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Southwestern France

Southwest France has some wonderful food (specialties such as foie gras, cassoulet, and duck confit) and beautiful scenery.

Gascony and Midi-Pyrénées

Lourdes

A small town at the foot of the French Pyrenees that blew up into "Catholic Disneyland" after a 14-year old girl (Bernadette Soubrious) saw a vision that people believed to be the Virgin Mary. The waters of the spring that Bernadette discovered allegedly have healing powers, so many pilgrims with physical afflictions come to Lourdes for healing.

Getting There

You'll want to decide whether to rent a car or not; we recommend renting a car, since the best food is outside the town, but if you don't care about food as much and don't want the hassle of driving/parking, you can skip a car.
  • Train - trains from Paris take about 6 hours; good option if you don't want to drive/rent a car
  • Tarbes/Lourdes Airport (LDE) - closest airport, less than 30 minutes away in the town of Juillan, most flights are from Paris; you can take a taxi (~€30-40?) and there's a public bus that runs roughly once an hour and takes ~40 minutes, timetable here (click on "Lourdes" PDF to download and look up "aéroport")
  • Pau/Pyrénées-Atlantiques Airport (PUF) - ~1 hour drive away, most flights are from Paris
  • Toulouse Airport (TLS) - ~2 hours drive away, has better connections than the closer airports; also useful if you want to spend time in Toulouse/Gascony
  • Bilbao (BIO) - across the Spanish border, ~3 hour drive from Lourdes, good option if you want to also spend some time in the Basque Country (including Bilbao itself and nearby San Sebastian)...there's also a long-distance bus service called Pesa that connects Bilbao and San Sebastian with Lourdes in the summer, and there's also an option via train (connecting in Hendaye).

Things to do

  • Grotto and Sanctuary Chapels - there are four main worship sites at the Sanctuary; there are services at each from dawn until dusk (and sometimes beyond):
    • Grotto - a prayer site for masses and rosaries, which has the spigots for Lourdes water nearby. You can get up close and touch the rock walls of the grotto between services, although there's usually a line. There is a Live YouTube Feed if you want a sense of what it's like.
    • Crypt - smallest, "middle" chapel, often has smaller pilgrimage groups
    • Rosary Basilica - lowest/largest church
    • Upper Basilica - highest church, nice stained glass
  • Prayer Services - many pilgrims come with their parish priest(s), and reserve various chapels for Mass or other prayers. There are also public Masses and Rosaries at various times in various languages; see "More information" below for links to schedules.
    • Evening Candlelit Procession - every night at 9 PM, there is a candlelit procession (you can buy candles at the site, or at one of the tacky shops surrounding the Sanctuary) with pilgrims singing and praying in multiple languages—this is quite a sight to see, and fun to participate in.
    • International Mass on Wednesday and Sunday - at 9:30 AM there is a huge, multilingual (English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Dutch...plus occasionally others) mass at the underground Basilica of St. Pius X. All the parishes on pilgrimage show up, with their parish priest(s) and bishop(s), and many of the faithful are in wheelchairs or gurneys, so it's quite a sight. A cool experience is joining the choir; to join, get there early (no later than 8:30 AM) and wait by the organ to rehearse (when we went in 2015, the choir director was hilarious). Several masses are on YouTube if you want a sense of what it's like.
  • Bathing in Waters - the Lourdes baths allow you to do full-body immersion in the freezing cold waters. There are separate lines for women and men; typically there are more people in the women's line but when we went in 2015 the women's line moved quicker (since they had more volunteers to run it).
  • Hospitalité Service - if you're staying for a week or more, you can volunteer to help disabled pilgrims as a "Hospitalier".
  • Other sightseeing
    • There are lots of tacky museums around town that we didn't see but are probably not worth your time
    • The Lourdes Castle predates Bernadette's vision and dates to medieval days; it supposedly has a nice view too
  • More Information
  • Getting away
    • A short (~12-14 min) drive outside of Lourdes is Argelès-Gazost, which has relaxing Thermal Baths (“thermoludique” is easy for a one-time visit, €12-17 for 1-2 hours, towels €3 extra, Saturday/Sunday 10:45-1, 3-8...when we went in 2015, they only allowed speedos, not swim shorts/trunks)
    • Gavarnie - beautiful "Cirque de Gavarnie" waterfall flows in the summer
    • ...further afield are more of the Pyrenees, Gascony and Basque country

