Sunday, October 20, 2019

Discover the quiet appeal of Moissac

Written and photographed by Mimi Beck Knudsen

This post originally appeared on the Places & Faces blog for The Local Buzz.

The cloister of Abbaye Saint-Pierre in Moissac is the oldest in the world.

I'm getting to know the Tarn-et-Garonne bit by bit. I now have a small list of sites here I have visited and a longer list of places I'll visit soon. My most recent trip to this department in southwest France included a stop in Moissac, a lovely city in which to spend the day.

Hanging baskets hang out along this street in Moissac.

Moissac's war memorial stands in the center of a pretty roundabout.

Known mostly for its remarkable cloister, Abbaye Saint-Pierre, the small city of around 12,500 is fortunate to be situated along the Tarn River and the Canal des Deux Mers. If the weather is suitable, one can spend some time inside the abbey, and the rest of the day, walking or biking through the streets of Moissac. The day can include a boat ride too, as the Tarn bateaux operate all year round (check online hours and days of operation). And of course, one needs to fuel up for the day, and luckily Moissac has plenty of restaurants. We ate in a bistro on Place des Recollets and had a delicious 13- euro lunch with amazing slice of Basque cake for dessert.

These sculptures by Jean-Louis Toutain can be found in the plaza in front
of the abbey in Moissac.

Although we easily found a parking spot a block from the abbey when we arrived in Moissac, we decide to leave our visit to the cloister until last. After lunch we stroll south to the river. Along the way we see sculptures by artists Jean-Louis Toutain and Charles STRATOS.

This stainless steel sculpture by STRATOS in front of the Mairie is one
of several pieces by the artist in Moissac's city center.

The Tarn river can be seen through this stone gate in Moissac.

When we reach the banks of the Tarn, we come across a bit of history that we had been unaware of. During World War II, hundreds of children taken in by the Jewish organization Éclaireurs Israélites de France (EIF) found refuge in Moissac. The city and its people offered a haven to these children throughout the war. The Esplanade des Justes along the Tarn was built to honor the city and its heroic citizens.

The Esplanade des Justes in Moissac honors those who sheltered 500-600
Jewish children here during WWII.

Dating from the Middle Ages, this mill along the Tarn in Moissac
was a flour mill-turned luxury hotel.

Also along the river is a hotel/spa that has a rich history. Built in 1474, just after the 100 Years War had ended, a mill was built on the ruins of another mill that had recently burned down. Over the course of several centuries, the mill became the largest in Southwest France and its flour was considered to be excellent. But during World War I, the mill burned and the site was abandoned. During the Roaring Twenties, the mill became a luxury hotel, but it closed at the start of World War II. It is here that many of the Jewish refugee children lived during the war. After the war, the mill was briefly a technical school. Then in the 1970s it was reborn again as a luxury hotel whose famous guests included President Giscard d'Estaing and actress Catherine Deneuve. The hotel failed again in the 1990s but was purchased and restored. And so today, Le Moulin de Moissac is a popular hotel and spa.

Ken catches some sunshine along the Tarn River in Moissac.

Ghost-sign advertisements for yummy things can be seen on the side of this
building in Moissac.

We've covered a good part of the city during our afternoon stroll and have admired the architecture. In 1930, a flood devastated part of Moissac's town center. The flood killed 120 people and left thousands more homeless. Dozens of architects from Toulouse helped to rebuild the city, favoring the Art Déco style. The most notable building from this period is Hall de Paris, and other examples can be found in the Sainte-Blanche district along the Tarn.

Abbaye Saint-Pierre in Moissac is topped by this red-brick bell tower.

The southwest portico of the Abbaye Saint-Pierre in Moissac is considered
to be a masterpiece of Romanesque art.

Doors from Abbaye Saint-Pierre lead to a sunny plaza in Moissac.

My visit to Moissac is capped off with a self-guided tour of the cloister at Abbaye Saint-Pierre. Completed in 1100, the Romanesque-style cloister is oldest and one of the finest in the world. Here stands 76 capitals, most adorned with scenes from the Bible or from saints' lives. I spend about an hour here, enjoying the peaceful setting and checking out the various exhibits. Entrance to the cloister is 6.50 euros, but entrance to the church is free. The intricately carved tympanum above the southwest portico depicts Saint John's version of the Apocalypse. The abbey and Moissac's tourism office are open every day except Christmas and New Year's Day. 

Inside the cloister of Abbaye Saint-Pierre in Moissac, one can find 76 adorned
capitals depicting biblical scenes, saints, or leaves.

Floor tiles in the cloister of Moissac's abbey are preserved and studied.

This Reliquaire de Saint Jacques is one of the artifacts on display in the
cloister of Abbaye Saint-Pierre in Moissac.

Exhibits such as this at Abbaye Saint-Pierre in Moissac allow visitors an
up-close look at the cloister's capitals.

This sculpture in the Abbaye Saint-Pierre in Moissac is from 1476.

This very vertical house in  Moissac contains charming
old shutters.