What to see, eat, and do in southwest France / southeast Spain?
October 17, 2013 10:16 PM   Subscribe

I'm head to Europe from the US for a week with my brother. We're visiting a friend who lives in Toulouse, France, who will be driving with us for a week through southwest France and southeast Spain. Looking for ideas of fun, exciting, and beautiful things to see, eat, and do -- while avoiding bigger cities and exploring the countryside/towns.

We'll be driving from Toulouse to Carcassonne down to Spain (via a non-coastal route through Le Boulou and over to Figueres) over to Lleida, Zaragoza, Huesca, and back to Toulouse--but mostly spending time in the country/villages/towns. We're avoiding bigger cities, so we're purposefully skipping Barcelona, for example (we've been there, so looking for something new).

Any suggestions for what we should do/see in this area/countryside and in these cities/towns?

Some things I'm excited for: cassoulet; country chapels and abbeys; places that don't speak French or Spanish even though they are in France or Spain; black Madonnas; ghost towns; and mountain passes.

Just to be clear, I'm not looking for practical advice like how to change money or avoid muggings or legally drive. Just looking for awesome stuff to see, eat, and do in these beautiful regions of France and Spain.

Also, if anyone's interested in meeting up with us next week, let me know!
posted by agog to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Girona (not Lleida) has a preserved medieval Jewish quarter. Figueres has the Dalí museum.

Huesca doesn't have that much to see save for the cathedral and some old churches, but you can go to see the nearby castle of Loarre.

Zaragoza has a Moorish castle-palace, two cathedrals (one Gothic-Mudéjar, one Renaissance-Baroque with ceilings by Goya), and plenty of odds and ends (museums built on the Roman remains of the forum, theatre and harbor; the Tubo neighborhood, and so on)

You could also see the Monasterio de Piedra near the Moncayo (west of Zaragoza), but in the Pyrenees you have the Monasterio de San Juan de la Peña.

black Madonnas
Montserrat. Scenic landscape and picturesque monastery, too.

places that don't speak French or Spanish even though they are in France or Spain
Most Catalans speak Catalan (or Aranese, or...). Some fabla is still spoken in the Aragonese Pyrenees, but not that much. You could still visit the valleys of Ansó, Bielsa, Benasque or Gistaín.
posted by sukeban at 12:13 AM on October 18, 2013

You might consider heading south to St. Bertrand de Comminges and seeing the nearby Gargas caves.
The beautiful cathedral there dates from the 13th century and there's also a restaurant there that serves Roman food - recipes from Apicius: Le Lugdunum.

If you are interested in food, the small town of Samatan south of Toulouse has a lively livestock market, food market and is home to the biggest foie gras markets in France. (flickr photo I took at the foie gras market) It was just amazing.
posted by vacapinta at 1:22 AM on October 18, 2013

It's a little detour for you, but Roncevalles is a historic mountain pass, famous as the site where Charlemagne was defeated in 778 and Roland was killed. Roland is famous, amongst other things, as the subject of the mediaeval epic poem, La Chanson de Roland.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:13 AM on October 18, 2013

Check out Albi as well for the cathedral and the Toulouse-lautrec museum

I spent a few days hiking in the benasque valley. Also the vall de boi has a bunch of Romanesque churches that's sound just up your alley

On cassoulet make sure you have it in castelnaudary.
posted by JPD at 6:36 AM on October 18, 2013

Go to another country entirely, and visit Andorra!
posted by Grither at 7:56 AM on October 18, 2013

We stayed with a friend in Frontignan - a fishing village south of Montpellier. He took us on a day trip to Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert which was the highlight of our trip. You'd never know it was there unless you were looking for it: http://goo.gl/maps/3OGYl
posted by jetsetsc at 10:46 AM on October 18, 2013

Seconding Castelnaudary, the birthplace of cassoulet.
posted by la_rousse at 2:50 PM on October 18, 2013

On your way to Carcasonne you can visit Foix and Mirepoix and Fanjeaux and then on the way south some Cathar castles.
At Ceret you have the outstanding Museum of Modern Art..
posted by adamvasco at 2:53 PM on October 18, 2013

How will you route back to Toulouse, or is this part of your question? It looks like from Huesca you may continue north on that highway, via the general region of Jaca and Pau? On that route, Lourdes is a pilgrimage destination. It's touristy, but beautiful and interesting if you read about its history. Definitely worth a stop and just a couple of hours from Toulouse.

But I'm posting specifically because I visited the region many years ago and hitchhiked 25km south from Lourdes into the country town of Arrens-Marsous. Wow. Just wow. I stayed in a country hostel there and day hiked the mountains. I so wanted to explore those little mountain roads and see where they went! So maybe look at your return route and consider going north from Huesca and taking the A-136 via Escarilla and over the border where it changes to D934/D918 and on to Arrens-Marsous and Lourdes? Looks like some beautiful lakes and valleys along the route, but I have not driven it myself. If you do, please share!
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 1:43 AM on October 19, 2013

The roads between Zaragoza to Huesca, Jaca and the Somport pass are excellent, but pay some attention to the roads in the Vallée d'Aspe (right north of the border), because they're narrower and more winding. The landscape is very pretty, though.

Then you go to Oloron and Pau to get to Toulouse. If you stop at Pau, go walking around the old town and visit the castle.

The Somport pass is the Aragonese branch of the Road to Santiago (Roncesvalles is the Navarran one), and at this point of the year it's still possible to do some hiking around Canfranc or the Candanchú ski station (just south of the border) if you'd like.
posted by sukeban at 2:09 AM on October 19, 2013

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