Our Blog - Cordes-sur-Ciel, Montauban, Gaillac, and canoeing

So this blog has a little bit of everything. Soon after we moved here, we were walking through Square du General de Gaulle and there were lots of tents setup with tourist information for the surrounding areas. At one of them, they took our picture (which was terrible since I had just thrown my hair up in a ponytail) and when it printed, they told us we had won something. We had to take it to another booth, where they congratulated us and gave us a free coupon for canoeing at a place called Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, which is about an hour NE of Toulouse. Well, it expires next week, so we decided to go ahead and book our little canoe trip plus a couple other villages. Unfortunately, the heatwave is no longer here and it was actually a bit cold on the trip.

So where did we go? We first went to the city of Montauban, spending the day there seeing the sights and staying overnight. The next morning we headed to Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val and did the canoeing. We had planned from there to go view a chateau, but ended up skipping that and going straight to Cordes-sur-Ciel (explanation on why to follow). Then overnight in Cordes-sur-Ciel. The plan was to then spend most of the 3rd day in Cordes-sur-Ciel before heading home, but instead we left before lunch (yea, I'll explain later as well) and we decided to stop in Gaillac on the way home.

Direct links in case you want to skip to a specific point:

Montauban

The city dates back to 1144, and depending on if you consider it a bastide or not, it "may" be the oldest bastide in Southern France. Trivia note: During World War II, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa was briefly hidden in a secret vault behind a wine cellar at Montauban.

We stayed at an older hotel, the L'Hotel du Commerce, right next to the Cathedral, which was nice. Parking was a little bit "iffy" although if we would have arrived a bit later in the afternoon, it would have been much easier. The building itself is a grand mansion from the 18th century.

Our first stop was the Tourist office, which is our "norm" now. Almost every town of any size has one, and we can get maps and information, many have self-guided walking tours. The tourist office in Montauban is housed in the former Jesuits college. The Jesuits came to the town in 1629 and by 1676, had purchased a townhouse and established their college and chapel (which is the right-hand size of this first picture ... you can see the oval stained glass windows on the middle floor, close-up in the last picture).

In 1777, the intendant settled permanently in this house, the Hotel Prat Dumiral. This was the royal civil servant sent by the king to an area to supervise and enforce the king's will in the areas of finances, policing, and justice. There were two main buildings with a courtyard and garden between. An additional wing was added in 1822 and then expanded during the Second Empire. This now is the Prefecture for the Tarn-et-Garonne department.

This is the Cathedral of Notre Dame, which was next to the hotel and we could see from our hotel room. It was built on the town's highest plateau and symbolized the absolute power of the Catholic royalty over the citizens of what was considered a rebellious town. It is the work of 3 different architects and was consecrated in 1739. It has a classical facade with 4 huge statues up over the main door with the columns. The King's coat of arms is carved on the pediment at the very top.

The statues that are outside today are replicas and the originals are inside. They date from the 17th century are were carved in limestone by a sculpture named Marc Arcis. They are of 4 apostles: Matthew (with the child), Mark (with the lion), Luke (with the bull), and John (with the eagle). The only one that really I could make out was Mark (the lion at his feet was pretty clear to me) ... and I have Tom in one of the pictures to show the scale of these statues.

The main interior of the church itself wasn't all that impressive, personally. All of the really interesting decor was in the side chapels, and there were lots of those (like 20 of them). Many contained small altars, paintings, and statues dating back to the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The stalls of the choir date to the 18th century and the white Italian marble altar was from 1857.

One of the things that was interesting about this church for us was the use of trompe-l'oeils (literally, trick of the eye). In many cases, these walls were just square, flat walls painted to look like they had carved marble columns and domes.

The Grand Organ dates back to 1672 and was moved from the prior Cathedral, Saint-Jacques, to this Cathedral after it was built.

Probably the highlight of the Cathedral is the 1824 painting entitled 'Le Voeu de Louis XIII' (The Vow of Louis XIII) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, a French neoclassical painter who was born in Montauban. Although he considered himself to be a painter of history, likening himself to Poussin or Jacques-Louis David, he is more known for his portraits than anything else. The subject is Louis XIII's vow, in 1638, to consecrate his kingdom to the Virgin in her assumption. The painting took 4 years to complete, which was done while Ingres was living in Florence.

