innocent III called for a full scale crusade against them.
The local population, supported by the local nobility, sided with the Cathars. And as battle raged between the locals and the Catholic crusaders, the Cathars and their supporters took refuge in dramatically sited castles and fortified towns. The picturesque remnants of some of these are a still a major tourist attraction.
One of the most well known of these sites with a Cathar connection is the Medieval citadel of Carcassonne, known locally as la Cité. Although much of what we see today has been extensively restored, this does not detract from the strikingly evocative walls of Europe’s largest, intact walled Medieval city.
Walking around the Medieval city, or looking up at the imposing ramparts, it is hard to think that these were all set to be demolished in 1849. After considerable local outrage, an extensive programme of restoration lasting from 1853 to 1911 the castle and its fortifications were given a new lease of life. And today Carcassonne is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the south of France.
The medieval walled city of Carcassone Image credit: Thomas Dowson
The small town of Montady is found perched on a hill in the middle of Languedoc-Roussillon. With the Canal du Midi, Narbonne, and Carcassonne well within a few hours, there is plenty to do in this gorgeous French town.
One of the most unique features of the town is theÉtang de Montady, which was a way to control the water. Somehow, the inhabitants (in the late 1200s) found a way to build a drainage system in the lake.
If you look closely, it even looks like a sink with a drain. The étang allowed the locals to not lose many crops or harvests throughout flooding years. It’s a marvel of engineering, and hey, it’s pretty as well!
– by Corinne Vail from ReflectionsEnroute and on social media at
The Town of Montady (Photo credit: Corinne Vail)
Languedoc-Roussillon region (now Occitanie) was one of the first places I visited in France years ago and I love going back there. Its beautiful nature, charming historic towns, and layback atmosphere will definitely make you fall in love with France.
This area is so different than the busy metropoles like Paris or the much more touristy and posh nearby Provence region. Here you can get to know the more authentic France, not yet overrun by foreign tourists.
The region is extremely diverse. You will find historic Roman cities as well as long sandy beaches with thriving coastal towns. Languedoc-Roussillon is also famous for its wines and some of France’s major vineyards can be found here.
Some of the must-see highlights in the region include the medieval Carcassonne castle and historic towns like Montpellier, Perpignan, Nimes, Narbonne, Sète or the smaller coastal town Collioure.
My personal favourites in the region are Pont du Gard, a 2000 year old Roman aqueduct that was once part of the extensive and very impressive water channel system, and the 11th centuryFontfroide Abbey near Narbonne.
One of the prettiest villages in the Languedoc-Rouissilon, Collioure (Photo credit: Jurga at Full Suitcase)
Collioure in the French Vermeille
Much less touristy than the neighbouring region of Provence, the Languedoc-Rouissilon region of France has an incredibly rich historical heritage. The towns and villages are filled with Roman architecture – who can forget about the amphitheatre in Nimes – beautiful cathedrals and precious castles, like the world-famous Carcassone.
It’s also a place where cultures meet. Perpignan for example is the capital of French Catalonia, and although people speak in French, you can also see many signs of the Catalan identity.
One of the most beautiful places to visit in this region is the charming village of Collioure, situated in the French Vermeille, very close tot he Spanish-French border. It’s one of the most romantic villages in the Languedoc-Rouissilon region with cozy cobbled streets, artisan shops, local seafood restaurants and magical atmosphere.
Many French and Catalan artists – Picasso or Henri Matisse for instance – chose to live here for some time and found the atmosphere very inspiring. The two main landmarks of this picture perfect village to visit are the Notre-Dame-Des-Angles Church and the Chateau Royale de Collioure, a fortress that was held by several different royal families throughout history.
– by Gabor Kovacs from Surfing the Planet and on social media at
The village of Collioure in the Languedoc-Rouissilon (Photo credit: Gabor Kovacs)
Walking through the narrow streets of Minerve is like stepping into the pages of a children’s storybook but today’s beauty disguises a gruesome past.
The quiet village, around 50 kilometres from Carcassone, came under attack during the Albigensian Crusade in 1210 when a number of Cathars (non-Catholics) from Beziers took refuge in Minerve. After a six week siege, the village was forced to surrender and 140 Cathars were burnt at the stake.
To learn more about the bloody events of the past, a visit to the Hurepel Museum is a must. Here, the story of the siege is told in sixteen clay dioramas made by local artisans.
Today Minerve is classified as one of France’s most beautiful villages and it’s easy to see why. Perched on a rocky peninsula at the meeting of two rivers and alongside deep gorges, Minerve’s setting is picturesque.
A tall, narrow tower and a small section of wall is all that’s left of the medieval fortifications, whilst the 12th century church and the impressive double-arched bridge that spans the River Cesse are the other major sites in the village.
But for me, the real attraction of Minerve are the cobbled streets lined with centuries-old stone buildings some now serving as shops, boutiques and cafes.
Sitting on a shady terrace sipping a drink and admiring the views you can’t help but be thankful you’re visiting today and not back in 1210.
