An hour north of Toulouse, the city of Montauban in the Tarn-et-Garonne Department shares its neighbour’s graceful brick architecture.
Almost everything is made from this red material, lending the city a lovely pink glow.
And in the brickwork you’ll learn the stories of the sieges and battles fought in these streets during the Wars of Religion when Montauban was firmly protestant.
Cross the medieval Pont Vieux, go for a coffee on the arcaded Place Nationale and get to know the eminent artists born in the city, like Ingres and Antoine Bourdelle.
Lets explore the best things to do in Montauban:
1. Place Nationale
Like all medieval bastide towns Montauban has a central arcaded square, but this is one is far more ceremonious than usual.
There are two layers of arcaded walkways beneath striking brick townhouses.
The explanation for this is fire that destroyed the square’s wooden houses in the 17th century; such was the damage that King Louis XIII made concessions to help with the rebuild.
Wooden buildings were banned, and the result was this uniform and very atmospheric meeting place.
Cafes, bars and restaurants are tucked under the arches, and their tables spread out onto the square.
And if you’re an early riser you’ll catch the mini market here every morning.
2. Musée Ingres
Towards the end of his life the celebrated 19th-century painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres donated work and personal possessions to Montauban, the city of his birth.
Eventually the collection was moved into the city’s 17th-century Episcopal palace, with four floors dedicated to the work of Ingres, his students, art from the 15th to the 19th centuries and archaeology from a variety of periods and places.
There are more than 50 paintings that Ingres acquired during his career, including Raphael da Vinci copies and primitives.
At the time of writing the museum has closed temporarily for renovations, but since it’s one of Montauban’s cultural highlights it will be one of your first ports when it reopens.
In the meantime Ingres’ paintings will be hung at other venues in the city.
3. Centre du Patrimoine
To really go into depth about the history and culture of Montauban look no further than the old Jesuits’ College on Rue du Collège.
Centred on the courtyard are galleries and a resource centre and, all set up with engaging contemporary design and museography.
The main permanent exhibition walks you through the urban development of Montauban, conveying the political, social and economic circumstances as you go.
There are also artefacts from the city’s various museums to give the story more clarity.
Temporary exhibitions study specific monuments or periods of Montauban’s history, and there’s also a revolving exhibition of local art.
4. Port Canal
The Canal de Montech is a short but sweet waterway linking the Tarn just south of Montauban with the Canal de Garonne, which in turn links the cities of Toulouse and Bordeaux.
In the last few years Montauban has invested a lot in its “Port Canal”, installing new berths for boats and opening an activity centre and a bar that puts on live music at night.
The port is just 10 minutes on foot from the Centre-Ville and is the perfect starting point for a ramble by the water.
Bike hire is available here too and is dirt cheap, at €3 for half a day.
5. Tour of the Old Town
As you idle around the centre of Montauban you’ll get a sense of the town’s singular architecture, which relies almost entirely on red bricks.
This goes for its many Neoclassical buildings, which combine bricks with stucco, and even have balustrades, arches and statue pedestals made from bricks.
Some places to mark on the map are Hôtel Mila de Cabarieu on Rue des Cames, the courtly mansions on Rue de la Comédie, Place Maréchal-Foch and the brick arch of Hôtel Lefranc de Pompignan.
Gracing the squares are many works by turn-of-the-century sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, another of Montauban’s contributions to French culture.
6. Pont Vieux
In the 12th century Montauban was oppressed by the Abbots of Montauriol to the north, and won permission to build a fortified bridge to defend the city against them.
These are the origins of the bridge across the Tarn into the old city, even if it wouldn’t be completed for another 200 years.
As you cross and soak up that view of the Episcopal Palace, Church of Saint-Jacques and wooded river banks you could reflect on the violence that happened where you tread during sieges in the 16th and 17th centuries.
First the Huguenots took over, making Montauban protestant for 50 years until Louis XIII ousted them in 1629. Sadly, the old fortifications were claimed by these conflicts or removed to building the Episcopal Palace in 1663.
7. Musée Victor Brun
Montauban’s natural history collection is on the first floor of this noble-looking palace on Place Antoine Bourdelle.
The Neoclassical building warrants a mention because it used to be the Cour des Aides, the sovereign court during the Ancien Régime, concerned with public finance and customs.
Before you step through the doors, prepare yourself for an army of taxidermies of birds, mammals and reptiles.
Among them are monkeys, elephant and kangaroo, and though they won’t be to everyone’s taste the minerals and fossils might be: There are phosphorites from Quercy going back as far as 50 million years and fragments of the Orgueil meteorite, which fell in the region in 1864.