Where to stay

There are more hotels per capita in Lourdes than anywhere else in France outside Paris! Some are bare-bones, spartan places for pilgrims and some are sumptuous, old-world grand hotels. Keep in mind that there are ~4 main choices for hotel location, each with its pluses and minuses:
  • West Bank of Pau (near Sanctuary) - some of the oldest/nicest hotels are here, especially close to the Sanctuary (e.g. Hotel Chapelle et Parc). As you get further south on Avenue Peyramale the hotels get more modern, and you're further from the Sanctuary, but it's still not far. Good if you want to be in the closest spot to the Sanctuary (especially if you want to do lots of early morning/late evening events) and don't mind some crowds
  • Near Boulevard de la Grotte - this (including the area near the train station) is the most touristy part, with the cheesiest shops (this is where Lourdes earns its "Catholic Disneyland" nickname) as you approach Pont Saint-Michel. However, it also has some of the best deals, and is pretty close to the Sanctuary. (e.g. we stayed at the Hôtel Majestic, which was old but serviceable and pretty cheap.) Note that once you get south of Boulevard de la Grotte, closer to Rue de la Grotte near the castle, the town gets a bit less crowded and has more medieval charm (e.g. Grand Hotel Belfry looks nice).
  • Near Avenue de Paradis - on the East Bank of the Pau river, a little ways south of the main Boulevard de la Grotte, there are several large hotels. Depending on how far south you're staying, it's not too far to the Sanctuary (via the Pont Vieux), and it feels a bit quieter/less crowded than the areas listed above. (e.g. we had a nice stay at the Hotel Paradis, a more modern hotel with nothing much to distinguish it)
  • Further Out - you can also stay in the periphery of Lourdes, or even in a nearby town (Tarbes, which has a lot of good restaurants, is only 30 minutes by car). This option probably gives the most variety, but especially if you're staying for the evening processions, etc. it's not as convenient (since you can't just walk to the Sanctuary).
...also note that there are special lodgings for large pilgrimage groups, including volunteers and disabled pilgrims—the above advice is more for smaller groups doing a DIY visit.

Parking

Considering how many people visit Lourdes, there's actually a fair amount of car parking available:
  • Place Peyramale - just off Rue Lafitte, is one of the most central lots, but is not free
  • Esplanade du Paradis - free parking on East bank of Pau river, close to some hotels
  • Esplanade de l’Arrouza - free parking a bit further south from Esplanade du Paradis
  • Rue de Pau - small parking lot at intersection with Rue Notre Dame
  • Boulevard du Lapacca - a few parking lots near the intersection with Rue du Callat, convenient if you're staying on/near Boulevard de la Grotte...if you keep following Boulevard du Lapacca out of town there are a few more lots, including one for RVs
  • Parking de l'égalité - very small lot just south of the castle
  • Place Capdevielle - just SE of downtown
  • Espace Robert Hossein (Village Hall) - pretty large lot just north of train station

