In the ancient Bigorre province in southwest France, Tarbes is an old garrison town with views of the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees in the distance.
The army put horses and horse-breeding at centre stage in Tarbes, and France’s light cavalry was stationed here right up to the Second World War.
The National Stud continues to breed horses and teach equestrianism, and every July “Equestria” is a horse-riding extravaganza taking over the regal grounds of this noble institution.
The French war hero Martial Foch was a son of Tarbes, and you can visit his birthplace, while for culture the Jardin Massey and its stately museum is equally fascinating and beautiful.
Lets explore the best things to do in Tarbes:
1. Maison Natale Ferdinand Foch
Martial Foch, in charge of the Allied forces, coordinated the final push that defeated Germany in the First World War.
The armistice was signed in his private carriage in 1918 and almost every city in France has an avenue named in his honour.
But Tarbes was where he was born in 1851, in this classic Bigorre house from the 1700s on Rue de la Victoire.
The home where he lived until he was 12 has been turned into a museum and contains family documents, photos and memorabilia from the French Academy and World War I to help you make sense of his illustrious career.
Among the many fascinating exhibits is the armchair in which he was sitting when he passed away in 1929.
2. Jardin Massey
Declared a French “Jardin Remarquable”, the highest commendation for gardens in the country, Jardin Massey was plotted in the 19th century and has a handful of Tarbes’ museums and institutions in its boundaries.
The park is named for its architect, Placide Massey, the horticulturalist and landscaper who was in charge of two gardens at Versailles in the 1800s.
Come for walks and picnics in the company of exotic flowers and trees, surrounded by refined buildings like the Massey Museum and orangery.
The garden’s statues add a dash of culture to the park, and one, L’Ouragan by Edmond Desca, caused a stir in 1887 for representing a nude man.
3. Musée Massey
Massey also designed this grand oriental-style museum hall for the centre of the park.
The museum’s most prominent exhibition is about the history of the Hussars, charting 400 years of light cavalry around the world from 1545 to 1945 with weapons, uniforms, busts and paintings.
Tarbes is still where France’s 1st Parachute Hussar Regiment is stationed, and this is closely linked to the National Stud which is also in the town.
The museum’s fine arts wing has painting from the Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Flemish and French schools, while there’s also an ethnographic museum showcasing the old-time trades in Bigorre’s four valleys.
4. Haras National
This stud farm was ordered by Napoleon I in 1806 as part of a military horse-breeding program that had been running since Louis XIV in the 17th century.
Tarbes’ Haras National was the cradle for the Anglo-Arabian breed, which is now widespread across France, the UK and America and was favoured by the French hussars who were based in the city.
On an engaging tour you’ll pass through the 200-year-old stables, saddlery, bridleways and blacksmith forge, all set in eight hectares of parkland, to get the inside track on the breeding and conservation work still taking place.
5. Quartier d’Arsenal
Work is ongoing, but a large swathe of industrial land just up from the Jardin Massey is being transformed into a leisure district.
One building already renovated is the city’s former arsenal.
This was founded immediately after the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and churned out cannons and then munitions for the army for the next 100 years.
Recently the city has revitalised the Arsenal building while looking after architecture, and it now has restaurants and amenities like a cinema, bowling alley and branch of Laser Quest.
6. Tarbes Cathedral
The first stones for the cathedral were laid in the 1100s, and if you come round to the outside of the apses on the church’s east side you’ll be looking at brick and stone checker-board walls that were constructed 900 years ago.
This is by far the oldest section of the building, as the rest was removed and replaced, leaving an odd composite of styles and even colours: The 18th-century western facade is bright yellow, clashing with the grey 14th-century Gothic nave.
Enter to get a good look at the fine Baroque marble canopy above the main altar and the painted vaults in the nave.
7. Parc aux Rapaces
With more than 110 species the Parc aux Rapaces (Park of the Raptors) is a much-loved family day out that will bring you nose to beak with all kinds of birds of prey.
Keep your eyes on the time to make sure you’re at the “Théâtre de Verdure” for a memorable falconry display, and take advantage of the workshops that allow you to try your hand at this ancient skill.
The rest of your visit you’ll be metres away from raptor species from Norway to Japan, like the southern crested caracara from South America or “Edwige”, the snowy owl, which also takes part in demonstrations.
