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What to see and do in Montauban, Lot Valley

Day or night, whatever the weather, Montauban鈥檚 Place Nationale is a magical spot to wind down a gear or three at a caf茅 table. Centre of local life since medieval times, this bijou square is surrounded by red brick properties, built after the old wooden buildings were gutted by fire in the 17th century. Nearly 400 years later, the double arcades and harmonious facades simply ooze symmetry and wellbeing.

Whenever I make a welcome return to Montauban, Place Nationale is always my first port of call. So I鈥檓 thrilled this time to find that the square is now even more enchanting, thanks to the installation of a water mirror that zings periodically to life with dancing water jets and swirls of coloured illuminations.

What to see in Montauban

The largest town of Tarn-et-Garonne, Montauban lies north of Toulouse in the west of the Occitanie region. But Montauban is large only in relation to the rest of this rural department. Bisected by the river Tarn, this enchanting town numbers barely 30,000 inhabitants but still carries the prestigious label of Art & History Town in recognition of its rich heritage and outstanding art collections.

Many visitors arrive in Tarn et Garonne by car, bent on discovering a landscape that includes steep gorges, rolling farmland, and peaceful waterways. Not just the Tarn and Garonne either. Both the Aveyron and the Canal Lat茅ral la Garonne join the Tarn at UNESCO-listed Moissac with its decorated abbey cloister. For hikers and bikers, the department offers a wide choice of marked trails but there are slow tourism activities to suit everyone. I have been horse riding on the cliffs above the Aveyron; explored at water level by kayak; and revelled in a level pedal beneath towpath trees.

And if you don鈥檛 want to drive or just want a more planet-friendly holiday, Montauban is less than an hour from Toulouse by train on the Lot and Dordogne Line. Stay on the train line to visit the white limestone houses of Caussade, capital of the French hat-making industry in the Quercy Blanc area of Tarn et Garonne. Or pick up the Canal des Deux Mers Line to visit Moissac. Plan your route and buy tickets at .

I love Moissac, where society guests danced at riverside guinguettes in the 1930s during their grape juice 鈥榗ure鈥; the atmospheric market town of St Antonin Noble Val on the banks of the Aveyron; and the medieval villages of Auvillar and Bruniquel, both classified amongst France鈥檚 Most Beautiful Villages.

For a central but quiet hotel in the heart of town, the Hotel du Commerce ticks all my boxes. Situated on a landscaped pedestrian square, this good-value hotel is overlooked by the white fa莽ade of the Cathedral. Currently closed for restoration, this Baroque extravaganza was commissioned by Roman Catholic king Louis XIV as a show of power after the Protestant town refused to yield to his father, Louis XIII in the siege of 1621.

After an al fresco bistro dinner at Chez Olympe beside the water mirror, my first stop next day is the Ingres Bourdelle Museum opened in December 2019 after major refurbishment. This former Bishop鈥檚 Palace stands on the remains of a riverside fortress begun in 1360 during the Hundred Years War by England鈥檚 鈥楤lack Prince鈥. Unfinished after French forces regained the town nine years later, the medieval hall is now an atmospheric venue for temporary art exhibitions.

But the main focus of the collection is the work of Montauban鈥檚 two famous artistic sons, neo-classical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres 鈥 born here in 1780 鈥 and 19th century sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, born 1861. Originally a museum dedicated to Ingres alone – who left 44 paintings and 4500 drawings to his hometown – this enchanting museum houses the largest collection of his work, as well as the second largest Bourdelle collection after the Bourdelle Museum in Paris. I wander from one elegant room to another, lingering over a portrait of the young Ingres against a backdrop of d茅cor designed by his father 鈥 himself a jobbing artist and stonemason – and stopping to admire his personal collection of antiquities portrayed in his pictures.

Beyond the museum walls, look out for dramatic Bourdelle bronzes as you walk beneath the red brick facades with their pale blue shutters. The monumental war memorial overlooking the Pont Vieux; a pensive statue of Ulysses鈥 wife Penelope outside the Tourist Office; and Greek poetess Sapho who stands opposite the theatre dedicated to local heroine Olympe de Gouges. Playwright and political activist, Olympe was executed in the Revolution for her feminist writings.

What to see near Montauban

Next morning, I discover a very different kind of art at the Abbey of Beaulieu-en-Rouergue, tucked away up a country road near St Antonin Noble Val. Second only in importance to the Pompidou Centre in Paris, this newly restored heritage building houses a collection of modern art from after the Great War, amassed by husband and wife collectors Genevi猫ve Bonnefoi and Pierre Brache.

As with the Mus茅e Ingres-Bourdelle, Beaulieu Abbey is another example of the French talent for turning heritage buildings into art museums. Now owned by Monuments Nationaux, it reopened in 2021 after a four-year restoration programme that includes a cavernous Cistercian chapel flooded with natural light. Art journalist Genevi猫ve and gallery owner Pierre bought works by relatively unknown artists and continued to support their careers, amassing a collection of more than 4,000 modern paintings, drawings and sculptures. Enjoy the changing display, then relax outside in the rose garden, still fragrant during my October visit.

After an al fresco lunch on the terrace of Chez Ernest on the outskirts of Montauban, popular for its wood-fire grills and traditional local fare, I drive south-west out of town to visit the department鈥檚 most unusual tourist attraction.

Canal Lateral

In 1856, the Canal Lateral 脿 la Garonne was constructed between Toulouse and Bordeaux to link with the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to S猫te, thus creating the Canal des Deux Mers. But in the 1970s, locks were extended by 10 metres to accommodate larger cargo barges, a problem at Montech where five locks occur in just over 2.5km on the Garonne canal.

Enter engineer Jean Aubert who designed The Pente d’Eau de Montech, an ingenious solution using two railway locomotives to push a volume of water uphill, thus enabling a boat to float up the water slope. Built in 1973, it was last used in 1993 but has now reopened as a free immersive museum that makes a fascinating stop on a walk or bike ride along the Voie Verte or Green Way towpath. Pick up the free leaflet from the waterside Tourist Office to follow the self-guided town trail.

Back in Montauban, I have time for a last lunch beneath the arcades of Place Nationale at Les 5 Bouchons, a great-value small restaurant listed in the Michelin Guide. Then I turn north to continue my circular trip by train through Cahors, Figeac and back to Toulouse.

Find out more about Tarn-et-Garonne at: tourisme-tarnetgaronne.fr/en

By Gillian Thornton, one of the UK鈥檚 leading travel writers and a regular writer for The 六合彩网址大全 Magazine and website.

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