Bordering the Mediterranean Sea and Spain along its southern border, Occitanie is a region of sunny beaches, vast wine regions, spectacular mountains, and Roman architecture. Its capital is Toulouse, nicknamed La Ville Rose (the pink city), named for the distinctive pink-hued brickwork which is used in many of the city’s historic buildings. With its wide variety of landscapes, Occitanie attracts hikers in the Pyrenean mountain range as much as sunbathers on its Mediterranean beaches.
Occitanie is home to some of the most impressive historical buildings and fortifications in the country. One of the best examples is the mighty fortification of the walled citadel of Carcassonne. The region is also one of France’s best for seeing Roman ruins. The Pont Du Gard aqueduct bridge that spans the river Gardon is one of the best preserved Roman buildings in all of Europe.
Along the southern border of the region run the Pyrenees mountains, which separates it from Spain. Along much of the region runs the Canal Du Midi, part of a man-made waterway that links the Mediterranean with the Atlantic, running from the Étang de Thau, through to Toulouse.
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Cities in Occitanie
Some of the cities in Occitanie have a long cultural heritage that dates back to Roman times, and some of the most spectacular Roman ruins are still standing today. Other cities enjoy a wonderful location on the idyllic Mediterranean coast, or serve as jumping off points to the many wine regions of Occitanie.
The capital of the Occitanie region is Toulouse, affectionately nicknamed La Ville Rose (The Pink City), after its reddish-tinged bricks that make up many of the city’s historic buildings. It is the fourth-largest city in France, with a large aerospace and aviation industry that includes names such as Airbus, Intel, and the CST Toulouse Space Centre.
The city is home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the oldest of which is the Basilica of Saint Sernin (listed under the Routes of Santiago de Compostela in France). Built in the 11th century, it is one of the largest Romanesque churches in Europe. The Canal Du Midi also passes through the city, an outstanding 17th century canal that connects to the Mediterranean.
The city’s most iconic square is La Capitole de Toulouse, an elegant public space fringed by lively cafes and the city’s Grand Palace. In keeping with the ostentatious theme, the Pont Neuf bridge (the city’s oldest bridge) and Hôtel d’Assézat (a decadent 16th century palace and gallery) are other amazing sights. The Convent des Jacobins is a church known for its stunning interior pillar known as the ‘palm tree.’ The city is also known for its peaceful Jardin Japonais, and art museums such as Musée Saint Raymond (for Roman Art), and Musée des Augustins (Renaissance to 20th century paintings). And of course, le Cité de l’Éspace is the place to go to learn about science and space!
Carcassonne is a fortified city in the Aude department, known for its incredible citadel and city walls that surround it. With its commanding hilltop position overlooking the river Aude, it began as a Gallic settlement, and then taken by the Romans, who built the first city walls. Over the Millennia, Carcassonne changed hands to the Visigoths who continued building the the walls, the Saracens, Crusaders, and eventually the French in 1247. The huge city walls date back to the Gallo-Roman period, but by 1849, the city fortifications were obsolete, in disrepair and slated for demolition. It was after the intervention of French architect and author Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc in 1853 that the walls were considered for restoration.
Today, the Cité de Carcassonne is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its 3km (1.9 miles) of city walls, with its 52 watchtowers, winding cobblestone streets and medieval buildings make it an ideal place to explore. The Château Comtal is the city’s 12th century castle, and it has two historic cathedrals, the Gothic-Romanesque Basilique des Saints Nazaire et Celse, and the 13th century Cathédrale Saint-Michel de Carcassonne. With the stunning backdrop of the crenellated walls, the Théâtre Jean-Deschamps is an open air amphitheatre that plays concerts at night.
The second largest city of the region is Montpellier, a city of grand elegant mansions, wide open public squares bursting with cafes and close quarters medieval streets. With a large student population, Montpellier is a young and multicultural city.
Montpellier’s cathedral, La Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, is known for its beautiful Gothic style and immense cylindrical pillars at its entrance. Nearby is the magnificent Promenade du Peyrou, an Esplanade with its mini-monuments of the Arc de Triomphe and the Château d’Eau (water tower). When wandering the city, many people end up in the Place de la Comédie, the central square known locally as l’Oeuf (the egg), and filled with street artists, goddess statues, lovely cafes, carousels, and more.
Montpellier is a stylish and artistic city, with whimsical art trams crossing the city. One of the best museums in the city is the Fabre Museum, primarily with paintings from the 17th to 19th centuries. Other favourites include the Jardin des Plantes botanical garden, and the wonderful interactive Planet Ocean World.
Just over the border from Spain is vibrant and sunny Perpignan, capital of French Catalonia and historic capital of the Kingdom of Majorca. With a pretty old town of yellow bricks and red roof tiles, Perpignan has a distinct Spanish vibe, and viewpoints of nearby Mount Canigou make the location even more beautiful.
