One day, perhaps in a decade’s time, we will understand what the new French region of Occitanie stands for: views over golden wheat fields towards the Pyrenees, opulent Foie Gras, charming and quirky Hotes de Chambres, Armagnac, medieval cloisters, vineyards, cassoulet, smiling fields of sunflowers – all in one of France’s most serene landscapes. Meanwhile Occitanie the vast region, bordering Northern Spain and with long sandy beaches on the warm Mediterranean, is experiencing something of an identity crisis.
Many experienced travellers have fond memories of Languedoc-Rousillion and Mid-Pyrenees. It’s a welcoming land where spring arrives a little earlier, where you can often lunch al fresco before Easter and admire the Cherry Tree blossom. Then Autumn lingers rather longer than back in chilly Blighty. Though those autumn frosts give the vines a brown/orange/red tinge that hints at Europe’s take on a New England Fall, it is still warm enough for an outdoor swim in October.
But both Languedoc-Rousillion and Mid-Pyrénées disappeared with a whimper in ‘Le Big Bang des regions’ at midnight on 31st December 2015. As one French local politician said, with a nod to Midge Ure’s indifference towards Vienna, “Occitanie means nothing to us”.
From the Parisian perspective naming the region after the language of Occitan, a Latinate language, seemed like a good idea at the time. But Occitan probably had its heyday in the Middle Ages. Today UNESCO classifies it as an endangered language. Locals feel greater affinity with the Northern Spanish and would have preferred ‘Pays de Catalan’.
The fact remains that the region, whatever you call it, is packed with wonders such as miraculous Lourdes. Cyclists and boaters are drawn by the shaded Canal du Midi and the towpath which joins Atlantic and Mediterranean. Historians journey from afar to walk the ancient ramparts of Carcassonne’s massive citadel. Then there’s the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum at Albi as well as the Palace of the Kings of Majorca at Perpignan. And then there’s Cordes-sur-ciel the hill-top medieval village that appears to float in the clouds on misty mornings. But the name change means that many potential visitors are perplexed as to where and what Occitanie is.
Some Occitanie hoteliers and restauranteurs fear that not quite as many Volvos, sporting GB stickers, are making the long Francophile pilgrimage south as previously. Though a quick flight to Toulouse, then hiring a left-hand-drive Citroen or Renault, is in reality an easier option. Traffic is rarely a problem on Occitanie’s open roads. It is a dream destination for Fly Drive. Public Transport is scarce and many of the region’s attractions are off the beaten track.
Though it might be best to postpone the car hire and head into Toulouse, the capital of Occitanie and France’s fourth largest city, for a few days. Booking some self-catering accommodation brings intent to selecting from the vast array of cheese, olives, fruit and veg available in the covered market. There’s an impressive Organic Market which pitches up on Saturdays. Call in at the Victor Hugo Museum to learn how the characteristic blue dyes brought wealth to the city and a gastronomic dinner river cruise along the Canal du Midi also serves as a tasty introduction to Occitanie.
When I told people that I was going to Occitanie several asked, “Is that where the soap comes from?” Bizarrely, the commercial clout of L’Occitane, a marketing-savvy company selling soap on British High Streets, is hammering brand recognition of Occitanie the region. Even more confusing, L’Occitane is from neighbouring Provence. That’s Occitanie’s more showy sister, with her yachts off Nice, fashionable sunglasses and designer prices too.
Although Occitanie, never had a Peter Mayle selling a quirky Provençal lifestyle of olives, lavender and eccentric locals – Occitanie has plenty of Brits singing its praises.
“Many people round here are from somewhere else,” says Howard, once from London, at his ultimate Grand Designs’ project of soft-furnishings heaven that is Le Domaine de Perches, a small boutique hotel near Albi and Gaillac. It’s the sort of romantic landscape that inspires dreamers to invest blood, sweat, tears and mountains of cash in rescuing a wreck of a chateau from yesteryear.
There are frequent low-costs flights, most under two hours – from Gatwick, Heathrow and Stansted -to Toulouse and flights from some regional airports too. Most of the major car-hire firms operate out of Toulouse airport.
Visit www.chambres-hotes.fr for an astounding choice of small hotels.
The luxurious Domaine de Perches is highly recommended.