Culture, Music and the Arts

Toulouse – the cultural heart of the Midi-Pyrenees

Toulouse’s reputation as the cultural capital of France is certainly justified; throughout the year there is a wealth of music festivals, exhibitions and cultural events offering something for everyone. Easily accessible from most of the Ariege and the Haute Garonne, Toulouse is a vibrant and interesting cultural centre for the region, packed with museums, art galleries, historic buildings, beautiful architecture, world class opera and theatre, modern exhibition spaces, cinema festivals and a fascinating heritage.

The famous Basilique St-Sernin is the largest Romanesque basilica in the Western world and houses the remains of St Sernin, martyred in year 250. Also of interest are the classical, 18th Century brick and stone quarters of Capitole, the Cathédrale St-Étienne, the Musée des Augustins, a former convent with one of the best collections devoted to the history of art and the medieval Jacobins monastery, a Gothic masterpiece known for its international piano festival. Trend-setting, modern art exhibitions are housed in the lovely museum of the Château d’Eau and in the vast L’Espace d’Art Moderne et Contemporain; the former abattoirs of the city and a great space to show all the avant-garde French artists.

Music and Dance

Throughout the year, there are festivals held all over the Ariège and the Haute Garonne offering a wide variety of music, dance and arts. It would take pages to list them all but here are some of the best:

One of the best-known celebrations of music in the region is the Festival de Comminges (July and August) which has acquired international recognition thanks to the magical settings in which the concerts are held; the magnificent Cathedral of Saint-Bertrand de Comminges, the Basilica of Saint-Just de Valcabrere, the collegiate church of Saint-Gaudens and the Roman church of Martres-Tolosane. Then there is the quality of the orchestras and choirs which take part, the diversity of the programmes and the fact that every year, the festival commissions new works from great composers.

The Saint Lizier Festival (July and August) is the oldest classical music festival in the Midi-Pyrenees region held in the prestigious setting of the Saint Lizier cathedral in one of the ‘plus belles villages de France’. Each year well-known composers and musicians perform a wide repertoire of classical pieces to appreciative audiences of all ages.
Jazz Sur Son 31 offers music and concerts for jazz lovers throughout the year in various locations around Toulouse. The concerts combine international stars, local artists and young, emerging talents. This is a programme of great diversity open to everyone.

Chaud Les Musiques – the ‘Toulouse in Summer’ Festival (July and August) aims to showcase the wealth of culture and creativity for which Toulouse is well known. The festival is made up of twenty concerts that take place in emblematic venues all over the pink city. This eclectic festival combines all types of music; jazz, classical, flamenco and traditional for all tastes performed both by well-known talents and by the artists of tomorrow.

Festival Rite, in Saint Girons is a festival held over one week, celebrating the music and dance traditions and different cultures from around the world. Held in the springtime, over 250 artists; musicians, dancers and singers from eight countries, put on a week of shows, concerts and demonstrations in and around Saint Girons.

31 Notes d’été is a diverse and eclectic festival held all over the Haute Garonne region during the summer months. There are over 31 free concerts and shows in 31 communes of the department covering all types of music from classical to Latin-American, jazz to traditional and open to everyone.

The French in general take their music, dance and even circus extremely seriously and nearly every town in the Ariège and Haute Garonne has its own music school some of which feed into the renowned conservatoire in Toulouse. There are also circus schools, and dance schools for traditional, modern and salsa dancing and for flamenco which is particularly popular in this region bordering Spain.

Film and Theatre

Both theatre and cinema are immensely popular and well-regarded in France and even most small towns in the Ariège and Haute Garonne have a combined theatre and cinema or at least place where shows and films can be staged. Arts cinemas are popular, particularly the Cinema Utopia in Toulouse and Tournefeuille. It is also possible in many towns in the region to see films in their original language with regular showings of English films in Saint Gaudens, Toulouse, Foix and Aurignac to name a few. Cinema and theatre clubs are also popular.

