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Tarn-et-Garonne

How sweetmeats saved Montauban by fooling the King of France


Few confectioners can claim to have saved a city but at Montauban, capital of Tarn-et-Garonne, they fooled the French King Louis XIII.

The Protestant stronghold was invested by Louis on 21 August 1621 with an army of 25,000 men and hundreds of cannon. They fired 20,000 cannonballs at the town including 400 on a single night in November. Montauban possessed cannons of its own but had run out of metal to melt into shot. So during the night of 17/18 November the defenders made a huge number of replica cannonballs out of dough, added a hard, black sugar exterior, and piled them ostentatiously on the ramparts. When Louis saw what he thought was ammunition to be used against his army, he gave up and raised the siege. Today’s ‘boulets de Montauban’, celebrating the most famous event in the town’s history, are hazelnut sweets covered with chocolate and a hard sugar coating.

Seen from a distance, Montauban is unmistakeable on the skyline, its pink roofs and brick houses visible for miles. The streets of the old town form a symmetrical pattern around the Place Nationale, a square with double vaulted galleries. The Pont Vieux, a bridge over the Tarn spanning seven pointed arches, was one of the wonders of the western world when it was built in 1335. The 17th century Bishop’s Palace now houses an exhibition of the works of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, the famous French painter, born at Montauban. See, in particular, The Dream of Ossian, based on the legend of a character in Irish mythology. Napoléon Bonaparte was a fan of Ingres’ supposed literary works and the picture, painted in 1813, was originally intended for the Emperor’s bedroom.  Also housed in the museum are works by François Dénoyer and Antoine Bourdelle, both from Montauban.

Such was Montauban’s commercial importance at the start of the 19th century, that Napoléon decided it deserved a département of its own. In 1808 he created Tarn-et-Garonne by removing slices of territory from other départements. This explains why Tarn-et-Garonne has almost no natural boundaries.

Also on the Tarn, Moissac is an important port for the Canal du Midi, producing and distributing vast quantities of fruit, such as peaches, cherries, melons and pears. You can see huge clusters of the Chasselas grape, for which the region is famous, on the hillsides along the river.

A vast flood in March 1930, during which the Tarn rose by more than fifty feet, destroyed most of Moissac, but its 7th century Abbey of St-Pierre survived. One of the most striking Romanesque churches in France, restored by Viollet-le-Duc, it consists of a bell tower with porch and doorway and a unique nave. Constructed of Gothic brick upon Romanesque stone, it has a remarkable carved tympanum and cloisters, resting on 116 vast and beautiful pillars.

A third great river, the Aveyron, flows into the Tarn between Moissac and Montauban. At the confluence of the Aveyron and a fourth river, the Vère, stand two medieval castles overlooking the tiny fortified village of Bruniquel. They were built using the ruins of a fort built by Brunhilda, daughter of the king of the Visigoths, who according to legend was captured by the Franks and Burgundians, tied to four horses, and torn apart limb from limb. Bruniquel consists of a curious mix of ancient pink stone and red tile with houses from the 13th to 16th century, cascading neatly down the southern slope of the hill.

Between the Aveyron and its tributary the Bonnette stands the delightful St Antonin-Noble-Val. The noble valley that gives the town its name lies beneath the towering white cliffs of Anglars Rock. The Place de la Halle plays host to a market every Sunday morning, with rows of tightly packed wooden stalls offering everything from local honey to hand-carved toys. The film ‘Charlotte Gray’, starring Kate Blanchet as a British war-time secret agent, was shot here in March 2001 when the town hall, built in 1125, the oldest in France and now a museum, was temporarily turned into a German troop headquarters.

The exceptional town of Caylus also lies on the Bonnette, surrounded on three sides by the steep wooded slopes of a limestone plateau. Gallo-Roman originally, Caylus had its heyday in the 13th century and its centre has scarcely changed. Stone and half-timbered houses crowd so close together that the narrow, cobbled alleyways between them create a land of almost perpetual twilight. They all lead to the arcaded Place du Marché and a covered market with imposing octagonal pillars.

In this area known as Quercy Blanc (White Quercy) are many other delightful villages, notably Castelsagrat, Montcuq, Montjoi and Roquecor, nestling in a landscape of rock pinnacles, rolling fields and lush vineyards.  Bourg-de-Visa has an imposing town hall in an arched square, where each Sunday the local farmers sell their produce at highly attractive prices. The ramparts remain at Lauzerte, a strongpoint in the Middle-Ages on the pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela, with exquisite paving in the central square. Montpezat-de-Quercy has lost its walls but its covered square and many fine old houses survive. See especially, its church with several superb Flemish tapestries dating from the 16th century. Montaigu-de-Quercy, another hilltop village with half-timbered houses, is noted for a boisterous Saturday market, when the narrow, steeply rising streets are jammed with visitors.

In the west, the Garonne passes Auvillar, one of the most beautiful villages in France, its roofs of every shade of red gleaming in the sun. Until the middle of the 19th century its little port was reached by ships from Bordeaux, which brought salt and returned with wine and grain.

Castelsarrasin, once the front line of wars between the English and the French, has three notable religious buildings, Saint-Jean church, Notre-Dame d’Alem chapel, and a brick gothic church, Saint-Sauveur. But the town is best known for the man who left it to travel to America, where he founded Detroit in 1701. The most famous model ever to roll off the Detroit production line is called after him. His name? Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac.


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Montauban
© R. Cast - Atout France

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Auvillar
© OT Auvillar

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St Antonin-Noble-du-Val
© OT St Antonin-Noble-du-Val

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St Antonin-Noble-du-Val
© OT St Antonin-Noble-du-Val

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St Antonin-Noble-du-Val
© OT
St Antonin-Noble-du-Val

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Halle de Grains in Auvillar
© OT Auvillar

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Bruniquel
© R. Cast Atout France

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Halle de Grains in Auvillar
© OT Auvillar

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Caylus
© OT P Caylus


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