From textiles to tourism in Mazamet

591

Mazamet sits in a natural valley, le Thoré, at 280 m altitude, between the two mountain ranges of the Montagnès Noire and the Monts de Lacune, both rising to 1,200 m. Considering its geography within SW France, it surprises many that both ranges are the furthest outpost of the Massif Central. The mountains that surround Mazamet & its fast-flowing rivers, lend much to its development from a humble beginning to one of the most prosperous towns throughout France in the 19thcentury.

The earliest products from Mazamet were woollen blankets, known as ‘Cordelots’. In 1837, the first Jacquard loom was installed in Mazamet and the industry went from strength to strength. The importance of the town was gaining world-wide recognition for the quality of both the production process (helped by the fast-flowing & soft waters of the l’Arnette river which was the source for both powering the factories and washing the skins) and the end products themselves.

Sheepskins, originally locally sourced from the Languedoc and then Spain, started to become in short supply by the middle of the 19th century which forced the mill owners look further afield. By 1851, the first skins from Argentina arrived which commenced a huge trade with the Southern Hemisphere (particularly Argentina, Australia & New Zealand) making their way via the ports of Bordeaux & Marseille onto Mazamet by train – at its height, upwards of 100,000 tonnes of skins arrived in the town annually (1912 is noted as the record year in which more than 32 million sheepskins were processed!).

What Mazamet’s tanneries had developed was the skilful process of removing the wool from the hide (called delainage) and this resulted in high quality leather which was then passed onto tanneries in the town and to the village of Graulhet. With skins coming from various countries, and therefore different breeds of sheep, it enabled the town to offer a wide variety of wool suitable for different markets throughout Europe.

By the 1930’s the banks of the l’Arnette river saw some 40 tanneries and the process of wool/leather spurned new industries in the creation of woolen products (socks, scarves, hats & sweaters) as well as leather products (coats, handbags, shoes & wallets). By-products, including glue and organic fertiliser, also added to the industrial landscape.

The resulting wealth created in the town (unusually for France, equally spilt between its Protestant & Catholic inhabitants) was substantial. At its height, during the 1950’s, some 26 banks operated in the town and the Bank de France opened and recorded the 4th largest trading volume per annum in the whole of its French operations.

By the 1970’s there was a steady decide of Mazamet’s industries – caused in part by the growth of manufacturing in Asia as well as the development of synthetic fibres used in the manufacturing of clothing. Whilst only a very small number of the tanneries remain, Mazamet is still recognised for its high quality of leather & wool. Buyers from the likes of Louis Vuitton & Hermes of Paris frequent the town, and the commune of La Richarde has a number of shops selling leather goods and made to measure leather clothing.

The wealth created by the industries is still evident today by the beautiful bourgeois properties owned by factories owners & directors, many influenced in their design by South America where trading had taken place.  So too Mazamet’s world-wide links can still be seen with street names like rue de Buenos Aries, rue de Sydney and many others.

Since the industrial decline, Mazamet has sought to re-invent itself and look to the future, both in its diversification of industry and the development of tourism due to its beautiful natural setting; accessibility and the huge variety of things to see & do on the doorstep and within an hour.

Visitors can undertake two guided walks in the town centre itself which explains & illustrates the history of its industrial past; as well as re-tracing the steps taken back to Roman times ascending to the Village of Hautpoul along the forested pathway and over the awe inspiring Passerelle. The former railway line which brought sheepskins from Béziers to Mazamet has now been transformed into a wonderful cycle path, the Voie Vert; industrial buildings are being re-purposed for projects like the new Halle (a multipurpose indoor market & event space) and a number of the beautiful bourgeois homes now welcome visitors as luxury B&Bs.

Thanks to its rich industrial heritage, those who live in Mazamet have wonderful civic & community facilities the envy of towns much larger in size – from a new aquatic centre, to the Passerelle; the Palais du Congres to the Espace Apollo theatre, library & cinema complex.

The mountains surrounding Mazamet & the Lacs de Montagnes, provide a natural playground for walkers, mountain biking, fishing & horse riding. Hautpoul is your staring point to discover the Pays Cathare of ancient chateaux, villages & monuments dotted throughout the Montagne Noire and beyond. The Office de Tourisme welcomes visitors to discover both past & present – including a museum dedicated to the history of the Cathars and the team welcome visitors from throughout the world with information on everything from walking to markets.

Seeing the changes taking place & positive future for the town; in 2009, British couple Peter Friend & Mark Barber opened La Villa de Mazamet. Turning a former wool merchant’s home into a stunning boutique chambre d’hotes, the couple quickly received plaudits and awards for their high-quality accommodation, food & service. The couple have received the Trip Advisor “Traveller’s Choice” award in 9 successive years since 2010, more than any other property in the whole of France.

In addition to co-running the business, Peter has also taken a lead in helping to further the profile of Mazamet by curating and launching Bienvenue à Mazamet. The website, in both English & French (Dutch, German & Spanish from September 2019) aims to increase awareness of the town as a great place to stay and from which Albi, Carcassonne and the wider area can be explored within under an hour.

Capitalising on the volume of visitors to the recently opened ‘La Passerelle’ (averaging 10,000 visitors each month since September 2018); Bienvenue à Mazamet is a positive window on what’s on offer in and around the town. Highlighting more than 20 restaurants, 100 shops and a great variety of places to stay; the site also promotes Mazamet as a great place to live and own property.

By Peter Friend