8. Musée de la Déportation et de la Résistance
During the Second World War Tarbes was a hotbed of Resistance activity, and ambushes and acts of sabotage happened almost daily in this region.
Such was the city’s commitment that it was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the Fourth Republic after the war.
So you’re in the right place to learn about the Resistance networks in the Hautes-Pyrénées.
The cache of weapons, photos and documents from the war found a permanent home in a former school in 1989, while the museum also tells the story of the everyday people who were rounded up and deported to concentration camps.
The right bank of the Adour River has been left to nature so there’s a ribbon of parkland that winds through the length of the city from north to south.
You can amble beside the river on this serpentine path for as long as two hours without having to cross a road.
At stages the vegetation is so dense that it will be hard to believe you’re close to a city, and the path is breathtaking in autumn when the colours change.
If you keep going south you’ll end up at the Soues Lake, while the path begins not far from another large body of water, the Bours.
The city has also set up information boards every few hundred metres informing you about the history of the Adour and the species that make a habitat from it.
10. Festival Equestria
At the end of July the Haras National hosts an event that equestrian fans everywhere need to put in their diaries.
Over four nights the city celebrates its horse-riding tradition in these sumptuous grounds, welcoming more than 45,000 spectators for blockbuster shows and all kinds of side events.
The schedule builds up to the “Nuit des Créations” gala, when the equestrian school unveils its latest routines performed by virtuosos of the art-form.
But throughout the festival the Haras National bustles with demonstrations and workshops involving more than 300 horses.
11. Grand Marché
On Thursday mornings set your alarm for the weekly market in the massive hall at Place Marcadieu.
This marvellous building dates to 1883 and takes design cues from Victor Baltard’s iconic works in Paris.
There’s a farmers’ market in the hall selling regional specialities like Pyrenean cheese and cured ham, while outside are bric-a-brac and flower stalls.
But of course, you won’t have to wait until Thursday for your French market experience as the new Halle Brauhauban is open every morning.
A little smaller, this indoor market is your destination for fresh produce and giftable treats to bring home with you.
12. Chemin Vert
The Échez is a tributary of the Adour River that flows past Tarbes to the west of the city.
Running next to the river is a network of paths that will lead you all the way to Lourdes if you’re up for journey.
By bike the 18.5-kilometre trail will take a couple of hours at most, while determined walkers could leave Tarbes after breakfast and be in Lourdes before lunch.
The Échez’ alluvial plain is green and pastoral, with uplifting vistas of the Pyrenean foothills to keep you going.
You’ll also be able to stop in Bigorre’s rural villages like Adé, Lanne and Juillan.
France’s most-visited pilgrimage site, receiving five million people a year, is less than 20 kilometres to the south of Tarbes.
And the statistics of this place will make your head reel: In France, only Paris has more hotel capacity than Lourdes, even though it’s just a market town of 15,000 permanent inhabitants.
The phenomenon began towards the end of the 19th century when the Virgin Mary is claimed to have appeared to Bernadette Soubirous, a local miller’s daughter, and asked her to build a chapel in a cave.
Now people from all corners of the planet come to be healed at the Sanctuary of our Lady of Lourdes, and worship at a host of sites relating to the apparition.
14. The Pyrenees
If you’re inspired by the views of the mountains on the horizon to the south you could hop in the car for unforgettable trips into the Pyrenees.
The stupendous Cirque de Gavarnie is 70 kilometres away, as is the colossal natural gap at the Brèche de Roland.
A little closer is the Pic du Midi, the site of a world-renowned astronomical observatory.
The geology also starts to get interesting much closer to Tarbes, as within half an hour are two show-caves, the Grottes de Bétharram and Grottes de Médous, both created by underground rivers and rich in stalagmites and stalactites.
15. Food and Drink
The haricot tarbais is a white bean that was brought over from the New World and first cultivated around Tarbes in the 18th century.
And if you order a cassoulet, which you’re almost duty-bound to do in the Southwest of France, this bean will be the foundation of the meal.
This generous, meaty stew could not go better with the local Madiran wine, which is tannin-heavy and very bold.
Finally, the native Gascon black pig is bred for its wonderful ham, which is cured for 18 months or more and differs in price according to the length time it has been allowed to mature.