Encompassing a big swathe of south-western France, the Midi-Pyrénées is as varied as it is large.
In the north you’re in the craggy limestone foothills of the Massif Central, while to the south the Pyrenees and its foothills provide some of Western Europe’s most invigorating natural landscapes.
The revered Way of St. James courses through the region and has furnished it with pilgrimage sites cherished for more than a thousand years, while Lourdes also draws millions of people a year from around the world.
Go underground to see enormous chasms and prehistoric cave paintings, or journey high into the Pyrenees for skiing or to stare in wonder at Cirque de Gavarnie and Pic du Midi.
Lets explore the best things to do in Midi-Pyrénées:
1. Albi Cathedral
Few buildings have the potential to move people like Albi’s majestic brick gothic cathedral.
It’s a UNESCO-listed building and is incredible to behold both inside and out.
The stern external walls inspire fear in some for their high, cylindrical protrusions that could easily pass for ramparts.
This is no accident as the cathedral was designed to represent the power of the catholic church following the suppression of the Cathar sect in southwest France.
Inside, the decoration is far more delicate and colourful, and is mostly from the renaissance.
The paintings below the organ and on the vaulting make up the largest set of Italian renaissance paintings in France.
2. Capitole de Toulouse
If there’s one sight that needs to be on your itinerary for Toulouse it’s this landmark, housing the City Hall and the 1,156-seater Théâtre du Capitole.
It was erected in the 12th century and has changed with the times, being modified down the years to suit each new purpose until it ended up with its present 18th-century neoclassical design and those pink marble columns.
At the rear is the oldest remaining element of the building, the Donjon, which faces Place Charles de Gaulle and dates to 1530. Poke around inside to see the extravagant ceiling paintings in the Salle des Illustres, and find out more about the history of this building where, famously, the Duke of Montmorency was executed in 1632.
3. Cirque de Gavarnie, Hautes-Pyrénées
One of the most photographed spots in the High Pyrenees is this awe-inspiring glacial bowl beneath Pic du Marboré, which crests at more than 3,200 metres.
It’s easily accessed in summer; there’s a designated car park nearby, and you can approach the bowl on a pretty easygoing trail.
The best part for many is the waterfall, which has a drop of 422 metres, making it the highest in Metropolitan France.
It’s great to see from a distance at the panoramic restaurant, but if you’ve a proper hiker you can get right up beneath it to feel the spray on your face.
If Gavarnie doesn’t sate your hunger for cinematic beauty then the nearby Cirque de Tromouse is even larger!
4. Abbey Church of Saint Foy, Conques
UNESCO-listed as it’s long been a marker on the Way of St. James pilgrimage, you’ll need a lot of time to study all the fascinating details of this church’s architecture and the magnificent items in its treasury.
First there’s the frieze above the doorway, which was sculpted in the 1100s and shows scenes from the afterlife: Heaven to the left and the torments of hell to the right.
In the treasury check out the reliquary of St. Foy, containing a fragment of the saint’s skull inside a gold-plated roman head dating to the 400s – this is what centuries of pilgrims have been coming to see.
There’s also a gold “A” decorated with precious stones and claimed to have been commissioned by Charlemagne, though this has been disproved as it has recently been dated to the 1100s.
In the 1800s Lourdes went from being an unassuming market town to one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Christendom, now attracting six million people a year and with the second most hotel rooms in the country after Paris.
This is due to the supposed apparition of the Virgin Mary to the local peasant, Bernadette Soubirous.
Whether you’re religious or not Lourdes is something to be seen, if only for a couple of hours, because of what it represents to so many people.
The size of the phenomenon is rammed home by the crowds that descend on the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, where the grotto’s spring is meant to have miraculous properties.
This audaciously-constructed village is squeezed on to the left bank of the L’Alzou River, a tributary of the Dordgone, by a 150-metre-high vertical gorge.
That doesn’t seem to have bothered the religious folk who built Rocamadour a thousand years ago, as the buildings simply continue up the sheer rock face in jagged limestone terraces.
On the upper levels is a set of 12th-century monastic buildings known as the Cité Religieuse and protected as a World Heritage site.
Pilgrims come from far and wide to see the Black Madonna, a virgin statuette darkened by a millennium of weathering and credited with healing powers.
7. Millau Viaduct
A joint project between Norman Foster and the structural engineer Michel Virlogeux, the Millau Viaduct is the tallest bridge in the world and opened in 2004. One of the bridge’s iconic seven masts is an amazing 343 metres above the base of the bridge.
So what can you actually do here? Well, not much apart from drive over it.
But what a drive, and what a view! If you’re just passing through you can park up on the A75 just north of the bridge to revel in the epic scale of the structure.
