World-renowned vineyards dot the landscape in Bordeaux, the most influential wine region in the world. The distinguished university city of Toulouse is regarded as the best place to live by the French themselves. At Cap d’Agde, also known as “Naked City” and the world’s Mecca of nudism, visitors can bank, shop or beachcomb in the buff.
Tourists can climb to the eerie ruins at Montsegur, where the Cathar religious sect made a lengthy stand against 10,000 Crusaders before voluntarily marching to their fiery deaths rather than converting their spiritual beliefs.
This area boasts more days of sunshine than most of Europe (in excess of 300 sunny days a year average in Montpellier, for instance), and features more parkland than much of France (including more than 200,000 acres in Pyrenees National Park alone).
Tourists delight in the vast selection of mountain-climbing destinations, ski resorts, spa villages, Gallo-Roman ruins and prehistoric cave paintings. There is a long list of bodies of water available here: rivers, canals, streams, the Gulf of Gascony, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.
For those accustomed to the Parisian way of life, this diverse and exotic culture seems like another world. That is almost true. This corner of France was independent for many centuries before being absorbed into the rest of the country, and that fierce sense of autonomy holds strong to this day. There is the southwest of France, and then there is the rest of France, natives vehemently maintain (usually with a contemptuous roll of the eyes and purse of the lips).
Indeed, many in the Southwest of France feel more connected to their Spanish neighbors to the south than their Parisian neighbors to the north. The bold peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains form a natural border connecting France and Spain. The first time we set foot in this area, our Carcassonne cab driver spoke French with a noticeably rolling Spanish “R” instead of the typical throaty French “hhhhr” pronunciation.
One of the advantages to visiting Southwest France is that tourists have just begun to discover its riches. This means many wonderful destinations have yet to be overrun by gaping tourists (with a few exceptions, Carcassonne and Barcelona the most notable), and prices remain delightfully reasonable.