We are all feeling the pinch as inflation outstrips incomes. If you’re keen to explore the Southwest region, as I am, either on holiday or if you live here, you can spend a pretty penny on entrance fees and petrol. The latter is not environmentally friendly, either, although you can’t easily avoid travelling by car in the French countryside. I have done some research and wanted to share a few ideas for enjoying what the region has to offer without bankrupting yourself.
1 Travel by train for 1€
The Occitanie region covers a large swathe of Southwest France. The region has introduced a scheme whereby you can travel on local trains for only 1€ for a single journey during the first weekend of every month (except in July and August).
The upsides are that you don’t have to use the car, find parking spaces or drive around congested town centres. You get a good day out for 2€ per person.
The downsides are that you still have to drive to the station if you don’t have one within walking distance. Also, you are restricted by the train timetables (and possible industrial action).
Downsides apart, I plan to do this sometime to visit Toulouse, which is 90 minutes’ drive away and certainly merits more of my attention.
2 First Sunday free museum admission
State-run museums, of which there are many, are free every first Sunday of the month (except for July and August). People aged 18-25 have free entry to permanent collections, but not to temporary exhibitions. So you can combine this with the 1€ rail ticket.
Historic monuments run by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux are also free on the first Sunday between November and March (inclusive).
3 Other free admission days
Every third weekend of September, les Journées européennes du patrimoine (European Heritage Days) offer the opportunity to visit sites and monuments, some of which are not normally open to the public.
State-owned monuments are generally free on these days, but you might have to pay an entry fee at privately-run establishments.
This year, les Journées take place on the 16th and 17th September.
It’s also worth looking out for other events when museums and other attractions are free. For example, la Nuit européenne des musées takes place every year in May (Saturday 13th May this year). For one night many French museums remain open until midnight, often free, and put on special events.
We took advantage of this event to visit the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi several years ago with friends. The ambiance in Albi was buzzing, with firework displays and street entertainment.
4 Pass touristique
If you plan to spend a couple of days in one of France’s big cities, you can buy a city pass at the tourist office, which gives you access to attractions free or at a reduced rate. For example, in our region Toulouse’s Pass Tourisme costs 20€ and is valid for three days. For that, you get:
- Free entry to a range of museums and monuments.
- Numerous activities at a reduced rate.
- One free guided tour from the tourist office’s programme.
- For an extra 10€, 10 bus, train or metro rides.
If you add up what you would spend without the pass, you might make a substantial saving.
Some smaller places offer similar tourist passes with varying formulas, e.g. visit one site for the full rate and pay a reduced rate at another site. It’s always worth consulting tourist office websites or asking in situ.
5 Restaurants d’application
Restaurants d’application are well-kept secrets. They are training establishments, often attached to a lycée, where students of catering and the hotel trade can practice what they have learned. There are over 100 of them in France. Every town of any size in our region appears to have one. The closest to us is in Villefranche-de-Rouergue, attached to the Lycée Saint-Joseph. We haven’t been, but friends have and said it was very good.
You are offered an imaginative three-course meal (no choice), often on a theme, served by the students themselves, for around 14€, i.e. a lot less than in some traditional restaurants.
These restaurants are open on weekdays during school term-time, mainly at lunchtime, and prior reservation is essential.
To find one, simply Google ‘restaurant d’application’ and the name of a town.
6 Walking and cycling trails
Our region boasts wonderful countryside that is just made for walking or cycling, from mountains to river valleys to arid plateaux. You see so much more than if you take the car. Bonus: it’s healthier. Most official walks are usually well waymarked (balisées) and maintained and kept open by la Fédération Française de Randonnée Pédestre.
All the tourist offices include a list of local walks on their websites, ranging from walks for families with young children to challenging hikes for experienced walkers. Or you can consult sites like Visorando, which we use a lot, where you can find walks and cycle trails in your locality. We have found some lovely walks that way.
