A former textile town in the southwest, Castres has been a hive of trade and industry going back 2,000 years.
You can glimpse this business on the banks of the River Agout, where medieval tanners’ houses were built with basement doors to help them get to water quicker.
In the 17th century Castres was the scene of an important court, settling cases between Catholics and Protestants . The cultured Renaissance mansions built for these magistrates are personal statements that still decorate the city up to 400 years later.
André Le Nôtre, whose place in history was sealed in the grounds at Versailles designed the gardens of Castres’ episcopal palace.
And this noble building holds the best gallery of Spanish art in France, with Goya, Vélasquez and Picasso all on show.
1. Musée Goya
A cultural attraction par excellence, the Goya Museum is a cornucopia of Spanish art.
Francisco Goya is the star of the show, and he’s represented by four paintings and four engravings.
But there are also pieces by Murillo, Vélasquez and Zurbarán.
And the 20th-century gallery has art by Picasso, Juan Gris and Antoni Clavé.
It’s the only French museum that can give such a complete overview of Spanish art, but there are also ceramics, weapons and pre-Columbian decorative items.
The setting also needs mentioning because this palace was designed by Mansart, architect at Versailles, while the gardens are the work of the legendary André Le Nôtre as we’ll explain later.
2. Agout Riverside
A fond memory of Castres will be the rickety cantilevered houses jostling for room and projecting over the Agout River.
These houses once belonged to artisans like tanners and dyers who needed the river water for the laundries in their basements.
Take a photo and contemplate the view from the terrace at the Quai des Jacobins.
Each of the houses on the right bank has a different character: Some are clad with tiles, others are painted in bright colours, some have open wooden galleries and others elegant square bay windows.
3. Centre National et Musée Jean-Jaurès
A pre-eminent French politician, Jean Jaurès was one of the first social democrats, and as a pacifist was assassinated on the eve of the First World War.
He opposed colonisation and fought for the separation of church and state, and a whole load of streets and squares across the country are still named after him.
Jaurès was also a Castres native, and this museum tackles the affairs and political climate during his career at the turn of the century.
This centre is a resource for students and academics , but there’s also a permanent exhibition of papers, photos, caricatures and personal artefacts.
4. Place Jean Jaurès
Immediately after the war, Castres’ rectangular central square was named in memory of Jean Jaurès, and there’s a statue of the man towards the Quai des Jacobins . Castres has kept up with the French trend towards pedestrianising city centres, and Place Jean Jaurès became car-free in 2005.The restaurant and cafe tables make it a very sociable spot to meet friends, and there’s an outdoor market on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday mornings.
The architecture is sumptuous too, with low rows of rippling arcades that have been filled in by bars and shops on all but the eastern side of the square.
5. Hôtel de Poncet
John Ligonier was an interesting character: He was the son of protestant Huguenots who was forced to leave France for England aged five and rose to become a Field Marshal in the British Army.
The home of his maternal grandmother is in Castres, known as the Hôtel de Poncet, with a facade that has some amazing Renaissance sculpture.
It’s from the middle of the 17th century, and has a princely loggia with two pairs of Doric columns and a balustrade supported from below by four bizarre caryatids (sculpted figures taking the place of a column).
6. Jardin de l’Évêché
The exquisite garden of the Bishopric behind the episcopal palace was also designed by André Le Nôtre in the 17th century.
Not just that but more than 300 years later its embroidered boxwood hedges follow the exact pattern as they did when they were laid out.
They create a stylised and elaborate natural decoration that you’ll want to step back to see properly.
There are two of these formal parterres, as well as four English flowerbeds and a chestnut grove at the back.
The gardens also have a slightly irregular trapezoidal shape so that they’d seem symmetrical from the windows of the palace.
Together with the Hôtel de Poncet there are some other splendid examples of Renaissance architecture to tick off on a walk around Castres.
Most of these are from the reign of Henri IV, when the King chose Castres as the home of the Court of the Chamber of the Edict.
The magistrates and other officials needed lavish homes, and mansions like the Hôtel de Nayrac were the result.
This mansion is around a courtyard and has the Toulouse-style blend of limestone and brick.
Hotel Viviès is from the same period and was built for a lawyer in the Chamber of the Edict.
