The beautiful Aude: Holidays in Castelnaudary, home of cassoulet and the Canal du Midi.
- Credit: Vincent Photographie
In the South-West of France, in the heart of Occitanie, Aude is one of the sunniest departments in France. It also has the advantage of having such a diverse landscape that it is known as ‘Little France’.
In the course of a single stay, you can go from the mountains of the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean beaches and from spectacular gorges to endless vineyards. These varied playgrounds allow for a multitude of outdoor activities: mountain biking, gravel biking, cycle touring, horse riding, rafting, board sports, kitesurfing, hiking, climbing... and why not, quite simply, just lazing about?
A journey to the Middle Ages
These landscapes, and the remarkable sites to which they are set, also take us on a journey through time: the era of the dinosaurs, the Romans, the Middle Ages...
To relive the Middle Ages, you must of course see the Cité de Carcassonne, classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. There are also all the abbeys and fortified castles, some of which, perched on their rocky spurs, served as refuges for the Cathars. The epic story of these dissident Christians, persecuted by the Catholic Church, permeates the history of the Aude. There are 22 Cathar country sites to be discovered in Aude.
Canal du Midi: the largest construction site of the 17th century
Turning our attention to Castelnaudary, we can dive into the history of another major period for the department. In the 17th century, under Louis XIV, the largest construction project in France was the Canal du Midi, which is now also a World Heritage site. This 240km long waterway, between Sète (on the coast) and Toulouse, was the first section of the ‘Canal des Deux Mers’, which offered commercial ships a link between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean inland. It was a crazy challenge for the inventor of the canal, Pierre Paul Riquet, who has since become a local celebrity. To carry out the project, to bring water and to overcome the terrain, he had to imagine new techniques and structures.
Rent a boat on the Canal du Midi
Nowadays, the canal is only used for pleasure boating. In Castelnaudary, you can rent boats that do not require a licence. This means you can head out on the water, for a few hours or several days, to discover peacefully the villages, vineyards, fields of wheat and sunflowers that are spread out along the canal. The cruise takes us through the engineering works (oval locks, water stairs, canal bridges, etc) that were necessary for the creation of the canal, which can also be discovered from its towpaths that have been transformed into walking and cycling trails. You can rent a boat from leboat.com .
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Castelnaudary, the largest port on the canal
Since the creation of the canal, Castelnaudary remains the only major port between Toulouse and the sea. The Grand Bassin, which is as large as the city of Carcassonne itself, gives the impression that the historic centre is sitting on the edge of a lake in which houses and monuments are reflected. To the east, the four locks of Saint-Roch still allow ships to cross a 10m difference in height.
Castelnaudary in the Lauragais area, is known for its gastronomy and its sunflower fields. At only a few hours' flight from you, you may be surprised by this authentic destination.
Nowadays, the Grand Bassin, which has recently been redeveloped, is a favourite place for walks. It is from there that you can enjoy the most beautiful view of the city, between the trees and the water.
Open a book along the banks of the Canal Royal des Deux Mers under the plane trees, sit back and relax, have a good glass of wine and taste all our local specialities. We are sure you’ll appreciate it…
Pretty little streets
The discoveries continue in the heart of the old town, where the narrow streets lead to beautiful monuments and in particular to the Collegiate Church of Saint-Michel, built in the 13th century in the pure Southern Gothic style. Inside, the 18th-century organs have been classified as Historic Monuments.
Excursions in the Lauragais countryside
Of course, you should take advantage of your stay to discover the countryside around Castelnaudary, which also has a few nuggets that can be reached quickly by car or bicycle.
Walking along the huge Lac de la Ganguise, one can see a big variety of wild birds : all protected by europeen directive site Natura 2000. Here are herons, and kingfishers and a lot of birds of prey too.
The Abbey-Cathedral of Saint-Papoul
Another excursion takes us through the fields of the Lauragais region, where the cathedral abbey of Saint-Papoul, to the east of Castelnaudary, stands. In the 11th century, it became a popular place for pilgrims, attracted by the tomb of the monk Berenger, on which miracles were said to be performed. The monks' refectory, which is as beautiful as the cloister with its ornate capitals and the famous church, also has a baroque choir with a large baldachin lined with gold leaf.
Castelnaudary is a small gastronomic capital, and organises every winter the famous foires au gras: many producers and poultry breeders of the region come to present and sell their products. The truffle market is organised every year in February. (it will take place on 22nd February in 2022). All morning, you will be able to buy your own local black truffle (tuber melanosporum). Truffles are found in the ground by a few passionate persons, who walk all winter long in the lands with their smart dogs enjoying to find this black diamond. On this day, enjoy a demonstration of cavage, culinary workshops or guided tours.
Cassoulet glacé : Less well known than its cousin the cassoulet with duck confit, this dessert will surprise and delight you! The cassole is imitated by nougatine (be careful with your teeth!) and the inside is made of ice cream.
It is a very popular dessert in the summer, which can be flavoured with different aromas: rhum raisin, lemon, vanilla..... and why not be tempted by bean ice cream? Yes, it does exist.
To be found in all good bakeries and pastry shops.
Good places to stay:
The small, colourful Château Coquelicot is situated in the heart of the sunny plains of the Lauragais, 10 minutes by car (and 20 minutes by bike) from the old town of Castelnaudary. The owners have created five large guest rooms and suites for two to five people, rated four épis by the Gîtes de France. Each room is decorated in a refined and personalised way (golden, baroque, flowery) and offers high quality services including bathrobes, hair-dryer and a courtesy tray.
Staying at the typical Twickenham Hotel. Our Hôtel team welcomes you in a friendly atmosphere in a Pub and a Bistronomic restaurant, unveiling a collection of shirts and objects related to Rugby, all in a So British atmosphere.
Sleep on the Canal in the typical barge Kapadokya : The length of 75 years old Kapadokya is the longest allowed on the Canal du Midi. Sometimes the old lady travels along the Canal, and the "sassement" (passage of a lock) is always a little tricky with our barge.
In the Domaine du Moment, situated in the Lauragais Hills, you will enjoy an amazing view over the Pyrénées. Breakfast is served on the terrace at the village side of the house. You are welcome to bring your pick-nick, use our barbecue or have your aperitif in the adjascent Parc du Moment.
For more information on the Aude, the Canal du Midi and Castelnaudary:
- Tourist information on the Aude: audetourisme.com
- Tourist information on Castelnaudary and the Lauragais: castelnaudary-tourisme.fr