The city’s most iconic landmark is Le Castillet, an imposing 14th century red brick fortification that was once part of the city walls. The Palace of the Kings of Majorca is another notable sight, a majestic fortress and gardens from the Kingdom of Majorca.
Perpignan is an artsy city, and one of the best museums is the Hyacinthe Rigaud Museum, named after the Baroque painter. It is also the home of the Visa International Festival for the Image, a two week event that celebrates photography. For fresh food, stop by the Halles Vauban, one of the city’s best markets.
Sète is a port city on the Mediterranean coast, famous for its annual festival of water jousting. It is located on the Étang de Thau, a salt water lake filled with oyster and mussel fields separated from the sea by a thin strip of land. The city itself is intersected by a series of canals, where the water jousting takes place, where teams row river boats towards each other and jousters with lances and shields attempt to knock the other off.
The heart of the low town is Sète Port, where the water jousting takes place in August, and is packed with cafes, restaurants and shops (as well as a water jouster statue). The city’s most popular museum is the Musée Paul Valery, named for the poet and philosopher, which contains fine art, displays the history of the city, and exhibits water jousting memorabilia. Overlooking the water are several incredible sights such as le Cimetière Marin, an ocean-facing cemetary; and le Théátre de la Mer.
Roman Ruins in Occitanie
As part of the Roman Empire, the region of Occitanie fell into the Roman provinces of Gallia Narbonensis and Gallia Aquitania. As a result, there are some outstanding examples of Roman architecture still on display today throughout the region.
Pont du Gard Aqueduct
One of France’s best preserved Roman ruins – and probably the most spectacular – is the Pont du Gard Aqueduct. Crossing over the river Gardon, the aqueduct bridge is the world’s highest, at 48.8 metres (160 feet). It was built around 40-69CE to carry water over 50km (31 miles) to the city of Nîmes. While its water carrying capabilities ceased towards the end of the Roman Empire, the bridge took on a new role as medieval lords used it as a toll bridge.
Around the 18th century, its historic value was increasingly recognised, and efforts were taken to upkeep the bridge. Napoleon III was particularly interested in it, and approved a substantial renovation. Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and France’s most popular ancient site with tourists. A small road bridge that runs parallel to the original was completed in 1747, allows pedestrians to walk along the bridge and admire the colossal size of the aqueduct above.
One of the finest Roman amphitheatres still standing in the world is the Arena of Nîmes in the city of Nîmes. At nearly 2000 years old, it was built around 70CE for an estimated 24,000 spectators, over 34 rows of terraces. The amphitheatre is appreciated for its incredible condition, with galleries, stairways, and sculptures still intact.
Visitors can admire exhibitions of gladiator clothing and weapons inside. The arena also hosts an annual bullfighting festival called the Feria de Nîmes. The tunnels beneath the arena feature exhibitions where people can learn more about the toreros (bullfighters). Today, the arena is in the middle of an extensive renovation, but is still in use.
Also located in Nîmes is the Roman temple known today as the Maison Carrée (square house). Completed around 2BCE, the temple is considered to be the world’s best preserved Roman temple. Located in the centre of the city, the imposing columned temple stands 17.1 metres (56.1 feet) high, and is open to visitors. Inside, where the shrine once was, is now a viewing area that plays a film called Nemausus – the Birth of Nîmes, detailing the Roman history of Nîmes. It has been the inspiration for many modern buildings, such as the Virginia State Capitol, and l’Église de la Madeleine in Paris.
Amazing Buildings of Occitanie
Roman ruins are not the only impressive structures to be found in Occitanie. From ultra-modern bridges in the clouds to masterworks of canal engineering, Occitanie has some amazing buildings to admire.
Viaduc de Millau
If the Pont du Gard Aqueduct is one of France’s most amazing ancient bridges, then the Viaduc de Millau is certainly the most incredible bridge of modern times. Completed in 2004, the 2,460 metre long (8,070 feet) cable bridge has a dizzying elevation of 336.4 metres (1,104 feet), making it the world’s tallest bridge. The bridge is often cited as one of modern engineering’s finest accomplishments. With its seven immense pylons, it spans the green fields of the Tarn Valley. When fog fills the valley, the bridge takes on an otherworldly view, as it appears to be floating above the clouds.
Canal du Midi
For centuries, it was thought that a channel between the Garonne river (of France and Spain) and the Mediterranean Sea would be an exceptional idea, eliminating the need to sail entirely around the Iberian Peninsula. Leaders and scientists from the Roman Emperor Nero to Leonardo da Vinci imagined and drew up plans for the canal, but it wasn’t completed until 1681 under Louis XIV, and helmed by engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet, that the canal was completed.
The canal begins in Toulouse, and ends at Étang de Thau on the Mediterranean coast. Widely considered to be one of the great engineering feats of the 17th century, it is designated as a UNESCO World heritage site. While it’s no longer used for freight, it is popular with tourists and locals in pleasure boats, who enjoy the still waters, leafy green canopies, charming towns and historic bridges along the way.