– by Carolyn Schonafinger who writes at Holidays To Europe and on
The town of Minerve in the Languedoc Roussillon (Photo credit: Carolyn Schonafinger)
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The famous French Riviera, or Cote D’Azure, has something to offer every type of traveller. When you think of Riviera travel, the mind immediately moves onto beautiful people, huge yachts and the famous film festival. A French Riviera holiday is also perfect though for the less rich and not-yet-famous. The weather is fantastic for a large part of the year (or at least better than the rest of Europe). You can laze away the days at any number of pretty little Riviera villages and towns perched on a mountain. Along with museums, art galleries, great restaurants, and nice beaches, Riviera travel is perfect for everyone.
Why everyone loves the French Riviera and you will, too.
A Feast For The Senses
When I was invited to the launch of a new tourist campaign for the French Riviera with the local tourism boards and EasyJet, I thought the multi-sensory immersive party was brilliant. The French Riviera is a pleasant assault on the senses. You don’t just see the Cote d’Azur, you are touched by the warm sun, the piney scent, the delicious food and the lapping of the waves on the rocky shore. Here are five ways to experience Riviera travel as a sensory feast.
See The Cote d’Azur
Throw a stone, and you will hit a Riviera village or town so charming and pretty that it will seem unreal. Here are some of my favourite little villages and towns to see and to explore:
Antibes is small, seaside town. Picasso loved it so much that he stayed put for 6 months and the town returned his love with a museum dedicated to his works.
Located in the mountains and an easy drive from Nice, the little Riviera village of Eze has fantastic views over the Mediterranean below. In addition, there is a small Exotic Garden dedicated to both plants and succulents.
Saint Paul de Vence is a small medieval village which has been beloved by lots of famous people, especially artists like Picasso, Chagall and Matisse. In fact, Matisse spent the last 30 years of his life in Saint Paul de Vence. The town has lots of art galleries to browse.
A water fountain in a Riviera village
Touch The Cote d’Azur
The French Riviera has a lot of artisanal crafts from ceramics to glass-blowing. You can watch the artisans or at some places you can even participate in craft workshops. For example, there is a small glass-blowing workshop in Antibes. On the plus side, your children can participate and whatever shape they create could be considered artisanal and proudly gifted to a doting relative.
One of the pretty little side streets away from the beach
We like to take our children to the beach at Menton. This little town is right on the French and Italian border. It’s got a sleepy subdued charm which is great for families. There is no ’scene’ or nightlife. Possibly Menton’s big claim to fame is being located halfway between Rome and Paris.
The back streets of Menton a Riviera village in France
Taste The Cote d’Azur
I have a friend whose two year old wouldn’t stop eating the sand on their trip to the French Riviera. I assume your tastes are slightly more sophisticated.
If you take a 15 minute boat trip from Cannes, you will arrive at the charming little island of Saint-Honore. On this little island, Cistercian monks have been making highly acclaimed wines for 16 centuries at the Abbaye de Lerins. The approximately 30 monks in residence produce 3 varieties using the same time-honoured tradition passed down through the centuries. You can walk around the island, tour the monastery and have a nice lunch (with wine!). I can attest from personal experience that the wine is great!
The blue of the Mediterranean sea is mesmerising
Hear The Cote d’Azur
Jazz is incredibly popular on the French Riviera. In the 1920’s American author, F. Scott Fitzgerald brought the best jazz musicians to his villa in Juan Les Pins for his parties. F. Scott Fitzgerald loved the French Riviera and used a hotel in Nice as the inspiration for his famous book, [easyazon_link identifier=”068480154X” locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]Tender is the Night[/easyazon_link].
In 1948, Louis Armstrong played at the first Nice Jazz Festival. Following his lead, all of the legendary jazz musicians have performed n the French Riviera – Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie.
The Festival of Juan Les Pins brings more jazz to the locals. Held in July, the Juan Les Pins festival is usually after the Nice Jazz Festial so the party does not stop.
Jazz on a french street
Smell The Cote d’Azur
Grasse is known as the perfume capitol of the world. Have you read the book [easyazon_link identifier=”0375725849″ locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]Perfume[/easyazon_link] or seen the 2016 movie, [easyazon_link identifier=”B000VSYDRM” locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]Perfume: The Story of A Murderer?[/easyazon_link] If so, you will know that a refined sense of scent is highly prized.
There are regular, frequent flights on Easyjet to Nice from three of London’s airports – Luton, Stanstead and Gatwick. The short flight takes only 2 hours.
Driving from Menton to Nice is only about 40 miles via the A8 toll road. Likewise, the drive from Nice the other way to Cannes on the A8 is about 2o miles. We usually rent a car from Hertz at Nice Airport.
Although you will not be racking up the mileage on this trip, there is so much to see and do alone the French coastline. Frankly the A8 may be the fastest route but you are in the Cote d’Azur. It’s time to meander the local coastal roads and stop and smell the piney shrubs and heady scent of flowers.