But there are also two visitor centres revealing the design and construction of this modern wonder.
One unforgettable way to see it isby kayaking on the River Tarn that flows below it.
8. Padirac Cave, Lot
This colossal natural landmark in the Massif Central came about when the roof of a massive cave collapsed, creating a chasm of dimensions that you have to see to believe.
There’s a stairway with more than three hundred steps (or you could take three elevators!) to get down to the chasm floor just to enter the rest of the cave system.
There’s an underground river down here, and you’ll board a boat to see the main chamber’s spellbinding tortured geological formations.
Book early, and get there in the morning in summer because a lot of people are keen to see this epic piece of Lot’s natural heritage.
9. Church of the Jacobins, Toulouse
Just west of Centre Ville in Toulouse is a Dominican church of monumental beauty and historical wealth.
The remains of one of the medieval period’s great thinkers, Thomas Aquinas, are kept in the church.
Aquinas was a Dominican, and after he died in Italy and was made a saint, Pope Urban V ordered his remains to be sent here as it was the order’s mother church.
The architecture of the building is also amazing: All you need to do is look up and gaze in awe at the ceiling above the choir, a part known as the “palm tree” as the ribs of the vaulting grow out like symmetrical fronds.
10. Canal du Midi
An absolutely mind-boggling piece of historic engineering, this waterway was plotted in the 1600s to provide infrastructure for the wheat, wine and wool trades.
It links the Garonne River in the west with the Étang de Thau on the Mediterranean to the east.
In the west it also connects with the Garonne Canal to create the Canal des Deux Mers, effectively spanning the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts 400 years ago! The canal runs through Toulouse and Moissac, and there are many different ways to soak in the scenery and history, from walks and bike rides on the banks, to barge cruises and canoeing trips in the water.
11. Auch Cathedral
This sublime gothic and renaissance church is a UNESCO site and it’s also a stopping point on the Way of St. James pilgrimage route that leads all the way to Santiago de Compostela.
The building is inspiring, both inside and out, with three huge naves, but if there’s something that you have to make sure to see, it’s the early renaissance stained glass windows.
There’s a suite of 18 windows made between 1507 and 1513 by Arnaud de Moles, and they’re loved for their depth of colour and technical mastery.
You need to pay a couple of Euros for access to the choir, but the breathtaking dimensions of this part of the church and the 16th-century carved hard-weathered oak merit the small fee.
12. Pech Merle
There aren’t many caves with compelling prehistoric paintings that are open to the public, which should push Pech Merle high up you list of things to do in this region.
You’ll be inches away from murals and engravings dating back between 18,000 and 27,000 years.
It’s difficult not to feel something when you witness these works and realise they were created from before the dawn of civilisation.
There are also scratch marks on the walls made by bears, and a human footprint that has survived the many millennia.
There’s a tour in English once daily, so you’ll need to book a place early as entry is limited to 700 people a day.
13. Pont Valentré
This 14th-century bridge is a most evocative way to enter the city of Cahors, and can only be used by pedestrians.
Pont Valentré has a fortified appearance because it was built during the Hundred Years’ War.
It’s 138 metres in length with three imposing towers, battlements overlooking the water and a barbican on the west bank of the Lot River.
Legend has it that the contractor made a deal with the devil to speed up construction, and managed to keep his soul by wriggling out of the pact.
So the devil sent an imp to remove the final stone every night to make sure the bridge could never be completed.
Keep an eye out for this imp high on one of the towers, added during the restoration in 1879.
14. Try Regional Gastronomy
When there’s snow on the ground and it’s well below zero outside you’ll be grateful for the region’s warming, protein-rich dishes.
Cassoulet is a well-known speciality, a casserole with white haricot beans Toulouse sausage, pork knuckle and goose confit slow-cooked over several hours in a terracotta pan.
In Aubrac the thing to try is Aligot, which is pureed potatoes laced with Laguiole cheese to create a rich, viscous side for ham and sausage.
For pure indulgence nothing beats Gâteau à la Broche, which has flour, eggs, butter, vanilla and rum, and is baked in an usual way: turned slowly on a spit over a fire.
15. Winter Sports
Over the last decade and a half the region has invested a lot of money to bring its 26 alpine ski resorts up to top international standards.
Nearly all now have snow-making facilities and large lift capacity.
The road (A61, A64 and A66) and rail network, as well as airports at Pau, Lourdes-Taubes and Toulouse-Blagnac also make the region a breeze to access.
The largest ski area is Le Grand Tourmalet, with 100 kilometres of runs, and it’s very close to the Pic du Midi, with an observatory used by NASA to take detailed photos of the moon in 1963 before the Apollo missions.