Places to See – Towns and Villages of Aquitaine / South-West France
Toulouse is France’s fourth biggest and probably most go-ahead city. A centre of space research, aeronautics and science, but also the seat of one of Europe’s oldest universities (1229). You will normally fly in and out of the city’s smart modern airport, collected or returned by us in our comfortable Mercedes people-carrier. Other arrival/departure locations are equally possible – see Getting to Saint Louis.
Hotel barge Saint Louis does not cruise into Toulouse itself. However, many people choose to spend a day or two, before or after their cruise, visiting the ‘Ville Rose’ of Toulouse and some of the other fascinating places thereabouts. One option is to visit the nearby fortified World Heritage castle of Carcassonne (“Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and many other films) in addition to your cruise on Saint Louis. While Carcassonne is an excellent option, we would also suggest (as an alternative) visiting the stunning medieval town of Cordes-sur-Ciel (photo below, right) – less well-known, less crowded, but equally fascinating, equally historic and equally architecturally magnificent.
Cruise Route 1. Montauban to Agen
Founded by the Count of Toulouse in 1144 as a fortified city on the banks of the River Tarn, Edward the English ‘Black Prince’ built his castle in Montauban in the mid-1300s. His lower Grand Hall still survives and can be visited, part of the Musee d’Ingres that was originally built (over the castle remains) as the seat of the bishops of Montauban. Ingres, the nineteenth century painter, was born in Montauban, and the museum contains the world’s largest collection of his works. From the fourteenth century (photo above) the adjacent Old Bridge is both picturesque and a remarkable survivor from over six hundred years ago.
We visit Montauban as a morning excursion by car, as part of our normal cruise itinerary. Saint Louis’ home port is close by, on the pretty Montech-Montauban canal embranchment.
The great abbey at Moissac was founded by Saint Didier in the 7th century; and the 11th and 12th saw a golden age of culture and importance, including the construction of the doorway and the tympanum over; and the wonderful cloister – world famous (and almost perfect) surviving examples of Romanesque art. The town itself is thoroughly authentic, with an excellent weekend market, a spectacular 19th century road bridge over the river and with the canal’s route taking it straight through the middle of the town. Moissac is known for its delicious desert (eating) grapes – of the Chasselas variety.
Saint Louis berths in Moissac during the cruise and guests have at least half a day to explore the abbey and the town.
River Tarn and River Garonne
In addition, Saint Louis can leave the canal at Moissac, for a short luxury hotel barge cruise on the River Tarn and the River Garonne. This option is unique among hotel barges in France.
Via the double lock at Moissac, we descend onto the River Tarn. If we head upstream we pass under the canal aqueduct – another unique experience. Some kilometres further on, we reach the barrage at Saint-Livrade. There is an impressive old water mill beside the barrage, and on a nearby escarpment the historic Chateau de Saint-Livrade overlooks the river. Heading downstream from Moissac, Saint Louis passes under the Pont Napoleon and later arrives at a wide expanse of water where the Tarn joins the River Garonne at Saint-Nicholas. From here we can cruise some way up the Garonne, past a bird sanctuary (350 species, most of them migrants) where we can also anchor in the quiet, safe, water and observe in perfect tranquillity.
Auvillar is acknowledged as one of the most beautiful villages of France, perched on a rocky escarpment overlooking the River Garonne. It dates back to pre-Roman times and the fortified village was the property of the Counts of Armagnac and then the King of Navarre. Its rich history tells of its former importance in the grain trade and in the production of pottery and writing quills – all of which were exported from Auvillar down the River Garonne, before the advent of the canal.
We visit Auvillar as an afternoon excursion by car, as part of our normal cruise barge itinerary.
Lamagistere and Clermont-Soubiran
Lamagistere (above) is a village of elegant architecture, like Auvillar once busy and prosperous from trade on the river. Nowadays the river carries no commercial traffic and this once bustling place is quiet and lovely; to wander around and enjoy. Overlooking Lamagistere lies Clermont-Soubiran (photo, page heading), like Auvillar perched on a rocky outcrop with stunning views, a medieval village with an outstanding chateau castle.
Lamagistere is an easy 15-20 minute stroll from our peaceful rural mooring place close-by. We often visit Clermont as a morning excursion by car.
