Basking in Mediterranean sunshine and steeped in history, the department of Aude is a cornucopia of treasures just waiting to be discovered, says Karen Tait. And that’s before you get round to the wine…
The main town is Carcassonne, which is best known for its medieval citadel. Overlooking the River Aude and the ‘new town’ (parts of which date from the 13th century but everything’s relative), the cit� is a real fairytale castle, with no less than three kilometres of concentric ramparts and 52 turrets. The cit� hosts several events including the Festival de Carcassonne, one of France’s largest, from the end of June to August, while on Bastille Day the ramparts are spectacularly ‘set alight’ with fireworks.
The cit� was built by the powerful Trencavel family but in the early 13th century it was taken by Simon de Montfort and annexed to the royal estate. Although fortification works continued, it lost its strategic importance after France made peace with Spain in 1659 and the border moved further south. It gradually fell into disrepair however, in the second half of the 19th century, the architect Eug�ne Viollet-le-Duc undertook an epic restoration of the cit�, without which it would not have survived to become a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The lower town or ville basse is home to Carcassonne’s main commercial activity, with a restaurant-lined square where the weekly market is held, a cathedral and several interesting churches, and the Canal du Midi basin.
The second of the Aude’s Unesco World Heritage Sites, the Canal du Midi is a spectacular feat of 17th-century engineering. It was the creation of Pierre-Paul Riquet, who was convinced that the Atlantic and Mediterranean could be linked. But having started the work relatively late in life, aged 53, he died before it was finished. Some 240 kilometres in length, the canal has 328 structures (locks, aqueducts, bridges, tunnels etc), some of which haven’t changed since they were first constructed. It runs from Toulouse, where it connects to the Canal de Garonne, to the Thau lagoon on the Languedoc coast. It is undoubtedly one of the best places in France to enjoy leisure boating, with many pretty canal-side villages to moor by, while the towpath is popular with walkers and cyclists.
Even more ancient history can be glimpsed in the town of Narbonne, which was an important Roman trading post on the crossroads of the Via Domitia (the first Roman road in Gaul, which connected Italy to Spain) and the Via Aquitania (which led to the Atlantic). You can still see a section of the Via Domitia in the main square, the Place de l’H�tel de Ville. The Canal de la Robine (a lateral branch of the Canal du Midi) runs through the centre of Narbonne, with quays where visiting boats can moor. Part of the canal follows the original route of the River Aude. Narbonne was once a prosperous port but the silting up and re-routing of the river caused its downfall in the 14th century. Despite losing its status as a port, Narbonne – in the heart of the Languedoc vineyards – later prospered from the wine trade.
While Carcassonne is the administrative capital, Narbonne is Aude’s first town in terms of population. It is still well placed at a crossroads, the Roman roads having been replaced by the A9 and A61 autoroutes. There are many other smaller but nonetheless fascinating towns to discover in Aude, including typical winemaking communities such as L�zignan-Corbi�res and Limoux, while literary types should head for Montolieu with its many bookshops and historians will enjoy medieval Fanjeaux. Some 50 kilometres south-east of Toulouse, Castelnaudary is the capital of the Lauragais area and the main port on the Canal du Midi. It is best known for being the home of cassoulet, that hearty Languedoc dish of duck, sausages and beans. Further south, in the Haute-Vall�e de l’Aude, Quillan is a good base for exploring the Pyrenean foothills as well as white-water action on the river. There are also the spa towns of Rennes-les-Bains and Alet-les-Bains, while the village of Rennes-le-Ch�teau is at the centre of various conspiracy theories and the location of an alleged buried treasure. In the heart of Cathar country, it is just one of many places with links to the Knights Templar.
Aude was the scene of many horrors during the 13th-century inquisition against the Cathars, who claimed that their beliefs dated from the earliest Christian times. The Catholic Church regarded them as heretics and, after failed attempts to convert them, Pope Innocent III invoked the Albigensian Crusade against them. The local Languedoc population, including the nobility, sided with the Cathars, taking refuge in strongholds and castles. Several generations of war ensued and eventually the Cathars were exterminated. The castles were taken by the victors and some were turned into royal fortresses, but when the border with Spain moved further south, they were no longer strategically important.
