Daily direct flights from London Stansted to Carcassonne have opened up southwest France, making it a perfect destination for short breaks as well as summer holidays. The medieval city itself is one of France’s most popular tourist attractions, and makes an ideal jumping off point for this rich and varied area which encompasses the department of the Aude, parts of the Tarn, the Pyrenees Orientales and the Ariege. Take any road from Carcassonne (it’s a small town so it’s easy to drive around and out of) and all the pleasures of the South await you. Within an hour you can be in the mountains of the Massif Central or the Pyrenees, the wine regions of the Corbières or the Minervois, or basking on the Med.
Carcassonne makes a perfect base for day trips, but to explore the whole region, I would suggest at least one night stay over. France is still full of wonderful small hotels and auberges which charge a fraction of the price of English hotels, and the food and wine is much cheaper too.
While a car is the obvious way to travel, there are excellent alternatives. Cycling is popular in the flat plain of the Aude, though it requires Tour de France exertions in the mountains. Horse-riding is an option, especially in the Corbières. Travelling by mountain train over the Pyrenees is the best way to enjoy the spectacular scenery, or you can meander slowly by barge along the Canal du Midi, once a key trading link between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and now a delightfully indolent way to see the country, floating past little villages, vineyards and poplar-shaded banks.
You can’t fail to eat well, and the region produces increasingly high quality wine. Inland is cassoulet country – Toulouse, Carcassonne and Castelnaudary all compete for the title of inventor of the true cassoulet, a slow cooked casserole of white haricot beans, with sausages and meat – duck, pork or mutton-and a crust of breadcrumbs on top. Other specialities include all sorts of goose and duck products, especially confit, duck preserved in its own fat. The local market stalls are laden with produce, live ducks and geese, walnuts, wild mushrooms, asparagus, pink Lautrec garlic, plums and strawberries
The coast has excellent fish and seafood; from mussels and oysters to sea urchins and crayfish. Look for local specialities on the menu; Bouillabaisse with monkfish, mullet, eel, tomatoes and saffron; soupe de poisson served with croutons and rouille, or bourride with aioli (garlic mayonnaise) added. Brandade is a creamy puree of salt cod and olive oil; anchoiade is a hot anchovy dip served with vegetables. In Roussillon sample cargolade, the famous grill of snails and sausages; local anchovies; and for dessert creme catalane, egg custard with a caramelised crust.
Drink the local vin de pays or sample slightly more expensive wines from the Corbières, Minervois or Cotes de Roussillon. Sweet wines chilled as aperitifs or served with dessert include Banyuls and muscat de Rivesaltes.
Love and War in the Pyrenees
A Story of Courage, Fear and Hope, 1939-1944
“A beguiling mixture of travel, memoir, history and good old-fashioned storytelling – a slice of hidden France” – Kate Mosse
Available in paperback and Kindle
Landing by plane at Carcassonne you can easily discern the distinctive citadel of pepperpot towers rising above the plain. It’s a a better view than the Romans ever had of the geographic location that for over 2000 years has made it such a strategic site; a critical trade route between the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and an important border post on the Pyrenean frontier with Spain. To the north you can see the dark wooded slopes of the Montagne Noire, to the south the snow capped Pyrenees and the Corbières foothills. To the west the patchwork fields of barley, maize and sunflowers stretch as far as Toulouse, and to the east begin the vines and garrigue of the Mediterranean coast.
Visit La Cité itself out of season if you can, and book lunch before you go; several excellent restaurants make a perfect Gallic combination of history and a good lunch. The best approach is on foot over the bridge from the Lower Town (Bas Carcassonne) winding up to the ramparts of rough hewn sandstone. On a rocky spur overlooking a meander of the river Aude is the medieval town, about 25 acres in total area, completely encircled by a double wall of foritfications punctuated by massive towers. Only a little imagination is required to envisage it beseiged by crusading armies. Critics complain that the 19th century restoration by the great Gothic revivalist and architectural historian, Viollet Le Duc is too perfect. The night time illuminations do make it look a bit like Disneyland, especially on the 14th July festival depicting the burning of the Citadel. But Viollet le Duc was not interested in preserving Romantic ruins, and his reconstruction is a rare opportunity to really experience a medieval town, satisfying to visit because you can see what these great citadels were like in use. It has long been favoured by film makers as a medieval backdrop, from Renoir’s first feature film, Le Tournoi dans la Cite, to more recently, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves.