This is an early 18th century town house, name the Hotel Mila de Cabarieu. It is named after the lieutenant in command of the provincial regiment of Montauban who owned the house in 1777. Through the gates and on the left side of the courtyard, you can see a portico with high arches and imposing brick columns, with a specifically Italian flair. Unfortunately, the gate is as far as we could go because it is not open to the public.

This huge mansion is now home to the town hall. There supposedly is a great staircase but we didn't go in since it seemed odd going into town hall. The buildings themselves aren't all that impressive, but the huge limestone gate was worth a look.

This is the Hotel de Monmilan, built in the first half of the 18th century. It has two interesting features. First, the monumental portal with 4 iconic columns, out of brick with the white limestone ionic column headers. It also includes a wrought iron tympanum with the intertwined initials of Andre Duval de Monmilan, who lived here in 1790. The second feature is the statue of a dog that sits within a niche that is visible from the gates. It is also not open to the public.

The church of Saint-Jacques is one of the 2 remaining medieval structures. It has several elements, all from different centuries. The belfry (in Toulouse-style) and part of the nave date to a 13th century church, the apse in the 14th century, and the neo-Romanesque facade portal with mosaic dates from the 19th century. The front still has scars from cannonball fire dating from the 1621 seige. The interior seemed much more vivid, although the paintings and frescos had not been restored. Around the altar, under a set of stained glass windows, were a set of paintings.

Place Nationale is the heart of the city now, just as it was when the medieval grid pattern plan for the city was laid out. Curved arches and galleries line all 4 sides, and on a couple of the keystones, you can still see the construction dates in the 1600's and 1700's. Two different fires in the 17th century took the square down to ruins and it was rebuilt. On one side was also a commemoration with the name "Place Royale" for the 800th anniversary of the founding of the city (1144 to 1944). Found it a little interesting that in the middle of World War II, they were commemorating an anniversary.

In the mid 18th century, Montauban got its first theater, but it was too small and was rebuilt in 1849. At that time, the Theatre Olympe de Gouges took inspiration from its Italian counterparts. The facade that we see now was added in the 1930's when the square in front was created. The 4 bas reliefs on the top represent Dance, Music, Poetry, and Comedy.

This courtyard is within what was the Navarre college, founded in 1579 by the future King Henry IV and his wife. It has a lovely old wood balcony that was visible. Nearby was the Hotel Lefranc de Pompignan, dating from the late 17th century, which has a very nice portal into the courtyard. It is named for Jean-Jacques Lefranc de Pompignan, who was born here in August 1709 and was a poet, magistrate, and member of the Academie Francaise.

Along the river, there were 3 convents created when religious peace was re-established in 1629. The former Capucine convent, with its' massive white buildings (you can still see the signs for the seminary and chapel) has been turned into a pricey hotel. The second, which is tan with red brick trim, was built by the Carmelites in 1642 and today houses government offices. The last one, all brick, was the Clarisse convent from 1631. Today it houses a retirement home.

Overlooking the water is this large brick building, which houses the Museum of Natural History. It is housed in a former palace whose facade was rebuilt in 1836 in a Neoclassical style that was all the rage at that point in time. You can also see in the last picture how high the original ramparts were.

Point Vieux, or the Old Bridge, was planned as part of the original 1144 charter, but was only built in the early 14th century after getting approval and support from King Philip IV the Fair. It is 205 meters long and when built, was exceptional in that the roadway was flat (very unique for that point in history). It has 7 arches and the pillars are pointed to enable the bridge to resist the floods of the Tarn river. We took multiple pictures of the bridge and river from various points. You can also see an island in the middle of the river ... this is the Ile de la Pissote, which is a natural reserve for nesting birds.

The New Bridge, Point Neuf, can be seen in these two pictures. It was opened in 1913 and was unique in its' design. At that time, metallic bridges were still what was normal. The civil engineer opted for a more modern design, using reinforced concrete.

This was across the parking lot/square from the hotel, and it is the facade of the former post office, with the 3 statues.

