It has been 30 years since I last visited Carcarssonne, a magnificently preserved medieval hilltop town in the Languedoc region of SW France. Then, as a student I ate Cassoulet and drank Corbiere wine with my French host inside the ramparts. This time I arrived straight from Limoux having made a tour of a Blanquette de Limoux vineyard, the sparkling alternative to Champagne.
Knowing Carcassone’s reputation has grown considerably since my last visit, I didn’t fancy staying there this time around. But, as we rounded the corner of a country road and I saw La Cité rising up in the distance out of the vineyards, it quite took my breath away. It’s every inch the fairy tale castle I remembered.
By late September when I went, the crowds had dispersed. It was a delight to wander freely past the solid watchtowers and double-walled ramparts in mild temperatures.
Lovely Lagrasse near Carcassonne
As an alternative stop-over to Carcassonne, the semi-mountainous town of Lagrasse had caught my eye, bearing as it does one of “les plus beaux village de France” accolades. The 40 minute drive from Carcassonne was an unexpected bonus, winding through pretty limestone scenery coated in pine trees. This whole area of Corbieres is one of the wildest in France and one of the lowest population densities too.
Lagrasse itself was a veritable treasure. The action hangs off the main street with the Mairie centre stage and most restaurants and cafés in a parade opposite. Wander the side streets though and you’ll discover the ancient church, splendid covered market, and a fine and colourful collection of 14th-16th century houses. Before long you arrive at the River Orbieu to cross the 12th century humped back bridge and gain entrance to the impressive Benedictine abbey on the other side. The Abbey St Marie was founded in 779 and today, the centuries of history that were laid down on top, have been painstakingly uncovered by the active conservationists.
It was remarkably peaceful though that is an entirely different matter in July and August. Meanwhile the tranquillity of the site slowed my pace and emptied my mind. Apart from a contemporary art installation delivering the melodic sound of monks chanting accompanied by the random ringing of bells which travelled the walls and corridors of the abbey, I shared this holy place with just five other visitors.
Ribaute such a cool place!
The weather was glorious and at midday too hot for further site-seeing and a passerby recommended a water hole in the adjacent village of Ribaute. Its fresh water has refreshed weary residents down the centuries, and it’s the perfect place to cool off during the summer months with sun-bathers having smoothed the rock to perfection. I shared it with three other swimmers and the river was a far cry from the icy cold mountain water I had imagined.
As the afternoon cooled, I was ready to explore one of the many chateaux and retreats perched on the tops of the Pyrenees or nestled in their valleys – all within a 30-minutes drive or more of Lagrasse. I settled on the nearest, Villagerouge Termenes, and was not disappointed. This time I had the whole Cathar castle to myself along with a captivating audio narrated in English.
The final leg of my journey was a further 40-minute drive which took me to the coast and the salt marshes where I discovered Flamingos and the sandy beaches of Languedoc. With Le Rentrer behind me, I was impressed by the natural environment and the near-empty landscapes.
With three airports serving this area – Toulouse, Carcassone and Perpignan, there is no barrier at all to discovering more of this fascinating region of SW France.
Mary Nondé runs personal development ‘boutique style’ retreats in the Tarn Valley of SW France, mostly but not entirely for women needing some quiet time to gather themselves, find out more at MaryNonde.com