Why Tarn-et-Garonne makes for a perfect family escape
If you’re craving wide open spaces on your next trip to France, Tarn-et-Garonne offers stunning countryside and attractions for all ages
It was 2am when my daughter burst into the bedroom and asked if it was time to get up yet? She was so excited about visiting France she simply couldn’t sleep any longer. We were due to get up an hour later to catch an early morning flight from Stansted anyway, so at least we definitely weren’t going to oversleep.
A drive around the M25 as the sun came up, several brioches and large cups of tea later, and we were on our flight to Toulouse, which is just under two hours away from London. By lunchtime we were in our hire car heading up the autoroute towards Montauban, capital of the Tarn-et-Garonne département in Occitanie.
It was October half term, the leaves on the trees were a rich russet colour, but the sun was still warm when it broke through the clouds. Our home for the next week would be a charming stone gîte, surrounded by fields, in the heart of the countryside in rural Labarthe. We had no immediate neighbours, aside from some owls we could hear hooting at night, plenty of space to roam and a beautiful view down to the church.
This whole area, renowned for its rivers, orchards and nature, has embraced the idea of ‘slow tourism’, taking your time to linger in one of its pretty historical villages over lunch or spending a day walking along the Canal des Deux-Mers, which makes for a wonderfully relaxed family escape.
Our first stop was Lauzerte, one of the famous Plus Beaux Villages de France which is perched on top of a hill with impressive views of the surrounding Quercy Blanc countryside. This peaceful bastide was built in the 12th century and has many medieval houses as well as Le Jardin du Pèlerin, a garden at the foot of the old ramparts which celebrates the town’s location as a stopping off point on the popular pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
In the main square, alongside the pretty semi-circular arches, is also a modern sculpture by a local ceramic artist of an uplifted corner revealing brightly coloured tiles beneath, which inquisitive little feet just can’t resist clambering on.
Next morning after croissants and jam, we called in at Moulin Géraud, a mill dating to the 15th century, just a short drive from our gîte, which has been lovingly restored by its owner, Jean-Michel Ferru. He offers tours of the watermill, which is filled with old photos and artefacts from years gone by, as well as selling galettes made from the freshly milled flour.
The mill had been left neglected and abandoned when Monsieur Ferru, a former grain merchant, rescued it and learnt the technique of milling and baking while carrying out restoration work.
After climbing the old stairs, seeing the millstone in action, exploring the garden and being tantalised by biscuits, the children were famished so we headed to nearby Vazerac for lunch. La Grange is a laid-back neighbourhood restaurant where specialities include Catalan stew and fish a la plancha. It also rustles up a mean omelette, jacket potato and grilled vegetables for younger diners, with a delicious mini croustade for dessert.
Our next destination was Domaine du Gazania in Labastide-du-Temple, a family-run plant nursery and wine producer which branched out to build a large exotic greenhouse garden within its grounds. As it can get very cold in this region in winter, the Colombié family wanted to create an attraction which could be enjoyed all year round.
The undercover oasis was an absolute highlight for the children who loved meeting the brightly coloured parrots, wandering through the lush tropical plants and over the little wooden walkways and bridges.
The Domaine also produces some lovely wines and you can enjoy a tasting of its reds, rosés and whites in a small cave converted from a cowshed during your visit too, with grape juice for younger visitors.
Tarn-et-Garonne boasts three of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, including Lauzerte and Auvillar, which has a spectacular circular covered corn market, 17th-century clock tower and streets filled with timber-framed houses. At the edge of this picturesque village which is located on a rocky outcrop, is a wonderful viewpoint of the meandering River Garonne where a castle once stood.
Auvillar was once famous for its pottery and it still hosts an annual pottery market every October. On the outskirts of the village you’ll also find a lavoir where the children were delighted to see several frogs leaping from crevices in the moss-covered walls into the deep pool of water.
We stopped for lunch at L’Horloge restaurant where the owners are passionate about preserving the traditional recipes of the region and source all their products from local suppliers. We all (even usually green-averse offspring) enjoyed a starter of cauliflower with sprouted seeds served on vintage plates, followed by a rich leek pie and crisp green salad before heading off in search of our next adventure.
Our map led us to the majestic Gramont Castle, located at the far south-west tip of the département which is a monument national. This impressive castle enjoys a marvellous vantage point, located on a ridge overlooking the valley of Arratz. Once owned by Simon IV de Montfort, the tower is all that remains of the first medieval castle. The main part was built between 1530 and 1545 in the Italian Renaissance style.
A French couple bought the château in the 1960s and restored it, adding furniture and art objects and bringing the gardens back to life, before donating it to the Caisse des Monuments Historiques et des Sites. You can wander the grounds unaccompanied or join a guided tour to find out all about its history before pottering around the gift shop for some knight-themed mementoes.
FUN ON THE FARM
Before long Halloween was on the horizon – a mainstay of the half-term holidays back home. Thankfully our little commune of Labarthe was full of surprises yet again. Around a few country lanes from our accommodation we found La Ferme Saint-Martin which was hosting a ‘hunt for miss pumpkin’ trail – perfect for our eight and four-year-old. The small farm welcomes families during the holidays encouraging them to discover the countryside and learn all about animals, poultry and vegetables.
