An ode to Aude

Solange Hando heads for Languedoc and falls under the spell of a captivating corner of the region with a history as rich as the landscape is beautiful

There are secrets in Aude – this southern corner of Languedoc tucked between the foothills of the Massif Central and the Pyrenees; bordered to the east by the Mediterranean but stopping short of Toulouse in the west – secrets just waiting to be told…

Add 300 days of sunshine, authentic villages, pretty market towns, culture and wine and you may wonder why the name isn’t more familiar. The French know it well, hunting for holiday homes and retiring in increasing numbers to a pleasant land where quality of life remains surprisingly affordable.

The department owes its name to the River Aude tumbling down from the Pyrenees. It carves its way through deep gorges before flowing placidly towards Carcassonne where it veers east to the sea. Barely 220km long, it winds through ever-changing landscapes: mountains and forests, lagoons and beaches; past vineyards and olive groves; garrigue fragrant with lavender, rosemary and thyme.

Only the Lauragais region in the north-west of the department doesn’t get a glimpse of the river but those in the know enjoy its sleepy bastides and circulades, its old windmills testifying to the breeze, its rolling sunflower fields and the Canal du Midi, home to ducks and geese and myriad pleasure boats in high season. Built in the 17th century to link the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, via the Garonne, the canal enters Aude near Port la Robine, cutting across the department to Castelnaudary and the Seuil de Naurouze, the highest point and watershed between ocean and sea.

The canal was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, and for those who drift gently between its banks, Castelnaudary is a lovely halt where traditional houses come right down to the edge of the Grand Bassin, the main harbour along the route. Yet this small town has a bigger claim to fame: during the Hundred Years War, they invented cassoulet to feed hungry soldiers. Popularised in Britain by Rick Stein in his French Odyssey, the hearty bean casserole with pork and/or goose confit has its own brotherhood and annual festival.

This fine gastronomic tradition is exemplified by the fact that Aude has the highest number of Michelin stars in Languedoc. Here you can enjoy oysters from Leucate, goat’s cheese from the hills, lamb from Cathar country, white sausage from Carcassonne and a mouth-watering range of summer fruit and salads.

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In these southern reaches, the red Occitan flag with a golden cross flies with pride, especially in the World Heritage city of Carcassonne. Restored by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, the hilltop citadel is flamboyant, somewhat fanciful but magical with its double line of ramparts, dungeons, gates and 52 towers capped with conical roofs. Beyond the drawbridge, cobbled lanes climb up to the castle past souvenir shops, arty boutiques and alfresco restaurants, bustling in summer but deserted in winter except for a few residents.

Far below, tree-lined boulevards enclose the 13th-century bastide, a grid of narrow streets where private mansions hide in the shadow of St Vincent’s Cathedral and its 54m spire, once used to measure the Paris meridian. Three times a week, the market spreads its wares on Place Carnot: peaches, apricots, melons, strawberries, asparagus, fresh herbs on the fountain steps and more. Meanwhile, boats queue at the oval lock while the Aude cascades over the weir before gliding under the Old Bridge, and in summer, echoes of the sixties drift along the promenade as locals dance under the plane trees.

At the crossroads of Minervois and Corbières, close to Limoux, Carcassonne is well placed for Languedoc wine. Moira Martingale, who runs her holiday experience company – French House Party – on the outskirts of Carcassonne explains: “Languedoc wines are among the best and most fashionable these days. And running the business I do, we use a great deal of it. In fact, I wish I had shares in Crémant de Limoux! It’s an excellent bubbly that can be enjoyed at almost any hour of the day.”

Sparkling wine was first made in Languedoc in 1531 by the monks of St-Hilaire, near Limoux, when they left wine to mature in corked glass flasks. Over a century later, according to legend, Dom Pérignon smuggled the secret back to Champagne. So here it is; the original bubbly – now enjoyed as Crémant de Limoux, Blanquette de Limoux or Blanquette méthode ancestrale – sweet and refreshing, served as an aperitif, maybe as a Kir with a dash of blackcurrant liqueur, or a dessert wine; their AOC designations celebrated with gusto during the annual Nuit de la Blanquette. The night marks the end of the Carnaval de Limoux, the longest in the world, when Pierrots, masked dancers and musicians parade under the medieval arcades every weekend during the winter months.

North of Limoux, AOC wines include Malepère and Cabardès but the greatest expanse is the Minervois, a lush south-facing amphitheatre glowing with almond and olive groves and vineyards stretching from the Black Mountain to the Canal du Midi. Nowadays, Minervois is all about quality and the wines, mostly red, boast a good number of AOC and superior Vins de Pays. Fruity, full-bodied, fragrant, traditional or new, they are as varied as the terroir.

