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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.

Things to do

  • Grotto and Sanctuary Chapels - there are four main worship sites at the Sanctuary:
    • 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
    • Rosary Basilica
    • Upper Basilica
  • 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 the 
    • 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
    • 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)
    • ...further up are the Pyrenees 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.

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.
  • 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)
  • Outside town
    • Arcizans-Avant (~16-18 min South, between Col d’Aubisque and Col du Tourmalet): ***Auberge Le Cabaliros - 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

Tarbes

The historic seat of Gascony, Tarbes has a cute medieval core and delicous cooking.

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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