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Visit Aude Cathar Country

PUBLISHED: 14:29 04 July 2016 | UPDATED: 14:54 04 July 2016

Le Somail in Aude © OT Sud Minervois

Le Somail in Aude © OT Sud Minervois

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Visit Aude in the heart of Languedoc in the south of France and discover UNESCO World Heritage sites, Cathar castles, medieval villages, vineyards, coastline and plenty of sporting activities

In the heart of Languedoc, in the south of France, the département of Aude is named after the River Aude, which flows through it from the Pyrénées to Carcassonne and to the Mediterranean Sea.

Today, the Aude département markets itself to tourists at “Le Pays Cathare - Cathar Country” and with some reason. This area contains a dozen of Cathar castles. Most of Cathar country lies under the influence of the Mediterranean climate, but it is nonetheless a very diverse landscape.

With its wealth of historic towns, incredible natural beauty and great wines, this region of southern France is a real delight, and rich with historic, scenic and cultural sites. It is also something of a hidden gem, being relatively undisturbed by mass tourism.

Getting here

From Britain or Ireland, the Cathar country is easy to reach from the airport located in Carcassonne itself, which Ryanair use as their hub for the region; it also makes a handy entry point for other cities and places to visit. Toulouse International Airport is only 1 hour from Carcassonne by car or train. Aude is on the high-speed TGV train line and you can reach Narbonne from Paris in just over 4 hours.

Places to visit

Cite de Carcassonne © C.G. DeschampsCite de Carcassonne © C.G. Deschamps

Carcassonne, UNESCO World Heritage site

This medieval walled city is stunning and a compelling place to visit. Carcassonne has all the conveniences of a modern city with shops of every kind, as well as an abundance of fine restaurants, all types of accommodation and a golf course. The medieval cité, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is surrounded by 3km of walls with 52 towers. Enter the ancient inner Citadel via cobbled ramps to discover tiny streets crammed with history. Allow a moment to see the 12th-century château built on Roman foundations and the Gothic and Romanesque Basilica.

The ville basse (lower town) created in the 13th century, spills out below, along boulevards that mark the ancient city walls. The two halves of the city are joined by the medieval Pont Vieux. Three times every week there is a lovely market where the locals compete to have the shiniest vegetables.

Narbonne © Edgar De PuyNarbonne © Edgar De Puy

Narbonne, city of Art and History

Narbonne’s rich cultural history is worth a visit: the Roman Via Domitia, the St Just et St Pasteur cathedral, the Canal de la Robine, the market halls. The old city centre is a labyrinth of little streets and alleys with many Renaissance-style remains. With the huge archbishop’s palace in the centre of town, Narbonne resembles no other city.

Lagrasse © Edgar De PuyLagrasse © Edgar De Puy

Medieval villages

Aude has many well-preserved medieval villages, including Caunes-Minervois, Alet-les-Bains and the village of Lagrasse which has been voted one of France’s most beautiful villages and holds an antique market on weekends. The town also plays host to a Romanesque Abbey, which gives further insight into the religious history of the region.

Aude is also the home of the mysteries of Rennes-le-Château, where a parish priest seemed to become rich overnight after finding some ancient parchment documents, leaving a plethora of enigmatic “clues” to his own mysteriously acquired wealth.

Abbaye Cistercienne de Fontfroide © ADT Aude / Paul PalauAbbaye Cistercienne de Fontfroide © ADT Aude / Paul Palau

Medieval heritage: abbeys and castles

Fontfroide and Lagrasse have fine Romanesque abbeys to visit, jewels of the Aude, and are among the best preserved of the south of France. And you’ll be traveling through the famous Corbières wine region.

The castles, architectural treasures, are reminders of Catharism (a medieval Christian movement), which left its mark on this region. These citadels are literally carved into the tops of mountains looking out over the valleys below. They are well worth the effort to take in the stunning views that they offer below.

Chateau Queribus © ADT AudeChateau Queribus © ADT Aude

Château de Peyrepertuse --If you see only one Cathar castle, make it Peyrepertuse. You can drive most of the way up to its limestone outcrop, but the trail, on worn limestone footing, takes you around the back of the castle. You can see Peyrepertuse easily in one day along with nearby Château de Quéribus in Cucugnan and Château de Puilaurens in Lapradelle. The drive between them is quite nice. A lunch stop in Cucugnan is recommended. You may be offered a “Passeport des Sites » that gives you discounts to 20 castles and museums of Cathar country.

Things to do

Canal du Midi © C.G. DeschampsCanal du Midi © C.G. Deschamps

Canal du Midi

You can board a boat that will take you along the Canal du Midi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built in the XVII century. Cruising the canals is surprisingly easy; limited to 6-8 km/h to avoid damaging the natural shoreline, you will be far from the stress of traffic jams. No need for a license to drive your boat! On arrival, a technician will give you a short demo, and will teach you a few basic principles of navigation (mooring, passage locks etc.). All along the canal there are halt areas are specifically designed so that you can tie up and discover the villages, monuments, local products, wine cellars and restaurants.

If you don’t have much time to rent a houseboat for a whole week you can take a guided tour or hire your own little electric boat in Carcassonne, Narbonne or some other places along the canal. The paths of the canal are lined with magnificent plane trees, perfect for a wander, bike ride (they can be hired at the same offices) or a picnic.

Plage de la Franqui © C.G. DeschampsPlage de la Franqui © C.G. Deschamps

Mediterranean Coast and Narbonnaise Natural Park

Aude’s coastline possesses 50km of sandy beaches, six traditional family resorts full of dynamism, with all sorts of activities – from sailing to the discovery of preserved areas, from windsurfing to sunbathing! Lovers of water sports will be busy, as well as hikers and nature enthusiasts, who will discover the preserved nature of the Narbonnaise Regional Natural Park. This rich area is home to a great biodiversity of exceptional flora and fauna, natural areas, landscapes of vineyards, towns and villages. The park is a gentle way to discover the territory (paths, accommodation in the nature, heritage accommodation, bird watching ...).

Le Chai des Vignerons Lezignan-Corbieres © C.G. DeschampsLe Chai des Vignerons Lezignan-Corbieres © C.G. Deschamps

Wine tasting

Languedoc wine is now thought to be some of the most interesting and dynamic wine in the world, with passionate wine makers. There are many appellations, but perhaps the best-known in the Languedoc wine galaxy include Corbières, Minervois, Fitou, and Blanquette de Limoux, the world’s oldest white sparkling wine. Many domaines, private wineries and cooperative cellars offer wine tasting and even accommodation so your gîte or B&B is situated on the winery or in the wine-producing village. Your hosts will be wine producers and during your stay they will take you on a guided walk to discover the domaine, the grape varieties and the methods of cultivation.

In the wine storehouse (in private cellars or cooperative cellars) you will discover the wine production process. You can take part in the grape picking or other tasks according to the season, like pruning, for example.

Mondial du Vent © Gilles FoucrasMondial du Vent © Gilles Foucras

Sporting activities

The haunting beauty of the Aude countryside and the many attractions of the area make a self-catering vacation quite compelling. The Aude offers over 1200 rentals.

The Cathar Country offers endless natural resources and opportunities for adventure and excitement. It is a great area for outdoor enthusiasts, especially hikers, with the legendary Cathar Trail (GR 367), but also horse riding, cycling, mountain-biking, golfing, kayaking, fishing… there’s something for every taste!

To find out more about Aude Cathar Country visit: www.audetourisme.com

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