As the calendar flips by and I get used to the probability that my geographical future lies outside France, I start to feel a sort of constant, creeping urgency. It’s forced me to focus on more fully exploring France. Ironically, this effort to pull away without regrets makes it harder to pull away at all.
My latest jaunt took me to the southwest, to the Languedoc-Roussillon/Midi-Pyrénées region, a land of abandoned hilltop castles, distant snowy mountains, and glittery blue coasts. Gliding through the changing terrain reaffirmed my preference for travel by rail. Bright green fields running to hills on a purply horizon felt foreign, a feeling that intensified later when I realized that some people were speaking French with a slight Spanish-sounding accent (something I probably should have expected given the region’s relative proximity to the border). Since it was just a weekend trip, I hurried between two of the area’s best-known cities, with a surprise detour that ended up being one of the most incredible travel experiences I’ve ever had.
Toulouse – “La Ville Rose” is indeed pink, because of the dominance of brick in its architecture. All that brick makes for a pretty but laid-back look, a relaxed vibe highlighted by the laziest river I’ve ever seen, La Garonne. From above, it really looks more like a very large puddle in the shape of a river.
I spent my day in Toulouse ducking into brick religious buildings and getting slapped in the face by the beauty inside. My favorite was the Couvent des Jacobins. Outside, its impressive size is difficult to grasp because the entrance is tucked away on a side street. Inside, breathtaking dereliction: the floor is in such a state of disrepair that I repeatedly tripped over parts of it, scattering loose plaster (let’s just hope my clumsiness serves to underline the urgency of upkeep). It made a stark contrast with the arched and painted ceiling above and the long stained-glass windows glowing up the whole place with warm, sunlit colors.
Also worth a mention in Toulouse: Bapz salon de thé, a quirkily-decorated café/restaurant with a surprisingly colorful menu (read: vegetable-enhanced, which in my experience is kind of a rarity in France). The best part: when you ask about dessert, they lead you to a massive table covered in various pies and puddings so that you can point at what you want like a savage.
Carcassonne – I arrived at night and walked to my hotel, which had a prime location inside the medieval fortress overlooking the city (the rewards of last-minute off-season hotel bookings). As I neared the Aude River, the illuminated fortress, with its fairytale turrets and multi-level ramparts, came into view. I followed draped strings of lights across a small stone pedestrian bridge and through narrow streets, eventually climbing the hill into the cobble-stoned fortress.
Though stunning, the fortress also feels a bit Disneyland à la France. It’s a tourist-trap-laden snow globe of a place that doesn’t really warrant more than half a day’s exploration, at most. Inside its walls, I had a reasonably-priced, non-touristy meal at a restaurant called L’Escargot, took a quick walk around the next morning, and that was enough.
Before hopping back on the train, I walked along the Canal du Midi, a commercial waterway running from Toulouse to the Mediterranean that was built in the 17th century. Once used to transport goods and passengers, today it’s mostly for tourists and other recreation. The water is impressively clean despite near-stagnance; I can’t imagine the amount of maintenance required to keep it that way.
The detour: Niaux Caves – My original plan had been to go to Toulouse and return via Caracassonne, with a day and a half in the first town and half a day in the second. However, while I was looking at a regional map I noticed that the town of Niaux was quite close to Toulouse. The prehistoric paintings in the “Grotte de Niaux” have been on my travel radar for a while, but I’d had no idea how close they were to a major city.
After the Toulouse tourism office (rudely) and hotel staff (politely) told me that there were probably no tours running at the caves in mid-December, I called the tour office at the caves and was told that, actually, places remained on a tour for the following day. I was also informed that there was no transport available from the nearest train station to the caves, and my follow-up question, “well, do you think I could walk?” was not well-received. I hung up, discouraged, staring at the map for about a minute before I remembered that I was in France, land of defeatism (sorry, France, I love you anyway!), and that I would somehow figure out a way to get there. I called back and made the reservation.
As a rule, don’t ever believe the first two negative answers you get to a question in France.
In my opinion, the key to travel fulfillment is as follows: just go. Avoid inflexible expectations and be willing to take chances and alter your plans. Spoiler alert: I made it to the Grotte de Niaux, but I’d have been happier failing in the attempt than if I’d decided not to try.
Travel time: About four hours by train to Toulouse. Toulouse and Carcassonne are about forty-five minutes apart, with Carcassonne being closer to Lyon.
Trip costs (estimated): Last-minute deals on decent hotels (150 euros– about twice as expensive as Airbnb or a nice hostel) + food (30 euros) + Niaux tour (10 euros) + train tickets (150 euros) = about 340 euros. Transportation costs increased mid-trip because I had to re-book a non-refundable journey (but it was still a good deal because of some excellent SNCF weekend promos). All in all, it was a great, quick excursion I decided to take on a last-minute whim, and if I hadn’t added a night of accommodation and re-booked a leg of my train journey, it would have cost me about 200 euros. With more time to plan and find hostels or a cheap Airbnb, you could do this trip from Lyon for even less than that.