Home to 2.5 million people, Midi-Pyrénées presents two very distinct faces. One is the agricultural countryside with magnificent landscapes, picturesque towns and some the most beautiful villages in France. The other is the densely developed area around Toulouse, which has become a magnet for the high-tech businesses that supply the French aerospace industry. This concentration began in 1919 with the start of the first scheduled air service between Toulouse and Morocco.
Toulouse is the region’s capital. Notable for the red brick that gives the city its rosy hue, “The Pink City” straddles the Garonne River. During the Renaissance years it was a center for trade in textile dyes, and its wealthy merchants built the palatial mansions that still grace its streets. Today, Toulouse is a dynamic academic and research center where French aerospace engineers share their talent with European counterparts. It is the birthplace of the now-retired Concorde and home of Airbus Industrie and the Franco-American joint venture SNECMA/GE, which produces one of the most popular aircraft engines in the world.
Between Toulouse and the Spanish border lies the old Comté de Foix, a territory that occupies most of the Ariège département. Named for the river that flows from the Pyréneees to the Garonne River just south of Toulouse, the area is marked by jagged peaks covered with snow from December to May, steep valleys riddled with caves and underground lakes, and arid plateaus where a local breed of wild horses roams. The Foix area has a history as a mining region for iron, bauxite and tungsten.
The western flank of Midi-Pyrénées from the Spanish border to the plains of Armagnac country is called the Pays de Bigorre, probably the most attractive section of the Pyrénées. It is an area of wild and craggy landscapes––including the enormous Cirque de Gavarnie, a natural amphitheater formed by glacial action––of fast-flowing streams and the Parc National des Pyrénées. The valleys shelter the towns of Tarbes and Lourdes that are the economic engines of Bigorre.
Around the town of Cahors is the limestone plateau of Quercy, which includes the département of Lot and part of that of Tarn. Deeply indented by the valleys of the Dordogne, Lot and Tarn rivers, it is a mostly agricultural region embellished with delightful villages where time seems to pass a bit more slowly. The best example is Rocamadour, whose medieval houses cling to the cliffs, and which is today the second most-visited spot outside Paris, after the Mont Saint-Michel.
Located in northern Midi-Pyrénées’ is the Rouergue district, which takes up most of the Aveyron département. The volcanic massif of Aubrac is home to a breed of cattle highly regarded for the quality of its beef , and the plateaus of Causses support sheep-farming, the source of milk for cheese-makers and of hides that are processed into gloves in Millau, leather capital of France. Scheduled to open to highway traffic in 2005, the Millau Viaduct will span the Tarn Valley as the world’s highest suspension bridge, with pylons soaring to 1,125 feet.
But the area most often associated with Midi-Pyrénées is Gascogne (www. gascogne.fr), located on its westernmost fringe. This area covers three départements––Gers, Hautes-Pyrénées and Lot-et-Garonne––as well as parts of Aquitaine. Sometimes referred as to “foie gras country”, it is one of the most charming provinces of France. It is proud to be the birthplace of D’Artagnan, the real musketeer immortalized by Dumas, and of its hilly landscapes, its gastronomic specialties and its quality of life. Auch is the political and culinary center of Gascony, and visitors can tour the medieval city of Montauban, established in the 12th century to defend Toulouse from northern invasion.
Midi-Pyrénées includes no less than eight départements:
- Ariège (09)
- Aveyron (12)
- Haute-Garonne (31)
- Gers (32)
- Lot (46)
- Hautes-Pyrénées (65)
- Tarn (81)
- Tarn-et-Garonne (82)
- Toulouse. On the banks of the Garonne River, the region’s capital offers many cultural opportunities in addition to a number of architectural jewels: Place du Capitole, Saint-Sernin Basilica and the Jacobins Cloisters.
- Montauban. Birthplace of the 18th-century painter Ingres and the 19th-century sculptor Bourdelle.
- Albi. An outpost of Catalan civilization at the foot of the Pyrénées, the city owes its economic growth to the export of fruit, vegetables and wine.
- Tarbes. Capital of Bigorre and the biggest town in the Pyrénées, it serves as gateway to the ski resorts.
- Rodez. Rouergue’s capital and a medieval city built around a red sandstone cathedral.
- Millau. France’s center for lambskin gloves, high-fashion clothing and accessories.
- Auch. Capital of Gascogne, it is a dynamic city on the road from Toulouse to the Atlantic.
- Cahors. The only French city to have successfully resisted the English during the Hundred Years War. Known for its Wine Museum.
- Lourdes. World’s most heavily visited Catholic pilgrimage site since the Virgin Mary appeared to a local girl in 1858.
- Foix. Three castle towers grace the skyline of this striking city located at the foot of the Pyrénées.