Our children had a habit of falling asleep in the car as toddlers. A long leisurely drive ensured we enjoyed the scenery (and peace and quiet) while the children got their afternoon nap.
Have you wondered why the French Riviera has been a favourite vacation spot for years.
The Cote d’Azure card
All of the activities mentioned above are available through the Cote d’Azur card. The card is available for both adults and children from 4-12 years old. You can use the 3 day pass over a 6 day period which gives you plenty of options for relaxing in the sunshine and people-watching.
As noted above, the French Riviera is relatively small. You can stay at different hotels along the coast, or you can stay put in one hotel and do day trips. With children, I am a big fan of staying in one hotel.
We have stayed at the Hotel Barriere Le Majestic in Cannes. It is a historic luxury hotel and won’t let you forget it. The decor is traditional and there is a room service menu for dogs. You have to pay to use their private hotel beach (even if you are staying at the hotel!). The hotel is centrally located on the Croissette, Cannes’ main drag, which makes it popular with celebrities during the Cannes Film Festival. Staying there, I felt it was abundantly apparent that I was a first wife.
We have friends who have recommended the Hotel Juana in Juan Les Pin. The family suites at the hotel are perfect if you are travelling with children. Plus, the hotel has a pool if your children get tired of the sea. It is near the villa (now hotel) that F. Scott Fitzgerald rented during his stay in the 1920’s.
In Nice, we have friends who recommend staying at the Hyatt Regency Nice Plaza de la Mediteranne. Centrally located on the Promenade de Anglais, their children loved the terrace from their room which was great for checking out street life.
We have to confess we stumbled upon Toulouse in France and the airport at Toulouse accidentally. First, we were looking to visit Carcassonne, then we decided to go skiing in the Spanish Pyrenees and, finally, we decided to take an Armagnac tour. All of these destinations had one thing in common – the easiest airport with the most plentiful flight options was Toulouse Blagnac airport whether it was British Airways or EasyJet. After our last visit to the Toulouse airport, we decided to check out Toulouse itself. Toulouse has its charms as well as operating as an excellent gateway to south west France.
Why We Love Toulouse as the Gateway To South West France
The City of Toulouse
We thought Toulouse is charming in the same sort of ramshackle way that I thought Marseille was 15 years ago. The city is obviously going through some serious regeneration. I saw hipster cafes and boutiques dotted about the old town amidst the gorgeous old townhouses just begging to be restored.
The Resurgence of Toulouse
Toulouse is called the ‘ville rose’ because of the reddish-pinkish bricks used in its buildings. Although two of its attractions (the Canal du Midi and the Basilica of St Sernin) have UNESCO World Heritage status, Toulouse wants UNESCO world heritage status for itself.
A detail of the old town in Toulouse, just randomly preserved, in front of an opticians.
The fourth largest city in France (behind Paris, Lyon and Marseille), Toulouse is also the by far the biggest city in the region of Occitanie. The Occitanie is a region made up the French government in 2016 and encompasses a large swathe of south west France. In fact, the area of Occitanie is bigger than some European countries such as Belgium or Switzerland.
The spire of Saint Sernin rising above the rooftops.
Despite being the largest region in the area, a significant number of the population in the Occitanie live in and around Toulouse. The city, however, doesn’t feel big. Although Toulouse has a population of 1.2 million, only about 500,000 live in the inner city.
Great Transportation Links
Thanks to Airbus being headquartered practically next door to the Toulouse airport, Toulouse has superb air links to London, Paris and to the rest of Europe. The flight from London takes less than two hours and the flight from Paris is about an hour.
The narrow side streets of the historic centre of Toulouse
Things to do in Toulouse City Center
Capitole de Toulouse – This large square in the centre of the city is as grand as any you will find in any other European city. We spent a couple of hours just hanging out outside Cafe Le Florida people-watching and breathing in second hand smoke. Be sure to look up and see the decorated Belle Epoque ceilings.
The Basilica of Saint Sernin – This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a fine example of a Romanesque basilica and is located close to the Capitole.
Couvent des Jacobins – This church, also located close to the Capitole, is famous for its interior and for having the remains of St. Thomas Aquinas, Catholic philosopher.
Explore the back streets – You can do a loop around the old part of Toulouse from Saint Sernin to the Couvent des Jacobins and then back to Cafe Le Florida for another beer.
La Garonne – This river cuts through the city and is a perfect place to wander.
Sipping a beer at Le Florida Cafe in the Capitole square
What To Do in Toulouse Outskirts
Toulouse is a giant in the air and space industries. As mentioned, Airbus has its headquarters, factories and a museum near the airport.
If you have an aeronautics obsessed son like mine, then you should do the Airbus factory tour. You need to book tickets in advance through Manatour to do the tour.
My son also spent an entire day at the Cite de L’espace, a space museum. Unlike the Airbus factory tour, you can just rock up to the space museum and buy tickets. I’ve seen it advertised as a theme park but I think it is more a museum.