Cruise Route 2. Agen to Castets
Our excursions during our cruises between Agen and Castets-en-Dorthe focus on places that provide insight into the history of the area – mediaeval and earlier – on the rural community which is known for the production of fruit and grapes, on the ways in which the population copes with the severe flooding that is experienced from time to time, and on the small industries that have arisen from all this, such as the impressive barrel makers at Buzet.
Serignac-sur-Garonne is a delightful Bastide village whose history dates back to Roman times although the extremely attractive centre – with its half-timbered houses, arcaded square and twisted-spire church – is medieval.
Serignac is the first Saint Louis hotel barge mooring after, or last before, Agen.
Buzet’s ‘terroir’ (soil and geography) is particularly suited to cultivating very fine wines. Until very recently Buzet wines were classified as “Bordeaux”, but they have now formed their independent producers’ group. The pretty village also features the castle of the Lords of Buzet, of various dates from the 13th century to the 18th.
Vianne is a ‘Bastide’ village (founded in 1284 during the period when Aquitaine was English) and features an almost intact fortified wall. Since the 1920s it has been a centre of glass-blowing and our visit (by car) will normally see world-class blowing skills in action.
Nerac has had an amazingly rich history over the course of the last millennium. The Lords of Albret, having founded the town in the 11th century, became Kings of Navarre in the 15th. Henry III of Navarre became King of France (as Henry IV). The River Baise runs through the town and the castle of the Lords of Albret and of Henry IV still stands.
Here, the canal squeezes between the village itself and the River Garonne that it overlooks. Dating back to Roman times, parts of the original walls can be seen. Also worth inspecting during our visit is the Romanesque wash-house and the 11th century church. The church contains a surprise – an authentic original Rembrandt painting. Outside, there is a market square with a building that was constructed in 1616 – using recycled timber from the nearby chateau!
‘Gens de Garonne’ is a fascinating piece of indoor theatre that takes place in the village. Using Scenovision technology, it finds a unique way of demonstrating how the village has adapted to the floods that can occur (normally in early April when snow-melt in the mountains swells the rivers) It is both poignant and impressive. Outside, the flood marks on the side of the church bear witness to the enormity of the winter floods that can occur every 50 years or so.
3. Other Saint Louis Places
A cruise holiday or vacation on the luxury hotel barge Saint Louis is bespoke, tailored to the interests and wishes of our guests.
In addition to the ‘usual’ places often visited and noted above, there is the possibility of visiting one or other of the following (dependent of course on the constraints of time and practicality).
Montauban to Agen
- A wine tasting at a Fronton vineyard – one of south west France’s hidden secrets.
- The Abbey de Belleperche, just beside the mighty River Garonne.
- A genuine Roman bridge – hidden away and not part of any tourist route.
- The Bastide town of Lauzerte – full of history and surprises.
- The 11th century church at Lachapelle – modified in a baroque style and unique in France.
- A working goat farm, where you can see a commercial herd of goats being milked, and the milk made into cheese.
- A museum to Lamothe-Cadillac, in the house of his birth – this is the man who founded Detroit and whose name and coat of arms appears on many cars today!
- A visit to an extraordinary winery in Cotes de Brulhois, that has been in the same family for 300 years and where innovative wines from the early 1700’s are once again being produced.
Agen to Castets
- A unique Romanesque fortified mill, with a fine Roman bridge beside it.
- A producer of Armagnac and Floc de Gascogne, who for five generations has been working an estate that was built as a monastery.
- The small town of Clairac, with one of the best examples of half-timbered houses.
- The barrel-makers at Buzet (below, right), producing oak barrels that are exported around the world.
- A wine tasting at the cave of Buzet, where you sample some of the best wines of this famous AOC (Appellation d’ origine contrôlée) region.
- The town of La Reole, with its 10th century Benedictine monastery overlooking the valley.
- Bruch – a delightful Bastide village with many interesting features.
- Chateau de Bonaguil – said to be the finest fortress in the whole of France.
- Chateau de Duras (above, left) – built as a “holiday house” !
- At Fontets, a museum of model buildings built of matchsticks, including the Palace of Versailles.
- Clermont Dessous – an amazing village with a history going back over 2,000 years, and with wonderful views over the valley of the Garonne.
- A very special personalised wine tasting at the estate of a descendant of d’Artagnan (one of the Three Musketeers) – his motto is “Un vin pour tous, tous pour un vin!” (One wine for all, all for one wine!)
- Chateau de Roquetaillade (below) – which for 700 years has remained in the same family, in spite of the Revolution!