Monday 26 February 2018

Magical trip to medieval France


Perched on a rocky hilltop and bristling with zigzag battlements, the fortified town of Carcassonne looks like something out of a children’s storybook
Perched on a rocky hilltop and bristling with zigzag battlements, the fortified town of Carcassonne looks like something out of a children’s storybook
Elle visiting Caunes-Minervois

Elle Gordon

I had never been to Carcassonne and knew very little about it. Yet, when I mentioned to people where I was going, I was met with more than a few sighs of 'ah, so beautiful', which is always a good sign. With more than 2,000 years of history, and the inspiration behind many romantic painters' work, it was with great excitement that I boarded my flight to Toulouse airport - which is about an hour's drive from Carcassonne.

The flight was pleasant, long enough to get lost in some easy listening music, but not so long that I arrived too rumpled and crumpled to go straight out and explore. A smile fixed itself to my face the moment my feet touched the tarmac and pleasant heat wound its way into stiff limbs. A short break to the sun can only be food for the soul.

As we pulled into full view of this walled medieval city, I had a moment to catch my breath. Think of the books you might have read as a child of those mythical cities, faraway lands of wonder and beauty. Now multiply that by 10 when it comes to the aesthetics of this place.

We checked into our accommodation, Hotel Aragon - a three-star hotel that was anything but modest. With its glimmering turquoise pool and beautifully furnished rooms, you will feel you are getting that all-important holiday indulgence, but your wallet will delight in what are extremely affordable prices.

Its location is extra special, given it's only 50 metres from the Porte Narbonnaise, which is the main entrance to the medieval citadel. With that in mind, I dumped my bags and explored. Within moments I was through the entrance and strolling on winding cobbled streets. It was a blissfully warm summer's evening, the perfect climate to wander around, fawning over some of the beautiful boutiques and craft shops this city has to offer.

Soon, tiring feet called for me to retrace my steps and settle myself in the little outdoor restaurant across the road from Hotel L'Aragon. Underneath twinkling fairy lights, I sipped my glass of utterly delicious tap white wine, at just €2.

Our meal that evening was in Au Jardin de la Tour. The stroll to the restaurant was just enough to shake off any travel cobwebs and ready us for an indulgent meal. I opted for a poached egg to start, followed by an exquisite bowl of truffle pasta. Waistline guilt forgotten, I savoured every bite. We ate outside in the restaurant's shaded garden which is situated at the foot of the castle fortifications; it is a truly evocative dining experience, with lights woven amongst the greenery. A must if you visit. The next morning I awoke much refreshed, and headed for another tasty breakfast in nearby Hotel du Pont Vieux. We ate in the beautiful walled garden, guzzling coffee in the morning sunshine. Pure bliss.

With so much attention to our inner foodies, it was time we explored, taking a walking tour of Bastide Saint Louis. The Bastide was built during the reign of Saint Louis in 1260 and we were there on a Saturday, which meant one thing - market day. This area is a meeting place for locals, particularly on market days and the place was buzzing. I wove my way through crowds of people chopping watermelons, choosing fruits and buying freshly baked bread. A truly authentic side of Carcassonne.

Lunch, that afternoon, was in Chez Rodriguez, a fabulous little restaurant that prides itself on cuisine made with local produce. It was an utterly melt-in-the-mouth lunch.

With a simple dessert of fresh ruby-red strawberries topped with homemade frozen sorbet a welcome and cooling addition, we departed restored and refreshed. Just a short drive of 20 minutes is the village of Caunes-Minervois. With charming medieval streets and renaissance stone houses, it is well worth the few hours we took to explore here. Our tour was again on foot and we found ourselves in the Benedictine Abbey decorated in red marble. This red marble was famously used in Versailles and many other monuments in Paris and Rome.

Exploring during the heat of day is one way of working up a thirst, which coincided seamlessly with our next destination of Laure-Minervois, to visit a vineyard; Chateau Jacques d'Albas. UK expat, Graham Nutter, along with his son, Andrew, decided that it was about time his love of wine grew some legs.

This picturesque vineyard was the result, with wine-tastings and tours, 'gites' to stay in and regular jazz festivals.

With our hankering for a cooling glass of wine sated, it was time to visit Lastours in the deep valley of the Orbiel river to the south of the Black Mountain. It is best known for its four medieval castles, built in the 12th and 13th century, and their history in the anti-Cathar Crusades.

You don't need to be a keen Cathar history enthusiast to visit - any fitness fanatic would love the option to hike the valley and discover these castles up close and personal.

Hiking wasn't for me, but our tour guide brought us to an excellent viewing platform across the valley that gave us a bird's-eye view of the castles and a brilliant photo opportunity.

Our final day in Carcassonne was spent venturing around the medieval citadel known as 'La Cite'. This part of the city or 'old town' dates back more than 2,000 years and with the 52 stone towers topped by 'witches hats' - as they are known locally - it really does feel like something whipped out of a fairy tale. Having taken in the exterior of the fortress, we crossed Porte Narbonnaise into the citadel interior. The Chateau Comtal was our next stop where, for a small fee, you can take in the castle up close.

We even got a chance to go up into the ramparts of the castle walls - and with spectacular views it's an opportunity not to be missed. Within its walls, art lovers will delight in a carefully restored painting still visible on the ceiling in the distinctive blue of lapis lazuli. It was difficult to say goodbye to this exquisite place, but easy to see why it is one of France's most visited.

Added to the UNESCO world heritage site list in 1996, this city takes pride in its rich history and is one holidaymakers should keep in their sights. Whether it's an educational trip with your kids or a romantic trip for two, this medieval treasure holds something for everyone.

Sunday Independent

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