Where to eat

Given all the tourists, it's very easy to eat very badly in Lourdes...you might consider getting out of town to get better food.
  • ***Chatlet de Biscaye - a ways outside central Lourdes (>30 minutes by foot, although it's a short drive), this was a very good deal (I think €20-30 per person for a nice 3-course meal).
  • Le Magret - closed Tues eve, Wed, open 12-2, 7-9:30, rec'd Petit Futé and Lonely Planet menus for 18, 25, and 31 euro for dinner, 14 euro lunch formule...we ate dinner here and found it nice but nothing special (we had much better cassoulet elsewhere in the region, for example)
  • Grill Alexandra - closed Mon, rec'd by various guidebooks including Petit Futé, Michelin, sweetbreads, braised beef cheek, etc. ...book ahead since the locals fill it both lunch and dinner, no website (we didn't go there but it sounded good)
  • Boulangerie-Pâtisserie Dirasse - if you're headed north of the train station, this is one of the better pastry shops; flaky, airy croissants, delicious myrtleberry (blueberry) tart, but gateau Basque was a bit dry. In 2017 had a buy 3 get 1 free deal for viennoiseries. Also a branch in Argèles Gazost.
  • L'Épi d'Or - a nice casual spot that has pizzas as well as other mains; nothing to write home about but one of the better places we ate in town.
  • Eleanor Salon de Thé - run by British folks, not a bad spot for tea/breakfast
  • Lung Ta Tibetan Restaurant - not bad, friendly staff
  • Le Bodegon? - looks like it might be good?
  • Piment Rouge? - looks like it might be good?
  • Outside town
    • ***Auberge Le Cabaliros in Arcizans-Avant (~16-18 min South, between Col d’Aubisque and Col du Tourmalet): - 12:15-1:45, 7:30-8:45, 16 rue de l’Eglise, rec'd Michelin, Petit Futé, tasty, traditional dishes in a charming country setting with beautiful terrace overlooking the mountains; our favorite place to eat during our stay
    • ?Hôtel Au Bon Accueil (just N of town in Bartrès)
    • ?Le Béout (just S of town)
    • ?Anousta (just N of town in Loubajac)
    • ?Auberge l'Arioutou
    • ?Auberge Le Petit Couassert
    • ?Le Viscos (in Saint-Savin)
    • ?Hôtel et Restaurant La Grange aux Marmottes (further south in Viscos)
    • ?La Ferme Basque et les Mijotés de Léon (further south in Cauterets)
    • Argelès-Gazost
      • ?Hotel l'Arrieulat Auberge des Pyrénées
      • ?Logis Hôtel Beau Site
      • ?Restaurant des Petits Pois Sont Rouges
    • ...also see Tarbes, below:

Shopping

Want a cheap plastic rosary made in China? This is the town for you!  That being said, you can still find some quality goods, especially at antique stores:
  • Antiquités Brocantes - near Castle, a bunch of interesting religious-themed antiques
  • Artesanía Hermanas de Belén - on Boulevard de la Grotte near Pont Saint-Michel, beautiful (albeit expensive) hand-carved wooden stuff
  • Ora et Labora - south of Sanctuary, nice shop with goods manufactured by religious orders (nuns/monks/etc.)
  • ?? - place next to Hotel Saint Julien (~41 Boulevard de la Grotte) had antique rosaries

Tarbes

The historic seat of Gascony, Tarbes has a cute medieval core and delicous cooking.
  • ***Le Petit Gourmand - delicious, delicious food! we loved the duck and foie gras especially...good prices at lunch, too rec'd Michelin Bib Gourmand, Petit Futé, also see this blog. When we took our ~9 month old, they were surprisingly accommodating, giving him a nice baby chair and the best French fries we'd ever had!
  • ***Le Fil a la Patte - great place in downtown Tarbes with delicious food, fairly kid-friendly, the night we went in 2017 they needed more front-room staff though (1 guy was the host & waiter for the entire restaurant so service was slow)
  • ?Le Sahara
  • ?L'Agora
  • ?L'1 Time
  • ?L'empreinte
  • ?L'Atelier des Saisons
  • ?L'amuse Bouche
outside town: Dubarry Thierry "Ferme du Lac"?

Toulouse

Toulouse is the main city in southwestern France; it's known as "la ville en rose" (the pink city)

Languedoc-Roussillon

Between Toulouse and Carcassone

Carcassonne

Beautiful walled city that was rebuilt in the 19th century, so it's a mishmash of authentic Medieval fortifications and what the Romantics thought Medieval fortifications should look like. In any case, it's beautiful, albeit swarmed by tourists during the day in the summer. Also the epicenter of the Cathars, a sect of Christians who were driven into extinction but whose castles live on.

