I thought I knew Montauban, our Préfecture town, quite well. As with all these places, however, there’s usually something new to discover, often away from the beaten tourist trail.
The centre of Montauban is quite attractive, unlike its charmless out-of-town centres commerciaux. It was founded in 1144 and lays claim to being one of the first bastide towns, with a large central square enclosed within a grid of streets. The handsome townhouses are built mainly of red brick. The town has thus earned itself the soubriquet “pinkest of the pink cities” over its larger cousins, Albi and Toulouse.
While the SF endured a long-overdue tooth extraction on Tuesday, I decided to have a wander around. It was a blisteringly hot day, and I didn’t fancy trudging about on boiling asphalt and rubbing shoulders with the crowds. Instead, I planned to head for le Couvent des Carmes, about which I had read the day before.
First, I had a quick look at the arcaded place Nationale, the main square. This was dug up earlier in the year to renew the badly damaged paving.
Before the work could continue, the archaeologists had to investigate below ground level. They uncovered part of the medieval foundations of la Maison consulaire, where the town’s governing consuls met, brick-built cellars and a blocked-up well. At one time, the square was probably crammed with temporary stalls and shops. Numerous fragments of glass, ceramics and coins testify to the square’s importance in local economic life over the centuries. You can see images of the dig in progress, including an aerial photo, here.
By the time I got there, the place had been covered over again. A few hopeful restaurateurs had placed tables on the “terrace” beside the building site.
I also had another gander at this trompe l’oeil window in a quiet street tucked behind the square. I presume it portrays the painter Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, who was a Montalbanais. The local art museum is named after him and the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, also born in Montauban.
Le couvent des Carmes
The convent is a well kept secret. En route, I saw another couple of hidden bits of the town: this interior courtyard, redolent of an Italian loggia (I realised later that the smears on the photo are spiders’ webs on the gate). It’s rather a mishmash of styles and not especially attractive but a curiosity, nonetheless.
Further down the street, a porte cochère (carriage gate).
To find the convent, you head towards the Jardin des Plantes, turn off down an unprepossessing side street around the back of the Mairie and end up at a municipal car park. Had it not been for the detailed directions on TripAdvisor, I might never have found le couvent. I’m glad I persevered.
During the 13th century, Montauban developed rapidly following its foundation. A network of convents was established around the town. The Carmelite Order built a convent in 1280 at the confluence of the rivers Tarn and Tescou, outside the city walls.
The first convent was destroyed by Protestants during the Wars of Religion in the 16th century. The present convent was completed in 1717 in the characteristic pink brick of Montauban. It became a school for young ladies in 1841. Today, the building houses the Conservatoire de Musique and various municipal offices.
I wanted to see the cloister, which is small and intimate and has been made into a lovely, peaceful garden. This is perhaps how it looked 300 years ago. It’s described as a “jardin des simples” or medicinal garden.
In addition to plants and herbs, espaliered pear trees (already bearing fruit) share a space with a vine.
The garden is divided into the compartments typical of the period. Flower beds are enclosed in plaited willow or possibly chestnut. (I inadvertently snapped one of the office workers, who had come out for a quick cigarette.)
A small fountain babbles away in the centre. Small goldfish swam about in it.
I sat there for a while on one of the benches, enjoying the calm and tranquillity and lulled by the plashing fountain. The garden seemed a world away from the bustle of central Montauban whose narrow streets were not built for the volume of traffic they now accommodate. Although part of the centre is pedestrianised, the car still rules.
As I sat there, the strains of a piano sonata drifted through the air. How lovely, I thought. Someone in the Conservatoire is playing Mozart. After a while, I realised it was actually my new mobile phone, whose ringtone I had changed only that morning. The SF had finished his dental treatment before time.
In other news…
The weather has changed right around from 12 C one day last week during a shower to around 34 C as I write this. The SF insisted on lighting the wood burner on the Quatorze Juillet, although we didn’t really need it, but the weather was so dismal that it brightened up our evening. It was a good thing the habitual communal fireworks were cancelled due to Covid, otherwise a lot of people would have been disappointed. A damp squib indeed.
The farmers are now desperately getting in a second cut of hay and harvesting their wheat before the weather turns again this weekend. Normally, the harvest is done in early July, but the weather this year prevented it.
Philippe has taken his ancient and gigantic combine harvester up the steep hill outside our gate this afternoon. The family has had it for at least as long as we have been here, and I’m sure it doesn’t have air-conditioning, so he must be baking. I hope the brakes work on the way down.
You might also like:
One Should Never Leave Montauban
Virtual Visits: Favourite French Gardens
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Sounds like you made the best of your time in town while waiting for your dental patient (I know which one of you I’d rather have been — the last time I had a tooth out the dentist had a terrible time as it didn’t want to go!). Montauban is certainly a picturesque place, worthy of exploration. Hope your heatwave doesn’t last too long!
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In the end, I only had about half an hour to look around! But it was enough to see le couvent. There’s much more to Montauban than meets the eye immediately. Our heatwave is scheduled to end on Saturday, but actually it hasn’t been too bad. In fact, it’s been nice to see the sun for a change this year.
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For years we whizzed past Montauban either visiting friends near Beaumont de lomagne, garlic capital of Tarn and Garonne or collecting visitors from Toulouse airport. One day we stopped to explore and discovered how pleasant it is in some quieter corners. I found a small cloister like garden, not your featured one, but can’t remember exactly where!
A phrase I learnt early on after moving here was ‘le violin d’Ingres’ meaning your particular hobby. It alludes to the violin playing by Ingres as a break from painting apparently.
Thanks for reminding me, I’m sure I have a photo somewhere of those fake windows…enjoy the sunshine
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Beaumont is a lovely town, but I’ve only been there once to interview some people about their garlic festival. Montauban is not the sort of place you stop at spontaneously, but the centre is certainly worth exploring.
Ingres was a very accomplished violinist. He even played with the Orchestre du Capitole in Toulouse, as I understand it. His violin is displayed in the museum. Yes, quite right, that’s the origin of the phrase.