Dinner was an interesting find. It is right next door to the hotel and actually has a relationship with the hotel so that they have a special menu just for hotel guests. In TripAdvisor, it is actually rated as the #1 restaurant out of almost 200 in the city of Montauban. The street-level view is pretty bleek, but there is a wonderful brick vaulted basement which is where we dined (they did have a couple tables upstairs, but if you go, try to get downstairs).

The entree's that we selected included a marinated mackerel on a bed of tomatoes (perfect timing as they are in season right now) and a house-made tapenade on toast. The other was a cold pumpkin soup. Both were lovely and perfect starters heading into the main courses.

The main plats were a filet of Eglefin (that is a white fish) on a bed of celery root puree (very French) topped with raw celery root cut into matchsticks. I hadn't really done much celery root before but I actually now have a couple recipes with it and I like the root much more than I like the green tops :-). The other was a veal escalope with potatoes and mushrooms (which are just coming into season).

And the dessert ... a tiaramisu and a cheesecake with sorbet.

Canoeing

So here comes the "comic relief" for the blog :-). We have been in a canoe before, although normally in individual ones. Here, there were both of us in a plastic canoe. Plus, thinking back on things, we were very unprepared. We thought enough to take the waterproof camera but that was about all we really did well in this. First, we took our swimsuits but then didn't wear them, opting instead for shorts, t-shirts, and sneakers. This wouldn't have been a problem, except that we also didn't bring a second pair of shoes, not contemplating that our shoes would get soaked. We also didn't bring towels, so when we got wet, we had no way to dry off. And I'm guessing most of you are now saying ... why were you wet? Okay, so we got to the starting point and parked, and after putting on our life vests, we went down and he basically told us to sit in the canoe. Okay, Susan in front, Tom in back. Then he was like ... ready? Okay, then he basically shoved us down a ramp and we splashed into the river. And splash is the correct word ... so now Susan is pretty much wet from the waist down. Once we got over that shock, we started heading down the Averyon river, through the Gorge of Averyon. As you can see, it truly is a gorge, passing through these tall, tall, tall white limestone cliffs.

Here you can see a nice, pleasant little river. However, it wasn't this way most of the time! Soon after we started, we had to keep to the left (which he had told us) because there are these dam's on the river and there is an opening for canoe's on the left side. So we made sure we maneuvered our way over to the opening and .. whoosh ... down this 45 degree ramp we went, with a HUGE splash down at the bottom ... so now Tom is also wet and Susan is even more wet. There were also sets of small rapids all along the way and these rocks. I don't know if the river level was just abnormally low or if it is like this all of the time. But a couple of times, we got stuck on the rocks and had to push ourselves free with the oars against the rocks and bottom. We didn't feel too bad a bit later when we saw another couple behind us who also got stuck a couple of times on the rocks. At one point, we both got stuck in such a bad state that the ladies (who were both in the front) ended up out of the canoe and working the canoe free from within the river itself (so yea, shoes were totally soaked).

And a couple pictures to end of Tom (the first one has a bit of me on the side) with the white cliffs of the gorge in the background. So, will we do this again? Yea, I think so .. it isn't too bad once you get the hang of it, and next time, we will be better prepared with extra shoes and towels.

Cordes-sur-Ciel

Originally just called Cordes, this is a medieval village that is built up on top of a rocky outcropping and dates back to 1222. The Count of Toulouse received a charter to build a "bastide", which is just a fortified new town built in a few regions in SouthWest France in the 13th and 14th centuries, and Cordes is considered to be the first (or one of the first) of these bastides in SW France. Cordes was built to protect the scattered population of the area from conflict, intended to replace the village of Saint-Marcel, which was burnt down by the troops of Simon de Montfort in 1215, during the Northern baron's crusade against the Albigensians. Over several centuries, multiple ramparts were built or expanded as people would start building their homes on the exterior of the ramparts when the town ran out of space, and so additional walls had to be built around these new homes to also protect them on the inside of the town. The town is "now" called Cordes-sur-Ciel to reflect the town's site on a hill "above the clouds" .. although I mentioned it to a French friend the other day and they only knew it as "Cordes", so the sur-Ciel is probably really more of a tourist-thing. You can try to get an idea of how this looks from these pictures, showing the town up on the top of the hill.