Having been to a few space museums in my time, I can say that space museum is one of the best. The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum may be bigger, but I appreciate the landscaping and flair that Cite de L’espace creates.
The Space Museum in Toulouse is really well done for adults and children alike.
Map of south west France
The easiest way to see how well located Toulouse is for exploring south west France is on a map. Those bureaucrats who created the Midi-Pyrenees region knew what they were doing and put Toulouse pretty much in the centre.
Map of south west France showing the central location of Toulouse.
Exploring South West France from Toulouse
With its plentiful transportation connections and central location Toulouse is a great place from which to explore areas in south west France. Although there are other regional airports such as Carcassonne, Lourdes, Pau or Bergerac, none of them have the frequency and variety of flights of Toulouse airport, including by low-cost carriers like Ryanair.
Wildflowers, rapeseed fields and the Pyrenees in the distance
Suggestions for Sightseeing in south west France
So heading out in all directions, where should you go in south west France?
This region has a lot of ruined Cathar Castles because the one and only Crusade not held in the Holy Land was fought here in south west France. The Albigensian crusade was called in the early 13th century by the Pope to wipe out the Cathars who the Roman Catholics considered heretics. My favourite was Chateau de Lastours which not only has fabulous views from the top but the little town has a one-Michelin starred restaurant for lunch.
The Languedoc region is similar to the South of France but just a lot less crowded. There are charming little towns to visit.
If you head south you will eventually come to the Pyrenees. We have visited Lourdes which is close to the French side of the Pyrenees.
Go south east Toulouse and you will be in Gascony. Gascony is know for its foie gras and its Armagnac.
If you drive about 50 miles north you get to Albi which is a UNESCO world heritage site. It was a centre for the Cathars and obviously felt the wrath of the Catholics during the Albigensian Crusade. The city’s 13th century Bishop’s Palace houses the Toulouse-Lautrec museum because Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was born nearby.
Go northeast and you will eventually find Bordeaux. Toulouse to the city of Bordeaux itself is about a 2 hour drive but there’s plenty to enjoy along the way. My husband wants to spend an extended period of time enjoying all that Bordeaux has to offer.
We have walked and cycled along the Canal du Midi which starts in Toulouse and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I really want to do a barge trip down the Canal du Midi but my husband thinks it sounds like too much work for him!
You don’t actually need to stay in south west France either. We used Toulouse as our departure point for going skiing in the Spanish Pyrenees. The drive from Toulouse took approximately 2 hours and is in fact shorter than if we had flown into Barcelona.
Why We Love Toulouse as the Gateway To South West France
At Toulouse airport itself, we have stayed at the Holiday Inn Express and the Radisson Blu Toulouse Airport. We definitely preferred the Radisson Blu because it had (i) larger rooms, (ii) a pretty courtyard, (iii) nicer lobby and (iv) better food.
In the Languedoc, we loved staying at Maison Laurent for which I have written a review. This hotel is for adults only.
Right outside of the city walls of Carcassonne is Le Parc Franck Putelat which has both a hotel and a two-starred Michelin restaurant. Children are welcome at both the hotel and the restaurant. We saw other children at the restaurant so it’s not just lip-service. From the outside, the hotel looks like a strip-mall building but the inside is nice!
In between Toulouse and Bordeaux, our friends have stayed at, and recommended, staying at the Relais & Chateaux hotel La Bastide in Barbotan-Las-Thermes. They said the hotel and the rooms were very nice. They did not like the restaurant though.
I’ve had enough education to question blind faith but not nearly enough to give me any answers. Like many others raised Catholic have found, it’s a religion that stays with you once you have been indoctrinated.
Once you’ve started Catholic, frankly, there’s no real way to stop being Catholic. Even not believing in God isn’t regarded as sufficient reason to get out of the Catholic church. You’d think it’d be fairly fundamental to the whole thing, but no. Catholicism: the stickiest, most adhesive religion in the world.
– Dara O’Briain, “Live at the Apollo”, July 6, 2005
When you are visiting Lourdes with children, I think a day trip is sufficient. Most of the things to do in Lourdes revolved around the Lourdes pilgrimage sites which makes it hard for children to sustain interest for a longer period.
Tips on how you can make a pilgrimage to Lourdes if you only have one day.
The little town of Lourdes in the middle-of-nowhere Southwest France is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in the world. Approximately 5 million visitors a year come to pray at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. The sanctuary is built over the rock formation where Mary, the mother of Jesus, appeared to a local girl, Bernadette Soubirous, an amazing 18 times in the middle of the 18th century.
The statue of Mary above the Grotto at Lourdes.
Lourdes Holy Water
There are lots of miracles associated with Lourdes and the water that flows from the spring where Mary appeared. People bathe in the spring’s holy water or take the holy water from Lourdes in containers all over the world.
