Castres calls itself The Little Venice of the Languedoc, thanks to its picturesque river-front blocks of colorful houses. 

The “Houses on the Agout River” started to be built at the end of the 12th century. For centuries these buildings housed the workshops of tanners and parchment makers; they used the water of the river to work the skins. The basements of the buildings open directly onto the river; this is where the washing stations were located. After having been cleaned and rinsed in the Agout, the tanners laid out the skins in basement rooms filled with lime. The workers lived at the street level; the owners on the floor above. Drying rooms occupied the top two floors.

Today, Castres is a small city in the Tarn Department, about an hour and half from both Carcassonne and Toulouse.

The trigger for our overnight visit – with our friends Vibeke and Jeff – was La Festa sull’acqua.

This annual Festival on the Water has celebrated the elaborate Venetian Carnival masks and floats for the last 15 years or so.

The town of Castres and Les Masqués Vénitiens de France joined together to create the festival. The festival, which lasts only a long weekend, includes food, vendors and activities on land during the day, and a floating parade each night.

Alas, things didn’t quite work out as planned.

Even as we headed out on a rainy Friday morning, we had learned that the town had cancelled the land-based activities amid concern about the coronavirus. That didn’t bother us much since our aim was the nighttime river parade. 

Our first stop was a very pleasant restaurant in the heart of old Castres, La Mandragore. Simple tasty fare in a very affordable menu. Our server, whom we think is an owner, was funny and chatty. But she revealed that the river parade had also just been cancelled, for the entire weekend. The reason was not coronavirus; it was the fact that the river level had risen and the current was very fast: too dangerous for the parade.

Sigh. Here we were on a chilly rainy winter day, having lost our main objective. Well, we’ll just have to eat and drink away our disappointment. More about that later.

We strolled around the town, even amid the rain showers. 

We stepped into a river-side hotel (honestly, looking for restrooms!). We found a very modern interior, and a warm helpful staff person. She speaks only six languages, and immediately pegged us as Americans. We lamented the cancellation of the river parade, and asked if she had a recommendation for a nice dinner restaurant. Without hesitation, she said, “Le Bistrot des Saveurs. You must make a reservation!” Which we did. We noticed a slim balcony terrace overlooking the river. In an instant, we committed to return for next year’s La Festa sull’acqua, stay in this hotel, and enjoy cocktails overlooking the parade.

We stepped into the Cathedral Cathédrale Saint-Benoît de Castres, partly because we wanted to get out of the rain. We found ABC (another bloody church), dimly lit, in the classical style. A net spread above our heads, below the ceiling arches, to protect us from falling plaster. As our eyes adjusted, we could see areas along the walls where the plaster was failing. Imagine how much it costs to repair and maintain all these old town churches.

And then, the organ rang out. The rolling music filled the church. The organist was using a Friday afternoon to practice his repertoire. We stood and strolled in the crunch, listening to the sound storm.

As we continued our stroll, a storefront caught our eyes. Its sign said “Éphémère.”

Inside we found two young women, and two collections of items. One of the women greeted us. She asked if we knew what “Éphémère” meant, and we said no. She explained: It means temporary or fleeting. This is a rotating pop-up store. Every two months, different vendors offer their products. On this day, the woman we were talking with was selling her locally made natural shampoos, soaps, bath gels, and dental paste. The other woman was working behind a glass panel; she was glazing a large hand-made ceramic plate.

Both women were full of life and good energy. We had no problem buying a little from each of them.

A good friend of Vibeke’s recommended our hotel, the Europe Hotel. In the mid 19th century, four old houses, perhaps as old as the 14th century, had been joined to create a hotel. The name of the hotel is purposeful: the design theme pulls from all over Europe. The interior courtyard formed by the four houses is an eclectic evocation of Italy. Our room gave us a grand (wall-paper) view of the Île de la Cité in Paris. Our friends’ room sent them to Amsterdam.

After a cocktail at the hotel, we walked across the river to the Bistrot des Saveurs. We read that the chef is English! He had worked in famous restaurants in London, and then opened a restaurant somewhere else in France; that restaurant had earned a Michelin star. Then he moved to Castres.

We discovered a simple contemporary dining room with relatively bright lighting. Everyone served us in English, and with welcoming attitude. We all selected the prix-fixe Menu Saveurs — entrée, plat, dessert, that is, appetizer, main course, dessert — for a remarkably moderate price. The food was beautiful and lovely. A delightful meal, and not a bad alternative to the washed-out river parade. There is always next year!

On our walk back to the hotel, we passed through the nicely lit central square of the town.

And the next morning, the Saturday market transformed the square into a buzz of activity. We did our weekly shopping for fruits and vegetables since we were there and the market was so attractive.

On Friday afternoon, we had stopped in the tourist office. We asked the woman at the counter if she had any recommendations for destinations that weren’t just museums and churches. She asked if we knew about La Passerelle. No, we said. Ah, and she dug around for a map brochure. Just outside Mazamet, there is a dramatic suspended pedestrian bridge on the way up the mountain to the medieval hamlet of Hautpoul. “You must go!” Since it was on our route back to Carcassonne, we did.

The weather was still gray and cold – around 9C / 48F – with occasional breaks in the clouds; but happily no rain. GPS took us to a desolate parking area that was really a recently cleared industrial site. In a corner were two porta-potties and a small sign pointing to La Passerelle. OK, lovely start. But we wrapped scarves, donned caps, pulled on gloves, and headed off up the trail. 

After about a half hour up a steep wooded trail, we turned and the flashy new Passerelle appeared. Only a bit over a year old, the bridge spans 140 meters between two ridges of the Montagnes Noires (Black Mountains), 70 meters above the valley below.

On the other side, up a few more inclines, the silent hamlet of Hautpoul awaited. In summer, we would have found a little cafe and a boutique or two. As we took our last steps into the hamlet, sleet pelted us! We get points for being such dedicated explorers!

The hamlet was founded more than 1000 years ago. During the bloody repression of the Cathar sect by the Catholic Church, in the 13th century, Cathar adherents holed up in Hautpoul. Besieged by the forces of Simon de Montfort, loyal to the Catholic Church, the Cathars held out for a while. They wanted to negotiate, but the Catholics refused. During a thick fog, the Cathars tried to slip away into the hills. Sadly, they were discovered, slaughtered, and the hamlet was burned. Jolly history, yes?

On this day, we found some ruins of medieval structures. 

As well as village homes.

And nice views.

After our climb up the mountain and over La Passerelle, we also found a parking lot. You can drive up here! But that would be no fun; the hike and traverse high above the valley — in the sleet — was the fun. You know, the journey, not the destination.

One Reply to “Castres and Hautpoul”

  1. I’m so impressed you can make a great adventure out of a cancelled event. It all looked fun. And that food!

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