Cathar country You can visit many Cathar castles today, all spectacularly located on rocky outcrops or hilltops and in various states of repair. The most important is probably the huge fortress of Peyrepertuse in the southern Corbi�res, which is equal in size to Carcassonne’s citadel and hosts the largest medieval festival in southern France. It is one of the ‘Cinq Fils de Carcassonne’ (five sons of Carcassonne), along with Puilaurens, Qu�ribus, Aguilar and Termes. Others include Arques, Lastours, Puivert, Saissac and Villerouge-Termen�s. Although called Cathar castles, there is some dispute as to what constitues a true Cathar castle, as many were built on the site of the original stronghold. This clearly doesn’t concern most visitors, however, as the castles are major tourist attractions.
Aude is also home to several impressive abbeys, not least 12th-13th century Fontfroide in Corbi�res with the largest rose garden in southern France. Listed as one of Les Plus Beaux Village de France, Lagrasse has one of the biggest Benedictine abbeys in France, while the eighth-century abbey at Caunes-Minervois is an outstanding example of early southern Romanesque art, and its village is known for it Renaissance fa�ades. There are further abbeys to visit at Alet-les-Bains, Saint-Hilaire, Saint-Papoul, Saint-Polycarpe and Villelongue.
Great outdoors While Aude clearly has plenty to attract culture vultures, it is also an enormous playground for lovers of the great outdoors, offering everything from watersports on the coast, rivers and lakes, to hiking, horse-riding and mountain-biking in the countryside, and even skiing in the Pyrenean resort of Camurac.
The Aude coast stretches for some 50 kilometres and includes the resorts of Saint-Pierre-la-Mer/Fleury, Gruissan, Leucate, Narbonne-Plage and Port-la-Nouvelle. The long sandy beaches are backed by saltwater lagoons, with watersports and angling available. Some combine an old fishing village and modern marina, such as Gruissan, which is also where you’ll see the unusual beach huts on stilts that featured in the film Betty Blue. There are further marinas at Port Leucate (with 1,200 moorings it’s one of the largest marinas on the Mediterranean and it also has naturist beaches) and Port la Nouvelle (one of the Med’s biggest commercial ports).
Most of the resorts sit within the Parc Naturel Narbonnaise, which is composed of the maritime Corbi�res and a network of lagoons. It has almost 200 kilometres of trails and is a haven for wildlife. Another protected area just inland from the coast is the Massif de la Clape, which would once have been a rocky island. Its landscape of garrigue, pine forests and vineyards is criss-crossed with trails. Hikers and mountain-bikers also head for Cap Leucate, while Port-la-Nouvelle is the starting point for the Sentier Cathare trail into the heart of Cathar country.
For mountain highs, Aude does not disappoint. To the south there are the Pyrenean foothills, while to the north the Montagne Noir – so called because of the dark forests on its slopes – rises to 1,211 metres at the Pic de Nore, and to the north-west you’ll find the hills and valleys of the Pays Lauragais. The peaks and plateaux are ideal for outdoor pursuits, as are the rivers, especially the upper River Aude, where canoeing and white-water sports are popular. There are plenty of picturesque lakes too (Ganguise, Cavay�re, Saint-Ferr�ol, Lampy, Laprade, Montbel and Jouarres) as well as dramatic gorges, such as Galamus, R�benty, Joucou, Pierre Lys and Saint-Georges, where it’s hard not to just stand with your mouth wide open in awe of the dramatic scenery. You can even head underground and the Cabrespine and Limousis caves are stunning.
If the department has the Canal du Midi running through its heart, its people must have wine running through their veins. Viticulture is the lifeblood of Aude, where wines range from friendly vins de table to much-respected AOCs. Vineyards are everywhere, from the coast to the lower slopes of the Montagne Noir and Pyr�n�es. The main winemaking areas are the Corbi�res, Minervois and Fitou, but there are also the Cabard�s, C�tes Malap�re, Coteaux du Languedoc and Limoux vineyards.
It is said that the world’s first sparkling wine, Blanquette, was invented by the monks at the abbey of St-Hilaire near Limoux in 1531, although the champagne vineyards of northern France also lay claim to this great achievement!
The Mediterranean climate and diverse landscape produces a variety of styles, with everything from full-bodied reds to delicate whites on offer. In the past, the Languedoc-Roussillon region was known more for the quantity rather than the quality of its wines, but this is definitely changing. It would almost be rude not to try the many varieties on offer, but be warned, it could be a lifelong job to sample them all! Sant�! LF