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Situated some 78Km (or 49mi) east of Toulouse and 44km (or 27mi) southeast of Albi, Castres is the second largest town of the department of Tarn (department number 81).
The town - now with a population of over 40,000 - was founded in the 9th century around a Benedictine abbey.
During the heyday of the pilgrimage to Saint James de Compostela during the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries Castres became an important stop on the so called "Arles path" to Compostela in Spain.
In 1317, Castres was created bishopric and remained like this until 1790.
During many centuries Castres prosperity was tightly linked to the Agout River that crosses the town. One can still see the beautiful houses built in the Middle Ages, bordering the river, and that were lodging craftsmen such as leather tanners, weavers, dyers, paper makers etc. The houses' basements - called in the local Occitan language "caussinos" - were opening into the river and used as a place for the cleaning of animal skins, fabrics etc. (This water proximity gave the town the name of "Little Venice of Languedoc").
The last two levels of the buildings were used as leather and fabrics drying rooms and were called "soleillers".
Between 1669 and 1673 the then Bishop of Castres, Monsignor Michel de Tuboeuf, built the Episcopal Palace after the plans of the architect Mansart. The building still integrates the oldest structure of Castres, Saint Benoit tower, erected in the 12th century on the foundation of the original 9th century Benedictine abbey the town developed around.
Today the former Episcopal Palace houses the Francisco Goya Museum - the largest collection of the painter/sculptor's work after Louvre - and the City Hall.
The magnificent "à la Française" garden of the palace was designed by the famous landscape architect André Le Nôtre - best known as the creator of the gardens of Versailles. The garden that spreads on around 1hectare was completed around 1700 and preserves to this day its original "vegetal embroidery" design.
Each spring Castres celebrates its "little Venice" fame with a "Venetian Carnival". For the 2016 edition pictures click here.