The International Film and Television Festival of Luchon has become a major event; the equivalent of Cannes for the television film industry. Producers, directors and scriptwriters all meet in Bagnères-de-Luchon in February to exchange ideas, discover original film and television programmes and share the diversity of audiovisual creation.

Each Autumn in the Midi-Pyrenees the Festival Cinespaña takes place for ten days all over the region; a real treat for anyone who enjoys Spanish culture and cinema.

Festival de Theatre de Saint Girons et du Couserans in August is a series of plays, traditional and modern, performed in Saint Girons and in the villages of the Couserans region.

Les Explorateurs du Temps is a popular and unique open air show that takes place in the lovely, historic town of Foix in August. It is a great family show illuminating particularly turbulent periods of history. With more than 200 actors, acrobats and dancers along with extraordinary special effects, giant images projected on to the Foix castle, fireworks and spectacular scenery on a stage 50 metres long, this is a great – and educational – night out.

Local Fetes

Even the smallest village (and many a hamlet) hold their annual village fête which will usually last a whole weekend and include live music, dancing and often a boules completion, all regularly punctuated with a variety of delicious repas – big three or four course meals served at long trestle tables featuring a wide range of local specialities. At these fêtes all generations are represented and happy to eat, dance and sing together into the early hours.

On the 21st June the annual Fête de la Musique is held all over France and this tradition is celebrated with gusto in the region. The Saint Girons music festival is particularly worth a visit, with a great atmosphere, free concerts all over the town, all ages performing dance and music in the streets along with a variety of bands strutting their stuff on the terraces of the cafés and restaurants.

Autrefois Couserans is a festival of local rural traditions which takes place over the last weekend in July, culminating in the famous Sunday parade with everyone dressed in colourful, traditional costumes, folk dancing, ancient tractors, farm machinery and animals herded through the streets in a great display of organised chaos. There is also a big street market, lots of demonstrations of traditional arts and crafts and plenty of local character.

The Flower Festival in Luchon dates back to 1888 and consists of thirty or more floats decorated with natural flowers parading through the streets of the town. The stunning floral compositions are cultivated during the year by volunteers to be at their very best for this week in August.

Transhumance en Couserans is the name given to the herding of farm animals up to higher pastures in the early summer, usually the end of May or beginning of June. A long tradition firmly anchored in the Pyrenean landscapes, the transhumance has become a great pastoral festival. More than 10,000 sheep, a thousand cows and hundreds of horses are moved up through the nine valleys of the Couserans to dozens of summer pastures in the mountains where the animals will spend the summer in total liberty. It is possible to join them on parts of their journey through the valleys or watch the spectacle of them being driven through the towns and villages, stopping everything in their tracks.

Arts and Crafts ancient and modern

Tracé a main levee in the Couserans valleys of the Ariege is an art exhibition that takes place all over the region during certain weekends of the year. Numerous artists from painters to sculptors to poets and muralists open the doors of their studios and homes to the public free of charge.

Martres-Tolosane has been renowned for its earthenware for over three centuries and it is still a way of life for the town, as well as a living art. Nine master potters are active in the town and each autumn, the ‘Salon des Arts’ fair attracts pottery designers from all over France, Holland, Algeria and Spain to show off the different techniques of ceramics, porcelain, stoneware and enamels.

All over the region, traditional crafts are still very much a way of life. In the Bethmale valley of the Ariège, clogmaking continues as it has done for centuries, producing more than 1000 pairs of traditional Ariège clogs each year completely by hand. Another ancient craft that still survives is that of making combs. Combs made of horn actually originated in the Ariège, begun by the Huguenots and the industry continued to thrive right up until the 1950’s and the emergence of plastic which flooded the market with plastic combs. Now only two workshops continue to produce horn combs but the ancient skills used are still the same. Other local crafts include skilled makers of hand carved knives, a sharpening stone maker, a creator of Santons (figurines carved from wood and clay), jewellery makers and iron forgers.

Courses in painting, sculpture, pottery, and art are all popular in this region for locals and visitors.