If you read Life on La Lune regularly, you’ll know I’m a history girl. And there’s plenty of it around in our part of France if you just scratch the surface. Also, many museums in France open for free on the first Sunday of every month, like today. This is a good way to fill a damp winter’s afternoon. I find the giants like the Louvre a bit hard to get my head around, but the French are rather good at small, quirky museums. So here’s my selection of favourite museums in SW France.
Albi – Musée Toulouse-Lautrec
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born of aristocratic parents, but his life was blighted by congenital illness and alcoholism. Despite all that, he managed to produce thousands of drawings and hundreds of prints. He also produced more than 700 paintings. He was highly skilled at portraying the colour and decadence of Belle Epoque Paris without glamorising it. Individual figures stand out in his crowd scenes, in which he often included himself.
After his death in 1901, his mother was the driving force behind the establishment of the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi. Housed in the former bishops’ palace (Palais de la Berbie) opposite the cathedral, the museum had a facelift about eight years ago. New galleries were added in the basement, allowing more of his works to be displayed.
A wonderful portrait of Toulouse-Lautrec’s mother takes pride of place in the new downstairs galleries: straight-backed, haughty, eyes closed, she must have been a formidable woman. If I could choose any picture from the whole collection it would be that one.
Bordeaux – Centre Jean Moulin
During a weekend visit to Bordeaux a few years ago, a highlight for me was a visit to the Centre Jean Moulin, named after the Resistance hero. In addition to being a museum that focuses on Bordeaux and Aquitaine during World War II and the occupation, it also contains the regional resistance archives.
The Centre is laid out over three floors covering the Resistance, Deportation and the Free French Forces. We spent two hours there and only got to the ground and first floors before a Rosa Klebb clone turned us out 15 minutes before the official closing time. We were in the middle of watching a poignant film about the deportation of Jews and other “undesirables”, with commentary by people who had been detained in concentration camps but had somehow survived.
A visit to their website indicates that, unfortunately, the centre closed in January 2018 for essential restoration works. However, some of the collections are being relocated temporarily to the Museum of Aquitaine in Bordeaux. There is also a Musée de la Résistance in Cahors, which is worth a visit.
Figeac – Musée Champollion
The pleasant medieval town of Figeac on the River Célé is always worth a visit. Another of the region’s famous sons was born there: Jean-François Champollion (1790-1832), who deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphs. The house where he was born, right in the centre of Figeac on the Place Champollion, is now a museum that celebrates the evolution and history of writing.
Behind the museum, the Place des Écritures contains an enlarged reproduction of the Rosetta Stone, of whose hieroglyphs Champollion published the first translation in 1822.
Nay – Musée du Beret
The beret is instantly recognisable throughout the world as a symbol of French culture. For the people of the Béarn, where the beret is still manufactured and worn, it’s a mark of independence and a badge of identity. Several years ago, I wrote an article about it for FRANCE Magazine, which involved a trip to the only beret museum in the world.
In 1945 there were 30 factories throughout France manufacturing the beret. Today, only one manufacturer remains, Laulhère in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, in Pyrénées-Atlantiques. The beret museum occupies the site of the former Blancq-Olibet factory in the pleasant bastide town of Nay, between Pau and Lourdes.
The visit starts with a video showing the people of the Béarn waxing lyrical about the béret and its status. The museum contains the old machines used to make the berets and pictures of famous beret-wearers. A beret has to go through 20 different stages – 10 for the exterior and 10 for the interior – before it is deemed suitable as headgear.
Roquefort – Fromagerie Papillon
Do you know how Roquefort cheese gets its blue-green mould? I didn’t until we visited the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in Aveyron some years ago. In the caves of the Fromagerie Papillon our guide held up a test tube that looked as if it contained powdered ash. In fact, it was Penicillium Roqueforti, which is obtained by baking rye bread, allowing it to go mouldy and then powdering it. This is then sprinkled on the ewe’s milk cheese and is a vital element in its manufacture.
There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, but plenty of legends are associated with this ancient cheese. The first written references to it date back to about 1070.
While the Papillon caves are not strictly a museum, you learn about the history and manufacture of the cheese and get a free dégustation as well.
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