From the street you can see the sculpted portal bearing the coat of arms of the Rozel family that built it.
The briefest drive north and the terrain becomes steeper as you enter the southern spurs of the Massif Central.
In the range’s extreme south is the Sidobre, a large granite plateau with outlandish rock formations.
The Maison de Sidobre is a tourist centre providing maps and inspiration for walks and activities.
For scale and sheer number of odd granite boulders there’s no place like this in Europe, and you’ll understand why these rocks have mythological origin stories and nicknames.
It’s a big playground for kids too, especially the “Rivière des Rochers” a river valley choked with boulders.
9. Église Notre-Dame-de-la-Platé
This church is from the 17th century and is the fifth one to be built on this site.
Its predecessors go back to the to the 1000s, and the one before this was burned down by the protestants during the Wars of Religion in the 1500s.
While the architecture is pleasing enough, what attracts people to this church is high at the top of the tower, 120 steps up.
The Flemish-style carillon with 33 bells up here has never stopped working since it was installed in 1847. If you’re in town between 17 and 23 December you’ll get to hear it play the special Nadalet chime every day between 18:30 and 19:30.
10. Coche d’Eau
Up to the end of the 1800s you’d have seen dozens of boats like this one shuttling up and down the River Agout and canals shifting people and goods.
These craft had very flat hulls to be able to navigate the shallow water: The current vessel, the Miredames has a draft of less than 40 centimetres and was built in 1990 following the same plans of boats from the 18th century.
At the height of summer there are six trips a day on the Miredames from the port in the centre of Castres to the Parc de Gourjade, 20 minutes upriver.
11. Parc de Gourjade
The Coche d’Eau’s destination is this 53-hectare estate that was bought by the city in the 70s.
You could buy a baguette, cheese, charcuterie and a bottle of wine and cruise up here for a picnic next to the river.
But there’s also a lot do up here, with a whole network of miniature trains that children will be crazy for, together with an adventure playground and mini-golf course.
For serious golfers there’s also a nine-hole par 36 course, so there’s no shortage of inspiration if you’d like a quiet day in Castres.
12. Castres Cathedral
The Wars of Religion also claimed a big part of the town’s cathedral, which was rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries.
This church has an extravagant Baroque style and was intended to strike awe into its worshippers with its impressive proportions and overpowering decor.
This is clear in the choir with its statues and huge columns made from Caunes marble, and in the narrow but towering nave.
And if you’re an antiquarian you’ll be interested in the tower outside: The lowest levels of this structure are in the Lombard Romanesque style and date to the 11th century.
13. CERAC – Archéopôle
Castres’ Centre for Archaeological Study and Research is also in the Parc de Gourjade and has free entry.
The exhibition space is small, but the galleries are rotated every few months to cover a different period in Castres’ history.
So depending on when you’re in town you might discover an exhibition about 18th-century faience from Albi, Neolithic hand axes, medieval earthenware or artefacts that point to Gallo-Roman trade on the Agout’s Riverbanks.
CERAC’s archive has objects from the Palaeolithic Period up to the 20th century, so you visit with an open mind.
14. Castres Olympique
Avid rugby fans will already know all about Castres who won the Top 14 league as recently as 2013. France now has the richest league in the world and has attracted international stars in recent seasons.
So if you’re new to the sport a Castes Olympique match will be the ultimate appetiser.
In 2017 their fullback Geoffrey Palis is in the France squad for the Six Nations, while Rodrigo Capó Ortega, Benjamín Urdapilleta and Horacio Agulla have tons of caps between them for Uruguay and Argentina.
The home ground is the cosy but lively Stade Piere-Antoine, which holds 11,500 fans, the smallest capacity in the league despite hosting one of the biggest teams.
One of the satisfying things about eating out in Castres is that you can have a meal where every course is a local or regional speciality.
The starter could be melsát, a typical charcuterie made with pork offal and tastier than it sounds, or bougnette, another cold-cut involving pork belly, breadcrumbs and egg cut into slices.
Main course can be confit duck (salt cured) or cassoulet, which is a variety of pork and poultry cooked slowly in a stew with white haricot beans.
And for dessert there’s poumpet, a flaky pastry filled with a lemon and Bergamot orange paste; this preparation was imported by the Moors in the middle ages.