- - Thursday, August 21, 2014

CONQUES, AVEYRON, France — As summer begins its slow exit, the French, who close their shops and take August off for a national holiday, will soon return — making autumn a splendid time for American visitors.

The fields, rivers and lakes of the southwestern region are especially inviting in September and October. Ancient villages sit on hilltops, and medieval castles dot the landscape.

For a thousand years, pilgrims have crossed this countryside, the Midi-Pyrenees, en route to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, stopping for food and shelter wherever the scallop shell symbol of St. James is displayed.

With their walking staffs and backpacks, pilgrims today continue along the Way of St. James via the exquisite village of Conques, still a major stopping point. We met a German couple who spend their summer holidays trekking from Cologne to western Spain. Part of their journey includes Santiago de Compostela, where the Apostle James is said to be buried.

Conques is one of the most beautiful villages of France, unchanged over the centuries. Half-timbered houses tumble down steep lanes behind the magnificent abbey-church of St. Foy. The abbey’s treasury overflows with golden reliquaries encrusted with jewels; one is said to have been a gift from Charlemagne.

As dusk falls on the surrounding hills, one of a few monks charged with maintaining the Romanesque abbey, Brother Jean Daniel, offers a lecture about the 12th-century tympanum depicting the Last Judgment.

Brother Jean then leads visitors into the church for an impromptu organ concert as the last rays of the sun bring to life 104 stained glass windows by painter/sculptor Pierre Soulages, who French President Francois Hollande has hailed as the world’s greatest living artist.

Not often does a city build and dedicate a museum to a single living painter, but the nearby town of Rodez did just that when Mr. Soulages, 94, donated 500 of his works to his native city. The Soulages Museum, which opened in May, displays his paintings, drawings, sketches and lithographs — an elegant setting for his work.

Rodez Cathedral, imposing and pink, dominates the landscape of this town of narrow streets lined with shops and restaurants.

The Fenaille Museum in Rodez has an outstanding collection of pre-historic carved stones called “menhirs,” mysterious sculptures that date from three millennia before Christ.

In Albi, a beautiful town on the banks of the Tarn river, the 13th-century Gothic cathedral of Ste. Cecile towers over all.

Named for the town, the Albigensian heresy was a movement that flourished in southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries. The Albigenses, or Cathars, believed the material world is the evil that wars with good. The Dominicans tried to convert them, and Pope Innocent III and French King Philip II Augustus eradicated them. The cathedral stands as a reminder of the power of church and king.

Half-timbered houses line narrow cobblestone streets in Albi’s medieval quarter. Visitors to the new neighborhoods delight in the Academy of Miniatures, a “museum” of dollhouse constructions of 19th-century rooms. Not far away there’s a small museum dedicated to the 18th-century French explorer of the Pacific, Jean-Franois de Galaup.

The 13th-century archbishop’s palace is now a museum housing the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who was born in Albi in 1864. The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, which stands between the Ste. Cecile cathedral and the Tarn river, has a large collection of the posters that made him famous. Just outside Albi is the Chateau du Bose, where he grew up, and it’s open for tours conducted by the painter’s distant cousin, a delightful old woman who makes the stop worthwhile.

Albi’s wealth in the 14th and 15th centuries was built on the dark green leaves of a small plant that flourished in the region called “woad,” which was used to make an indelible blue pastel dye. The city of Toulouse quickly established preeminence in the woad trade, and merchants 600 years ago built mansions with towers to show off their fortune. Toulouse’s prosperity crashed when less-expensive indigo was imported from India. In a minor renaissance, woad again is cultivated for use in cosmetics.

Toulouse is a university city and center of France’s aerospace industry: Airbus jetliners are built here. The old central part of town consists of graceful red brick buildings and amusing towers. The great central square in front of the imposing 18th-century “Capitole” (City Hall) is a center of civic activity. The city is famous for its violets, and shops sell everything violet from sweets to scents.

Toulouse’ museums include the Fine Arts Museum, housed in a former convent guarded by a line of gargoyles. The 16th-century Renaissance Hotel d’Assezat displays the Bemberg collection of art. There’s also a museum of modern art in an old slaughterhouse on the bank of the Garonne.

A particular splendor of Toulouse is the Church of the Jacobins, a deconsecrated Dominican church with remarkable murals, stained glass windows and ribbed vaults, including a 22-branch palm tree vault in the apse.

The city’s Basilica of St. Sernin, built in the 11th and 12th centuries to accommodate pilgrims, is the largest Romanesque basilica in Europe. There’s a lively flea market outside on weekends.

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