Over nearly two decades I have traveled all around France. I would love to spend the next decade popping into any of its corners for a weekend or a month, whenever I get a chance. Yet there is one area of the country that has captured my heart like no other place in the world. Yes, the world.
South of France is, at the time of writing, my favorite holiday spot – ever.
A lot of it has to do with the region perfectly fitting my particular holiday preferences. I like places that are [cringe] “off the beaten path” but also [double cringe] “have a lot to offer.” I prefer my greenery lush and temperate over more arid and Mediterranean. I want my sights story-book cute or scenically impressive — not grungy or aggressive. And a varied, delicious food scene so that I can go from a simple, light and healthy meal to rich, complex and indulgent on a whim.
In the case of southern France this means verdant forests and fragrant rose gardens, sun-drenched beaches and snow-capped mountains, chic resorts and cows grazing rolling hills, imposing castles and quaint villages. Rustic produce from the farmers’ markets and the most refined of restaurants. The friendliest people. Absence of tourist groups in the most otherworldly, picturesque locales.
The area I am writing about is not a self-contained region unto itself. It covers parts of two French administrative territories – Nouvelle-Aquitaine and Occitanie – and several departements: Lot, Dordogne, Aveyron, Tarn, Aude and Pyrénées-Orientales. It encompasses different cultures, heritage, even languages! For me, it all comes together as a wonderful, vibrant mosaic that creates the brightest whole.
Here are the very personal, very bright parts of that natural and cultural mosaic that pulled me into this region so very deep.
Staying at a B&B in Villefranche-de-Rouergue
This small town is a kind of place where perfect strangers said bonjour in a way that made me wonder when have I met them before. Where I was woken up by the sound of bullfrogs and cockerels, and then could walk through medieval streets to Turkish, Vietnamese, Italian or Japanese restaurant in minutes. Where my head was spinning from the aroma of wildflowers and from trying to photograph all the hundreds of their varieties. Where the weekend farmers’ market felt like the most authentic market of them all, because out of well over a thousand “shoppers” I was the only one with a camera. It was a perfect home base for the sprawling terrain I explored over the course of a week.
Locking up a medieval castle I had all to myself
Najac was not on my radar when a friend texted me asking whether it was on the list of places I was going to visit during my holiday. She happened to message me on the sole day I had marked for not driving anywhere and drinking rosé on my balcony instead. But after discovering that the medieval village in question was just 30 minutes away from my town, I decided to check it out.
Najac is one of the Most Beautiful Villages of France. It definitely deserves the title thanks to its setting atop a forest-covered ridge and a 13th-century castle that almost literally floats above it.
As I walked through the picturesque village and toward the castle, it started drizzling. Then raining. Then pouring.
Mid-May is still tourism’s low season for this neck of the woods; the rain cleared out whatever stray souls have wandered into the Najac Royal Fortress that day. For two hours I ran around the grounds and wandered the castle all by myself. I climbed the super-narrow towers, sat in charmingly crumbling windows and leaned over particularly slippery walls to take photos.
The groundskeeper waited for me – the sole guest – patiently, and when closing time came, asked whether I would like to lock up the castle. With my full body weight I pushed the giant oak gate into its frame, was handed a cast-iron key the size of a small ax, and turned it into place with both hands. I was the queen of the castle.
Drives through northern Occitanie
Drives – not driving. Yes, however much I hate driving in general and navigating French country roads in particular, independently crisscrossing this part of French countryside is worth all the hassle in the world. This is as off the beaten path as it gets. There were barely any other cars. If I wasn’t in a self-driving carriage, I might as well have been experiencing this slice of the world exactly as it was two, three, five centuries ago.
As I dipped in and out of river valleys, across cow-studded rolling hills and wildflower-covered meadows, I stared at panoramas that stretched for tens of miles in front of me, before turning a corner to spot a Renaissance chateau nestled in an orchard. I was seen home by sunsets so colorful that it should be criminal because of how much it distracted me from driving. It was pure magic.
Land of castles in the Dordogne Valley
At this point you probably have figured out that I was a romance-and-adventure-inclined child. I grew up having posters of castles on my walls. I toured castles of the Loire Valley at the first opportunity during my Study Abroad. And sure, they were palatial, elaborate, important… but not even close to how transportive and evocative were the countless castles of Dordogne.
They came at me left and right. Hanging out on riverbanks, capping off medieval villages, perched atop cliffs, hugged by Alice-in Wonderland gardens… Mighty fortresses and elegant manors. Super old and …slightly less old. Surrounded by dramatic natural scenery of the Dordogne River Valley. Again, Magic.
Going photo-crazy in Rocamadour, Saint-Cirq-Lapopie and Cordes Sur Ciel
Long story short, I went to these Most Beautiful Villages mostly because of how pretty and otherworldly they looked in photos. They all took my breath away in real life. And then my photo of Rocamadour was signed by D’Artagnan himself!
The town of Albi does not look like it belongs in that part of France – to the point that is discombobulating. The place it reminded me of the most was Bologna, Italy – heavy-set, hot, red, stony, a little hard. Yet with its famous cathedral (boasting blood-soaked history and heavenly blue interior), world-class exhibits (at the Toulouse-Lautrec gallery and the Fashion Museum), its elegant town squares and beautiful river panoramas it is an absolute must-see if you are in the neighborhood.