You can buy water bottles of all sizes in the stores surrounding the shrine. Technically the Lourdes holy water isn’t Holy Water because it hasn’t been blessed by a priest. Pilgrims either anoint themselves with the water or drink it.
People were filling up with the holy water from the spring at the Grotto.
Miracles Associated With Lourdes
The Roman Catholic church has documented 66 miracles associated with Lourdes. These official miracles are thoroughly investigated by the Church. There are countless other people who claim to have been cured at Lourdes that don’t pass the official testing.
According to official estimates, over 80,000 sick and disabled people visit Lourdes annually. They are assisted by 100,000 volunteers. We saw people of all nationalities – both sick and healthy, young and old.
Sick people being wheeled into the line for the Grotto.
Things To Do in Lourdes
Most of the things to do in the city are based around the Lourdes pilgrimage. If you are doing a Lourdes pilgrimage only for the day, you will have plenty to do at the Sanctuary itself (especially if the lines are long!).
The busiest time of year to visit Lourdes is during the spring and summer months. We went in May which is still early in the season so that it wasn’t too crowded. Our line to see the Grotto only took 10 minutes but I’ve heard it can be one hour+ during peak season.
The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes
The most important thing to do on a Lourdes pilgrimage is to visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. It is open 24/7 and admission is free. The Sanctuary covers almost 130 acres with 22 places of worship.
The gates to the Sanctuary are impressive with three archangels guarding the enormous gates. It was sad to see concrete bollards in the front of the gates because even a place of pilgrimage filled with the sick and disabled could be subject to terrorism.
These 6 sights are the most important in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes:
The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is the upper basilica.
The Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary is the lower basilica. It’s covered with thousands of Venetian mosaics.
The Crypt is the most intimate of the prayer spaces. It has room for only 120 people.
The Basilica of Saint Pius X is underground in the lawned area in front of the two previous basilicas and the Crypt. You think you are walking into a car park but inside the architecture is marvellous. This basilica is massive and can hold 25,000 people.
The Grotto is where Mary appeared to Bernadette. It has the spring from which the water is diverted for people to take away with them.
Underneath the Sanctuary and next door to the grotto are the Pools. They are open in the morning and the afternoon. As is the French custom, they take a couple of hours break in the middle of the day for lunch.
The evening torchlight procession in Lourdes is a famous sight. As day-trippers, we did not stay to see the procession at 9pm.
Visiting the Lourdes Pools
We went to all of the places but skipped the pools because my daughter refused to go inside the pools. No one could answer our question on how often the water in the pool is filtered.
My daughter was convinced she would come down with leprosy (or similar) even if the pools are full of holy water. This fear is probably a side effect of the fact that I am swabbing my kids in hand sanitiser every 10 minutes.
When author Flannery O’Conner balked at going into the pool like my daughter, she said:
I am one of those people who would rather die for my religion, than take a bath for it.
– Flannery O’Connor
There are separate pools for men and women. Even though there were not many people waiting, the wait would have been an hour. The water is supposed to be quite cold (naturally because it is spring water).
The Life of Bernadette
You can also visit sites associated with Bernadette. Her childhood home is open to visitors for a nominal fee. The visions appeared to Bernadette when she was 14 years old. By the age of 22, as the object of constant curiosity, she fled to a quiet life in a convent 500 miles away. She never returned to Lourdes.
The house were Bernadette was born.
The visitor centre at Lourdes has a walking route you can do that follows the life of Bernadette in the town. There is also screenings of the 2011 French movie of the life of Bernadette shown in cinemas around town. The French movie is [easyazon_link identifier=”B01EDAC2XK” locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]Je M’appelle Bernadette[/easyazon_link] but the classic English-language movie is [easyazon_link identifier=”B00008LDO7″ locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]The Song of Bernadette[/easyazon_link] (1943).
Other Things To Do in Lourdes
There is religious shopping galore. People have said how tacky it is. We didn’t think it was too bad (but I did grow up in an Indian Catholic family where religious paraphernalia in the home was obligatory). It’s a bit like any tourist town. Instead of shot glasses and hats, the tacky souvenirs are rosary beads and religious figurines.
My son examines one of the biggest rosaries we have ever seen.
A fortress looms above Lourdes on the edge of the city as the one and only secular sightseeing option in the city. If you make it to the top, there are fabulous views.
The chateau fort that looms over Lourdes.
About 20 minutes outside of Lourdes, you will find the popular limestone caves, the Grottes de Betharram. When we went, the line wasn’t long but there was NO staff around at all. We waited for 1/2 hour expecting someone to show up and tell us what to do and where to go. Nope, nothing.
My husband checked the TripAdvisor Reviews which said the caves were fascinating but service was atrocious. The kids were getting antsy and so we bailed on this attraction. We were disappointed because the dioramas of the caves which we examined thoroughly while we were waiting looked very cool!
Photo Gallery For Lourdes
The Pope Piux X basilica is a cavernous underground place of worship.