Enter through the imposing twin sandstone towers of the Narbonne Gate with its portcullis and drawbridge (one of the more fanciful elements of the restoration.) Between the ramparts are the lices, a further defensible space, once used for jousting and well worth walking round to get a good sense of the defences. Within is a warren of well restored medieval houses and winding streets. Despite the souvenir shops and crowds of tourists this is still a real town with 200 permanent residents behind the lace curtains.
Carcassonne’s fortunes have waxed and waned over centuries of power struggles for southern France. Evidence of settlement dates from the 6th century BC, and when the Romans founded the colony of Narbonensis in 118 BC. it rapidly became a small busy town on the Narbonne -Toulouse road. Parts of the inner walls and towers date from the Roman period, including the Avar Postern Gate, the oldest gate in the town.
By the 12th century Carcassonne had become one of the great powers of south, rivalling the great Duchy of Toulouse. These were the golden years of the powerful Trencavels, invoked with t-shirts and plastic swords in the ubiquitous souvenir shops. Troubadours and poets entertained the nobility in the castle frescoed and hung with tapestries, and construction started on the cathedral of St Nazaire.
But Carcassonne suffered cruelly at the centre of the ferocious 13th century Albigensian Crusade against the Cathar heretics. The French monarchy, allied with the Pope, saw the Cathar crusade as a opportunity to defeat the powerful lords of the South. Toulouse capitulated, Beziers was left a smoking ruin and after a savage siege led by the notorious crusader Simon de Montfort, Carcassonne submitted in 1226.
The French crown’s newly acquired lands were close to what was then the Spanish frontier, so the citadel was massively reinforced with a second ring of ramparts and towers; fortifications so impressive it was never even attacked during the Hundred Years War.
La Cité lost its role of frontier guard once the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed in 1659 and the border moved to its present position. The citadel declined into a ghetto of the poor, frozen in the 16th century. By the beginning of the 19th century local builders were eyeing the cut stone greedily, and the cathedral transept was being used as a blacksmith’s forge. Just in time to save it from total destruction the newly created Monuments Historique stepped in, and Viollet Le Duc was commissioned to restore it.
At the heart of La Cité is the Château Comtal, a castle within a castle, where every possible military defense tactic can be seen: watchtowers, posterns, covered wooden walkways and machicolations the better for hurling boiling oil and stones on the attackers.
The cathedral of St Nazaire has some of the finest medieval stained glass in the Midi, seven exquisite windows making a wall of light in the east end of church. Look out for the famous Siege Stone, which probably depicts the death of Simon de Montfort at Toulouse.
Bas Carcassonne on the opposite side of the Aude is an agreeable small town, a good base for touring the countryside or visiting La Cité itself. It retains more or less its original New Town plan, with a grid pattern of streets typical of the many bastides established in the region during the 13th and 14th century, the better to control an increasing population. It was burnt down in 1355 by the Black Prince but subsequently prospered as one of the most important cloth manufacturing centres in South. It is a comfortable town to stroll around, and has two cathedrals worth investigating, and a classic market on Place Carnot.
West of Carcassonne is the Lauragais, a fertile plain of wheat and maize studded with prosperous farms and turretted Renaissance chateaux. Castelnaudary, a pretty bustling town on the banks of the Canal du Midi, is most famous as a contender for the cassoulet crown – Ford Madox Ford claimed the cassoulet he ate in Castelnaudary, “had sat on the fire for the last three hundred years.” Don’t miss the splendid town of Bram, a few miles west of Carcassonne, its circular red roofed streets around a central church easily visible from the air as you fly in. Also within easy striking distance is Montolieu, Village du Livre, the book village of France; modelled on Hay on Wye in Britain and Redu in Belgium. Over a dozen small shops sell new and second hand books, there is a recently opened English Bookshop, a shop selling hand-made paper, even a Cafe du Livre. The village spans two gorges on the edge of the Montagne Noire, its once crumbling houses now restored with charming terraces and gardens of palm trees clinging to the steep sides. It is becoming popular as a literary haven and residents include author Patrick Suskind.