There are multiple fortification lines (3 of them) and multiple gates that allowed access. Depending on which gate and which fortification line, some were more fortified than others. In addition to these gates, some of the fortification walls have large towers.

Our hotel, which is right in the middle of the medieval town (which made it a bit tricky to get to) was in an old, 17th century building. The rooms had been well done and were quite large. Out our window, we had a great view of the countryside as well, being perched just right at the edge of one of the fortified walls.

The market square was always the heart of fortified cities. The building of this covered market began in 1276 with 24 octagonal pillars and a wooden roof structure (the roof was rebuilt in the 19th century). Originally, grain would have somehow been stored in the soft space and was delivered to ground level through one hollow column. On one side is a well, which goes down over 100 meters. In many cases, lack of proper water would lead to the downfall of a fortified city during a siege. In the case of Cordes, rain falling at the summit permeated the limestone rock and formed reservoirs where it hit an impermeable layer of clay at an average depth of 35 meters.

Going around the town, there are lots of smaller houses intermixed with massive gothic mansions. These large mansions were built starting at the end of the 13th century by rich merchants and noble families. In general, they had gothic arched openings on the ground floor that were used for shops, warehouses, and workshops. The family would then live on the upper floors. The tourist office is housed in the Maison Ladeveze

The Maison du Grand Fauconnier today houses an art museum. It was built in grey sandstone and is one of the more recent of the gothic mansions. It has lovely gothic arches on the windows on the top 2 floors with 5-petal rose tympanums in each window. The top floor groups the windows as 3 sets of 2, while the middle is 2 sets of 3. On the interior courtyard, you can catch a glimpse of a lovely stairway tower with Renaissance windows.

As we walked around, any place that we got to an overlook, we took pictures of the countryside below.

This is Place de la Bride, and is supposedly the highest point of the town ... giving it a great view.

We also got just general pictures of the town. The streets are quite narrow (even more narrow when you are attempting to drive on them while dodging the tourists that are walking down the middle). They weave up and down and around.

Many of the buildings have sculptures on the fronts with various people, animals, and people-animal hybrids.

Cordes was known for the craftsmen that lived and worked here in medieval times ... as is still true today as there are multiple artists and craftsmen who live here year-round. There are still 30 or so artisans: painting, sculpture, ceramics, leatherwork, printmaking, weaving, glassblowing, metalwork, jewellery, and clock making. On the lintel above this door, just inside the Porte de la Jane, is the tools of the shoemaker trade: pincers, shoehorn, hammer, and leather knife.

A few of these grand houses were nicely lit at night.

I mentioned about the limestone rock and water previously. Here, we attempted to get a view of how some houses and buildings were literally built into the side of the hill and into the rock. This section was undergoing renovations, but hopefully you can see how stone walls were created up against and into the rock. Just outside of this, there was an interesting water fountain, complete (now) with a motion detector so that it started working as soon as Tom came close enough to get the picture.

Another attempt to get a view of the narrow roads that weave up, down, and around, as well as some of the buildings that ended up getting built up against the fortified walls.

In 1269, the town decided to build a new church in the middle of the town, since the first parish church was actually outside of the ramparts. The current Church of St. Michael is a result of construction in the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries. The original sections date from the 13th century, then the nave was rebuilt and enlarged in the 14th century along with adding the bell tower (with its' square base and octagonal upper floor). The statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus over the door dates to the 16th century. You can see in the last picture how some of the later changes tried to still keep parts of the original church. You can see the rose window set back as they built around it (to allow light still) when they added the bell tower and its' supports, as well as the large square block addition in front and below the rose window. Unfortunately, the church is only open for a couple hours in the afternoon and we didn't go the first day (assuming it would be open the next morning).

