Midi-Pyrenees: a place in the sun

by Jane.Anderson

If you haven’t discovered France’s Midi-Pyrénées, you’re missing a short-haul gem

After many years of globetrotting, discovering France’s Midi-Pyrénées, the largest region of southwest France, is simply a joy. It’s one of those wonderful places where, at the end of the holiday, you wish you could buy a fabulous big farmhouse and live here forever in bucolic harmony – or at least have it as a holiday bolthole for family and friends. Plus, it’s just a one-hour, budget airline flight away.
This is exactly what British couple Vicky and Andy Coleman did, owners of Tresbos Farmhouse near Tarbes. As Vicki says, “Having two young children and very busy working lives, holidays and family time are extremely important to us. After three years of hunting we came to the Midi-Pyrénées and were thrilled with the area. Skiing and the airports are all easily accessible and the views of the mountains are breathtaking. We fell in love with Trebos Farmhouse immediately.”
The house dates back to 1891 and had been in the same family for decades. Vicki and Andy have their own wing and rent the main part of their enormous converted farmhouse out to guests. When my partner Steve and I arrived with our son Finlay, aged one, and daughter Scarlett, aged four, my mum, sister, her partner and teenage daughter, we all heartily agreed this was the perfect home away from home. Arriving just around twilight after a reasonably pain-free flight to the capital Toulouse and a one-and-half-hour drive, there was the sun-kissed face of housekeeper Cleo and her pretty daughter June to welcome us in through the kitchen door (not the grand double front doors - just as any proper family home operates).
The house stands proud, with its lemony stone-coloured façade, white wood shutters and a huge climbing white rose bush beside the kitchen door. Step inside and it's all stainless steel and new technology, with a hearty wood table for preparing food or chatting over a glass of the local armagnac. We’ve taken Vicky’s advice and pre-ordered from a ‘Stove Top Menu’ (E15 per head) coq au vin followed by a rhubarb and raspberry crumble and some good red Cabernet Sauvignon. For the children, there’s spaghetti Bolognese.
We all sit down in the spacious dining room dominated by a huge twinkling turquoise glass chandelier. Our cutlery and fat candles are bright turquoise too. It all revs up the glamour of the room’s traditional tiled floor, inglenook fireplace and recessed windows with old trunks for seats. On the sideboard there’s an ancient set of Mappin & Webb cutlery next to an iPod docking system - typical of this house that mixes up its old and new vibe to dramatic effect.
If you don’t want to cook at all during your stay, you can order from the Stove Top Menus or splash out on the four-course gourmet menu (E35-40 per head), which is cooked and served at the house. It would be a shame not to do a bit of cooking for yourself, though, as the house is surrounded by fabulous local markets such as Campuzan, Galan, Lannemezan, Castlenou and Trie (if you like antiques, they all feature them too). Alternatively, you have restaurants ranging from the homely Ferme Aurberge du Lac in nearby Puydarrieux, run by Thierry, serving sturdy potage de poule, to the Michelin-starred L’Ambroisie next to the cathedral in Tarbes.
The great thing about holidaying here with extended family is that you can take it as easy or be as busy as you like. You can laze by the pool, take a stroll around the fields or go down to the nearby lake for a picnic. For a small fee paid at the local town hall, you can fish in the lake from the bank. Or jump in the car and explore the local towns and villages. We all loved Galan for its pretty church and squares. Tarbes is great for its fresh product in a vast covered market, with local delicacies such as pastis gascon (a razor-thin puff pastry filled with fresh apples and armagnac). Lannamazan has more shops and cafes and a great merry-go-round!
Or you can take grand days out. Our first was to Lourdes, more out of curiosity than salvation, though I did return with a glass bottle, in the shape of the Virgin Mary, full of holy water. It’s 150 years since Bernadette Soubirous met a ‘lady’ on the banks of the River Gave – the first apparition of the Virgin Mary on 11 February 1858 - and even for non-believers it’s certainly an experience entering the Sanctuaries of Our Lady of Lourdes and the Basilica of the Rosary.
More up your child’s street is the Animal Park Pyrénées, just 10 minutes south of Lourdes, near Argeles. If you’re not a fan of zoos, this is something else altogether. Set up an impressive hillside, the animals are said to be in ‘semi-freedom’. There was much excitement from Scarlett and Fin as we saw otters (above and below water), roe deer tame enough to come and lick our hands, wolves, lynx, marmots and four utterly astounding brown bears.
Even if you’re not skiers, a day trip to the Pic du Midi is a must. The drive south through the foothills of the Pyrénées to the cable car at La Mongie is lovely. It’s E30 per adult (children under 6 years go free), but well worth it, as the 15-minute ride takes you up to an altitude of 2877m for incredible views over these dramatic snowy peaks. You can dine at the top if you book in advance, or even stay overnight, observe the stars with the astronomers and watch the sunrise.
If you want to visit during winter a weekend of skiing (ski season is officially from 5 December to 31 March), Trebos is just a 45-minute drive from the ski station at St.Lary, which is excellent for families, with several crèches, junior ski schools and nursery slopes, along with more challenging skiing for adults.
After all that adventure, if you’re in need of rejuvenating ‘me time’, head to Balnéa spa centre on the banks of the Lake of Genos-Loudenvielle. At L’Espace Tibétain you can indulge in Tibetan ball massage where the body is wrapped in warm sesame oil before massage!