Montagne Noire and Minervois
North of Carcassonne the terrain changes. Here the Massif Central begins, the olives give way to chestnut trees, and the ochre plain fissures into deep black granite gorges flowing with the cold clear rivers that powered the textile, wool and paper industries that once flourished here. (You can visit the paper mill at Brousses, still producing fine quality hand-made paper.) In summer the Montagne Noire is cool and refreshing, sunlight piercing the deep green valleys, though in winter it sometimes has a more gloomy resemblance to the Black Mountains of Wales. Tiny stone villages nestle into the sides of the gorges, tidy vegetable gardens cover the valley floor and here and there the forbidding ruins of castles peer from craggy perches. Lastours in the Orbiel valley, has several ruins, as its name suggests, some of which undoubtedly sheltered the unfortunate Cathars, and make a fine excuse for climbing the gorge.
In the plain beyond the Montagne Noire lies Castres, long a centre of the textile industry, and now famous for pharmaceuticals. It is a lively Southern town, with open air cafes, a well restored old quarter perched over stone arches along the river and idiosyncratic hotels converted from fine old mansions. Pride of Castres is the Musée Goya, housed in the Archbishop’s Palace, the grandest building in town with a wonderful garden, a pocket Le Nôtre, with topiary fleurs de Lys and clipped box hedges. The collection features Spanish still lifes, a Velasquez portrait of Philip IV, and some fine Goyas; a sceptical looking self portrait, and many etchings including Goya’s great anti-war statement, the powerful series, Les Desastres de la Guerre.
To the east of Castres is the Sidobre, a strange wooded plateau scattered with boulders of solidified magma including vast granite “trembling” rocks which look as if a gentle prod would send them tumbling. In the middle is Lacrouzette, which the abundance of local granite has made the tombstone capital of France.
Sidobre is part of the Parc de Haut Languedoc, one of the largest French national parks, with forest and mountain trails for walking and riding and a wildlife research centre at St Pons -de-Thomières, where you can glimpse the mouflons, eagles and wild boar which once were common in the region. Beyond is the Cevennes, another, wilder world of high limestone causses, rugged plateaux and remote sheep farms.
Further east is the Minervois, parched, arid hills covered by vines and little else. Today the region produces increasingly respected wine, and is a favourite retreat for wine writers (Jancis Robinson has a house here.) Minerve itself is well worth a visit, perched on its rocky outcrop at the confluence of two rivers, defended by the Candela, the octagonal tower which is all that remains of the original chateau. The little village looks as defiant as it did in 1209 when it resisted the vengeful Simon de Montfort in a siege which culminated in the immolation of 140 Cathars who refused to renounce their faith. Cross the bridge over the gorge to the 12th century church of St. Etienne, which contains a 5th century marble altar table. Outside is a crudely carved dove, symbol of the Cathars. A rocky path follows the river-bed below the town, where the water has cut natural caves from the soft limestone.
Narbonne and the Med.
Head east and the poplars give way to cypresses, the scent of rosemary and broom becomes more pungent and in less than an hour you reach the palm trees and sunshine of Narbonne and the Mediterranean coast. There are several large purpose built resorts; Leucate and Barcares are particularly good for watersports and the sea here is claimed to have the cleanest waters in the Mediterranean. Enlightened planning has also left wide sandy empty beaches in between and seawater lagoons (étangs) which yield an abundance of seafood. The winding streets of small fishing villages like Bages and Peyriac sur Mer overlook lagoons dotted with pink flamingoes, and are becoming favoured retreats, with waterside cottages, tiny art galleries and fish restaurants.
Narbonne was once capital of the largest Roman province in Gaul and a major port until the harbour silted up in the Middle Ages. Today it is prosperous again thanks to the surrounding wine region. In the restored medieval section north of the canal are the monumental Archbishop’s Palace and fine art museum, the Cathédrale with its cloisters, 14th century stained glass and exquisitely wrought tapestries, and the Horreum, a unique underground Roman warehouse. To the south of the canal look out for the elegant lines of the art nouveau market and the mouth- watering produce within.
