With its location in the sun-shine filled southwest corner of France, the small town of Castres offers so much for visitors. Situated near the foot of the Pyrenees mountains, Castres lies on the banks of the river Agout and is famous for its beautiful pastel-color houses that line along the waterway.
The French region of Occitanie is located on the southern part of the country, bordering Spain to the east. The area is most known for the city of Toulouse, which is 50 miles (80 km) away and to a host of popular tourist attractions as well as important universities.
It has a history that dates back to approximately the year 647 AD when it was a small village named “Castrum”, which means “fortified place” in Latin. The Romans had previously established a settlement in this area, which was a strategic point for controlling the passage between Gaul and Iberia (Spain).
Castres became an important stop on the pilgrimage Routes of Santiago de Compostela because its church was keeping the relics of Saint Vincent, the renowned martyr of Spain. It eventually became part of the historic province of Languedoc.
Today it is home to 42,000 inhabitants. While it doesn’t attract as many tourists as some of its neighbors like Albi, Carcassone, and Montpellier, it is still a charming small town. So let’s have a look at the top things to see in Castres, shall we? Allons-y!
Things to see and do
1) Colored houses along the River Agout
Known as Les Maisons sur l’Agout, these famous colorful houses along the Agout river are what the city is most well-known for.
In medieval times, the houses were inhabited by weavers, dyers and tanners. The main industrial activity of the city was textiles manufacturing which was all powered by the water from the river.
The cellars, called “caoussino” in the Occitan language, opened onto the river as wash houses. After having cleaned and rinsed the textiles and animal skins in the Agout, they were placed in the vats filled with lime.
On the ground floor were the apartments of the workers, and above that the private apartments of the masters and business owners. On the top two floors were the dryers with windows to dry the leathers from the heat.
While textile manufacturing is no longer run from these houses, they are still private residences and no visits are permitted.
It is a beautiful view however, and it is because of these Maisons sur Agout that Castres was given the nickname “Little Venice of Languedoc”.
2) Goya Museum
Located in the former Palais épiscopal de Castres is the Goya museum, named after the Spanish painter Francisco Goya.
Given Castres’s proximity to the Spanish border, the museum has the largest collection of Spanish paintings in France, with works by Goya, Zurbarán, Velázquez, Murillo, and Ribera.
The collections of the Goya Museum range from religious art to more modern and contemporary art. The museum also has a collection of military weapons and a collection of ceramics.
3) Castres Cathedral
In the center of town, you will find the imposing structure of the Cathédrale Saint-Benoît de Castres.
The first cathedral here was built in the 14th century after the creation of the diocese of Castres. That building was destroyed during the wars of religion, with the current building in baroque architectural style dates back to the 17th century.
It was the seat of the bishop of Castres until the French revolution, after which it was combined with the diocese of the Archbishop of Albi. For a while, the building was used as a warehouse but has now been restored.
4) Look for the Statue of Jean Jaures
As you are walking through Castres, you will notice a large elegant square called Place Jean Jaurès. It contains a statue of native son Jean Jaures, who was born here in Castres in 1859.
Jean Jaurès was a socialist politician who was assassinated right before the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
Jaurès was a committed antimilitarist and tried to use diplomatic means to prevent what would become the First World War. Along with Émile Zola, he was biggest defenders of Alfred Dreyfus during the Dreyfus Affair.
However, it was his defence of socialism that really raised his profile and why he is celebrated by the French Left even today. Many benefits that the French have today, such as employee working hours, etc. are all due to his passionate advocacy of workers’ rights and the rights of protestors.
According to some historians, his plan had been to expose then French President Poincaré’s secret deal with Russia to the Germans. With the President pushed out of the way, he believed that France and Germany would have reconciled, and he would have been able to push his reforms.
Jaures was a great orator, who had much support on the left and his death on July 31, 1914 sent shockwaves through the country. France would invade Alsace to enter WW1 and fight against Germany on August 7, 1914.
Today, thousands of streets, squares, and other buildings across France are named after Jaures, including in his hometown of Castres. He is buried in the Panthéon in Paris.
The area around Place Jean Jaurès has several restaurants and cafés featuring the local cuisine.
5) Jardin de l’Évêché
Right next to the Palais épiscopal de Castres is the adjoining Jardin de l’Évêché. It is a typical classic jardin à la française (french-style garden) opened in the 17th century.
It was designed by the great André la Nôtre, who also designed the gardens at the Palace of Versailles, Château de Chantilly, and Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte.
It is registered as a monument historique and is a lovely place to walk around and admire the various species of flowerbeds.
How to get to Castres?
Castres is about an hour away from Toulouse by car or TER train.
To get to Toulouse, you can take either the TGV high-speed train from Paris (4h20) or fly into its international airport.
How many days should you spend?
You can visit Castres as a day trip from Toulouse, or spend the night if you wish. It isn’t a very big town, so a day should be mostly sufficient.
Where should you stay?
Castres is a small city, so I would recommend staying in Toulouse and visiting Castres as a day trip. However, if you do wish to immerse yourself in the small French town feel, the Grand Hôtel de Castres is right next to the Goya museum in the center of town.
- €€€€ – Grand Hôtel de Castres
- €€€ – Hôtel Le Père Léon
- €€€€ – Crowne Plaza Toulouse
- €€€€€ – La Cour des Consuls Hotel and Spa Toulouse
If you enjoyed that article, you may want to read more about traveling around the Occitanie region of France. A bientôt!