There are bunnies hopping about in the grass, donkeys, goats and chickens, as well as games to play in the open air. We had the place to ourselves and our two thoroughly enjoyed running around, taking part in the ‘Olympics’ and completing their pumpkin trails.
After our energetic morning, we made our way to the attractive fortified town of Montpezat-de-Quercy which has a central square lined with attractive half-timbered houses with vibrant painted shutters. The town enjoys magnificent views along from the historical Saint-Martin collegiate church with palm trees thriving in the gardens. We found a table at La Cantina de Carcin, run by Olivier and Pauline, which serves delicious bowls of tapas du Quercy, including cod croquettes, goat’s cheese with chive, tortilla and spring rolls stuffed with Maroilles cheese.
CASTLES AND CANALS
With November came a slight downturn in the weather, but a bit of drizzle wasn’t going to dampen our spirits, especially as we were on our way to Bruniquel – the last of Tarn-et-Garonne’s Plus Beaux Villages to the east and famous for its feudal fortress. Bruniquel’s castles take you right back to the Middle Ages, letting children’s imaginations run wild with stories of a Merovingian Queen who reigned over Quercy in 600AD and the Knights Templar who visited here.
The original stone castle was built almost 300 feet high above the Aveyron and Vere rivers but was partly burnt down and destroyed during the religious wars. There is another, newer castle on the same site which was built between 1485 and 1510.
The children loved wandering along the arcaded gallery, peering into the keep and discovering the prehistory exhibition room which contains fascinating finds from the area well before a castle was ever built here. Back out in the daylight, we were amazed by the spectacular view down to the river and took our time to explore the village which has a maze of winding Medieval streets.
We had planned to drive along the Route de la Corniche to the Medieval town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val but it was unfortunately rather shrouded in autumnal mist. However, lunch by the river at Le Festin de Babette more than made up for it. The falafel mexico-libanais went down a treat as well as Le Tout Chocolat dessert. We spent the afternoon walking by the Aveyron river and pottering around the town’s delightful cobbled streets.
Before we knew it, our last day had arrived and we spent it visiting the city of Moissac, famous for its cloister which is listed as a World Heritage Site by Unesco. It also has a fantastic market on Saturdays where you can buy everything from chasselas grapes to nuts and honey. Stocked up with bread and fruit, we walked to the pretty marina and by the Canal des Deux-Mers before relishing our last lunch with a glass of local white wine at Le Florentin restaurant overlooking the beautiful Saint-Pierre Abbey.
When looking for family-friendly holidays in France, it’s easy to focus on beach resorts or the bright lights of Paris, but our time in Tarn-et-Garonne has inspired us to discover more of the south-west countryside, which is equally as enchanting and where all ages will find something to fall in love with.
Lucy travelled with Ryanair from London Stansted Airport to Toulouse-Blagnac Airport. The flight takes 1h 55m. Fares from £9.99 one way. ryanair.com
Hire a car from AVIS and collect it at Toulouse airport. Prices from £45 per day for a small car. Montauban is a 35-minute drive from the airport. avis.co.uk
WHERE TO STAY
Tel: 0033 (0)6 52 80 81 62
A spacious three-bedroom gîte in the heart of the countryside with a modern kitchen and table football in the basement. From €300 a week in low season.
WHERE TO EAT
Tel: 0033 (0)5 63 30 33 71
Relaxed restaurant where the speciality is Catalan fish stew. Lunchtime menu €17 for three courses and wine.
Tel: 0033 (0)5 63 39 91 61
Centrally located restaurant by the bell tower which serves tasty traditional, locally sourced food. Main courses from €18.
La Cantina de Carcin
Tel: 0033 (0)5 63 30 74 25
Friendly restaurant de terroir serving home-cooked tapas, burgers and a menu du jour for €14.
Le Festin de Babette
Tel: 0033 (0)5 63 31 27 41
Delightful riverside restaurant which favours local, organic ingredients. Three-course menu €29; children’s menu €12.
Tel: 0033 (0)5 63 04 19 18
Lovely, compact restaurant located on the square in front of the Saint-Pierre Abbey and listed in the Guide Michelin.
WHERE TO VISIT
Domaine du Gazania
Tel: 0033 (0)5 63 31 63 25
A family-run plant nursery, winery and exotic greenhouse containing tropical plants, birds and water features.
Tel: 0033 (0)5 63 94 05 26
A Renaissance residence overlooking the Gascony hills. Closed on Mondays from September to June. Entry €6, free for under-18s.
Tel: 0033 (0)5 63 67 27 67
Ancient castles offering a breathtaking view of the Aveyron Gorges. Entry €3.50 for adults and €2.50 for children, free for under-six.
Ferme Pédagogique Saint-Martin
Tel: 0033 (0)6 27 51 71 09
Educational farm which welcomes families from 11am to 7pm on bank holidays and during the school holidays. Entry €7 for adults and €6 for children. Under-twos free.
Tourist Information: tourisme-tarnetgaronne.fr _____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
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