Episcopal City of Albi
The picturesque commune of Albi is one of southern France’s most charming sights. Located on the river Tarn about 85km northeast of Toulouse, it is known for its signature red brick buildings, the 15th century Sainte Cécile cathedral, and the 10th-11th century Old Town and Old Bridge (Pont-Vieux). Designated as a UNESCO listed site, the commune is a wonderfully preserved look into medieval-era France. It is home to the Mappa Mundi d’Albi, one of the world’s oldest maps from the 8th century. The Impressionist painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi, and the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec is a great place to admire his works.
Château de Foix
One of the region’s most impressive castles is the Château de Foix, a 10th century fortification on the town of Foix. Completed in 987CE, the hilltop castle became a centre for the Cathars, and saw siege action several times during the medieval period. Its two characteristic square towers were joined by the round tower, built in the 15th century.
Rugged Landscapes of Occitanie
Home to part of the Pyrénées mountain ranges, Occitanie is home to some of France’s most jaw-dropping landscapes. From jagged mountains to challenging Tour de France climbs, Occitanie has plenty to keep outdoors enthusiasts occupied.
Causses and Cévennes
The Causses and Cévennes is a large area that covers 302,319 hectares (747,050 acres) in Occitanie. The landscape of rolling mountains and vast valleys is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, representing over 3000 years of farming techniques, transhumance, agro-pastoralism, and historic villages and farms.
Its climate is dry and hot, and has a huge diversity of plant and animal life, which includes eagles, beavers and vultures. The region is ideal for outdoors enthusiasts, especially hikers, with plenty of hotels and châteaux scattered around, particularly in popular areas such as Mont Aigoual, the highest peak of the region.
Pyrénées – Mont Perdu
Located on the border with Spain, Mont Perdu in the Pyénées mountains is a wonder to behold. The 3,352 metre (10,997 feet) mountain is characterised by deep canyons on the Spanish side, and cirque walls on the French. It is listed as a UNESCO World heritage site for its unique landscape, as well as its history of human habitation as far back as 40,000BCE to 10,000BCE, and it’s important in early agriculture as a pastoral site.
Mont Perdu can be viewed from the popular viewpoint of the Pic du Midi de Bigorre, accessible by cable car. For a more up close look, the region is not very accessible, and the multi-day hike is only recommended for more experienced hikers.
Col du Tourmalet
Where there are mountains, there are inevitably cyclists willing to conquer them by bicycle, and the Pyrénées is no exception. One of the most difficult routes is the Col du Tourmalet, the highest paved mountain pass on the French side of the Pyrénées. The mountain pass is one of the most famous climbs in the Tour de France, first included in the race in 1910. Offering superb views of the mountain range below, the pass features a statue of Octave Lapize (the first rider to cross the pass during the 1910 Tour de France), and a memorial to Jacques Goddet (director of the Tour de France from 1936 to 1987).
Eating and Drinking in Occitanie
What to Drink in Occitanie
Occitanie is well known for its expansive wine regions of Languedoc-Roussillon, and Sud-Ouest (South West). The Languedoc-Roussillon region ranges from the Spanish border to the Rhôbe Valley, with wine traditions stretching back to Roman times. It enjoys a Mediterranean climate that is perfect for wine growing. Reds such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache Noir and Mourvèdre are common, as are whites such as sauvignon blanc, Chardonnay, Chenin blanc, and Marsanne. The vast rural Sud-Ouest region is located north of Toulouse and is most famous for its Malbec variety, a dark red with an intense taste.
What to Eat in Occitanie
Food in Occitanie enjoys great diversity, with plenty of seafood from the Mediterranean, as well as meat and cheese from its inland areas. The signature dish of the region is perhaps cassoulet, originating from the town of Castelnaudary. This hearty dish is a slow-cooked casserole of white beans, pork sausage, and duck or goose confit. Another classic Occitan dish, although not as widely served in restaurants, is ragout d’escoubilles, a stew traditionally made with leftover ingredients. Veal, sausage, carrots, potatoes and mushrooms are typical ingredients. Hailing from the seaside town of Sète is the Tielle Sètoise, an spicy octopus and tomato pie with a pastry crust.
Occitanie is home to one of France’s most iconic blue cheeses, Roquefort. It is a sheep cheese with a sharp and tangy taste, and veins of blue mould. The cheese is classified as appellation d’origine contrôlée (protected designation of origin), with only cheeses aged in Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon considered to be the genuine product.
Desserts of Occitanie
Occitan desserts are influenced by neighbouring Spain, such as Crème Catalan, a version of a crême brulée flavoured with cinnamon and lemon or orange peel for a citrus touch. It has the characteristic blowtorched caramelised crust. Another favourite is the croustade aux pommes, an apple turnover with a crispy pastry crust.