At the underground basilica of Pius X, pictures of saints line the underpinnings which are made into an architectural feature.
The statue of Mary above the Grotto at Lourdes.
The view form the upper basilica of the giant dome of the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary.
The view of the dome of Our Lady of the Rosary from the inside.
The mosaics of Our Lady of the Rosary were magnificent.
The sweeping arcade of Our Lady of the Rosary is filled with mosaics as well.
Practical Information for A Lourdes Pilgrimage
Tips on how you can make a pilgrimage to Lourdes in France if you only have one day.
Getting To Lourdes
You can take the train from Paris to Lourdes relatively easily. The journey can last anywhere between 6-9 hours depending on the type of train. The TGV trains from Paris Gare-Montparnasse to Lourdes run up to 12x a day. The first train is in the early morning around 6AM and the last one leaves Paris around 9PM. Many of the trains involved 1-2 changes but there are up to 3 trains a day that are a direct service.
My parents did the Lourdes pilgrimage via the high-speed train from Paris several years ago. They speak no French. They also have a tendency to get hopelessly lost because map/sign reading is a skill they have not mastered (as I know from my childhood). If they can do it, you can, too!
We stayed an hour away at the Chateau de Projan. The chateau itself was gorgeous and the owners were gracious hosts. They gave us an alternate to the motorway to get to Lourdes which lead us through charming towns and bucolic countryside. We found the Chateau de Projan through [easyazon_link identifier=”B01K3MPNE2″ locale=”US” tag=”jg20-20″]Alistair Sawday[/easyazon_link] which we love for quirky, cool places to stay.
So many chateaux, so little time. With more than 500 chateaux in the Loire Valley, where does one start exploring this region which has been called the garden of France? Having been to the Loire Valley a few times, we decided to narrow down the geographical area we would visit on our first trip to the area with the kids. We focussed on the area between Blois (the first chateau you meet when you come from Paris) and the city of Tours. Within this limited area, you will find plenty of sightseeing, including (in our opinion) the five best chateaux in the Loire Valley. It also helps that these chateaux are family-friendly!
Why Are There So Many Chateaux in the Loire Valley?
Running for approximately 1000 kilometres, the Loire is the longest river in France. This part of the Loire Valley has been recognised as a UNESCO world heritage site for its historical significance, charming towns and pretty chateaux.
The Loire River runs for about 1000 kilometres in France.
During the 100 Years War during the 14th and 15th centuries, the Loire valley was strategically important to the French and fortified against the English. After the battle of Agincourt in 1415, the English were in control of Paris. The French did not regain control of Paris again until 1436 but the King of France decided to remain with his court in the Loire Valley.
There are so many chateaux to visit in the Loire Valley that it’s hard to know which ones to choose.
The French monarchy felt Paris was an unpredictable capitol. After all, it was the Parisians who had given Joan of Arc to the English to be executed. Considering the subsequent history of the French Revolution, the kings were right to be wary of the Parisians. In any event, where the king went, the aristocracy followed like lemmings. They, too, built chateaux around the Loire Valley so that they could be near the king and the good gossip.
Our Pick of the Five Best Chateaux in the Loire Valley
You wouldn’t be in the Loire Valley unless you were planning on visiting at least one French castle. The ancient Cathedral town of Tours is a convenient place to divide the Loire Valley if you are limited on time. With a cluster of chateaux on each side of Tours, each chateaux cluster has winners for attractiveness and gardens. Tours is also a good transportation hub with trains and a small airport.
As this map shows, these castles are relatively close to each other.
The Loire Valley tourism board has different types of chateaux passes depending on how many castles you want to see. The 5 Chateaus mentioned below are on their Chateaux Pass No. P which we felt was the maximum our children would visit without open revolt. We stayed near Cheverny and all of these castles are an easy driving distance from each other.
Chateau de Chenonceau is one of the most visited of the castles in the Loire Valley. Spanning the River Cher, it is beautiful and has extensive gardens. During its heyday, it was caught in a royal love triangle between Henri II, his mistress, Diane de Poitiers and his wife, Catherine de Medici.
The gardens and chateau de Chenonceau are both beautiful.
For kids, Chenonceau is fun to visit because it is a small chateau with pretty gardens and a garden maze. There is a handy restaurant as well as a little creperie. You can take boat rides or hire kayaks to go along the river.
The Chateau Royal de Blois was the home of 7 French kings and the centre of a lot of intrigue. Built around a courtyard, each wing has a different type of architecture – Gothic, Renaissance and Classical. Catherine de Medici (she who loved Chenonceau so much) died in the Queen’s Chamber at this chateau in 1589. You can see her study with the secret compartments where she supposedly kept her handy supply of poisons.
One of the facades of the Chateau de Blois.
For children, Blois has a throne they can sit upon and plenty of random things to examine. Francois I liked to put his salamander seal everywhere. My kids went around the castle playing find the salamander. The chateau also has a great sound and light show in the evenings and is located across the square from the highly-recommended family-friendly Museum of Magic.