Between Narbonne and the sea is the Montagne de la Clape, a massif of black basalt covered in vineyards, with a lovely windswept marine cemetery at the top. To the west is Fontfroide Abbey, beautifully restored with fine marble cloisters and a gorgeous rose garden. Guarding the narrow defile between the mountains and Mediterranean that once marked the border with Spain is the Chateau de Salses, its massive walls and rounded towers looking as if they have sprung organically from the ochre earth. This classic example of Spanish military architecture today provides atmospheric backdrop for drama, music and modern art exhibitions.
The Corbières, the Pyrenean foothills south east of Carcassonne, are the very heart of Cathar country. It is a theme now constantly evoked (there is even a Catharama museum) but the various Cathar trails provide a perfect excuse to explore this glorious wild country. Much of the land is untamed garrigue, fragrant with honeysuckle and broom, though vines are planted on any promising slice of land. Tucked away here and there are discreet chateaux, many of them wine estates which offer degustations and often charming accommodation.
You should certainly visit the castles, spectacularly perched sanctuaries for the Cathar heretics, who were so brutally pursued to the far corners of this region. It was the cruellest crusade of the Middle Ages; their simple faith and bold criticism of the established church punished by torture and pitiless vengeance.
The most dramatic castles are in the far south of the Corbières, the natural border between Languedoc and Roussillon. The craggy peaks of these mountains made ideal sites for hilltop fortresses, virtually impregnable and only defeated by long drawn out sieges. Peyrepertuse, most vertiginous of all, is only reached by one long and winding road, and is still a climb of at least half an hour. The wind takes your breath away, as does the view to the sea, to the void below and the far peaks of the Pyrenees. Visible from Peyrepertuse is Queribus, its one solid remaining keep dominating the plain of Roussillon below.
Others worth visiting include Puivert, Arque, Durban, Villerouge-Termenes where an annual medieval banquet is staged in memory of the last Cathar leader, burnt at the stake in 1321, and Puilaurens, a graphic illustration of the complexities of medieval defence with its machicolations, slanted arrow slits and chutes down which stones and boiling water could be tipped over encroaching enemies.
The Aude Valley and Roussillon
Along the edge of the Corbières south from Carcassonne the gentle contours of the Aude valley lead towards Limoux, a pleasant market town of medieval arcades which produces a good value sparkling wine, Blanquette de Limoux, worth stocking up on. The best kept secret hereabouts is Alet-les-Bains, a spa town with beautifully preserved half-timbered houses and the romantic ruins of a once noble Benedictine abbey. Esperaza is a must for anyone with small boys; the dinosaur museum is a treat, a good guide to the many sites in the region and you can even watch them glueing dinosaur eggs together ion the workshops. Rennes-le-Chateau is a curiosity for those with a taste for the occult, since the tiny village at the top of a helter skelter road lays claim to every myth going from Cathar treasure to the Holy Grail of the Knights Templar.
To the south loom the Pyrenees, but don’t be put off by the apparent wall of rock that confronts you. There are several stunning routes; the roads are winding, steep, invariably spectacular, but always in good condition. Head perhaps for the great plateau of the Cerdagne, heavenly walking country, thick with jonquils in the spring. Or you might drive through the Fenouilledes towards Perpignan. The valley sides are bordered by jagged rocky escarpments, pierced by dizzily deep gorges like the Gorge de Galamus, overlooked by castle ruins silhouetted against the sky. Everywhere there are vines and opportunities for degustations include powerful local fortified wines such as Maury. Don’t miss the chance to see Tautavel, one of the most important archaeological sites in Europe, where the earliest known human skull was discovered. There is a good museum, and in summer you can visit the cave where Tautavel man was found, warmed by the rising sun across the ancient plain.
One of the most spectacular routes over the Pyrenees takes you into Roussillon, crossing what was once the border with Spain, via the Gorges de St George where the rocks overhang the road itself. Up through the chestnuts and then the pines, over the 1500 metres Col de Jau at 1500 metres, to be greeted in clear weather by the snow topped peak of Mount Canigou, the sacred mountain of the Catalans. Head down into the Castellane valley on the other side where suddenly the climate is Mediterranean again, herb scented maquis and all. This is Roussillon, which only became part of France in 1659 and still cherishes its Catalan identity. They speak Catalan, fly the red and yellow striped flag and dance the sardana in village squares. Here is the tiny village of Mosset, its tall red roofed houses stacked on the hillside looking distinctly Spanish, and the spa village of Molitg les Bains, favoured by Pablo Casals, and featuring a eccentric neo-Gothic hotel with a Michelin starred restaurant.
