To promote tourism in our part of the south of France, the regional government of Occitanie invited cities with “remarkable architectural and/or natural heritage or perennial cultural events” to join in a 5-year program called Grands Sites Occitanie. Forty “majestic, authentic, wild or legendary” places were chosen, naturally one of which was Carcassonne given its status as the best preserved medieval walled city in Europe. Many of the 40 sites are accessible by a direct train from Toulouse so we decided to stay a few nights there to avoid making connections. For our first day trip we chose Montauban which like Toulouse is nicknamed a “pink city” because of the proliferation of buildings made from bricks of that color. But why?
For the answer to that we stopped first at Montauban’s central square, La Place Nationale where 2 fires in the mid-1600s destroyed all of the surrounding wooden buildings prompting the requirement to use bricks for the reconstruction and other new builds elsewhere. We especially liked the unique double arcade around the square that provided plenty of room for a covered walkway and space for café tables and chairs.
Having been to the Rodin museum in Paris twice, we were pleased to make Musée Ingres Bourdelle our next stop where works by a student of the creator of “The Thinker” are on display. Antoine Bourdelle was born in Montauban in 1861 and after 14 years of study under Rodin sculpted several classically Greek inspired works including his most well-known, Héraklès archer (Hercules archer) a bronze of which can be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago. Sharing the exhibit space in this massive former Bishop’s palace from the 17th century is another native son, painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.
From the Office of Tourism’s website we had downloaded the city walking tour (pdf link below) and their information center was next on our list. In 1676 the Jesuites acquired the building for a college and expanded it several times, encircling two courtyards and creating a chapel that still serves today as St. Joseph’s church.
We then walked down the allée de l’Empereur which is a street lying over what was once part of the city moat. There are sculptures, trees, and planted beds along the way as a reminder of the courtyards that were first laid out in the 17th century. Our destination was easy to spot since in this pink city, the white stone of the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de l’Assomption really stood out. Since Montauban was Protestant until 1629, construction on the cathedral didn’t begin until after 1685 with its design being influenced by the classicism of Versailles. It’s located on the highest point in the city and I read that its central portal is the highest in Europe.
On the other side of town, but still only a 4-minute walk away, is a considerably older religious building, St. Jacques church with an octagonal bell tower from the 1200s that was used as a watchtower during the Wars of Religion (1562-98). The church was used as a refuge during the royal siege of 1621 and we could see cannonball indents left in the walls from that battle.
We were now in the oldest part of this city that was founded in 1144 and while little remains from that era, we still wandered many of the streets admiring 17th and 18th century mansions that once belonged to wealthy agricultural merchants. For a final glimpse into the past, on our walk back to the train station we crossed over the Pont Vieux (Old Bridge; featured photo at the top) that was approved shortly after Montauban became a city but didn’t get completed until 200 years later. For a structure that was built in 1335 it looked and felt quite solid as we shared it with two lanes of traffic.
Next time on the blog: Rodez in 1 day.