Where to eat

  • ***La Table d'Alaïs - in the Cité, place run by a young couple, with a beautiful courtyard and homey atmosphere, open 12:15-1:45 and 7:15-9:45, closed Wed/Thurs (except July/Aug), 04 68 71 60 63 or contact@latabledalais.fr free aperitif with Routard guide, fresh/inventive/seasonal dishes, rec’d Routard, Gault-Millau, Petit Fute (“peas with mint and olive oil, tuna belly, zucchinis with shallots and ginger, roasted quail, poached pear with cardamom”); our favorite place in 2015 (we liked it so much we went twice!), great cassoulet, lots of other amazing dishes, some very reasonable fixed-price options, and an amazing "chocolate sphere"
  • Cantine de Robert/L'Atelier de Robert Rodriguez - ville basse, strongly rec’d by Lonely Planet as “retro treat” with organic, locally-sourced ingredients, lots of meat/fish/gamebirds, the guy is an artist, closed Wed & Sun dinner, also rec’d Michelin and Gault-Milau, Petit Fute “authentic bistro that is convivial and offbeat”, organic ingredients...a crazy experience (the artistic chef is very loud and his wife, the server is very quiet, and you feel like you're in your grandparent's breakfast nook) and a bit overpriced (all of his dishes were ~50% more than the surrounding restaurants) but very good food (warning: his cassoulet is very big!)
  • Le Parc de Franck Putelat - 2 Michelin stars, also rec’d Routard, Petit Fute...their €39 lunch is a pretty good deal if you like haute cuisine, closed Sun/Mon
  • Places we didn't go but looked good:
    • Le Clos Occitan - garage turned into traditional rustic restaurant, market-fresh ingredients, rec’d Michelin, www.restaurant-carcassonne-closoccitan.com or www.le-clos-occitan.fr , closed Sat lunch, Sun dinner, and Monday all day, otherwise 12-14, 19-22, ville basse, seems like a “local favorite”, Petit Fute says reserve in advance (especially if they have music), makes own fresh macarons!
    • Le Jardin en Ville (a bit N of the Cite/ville basse, nice garden, vegetables from their garden, ville basse, closed Sun/Mon), rec’d Routard, Gault Millau, Petit Fute, www.lejardinenville.fr nice, cool menu (housemade foie gras, big salads, quality “home style” cooking)
    • Le Marquière - Lonely Planet’s favorite place in the old city, “a family-run bistro”, regional dishes, www.lamarquiere.com , closed Wed-Thurs ...menu looks pretty good, cassoulet, foie gras, also rec’d Petit Fute
    • Comte Roger - modern cuisine “yet timelessly dignified” says Michelin → NYT says “pass up the array of undistinguished restaurants for the charming Comte Roger”, also rec’d Routard (contemporary & agreeable decor, beautiful terrace, fresh/inventive cuisine made with local ingredients) and Lonely Planet (says the prices are a bit high due to the location), Petit Fute, €35 & 45 prix fixe, closed Sun/Mon www.comteroger.com ...seems like very nice menu but nothing particularly special
    • Château St-Martin - need a car to get here, terrace/park, fresh market cuisine, rec’d Cadogan
    • Jardin de l’Eveque - Hotel de la Cite, outdoor dining on terrace (closed in rain), rec’d CN Traveller http://www.hoteldelacite.com/restaurants/le-jardin-de-leveque open daily 12-2, 7:15-10, rec’d Gault Millau, Petit Fute, fresh menu
    • Brasserie le Donjon - (at Hotel le Donjon in Cité) regional menu with cassoulet and duck confit, rec’d CN Traveller “best of languedoc cooking”, e.g. cassoulet, rec’d Cadogan, open every day (closed Sun dinner in off season) http://www.brasserie-donjon.fr/
    • Le Jardin de la Tour - dinner-only except in high season; in high season closed Sun/Mon lunch, rec’d by The Telegraph for being “the most popular restaurant among locals” (also says daily menu is a good deal), “idiosyncratic” restaurant in Cité, rec’d Cadogan, Routard (especially likes the surroundings, especially when Cité is illuminated at night, romantic), Petit Fute also talks a lot about the surroundings but also praises chef’s med influences, “subtle personal touches”, also rec’d The Guardian
    • Auberge des Lices - cite, closed Tues/Wed in off season, open every day in July/August, free aperitif with Routard, romantic, good value, passionate about cassoulet, rec’d Routard, Gault Millau, http://www.blasco.fr/
                Where to Stay
                • ***La Maison Vielle - very nice B&B with charming hostess, great location just outside the city walls, beware the testy egg machine!
                Around Carcassone
                • Bugarach - beautiful mountain, Restaurant l'Oustal d'Al Pech is a very down-home, informal place (you feel like you're in someone's garage) but good food
                • Minerve - beautiful hill town perched on a river canyon, was a Cathar stronghold

                Limoux

                Town known for inventing bubbly "Blanquette" wine, which predates the more-famous Champagne (at least in its sparkling variety)
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