Tom Stainer, Digital Editor at Lonely Planet, recently returned from a trip to the Tarn region of FranceHere's how to make the most of this beautiful, under-the-radar region east of Toulouse, where rolling rural landscapes are punctuated with atmospheric medieval towns. 

Tarn travel - The town of Albi is dominated by the enormous redbrick Cathédrale Ste-Cécile, which sits on a hill above the rest of the town and the River Tarn
Albi is dominated by the enormous Cathédrale Ste-Cécile, which sits above the River Tarn © Natashilo / Shutterstock

Where to stay in the Tarn

I based myself in Albi, a gorgeous red-brick town bisected by the River Tarn, and stayed in the Mercure Cité Episcopale Hôtel, which occupies a prime spot on the banks of the river overlooking the enormous Cathédrale Ste-Cécile. Rooms are comfortable with lovely views, and the hotel restaurant serves fabulous regional cuisine which you can enjoy on the riverside terrace.

Cathédrale Ste-Cécile, Albi's landmark sight

Cathédrale Ste-Cécile is a truly world-class attraction and one of the largest brick buildings in the world. From the outside it looks like a huge pink Gothic castle, but the sumptuous decor inside is even better. I loved soaking up the fantastic 16th-century paintings and frescoes on display, all suffused with the cathedral's calming blue-grey light.

Tarn travel - Lonely Planet editor Tom Stainer in front of an old timber building in the Tarn region of France
Tom loving life in the Tarn region of France © Mark Muir

Culture fix at the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec

Don't miss the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, which is replete with artwork by Albi’s most famous son. Over 1000 paintings, lithographs, drawings and posters by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec are housed here in the Palais de la Berbie, an imposing fortress built in the 13th century. My favourite pieces were the depictions of the Parisian underworld for which he was so famous. The poster collection is a standout too (Toulouse-Lautrec was a brilliant cartoonist and caricaturist).

Where to eat in Albi

This neck of the woods has tons of great restaurants. I didn’t have a single bad meal, but my favourite was at La Table du Sommelier on the northern side of the River Tarn. It’s hard to beat sitting on the huge outdoor terrace on a warm summer’s night, sampling delicious modern French fare and the restaurant’s impressive array of wines.

The Mappa Mundi, a piece of history

We made a trip to the Pierre-Amalric library in Albi to see the town’s Unesco-listed Mappa Mundi, which dates from the 8th century and is one of the oldest surviving maps of the world. The map is incredibly delicate and can’t ever be exposed to natural light, so it was wonderful to get to see its aged medieval parchment. In summer you can book to come and see the map or there is an exhibition and facsimile on display in Cathédrale Ste-Cécile.

Tarn travel - Brightly painted tanneries lining the Agout river in Castres, in France's Tarn region
Brightly painted tanneries lining the Agout river in Castres © Tarn Tourist Board

Day trip to Castres

Be sure to visit the town of Castres, an hour's drive away, and make a beeline for the quai des Jacobins. Here you can see bridges spanning the Agoût river and bright painted old tanneries huddled at the water's edge. This waterway was once a textiles thoroughfare, with these timber buildings used as workshops and cloth or leather hung out to dry in attics. While in town I also stopped in at the Musée Goya, a repository for Spanish art, and the fascinating Centre National et Musée Jean Jaurès, which tells the story of the founder of French Socialism. 

Tom travelled to the Tarn with support from the Tarn Tourist Board. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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