Dinner was at a little Auberge on the other side of the market square from our hotel. It seemed like an old house, with many of the older touches still present, filled with large, old pieces of furniture. We started with an amuse bouche that was a goat cheese and cucumber mousse ... the picture is straight ... the little glass that it was served in wasn't :-). Then Susan went with the foie gras with 2 types of chutney (we all know how much Susan likes her foie gras even though she doesn't really like duck or liver ... and no, no clue), and Tom went for a salmon carpaccio. Main course, an entrecĂ´te (like a ribeye .. with fava beans, a gratin potato dish, and sauteed mushrooms) and lamb shank (different potatoes but also with the same fava beans and mushrooms). The last picture is a croquant de Cordes, which is a crispy little wafer which (what we found out later) was created here. It is a flat almond biscuit, created at the end of the 19th century by a pastry chef from Cordes (although there is a legend that really sets its' creation back in the 17th century to an innkeeper).

The town itself is quite nice, although I can't imagine how packed it would be during high season. We were there after the rentree (when everybody goes back to work/school) and mid-week (Wednesday). While that was good in that it wasn't totally packed, it was also bad as some of the stores and things were not open, or not open for as long (like the church only 2 hours per day in the afternoons). We may try to go back in the middle of the summer once, although we wouldn't stay there overnight. Parking is at a premium but they have large parking lots down on the valley and there is a petite train which picks you up and transports you up to the medieval town.

Gaillac

Since we didn't do the chateaus after the canoeing, we ended up doing most of Cordes-sur-Ciel on the first day instead of the second day, which was the original plan. So then we were finished and ready to leave at about 9:30 or so. Unfortunately, the chateaus and abbeys that we were looking at seeing didn't open until 3pm, so we had to come up with another plan. We decided to head to the town of Gaillac on the way back to Toulouse. Gaillac has gained a bit of recognition due to the wines that are produced in the region. The local wine of Gaillac, first made almost two thousand years ago, is of two official appellations (AOC). The terroir is made up of clay, limestone, sand, and silex soils. Gaillac receives more sunshine than Bordeaux and is graced by a cool maritime climate. There is at least 1 grape which (we were told) is only grown in the Gaillac area.

The town itself dates back to the 2nd century and was used by the Romans to export wines back to Rome. It was then annihilated by barbarians and finally emerged again as a city in 972. During the religious wars, the "Gaillacois" refused to change their religion and remained Catholics and were chased out of the town by Protestants. They took refuge at Castelnau-de-Montmiral. After the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre on 24 August, 1572, in Paris, the Gaillacois massacred 74 out of the 90 Huguenots in the town.

Our first stop was the Abbey of Saint Michael. The abbey was built by monks in 972, overhanging the Tarn river. It was left in ruins by the wars of religion and rebuilt during the 17th and 18th centuries. You can see from the last 2 pictures how HIGH it is from the level of the river ... can you imagine how long it took to build up those walls back in the 900's???

The interior has really nice ribbing on the ceiling, but really no decoration on the ceiling or between the ribs. It has several bays on each side of the nave, although there are several spaces where there are no bays but a trompe-l'oeil was painted to make it look like a side chapel for symmetry.

I don't have any specific information on this, which is the pulpit, but based on how good shape the bas reliefs are in, we have to believe it is fairly new.

The high altar is a relatively faithful reproduction of the altar of Saint Peter des Chartreux, and dates back to 1785-1790. The second picture is the altar from the back, which Tom thought was interesting since normally, you don't get this nice (unobstructed) view of the altar from the rear.

In Place du Giffoul, we find the covered market, built in the 1840's, up against the side of a medieval house which still has the stair tower and soleillou under the roof. In the middle of the square is a fountain dating from the 16th century, which has 4 bronze figures positioned around a central urn, topped with a cockerel, which represents Silene educating Bacchus.

The Town Hall was constructed on the site of a Capuchin Convent. It was designed by Lebrun in a Neoclassical style.

This is the Hostellerie du Cheval Blanc (White Horse), which dates from the 13th century.

The Church of Saint Pierre underwent major restoration in the 17th and 18th centuries after being half ruined by Protestants (who turned it into a fortress). The front portal, with various niches which are empty today, is one of the most beautiful in the area and dates to the 14th century. The interior is pretty bare with the exception of the high altar and ceiling above it.

This house, the residence of the Pierre de Brens family, dates all the way back to the 13th century. You can see the little courtyard front-right, and the mullioned windows and gargoyles.