Driving through a hilly landscape, a castle suddenly appears out of the fog. It’s a magical sight, expecting photographing tourists by the side of the road, but the handful of other cars that pass are driven by locals, whose jaws no longer fall open at this view.
The castle of Najac is located in the sparsely populated Aveyron, one of the thirteen departments – similar to what we call provinces – of Occitania. This area is ideal for ‘slow tourism’, where you as a tourist do not rush off a list of highlights, but take the time to experience local life.
Occitania is working on a strategy to promote that slow, more conscious tourism, says Sophie Pirkin, responsible for developing sustainable tourism in the region.
Sustainable strategy, hesitant entrepreneurs
“In the past we mainly promoted the places that are already known. Now we try to focus on areas that attract fewer tourists,” says Pirkin. A development that will take time, because the tourism sector still has to get used to the idea.
Some entrepreneurs are hesitant and see it as a risk of loss of income. “These are the entrepreneurs who are used to many tourists. In the busy summer months they earn enough for the whole year and are not waiting for spreading,” explains Pirkin.
Tour operators are also used to guiding their customers past the major attractions, such as the monumental Roman viaduct Pont du Gard. “They will look at you crazy if you propose a different route.”
But change is needed and the first steps have been taken. “The change is already being felt.” Because there are also many entrepreneurs who would like to contribute to a sustainable sector.
For the tourist himself, it is no punishment to skip the usual places, but to discover the pleasant countryside of the south of France. For example, by going out with wild picker Michaël from Les Jardins de l’instant Végétal.
During an instructive walk you are nibbling at dandelion leaves and he tells you which plants are even more edible. It is also nice that the villagers greet enthusiastically and are happy to have a chat.
With the basket of picked plants – which he also supplies to star restaurants – you then prepare something delicious. Speaking a little French is nice, because as befits a Frenchman, Michael’s English is rather limited.
Those who are not rich in the French language, but would like to learn more about local products, are always welcome for a tasting at the Chateau de Mayragues wine estate in the neighboring province of Tarn. Winegrower Duncan Geddes – half Scottish, half French – talks with great passion and a touch of Scottish humor about biodynamic wine growing.
The family business is one of 120 independent vineyards in the Gaillac wine region, fifty of which are now working organically and the number is growing. Simply because the demand for organic products is increasing.
The entrepreneurs themselves are also becoming increasingly aware. “The knowledge about organic and biodynamic cultivation is increasing and you notice that,” says Geddes.
Not only winegrowers are concerned with sustainability. A survey of more than 70,000 companies in the tourism sector in Occitania revealed that many hoteliers and restaurant owners are open to adjustments.
From foie gras to seasonal and vegetarian
“Often they want to change, but they don’t know how. That is why we now give specific workshops with concrete information and guidelines on how entrepreneurs can make their company more sustainable,” says Pirkin.
That goes step by step. For example, a vegetarian in rural Occitania has varying experiences. In this region, where traditional meat products such as foie gras are still very popular, not every menu has interesting vegetarian options.
A nice surprise is Amapola Kitchen, where they work with seasonal products and serve vegetarian delights. This small restaurant can be found in Albi, the capital of Tarn.
Unesco World Heritage
In the old town of Albi you stroll through beautiful streets, which are on the list of Unesco World Heritage. Must visit is the cathedral, one of the largest brick buildings in Europe. From the outside it looks austere, but once inside you strain your neck staring at the beautifully painted ceiling.
What is striking is that here too there is no great crowds, so that you as a visitor immediately feel less rushed and can take the time to absorb the environment. Whether that is in a cathedral, at the farmers market or sipping a local wine.
Baguette under the arm
The region hopes to evoke exactly that feeling among tourists: not rushing past the attractions or taking a nap on the beach in high season, but leisurely through picturesque villages. With a baguette under his arm, a stinky cheese in the bag and a castle in the background.
How do you get there?
It is about a twelve-hour drive from Utrecht by car.
The most sustainable way of traveling is by train: First with the Thalys to Paris, then with the (very basic) night train to Toulouse, where you can rent a car for the further round trip.
For this article, our editor went to the provinces of Tarn, Tarn-et-Garonne and Aveyron at the invitation of Destination Occitanie. The content of the article has been independently determined editorially.