Someone really liked being a pretend French queen.
Chateau de Chambord is the largest of the Loire chateaux with 440 rooms, 282 fireplaces and 84 staircases. The most famous of these staircases is the double helix staircase attributed as a design of Leonardo da Vinci. Built at the behest of Francois I as a hunting lodge, he used it for approximately 7 weeks during his reign. For much of its life, the chateau has lain empty because such a massive structure was hard to heat and impractical to live in.
The French Tricolor flag flies high amounts the many chimneys of Chambord.
For children, the highlight of Chambord will be climbing up and down the double helix staircase and walking around the rooftop of the chateau with its hundreds of chimneys (all those fireplaces had to lead somewhere!). Chambord also does regular pageants on its grounds which are geared toward showing children court life during medieval times.
The double helix staircase at Chambord supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci. You can climb up one set of stairs and another person can climb down the other set of stairs. Neither of you will pass each other.
The chateau de Cheverny is still inhabited by the family that built it in the early 17th century. When Diane de Poitiers got ejected from Chenonceau by Catherine de Medici, she was housed at Cheverny until she was finally given Chaumont. It’s not bad for temporary housing! You may recognise the middle portion as the model for the chateau that appears in The Adventures of TinTin.
The centre part of the chateau de Cheverny is the model for the chateau in the Adventures of TinTin.
This chateau is not very big but it is an excellent example of how the aristocracy would have lived. It is light, bright and well-furnished. You get the sense that a real family would have lived in this chateau. The royal chateaux leave you with a sense of grandeur but feel cold and barren. My children liked walking in the pretty gardens and watching the French hounds in their kennel.
Cheverny has regularly scheduled tours through its gardens as well as plenty of places to picnic or just sit down.
The Chateau du Chaumont is the home Diane de Poitiers eventually received from Catherine de Medici after being turfed out of Chenonceau. This chateau has beautiful gardens especially if you are skipping Villandry which is well-known for its gardens. The Chateau itself is full of dark furniture from the 19th century . The grounds are well-landscaped with a fabulous view of the Loire valley.
The relatively small chateau de Chaumont is perched on a cliff with a view of the Loire Valley.
Every summer, Chaumont has a well-known international garden festival which is very family-friendly. Weird garden design to explore – what’s not to love?? We all loved the garden festival and could easily have spent the entire day exploring it.
Practical Information for visiting the Loire Valley Castles
We stayed at the Relais de Trois Chateaux which is a 4 star hotel in Cour Cheverny. The family room has a separate room for the children. Although the rooms are compact (you would think you were in Paris), they are beautifully decorated. We shared one bathroom but each room had its own television. Priorities, right?
There is no lounge/reception area worth mentioning at this hotel so you are either on your bed in your hotel room or not at the hotel. There is plenty of parking. The WiFi is excellent. The hotel restaurant, Les Trois Merchands, is very popular in the evening and very good. Located in the tiny village of Cheverny, you are pretty much outside the walls of the Chateau de Cheverny.
You can buy the Chateaux-Pass online which should save you some time. Otherwise, you can buy it at the local tourist office of Blois, Cheverny, Chambord or Chaumont. Keeping in mind that French tourist office hours may not align with your expectations, you can avoid disappointment by just buying it ahead of time.
My husband and I have visited the chateaux on the other side of Tours on previous trips. Azay-le-Rideau is considered a masterpiece of the French Renaissance but has been undergoing renovation the last couple of years. Chateau du Villandry is best known for its French-style gardens (nothing as kooky as you find at the Garden Festival at Chaumont). According to legend, while staying at pretty Chateau d’Usse, Charles Perrault was inspired to write Sleeping Beauty. With Azay-le-Rideau under scaffolding, much of its beauty as a chateau surrounded by water is marred. I personally think Chenonceau is prettier if you are comparing betweens chateaux-on-water. If you have the time (and willingness) this cluster of chateaux is worth exploring, too.
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The Chateau de Chaumont sur Loire doesn’t immediately impress you with its grandeur. Instead you are struck by the country garden charm of the place. Right behind the entrance office, there is a giant rabbit topiary. Garden paths meander past contemporary art and view points onto fields with wonderful views of the Loire Valley. Almost as an afterthought, the Chateau de Chaumont appears on the side, a fairytale vision of silver-tipped turrets on top of alabaster walls. Chateau de Chaumont was where Diane de Poitiers was banished after her lover died. His vengeful wife, Catherine de Medici, wrestled Chateau du Chenonceau at long last from her rival and gave her Chateau de Chaumont as a consolation prize. Nowadays the gardens of Chateau de Chaumont and the internationally-renowned Chaumont Garden Festival are the main draws for its visitors.
The Chateau’s position, once defensive, now gives it amazing views.