8. Montauban Cathedral
Montauba is unusual as its cathedral isn’t one of the blockbuster attractions.
The monument stands at the highest point of the city and clashes with the rest of Montauban as its facade is made from white stone instead of red brick.
For a lot of the 16th century and up to 1629 Montauban had been protestant.
The Huguenots had destroyed the old medieval cathedral in 1560 and this Classical replacement wasn’t started until the late 17th century.
The scale of the building are astonishing, and the central portal is the highest in Europe, higher even than St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
On the left transept is the Ingres painting, “Vœu de Louis XIII” from 1824.
9. Complexe Aquatique Ingreo
Opened in 2013, Montauban’s aquatic centre is much more than just a municipal pool; it’s the third-largest aquatic complex in France and is as much for tourists as it is for locals.
There are six indoor and outdoor pools, a hammam, saunas, a state-of-the-art gym and a balcony area where you can unwind.
Kids have play pools and slides to splash about in, while grownups and serious swimmers will be crazy for the Olympic size outdoor pool.
This is even open in winter, when the water is heated to more than 20°, even as the outdoor temperature falls below zero.
10. Église Saint-Jacques
Along with the Pont Vieux this church is the only vestige of medieval times in Montauban.
The oldest part of the church is also the most spectacular; the octagonal bell-tower dates right back to the 1200s and is on top of a slightly newer base with machicolations.
The church suffered during the French Wars of Religion, when its clergy where massacred and the building was used as a fortress and arsenal.
If you study the facade you can still make out the damage caused by cannonballs when the city fended off a royal siege in 1621.
11. Musée de la Résistance et du Combattant
In the park around the Ingreo pool complex is a museum charting the history of the Second World War in the region around Montauban.
It was founded in 1989 when a former Resistance deportee put on an exhibition of memorabilia from the war.
Since then many donations have expanded the museum’s cache of Second World War artefacts, and you’ll now be given a thorough chronological account of how the war unfolded locally.
There are displays dealing with the internment camp in Septfronds and the contingent of foreign fighters fighting alongside the Resistance during the occupation.
12. Moissac Abbey
As you’re little more than 20 minutes away from this medieval masterpiece it would be a pity not to see it.
Moissac Abbey is a UNESCO Site as a historic stop on the Way of St James pilgrimage to Compostela, and its architecture and decoration are from the 11th and 12th centuries.
The complexity and quantity of Romanesque sculpture is almost unrivalled, and you can expect to lose track of time staring at these carvings made almost a millennium ago.
Start with the church’s tympanum above the portal, representing the apocalypse in the Book of Revelations.
And then tiptoe round to the cloister, which has 76 astonishing capitals illustrating Old and New Testament stories, as well as the life of the martyrs.
Also well within range is one of France “most beautiful villages” poised on a cliff over the Aveyron Gorge.
The first thing you’ll see are the towers of the two medieval castles that control the town.
The older of these dates to the 1100s, and was the home of William of Tudela who composed the Song of the Albigensian Crusade, detailing the brutal 13th-century suppression of the Cathar sect.
If you suffer from vertigo avoid the view from the gallery over the cliff! The “young” castle is from the 1400s and has compelling prehistoric axes, needles and harpoon heads discovered in the caves in the gorge.
Be sure to wander the small coil of streets with old timber-framed houses pressing in.
14. Montauban Wine
North of the city, lining the clay-limestone slopes of the Aveyron Valley are the vineyards of the Coteaux et Terrasses de Montauban vin de pays.
Here they grow a wide variety of grapes like Merlot, Syrah, Tannat, Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and several others for red, white and rosé wines.
The whites are described as fragrant and fresh, the reds elegant and supple, and finally the rosés are billed to be fruity and lively.
You can find out whether those descriptions are accurate at the many caves in Montauban (Blanc Rouge, La Cave L, Paisirs du Vin, V and B), which back up their selections with advice and expertise.
15. Local Food
In honour of the efforts of the 6,000 Huguenots who fought off the 20,000 royal troops in the 1621 siege, the city sells the Boulet de Montauban (Cannonballs). These are hazelnuts covered in chocolate and sold in cute packets.
Montauban is in a foie-gras region, and the delicacy is good to try in restaurants, and contained in pots and cans that you can buy in markets and take home.
The local cheese is Cabécou Autan, a creamy goat’s cheese that can be pretty powerful and has a faint hazelnut flavour.
And finally, the “Mountalbane” is a local brioche infused with orange blossom water, rum and vanilla, garnished with sugar and candied, and then wrapped in pleated parchment paper.