France: South West France

Valleys of the Tarn and Lot

The wines of Cahors, Gaillac, Fronton and beyond
By Paul Strang

This Guide was last updated on 28 July 2011
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Main towns and villages


High up, windy and at first forbidding, Rodez, the county town of the department of Aveyron and a rapidly expanding and prosperous city, reveals its attractions with apparent reluctance. Its magnificent cathedral, gathering up a beautiful old quarter under its skirts, dominates a town of steep slate roofs and square solid buildings, but it has a warm heart and is a good point of departure for the famous new bridge over the Tarn at Millau. The vineyards of Marcillac are close at hand.


Rodez is grey but Albi is pink, built of brick made from the same rose-coloured sandstone as Toulouse. It glows like coals in the evening sun. It is the birthplace of the famous painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The former Bishop’s Palace is home to an incredibly comprehensive collection of his works, some say the greatest one-man-show in the world. The nearby cathedral is a building like no other, having in its time done service as a medieval fortress as well as a place of worship. It gave its name to the Albigensian Crusades against the Cathars in the 13th century.


Just 30km downstream along the Tarn from Albi, Gaillac is best known, apart from its wines, for its famous abbey church, whose precincts house the local Maison des Vins. It surrounds the attractive old quarter with medieval houses often fronting on to narrow and quirky streets. You can still enjoy the sloping quays leading down to the river Tarn, where the wines of the region were once loaded on to barges destined for Bordeaux far away downstream. The vineyards are all round the town, though mainly in the hills to the north.


Built on one of the many sinuous bends of the river Lot, Cahors is famous for its medieval Pont Valentré (restored in the 19th century) with fortified towers looking over the water. The town also boasts of other medieval relics, notably its Barbacane and the fine Romanesque Cathedral in the centre of the town should not be missed. Its north door contains a famous tympanum depicting the Ascension. Cahors is a fine shopping centre as well as the heart of the truffle-growing area of Quercy and a natural home to gourmets. The vineyards are mostly to the west of the town.


A surprising medieval fortress town built out over a promontory looking down on the Aveyron river, Najac has a ruined château and a gothic church, which was the first to be built in the area. The town contains many picturesque houses and a broad main street flanked by arcaded buildings.


Twenty-five kilometres north of Gaillac this is a remarkable medieval town to which the Counts of Toulouse repaired for their hunting. Look out for the many fine renaissance town houses, gateways, windows and other features. Splendid views of the surrounding countryside.


The most dynamic of all provincial centres, Toulouse is also one of the most beautiful. A visit can be coupled easily with a visit to the Fronton vineyards. The old centre, built around the Place du Capitole is built of the local glowing red brick and is brimful of attractive restaurants and open-air cafés to suit all pockets. The great Romanesque abbey church of Saint-Sernin with its wedding cake steeple is a must to visit, also the Musée des Augustins for its fine collection of paintings. The atmosphere is distinctly southern, and the population fairly cosmopolitan, which adds an air of exoticism not found elsewhere in the region. The two markets Place Victor Hugo and Place Carmes are fabulous, as is the open-air street-market on the Boulevard de Strasbourg. Two days are needed just to scratch the surface of this city; try and fit in a visit to the Capitole itself which presents excellent opera and concerts to international standard.

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