The History of the Chateau
There has been a chateau on the site since 1000 A.D because it was a good lookout point over the border territories of two powerful noblemen. The chateau was part of the influential d’Amboise family holdings for hundreds of years until Catherine de Medici bought it in 1550. The current Chateau de Chaumont architecture is a mix of the defensive style of architecture of medieval times and ornamental features dating from the Renaissance period.
The Chateau de Chaumont set like a jewel amongst the lawns.
When Catherine de Medici owned the chateau, she had elaborate parties at the chateau and hosted famous people, like the astrologer, Nostradamus and Cosimo Ruggieri. If the legend is to be believed, Ruggieri showed Catherine the death of her three sons in a mirror at Chaumont.
The Catherine de Medici room has tapestries dating from the 15th century.
Catherine de Medici left behind her initials on the stonework.
In the 18th century, Chaumont was the beloved chateau of a French merchant who rose up the ranks, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray. Le Ray was instrumental in providing French support for the American Revolution. He housed Benjamin Franklin at one of his Parisian homes when Franklin was sent to Paris to drum up support for the American cause. Le Ray not only got the French King to cough up money but also provided money and equipment from his own funds. For example, he sent a gift of a warship to John Paul Jones who is credited with being a founder of the U.S. Navy.
The small chateau with extensive gardens is great for kids to visit.
Le Ray’s son moved to the United States and married an American. The Chateau survived the French Revolution because it was seized by the French Revolutionary government from the absentee landlord. Post-French Revolution, one of the sides got demolished so that you could get a better view of the Loire Valley. Oh, the irony.
The chateau has an amazing panoramic terrace overlooking the Loire valley.
A chateau with a view.
The Chapel had a modern art exhibit.
My eagle-eyed kids spotted a Furby in the installation. Can you find it?
The Gardens of Chateau de Chaumont
The chateau is set in 52 acres of parkland which were created by famed 19th century French garden designer, Henri Duchene. Until the time of Duchene, there was actually a little village of approximately 100 houses located right near the chateau. The Chateau’s owners, the Prince and Princess de Broglie, had all the buildings demolished and then had the village relocated closer to the Loire. Presumably, they had learned nothing from the French Revolution.
Unlike in the movie Poltergeist, even the village church’s cemetery was moved. Duchene, then, created an English style manor-house parkland that affording fabulous views over the Loire Valley and was more befitting a prestigious residence. Taking four years and costing 560,000 francs at the time, the project was a massive endeavour.
The view of the Chateau from the gardens.
One of his Duchene’s innovative designs was the Rustic Bridge which spans a ravine between ornamental gardens. The bridge is actually made of cement and then covered with iron and wood. This creative idea brought the French concept of trompe l’oeil to a garden environment.
The fake rustic bridge really does look like the real thing.
In 1877, the Princess de Broglie instructed an architect, Paul-Ernest Sanson, to build her some stables. These stables were considered the most luxurious in all of Europe at the time. The de Broglie horses were seriously pampered and even had Hermes saddles.
Sadly for the de Broglies, the good times ended. The Princess de Broglie blew through her fortune and the French government had to take over Chaumont in 1938. Even impoverished, the Princess lived among the Ritz and the George V hotels in Paris and her own private Parisian apartment.
The great salon recreates the Belle Epoque style of the Princess de Broglie.
The Chaumont Garden Festival
Chateau du Chaumont is known for its international contemporary garden festival which started in 1992. Running annually from June to October, it has approximately 30 gardens spread throughout the grounds of the chateau. This year is the festival’s 25th anniversary.
The gardens are designed by artists and landscape designers from all around the world. Over the years, the people who’ve worked on the 700+ gardens that have appeared in the festival is a who’s who of art and garden design. They are internationally renowned big names like Shigeru Ban (Japanese architect), Peter Walker (American landscape designer who was part of the design team for the National 9/11 Memorial) and Ernesto Neto (Brasilian artist).
According to the festivals rules, the gardens are in bloom in 6 months with the best of the display supposed to occur in the autumn. Approximately 400,000 people visit the garden festival every year.
The exhibits are kid-friendly. It’s like a contemporary open-air art museum. My kids really liked the garden of the mists which is a permanent exhibition. During July and August evenings, the gardens are lit up at night.
I thought the International Garden Festival was fantastic and will dedicate a separate post to them. Not only were they attractive, but they raised a lot of issues about our environment.
Photo Gallery: Gardens of the Chateau de Chaumont
Fields of flowers in the sunshine
More fields of flowers.
So pretty. Sorry I had to throw in more flower photos.
Lush flowers interspersed with lawns.
My daughter thought someone had gone a little artsy/craftsy to the ends of these flowers.
The gardens are very lush and immaculately maintained. Seating areas throughout enable you to rest and enjoy them.
One very noisy frog in the gardens. I can see why the French like to eat them.
Visiting the Chateau de Chaumont
The Chateau de Chaumont is open seasonally. You can easily spend a day here. There are several restaurants on site, too, which are only available to chateau visitors. We liked the garden restaurant which serves sandwiches and salads in an alfresco setting with a pretty view.