The area is rich in Romanesque, from important abbeys to dozens of simple barrel vaulted stone chapels. The 10th century abbey of St Michel de Cuxa just outside Prades, with its Mozarabic arches and pink marble cloisters, is famous today as a sublime setting for the Pablo Casals music festival. Saint-Martin-du-Canigou is more remote, perched on a craggy rock a third of the way up Mount Canigou, only accessible by Jeep or a 40 minute climb on foot. The priory of Serrabonne is also built on the side of Canigou, its serene herb garden commanding a spectacular view of the surrounding peaks.
Foix and the Ariège valley are good for a brief taste of the Pyrenees, with dramatic scenery and castles and caves galore. Foix, once a medieval power base, is a pleasant town of winding old streets and a castle with three different keeps, the earliest dating back to the 12th century, well worth climbing for the strategic view. Major sights nearby are the caves; Mas d’Azil to the west, so enormous you can actually drive through, and several others, all clustered round Tarascon-sur-Ariège. Best are the cave paintings at Niaux, the finest in Europe that you can still see in the original. Entrance is strictly controlled (book ahead by phone.) A long dim walk with hand held lamps into the depths of the earth is rewarded by the deeply moving sight of bison, horses and deer skillfully painted on the rock walls, 12,000 years ago by our European ancestors.
The castles of the Ariège include Roquefixade, perched so high it looks utterly inaccessible, and Montsegur, the strangest and most arresting of all the Cathar sites. This stone relic atop a great dome of rock with mountains rising on all sides, was the last stronghold of the Cathars, who were finally burnt alive on a vast pyre at the foot of the hill, marked today by the Cathar cross. There is a palpable spiritual atmosphere, and the steep ascent feels appropriately like a pilgrimage.
When to Go
Although the summer is hot and perfect for beaches, spring is wonderful for walking with lots of flowers, and fetes and carnivals abound. Best of all is the arrière-saison, golden autumn days of wine making and mushroom gathering. Winter offers cross-country and downhill skiing, often based in traditional Catalan villages, and peaceful walks in snow-clad pine forests combined with reviving hot springs.
Recommended Hotels and Restaurants
Hotel de la Cite. Place de l’Eglise. Tel 04 68 25 03 34 Fax 04 68 71 50 15. Grand hotel within the walls of La Cité with celebrated restaurant, La Barbacane.
Trois Couronnes. 2 rue des Trois Couronnes. Tel 04 68 25 36 10. Fax 04 68 25 92 92. Modern hotel in Lower town, with excellent view of La Cité, and very good restaurant.
Jardins de la Tour, 11 rue Porte d’Aude. Tel 04 68 25 71 24
Pretty, idiosyncratic restaurant with garden dining and authentic regional dishes and fish.
Hotel Renaissance. 17 Rue Victor Hugo. Tel 05 63 59 30 42 Fax 05 63 72 11 57 Converted 17th century building, all old tapestries and antique furniture, with newly opened restaurant.
Relais du Sidobres. 8 route de Vabre. Lacrouzette. Tel 05 63 50 60 06
A zero decor French restaurant which concentrates on classic regional food, served cosily in winter, on terrace in summer.
Le Portanel. Passage de Portanel. Tel 04 68 42 81 66.
Fisherman’s cottage with view of lagoon, serving splendid fresh fish and seafood.
Domaine Haut Gléon, 11360 Villesque-des-Corbieres. Tel 04 68 48 85 95 Fax 04 68 48 46 20. Wine estate with comfortable stylish accommodation in renovated stable wing.
Le Petit Gris, Route d’Estagel. Tautavel. Tel 04 68 29 42 42 Popular family restaurant with great views of the plain, serving excellent cargolade, snails, pork, sausages etc on your own personal grill.
Chateau de Riell, Tel 04 68 05 04 40 Fax 04 68 05 04 37
Neo-Gothic folly of a hotel with palm filled gardens, and superb restaurant, using local ingredients, especially herbs, with great originality.