Is it the wine which attracts artists to the Minervois, or is it the translucent light and unspoilt scenery? No doubt it all helps for many have settled here. Late autumn brings together winemakers and artists in a week-long festival. There are guided tours around the vineyards, food and wine-tasting in the cellars and art exhibitions in the domaines where painters, wood-carvers and sculptors demonstrate their skills.

The marble for the sculptures comes from Caunes-Minervois and is mostly red speckled with white. Prized by the Romans, the Sun King and builders of the local abbey, it still lines the cliffs heading into the hills where at 1,210m, the Pic de Nore marks the summit of the Black Mountain.

Up there, winters are cold but the rural charm of the mountain is always bewitching with its wild woodlands, babbling streams glistening with trout, mountain lakes, and pastures where buzzards hover in the thermals. There are winding roads and dramatic caves and on the southern slopes, the haunting Châteaux de Lastours, four towers standing lonely among the cypress trees where chirruping crickets send shivers down your spine.

In the Middle Ages, a new religious sect was born in these lands, rejecting the authority of Rome in favour of simple Christian values, community work and equality between men and women. Rome didn’t like it and led by Simon de Montfort, the Albigensian Crusade was dispatched to bring them and local counts back into the fold. From the Black Mountain to the Corbières, the Cathars sought refuge in hilltop castles and when forced to surrender, they walked into the flames rather than renounce their faith.

On the southern border of the Corbières, the strongholds of Quéribus and Peyrepertuse still cling defiantly to rocky outcrops, just a handful of ruins but well worth the climb for the panorama over arid hills, remote valleys and vineyards; jostling for space with the garrigue, and framed by the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees. Romanesque chapels nestle here and there, and wine cellars invite you to taste the rich fruity reds of AOC Corbières and Fitou. There isn’t a town in sight, only villages dozing in the sun: here, Lagrasse, listed among the most beautiful villages in France; there, Cucugnan, immortalised by Alphonse Daudet or Villerouge Termenès with its castle and AOC Pélardon cheese.

Laced with near-deserted roads and scenic trails, this is the domain of ramblers keen to tackle the rocky 1,200m Pech de Bugarach, and explore the upper valley of Aude where orchids and Pyrenean lilies bloom in meadows and forests. The sound of rushing water is all around, bubbling up from natural springs and thermal spas sprinkled around peaceful villages.

For expat Emma Riley and her family, the small village of Cailhau is simply idyllic. “Affordable property, excellent education and the French way of life we love with cafés and culture, are all close at hand,” says Emma. “Our village is just 20 minutes from Carcassonne. We can ski in the Pyrenees in winter and go to the beach in summer. Amazing.”

Aude has plenty of traditional villages, including a few with a secret or two. Look out for Le Somail on the canal with its lovely humpback bridge, sailors’ chapel and ice house, Villeneuve-Minervois and its winter truffle markets, Trèbes, gateway to Carcassonne or Grèzes-Herminis, the resting place of Monsieur Poubelle, the préfet who decreed that waste should be placed in a container, now called ‘une poubelle’. Brousses-et-Villaret has a working paper mill, open to visitors, and Montolieu is now the ‘village of books and graphic arts’, the brainchild of Michel Braibant, a book binder from Carcassonne, who was inspired by the literary festival at Hay-on-Wye.

Carcassonne is the administrative centre of the department but at the crossroads of civilisations is Narbonne, the ancient capital that was settled by the Romans in 118BC. Excavations have revealed the remains of a granary and a section of the Via Domatia, the first Roman road in Gaul.

It’s a lively place with its own canal, a wonderful covered market, an Archbishop’s Palace turned city hall and a 13th-century cathedral, never completed because permission was refused to knock down the town wall. Add wines from the Corbières and the Coteaux du Languedoc and you have Narbonne, ‘the cradle of wine civilisation in France’, according to award-winning sommelier Jackie Bonnet.

In Narbonne, you can smell the sea with its promising blue Mediterranean waters, vast beaches of golden sand and a sprinkling of resorts from St-Pierre-la-Mer and Narbonne-Plage, just 20 minutes or so from town, to La Franqui and Port Leucate in the south. There are marinas and watersports, beach chalets on stilts in Gruissan and, in the old village of Leucate, a maze of lanes curled up like a giant snail around the castle.

It’s all part of the Parc Naturel de la Narbonnaise spreading from the edge of the Corbières to the sea. With its vineyards, wooded slopes, valleys, wetlands, and barren hills, it’s a magnet for walkers, cyclists and riders. The most striking features along the shore are the lidos, the long sandbanks between the inland lagoons and the sea. The lagoons are a haven for migrating and resident birds; there are around 350 species in all, including white stilts, herons and flamingos.

It’s a world away from the bucolic valley of Aude and the mysterious treasure of Rennes-le-Château. But who wants to look for the Holy Grail when Aude is already full of secrets ready to be revealed and gems just waiting to be discovered. LF