7 Just wander about
This is something I do a lot, and so far I haven’t been arrested for loitering. Our area is crammed with interesting towns and villages (many designated plus beaux villages) and examples of petit patrimoine, non-classified historic heritage such as pigeonniers, lavoirs, chapels, barns, wayside crosses, etc.
If you take the time to wander off the principal tourist areas, you often find hidden gems. You get a much better feel for a place by doing this.
Our own village, Caylus, has a main road slicing through one side of it, but it’s remarkably quiet in the medieval alleys behind the Place de la Mairie. If you ask for the Plan de ville (map of the village) from the tourist office, it marks and describes the points of historic interest.
Some of my most enjoyable and rewarding visits have cost me absolutely nothing. You might fortify yourself with a coffee at the local bar or buy une pâtisserie from the boulangerie, but that’s not exactly extravagant.
Also, it’s free to wander around markets, brocantes (flea markets) and vide-greniers (jumble sales), but I defy you not to buy something. All of them are excellent people-watching opportunities if, like me, you are curious, aka nosy.
In addition, all kinds of cultural and musical festivals take place over the summer in Southwest France. Tickets for some of them are quite expensive, and they are often booked up quickly. However, some local festivals are cheaper, and the tourist office wherever you are staying or living will have details of those.
So these are just a few ideas. Do you have any tips or specific events or activities that you might like to share with us?
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Hi Vanessa. Thank you for this. Loads of stuff I didn’t know and will definitely try to take advantage of.
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I find the cheap train tickets particularly interesting, and for me, who loves museums, the free first Sunday has to be a boon!
Just wandering is something we enjoy doing. We do not go into the larger cities and prefer just discovering the small towns and villages. I will keep in mind the free museum days. When our gite is in the countryside we enjoy going for walks past whatever is growing/grazing/ happening in the paddocks.
We arrive in France at Lyon on April 20. It is almost here after months of planning. We then have two nights before our first week begins in the Dordogne. Then we have the Bearn area near Pau, the Gers, the Correze, the Cantal and finally the Loire department not the Val de Loire. We have a mix of gites in the countryside, small villages and one slightly larger village, Uzerche. In total, this is ten weeks and we plan to just enjoy being back in France after four and a half years. We like what I call the minutiae of life in France past and present- the market halles, the lavoirs, the crosses at crossroads marking past routes, the little chapels by the road, on top of a hill, deep in the forest. All the things we do not see here. So we have lots to discover. I have taken note of places from your blog eg the church in Cheylade to put on the list.
Covid seems to have gone from people’s minds but we will still be taking some precautions. We have just had another booster and will also have a flu shot before we leave. Hopefully we will avoid anything nasty.
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I’m with you on the big cities, although if one can visit by train rather than by car, it makes it less painful. There is so much to see in the countryside, especially if you go off the beaten path. Your programme is a good mix of regions and landscapes. Ten weeks is a good long time.
The church in Cheylade is so unexpected. We wouldn’t have known about it if one of the tourist offices hadn’t told us. It’s always worth visiting them to see what there is. While you’re at Cheylade, drive on a little further to see the waterfall.
Good idea to take precautions. Touching wood, Covid seems to have subsided a good deal, but there has been a nasty flu around this winter.
P.S. Sorry you won’t be staying nearby. Next time!
Enjoyable and inspiring as ever. I’m looking forward to our annual sojourn at our maison secondaire in the north of the Lot. We arrive mid April and should be able to squeeze in a couple of train trips before July/August.
Maxine, Woodend, Australia
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I only found out about the 1€ train trips recently, but I’m determined to take advantage of it before the high season. Enjoy your stay!
Lots of good ideas here, thank you. Also, I like the tourist office organised guided visits in the spring and summer season that usually only a few euros and offer interesting insights that you might not uncover on your own. The link above is for free concerts held out of the high season. I didn’t manage our last local one as I was glued to the six nations! 😊
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Yes, the tourist offices offer good tours for a reasonable price with people who know their stuff. We’ve done several tours of places we thought we knew well and discovered some really interesting things. Thank you for the link. That looks interesting.