By Toby Edmonds,
Carcassonne is easy: you go there for the medieval city. Of course the main town itself is quite beautiful; the city center boasts the typically French combination of grandeur and charm, there are cafes, restaurants and bars dotted all over the place, you can escape the heat of the day in small art galleries and lovely old churches (some of which occasionally hold art exhibitions), walk along the picturesque canal du midi or the river Aude itself and even take a boat trip. However, the truth of the matter is the single biggest attraction is the city itself.
The daily flights give everyone an aerial view as the planes heading to/from Salvaza airport go right over the cit, and those driving past on A61 can see across the valley containing the lower town to the impressive citadel. There are two main choices to make when visiting: go during the coldest part of winter or put up with the huge numbers of fellow visitors. For a more authentic (read: less busy) experience, brave the intense cold of January and February to stroll along the cobbled streets and soak up the combination of bleakness, solidity and strength exuded by the all-stone surroundings.
Unfortunately, the beautifully restored high stone walls don’t keep the weather out, they funnel the freezing air along the narrow streets and make you glad to pay silly money for a hot chocolate in one of the cafes, or duck into any building no matter what it contains as long as it’s out of the wind. When the weather is comfortable the place will be packed. Even turning up first thing in the morning will only give you a few minutes of relative peace before everyone else arrives and the medieval charm is lost. Safe in the knowledge that it’s going to be busy, you may as well go the whole hog and visit in July.
You’re not told who these acts are so there’s little chance of seeing anyone world-famous but it is nice to know you can enjoy some free al-fresco entertainment each night. The biggest day of the year is of course Bastille Day. Join the crowds along the banks of the river in plenty of time for the 10:30 start of one of the most spectacular fireworks displays in the world. Quite apart from the sight of beautifully-orchestrated fireworks going off above a fully-restored medieval citadel, the apex of the display is when they set the cit ablaze. Fireworks attached to the ramparts around the perimeter are set off simultaneously, the streams of red flame pouring down the walls making the entire city look like it’s on fire a safe but awe-inspiring re-enactment of the burning of the Bastille.
This display is so impressive the inhabitants of the surrounding towns actually hold their own Bastille Day celebrations on the 13th so they’re all free to pile into the specially laid-on trains and coaches to be in Carcassonne for night of the 14th. Having enjoyed all that Carcassonne has to offer it’s very tempting to hop onto the A61 and motor directly east to Narbonne where you can either experience more ‘historic old city’ ambiance or simply bounce south along the A9 to Perpignan, perhaps leaving the motorway along the way to enjoy the beaches. That’s fine if you are happy to drive along bland motorways, seeing the delightful French countryside zip by at 140kmh and only slowing for the toll-booths. Another option is to take the slow road, the D118, south along the Aude valley towards the Pyrenees. Once out of the grasp of the motorway the drive begins along comfortably flat, tree-lined roads that slowly snake their way through fields of vines ripening in the sun and which roughly follow the course of the river Aude towards its source. As you slip through the plains and closer towards the mountains the road begins to wind and your progress will slow enough to allow you to soak in the surroundings.
The first thing you’ll notice as you pootle through the outskirts of sun-baked small towns is how utterly dead everything looks. Even when the road takes you through the middle of Limoux the scarcity of people makes the place seem empty. For a long while areas like these were so close to extinction that everyone thought they’d quietly die – a lot of potential visitors just kept their foot on the accelerator and continued along the road until they hit the mountains or the coast. Quillan, the largest town in the Aude High Valley area, is a prime example of this apparent decline as well as an excellent place to dispel the myth. Home to the first ever Formica factory, this town was dying a slow death even before the factory itself closed down permanently a couple of years ago. However, its ideal location midway between Carcassonne and Perpignan, against the foothills of the Pyrenees and sitting on the Aude made it quite a draw for the British ex-pat crowd well before Ryanair introduced the first commercial flights into Salvaza. The influx of retired and semi-retired Brits buying old cheap houses and having them renovated was gradually rejuvenating the town anyway but then the government decided that tourism was the way forward and injected loads of cash into sprucing up the town center, giving the more important public areas a much-needed facelift and persuading more passing traffic to stop and see what’s on offer. So what is on offer? A lot more than you’d think. To begin with, the rolling hills and forests are littered with well-maintained and signposted footpaths, providing countless kilometers of hiking throughout the whole area.
Some of the signposts even proclaim the walks to be part of the ‘Cathar trail’ and there are tour companies who specialize in guided walking holidays along the trail, taking in various Cathar castles along the way. There are organized walks held locally every week and the Eldorando walking festival, which takes in various parts of the Pyrenees and is large enough to be covered by the newspapers, comes around to Quillan every three years. Water babies will love getting onto the river Aude itself, a very popular stretch of water for canoeists. On the Southern end of Quillan is the La Forge activity center where groups can hire kayaks or other canoes to paddle downriver. The ‘rapids’ in the middle of Quillan’s old town are used for canoeing competitions and the gates are left hanging all year round. The tourist office will say you can swim in the river but as Quillan is about 12km from the river’s source in the mountains the water is rarely warmer than 16 degrees so unless you have a wetsuit or it’s the height of summer just stick to paddling. The Aude is a spawning ground for trout so the fishing is great if that’s your thing.
La Forge also has bikes for hire but only for large (10+) groups so you’re better off asking if your Chambre d’Hotes has bikes you can borrow. Of course cycling itself is very popular and there are regular cycle races in the area as well as various pleasant rides to do. Being so close to the mountains the area tends to see the Tour de France come through almost every summer and a quick ride up the local hills will reveal the tell-tale riders names painted on the roads. Cycling may be a generic French favorite but the local sport scene is dominated by rugby. The locals are descendants of the Occitan mountain men so they’re short, stocky and incredibly tough, making rugby matches less like a display of sporting prowess and more like an 80-minute pitched battle between 30 ‘friends’. Motor sport is also popular, with the local mountain roads occasionally closed to allow motorbikes, real go-carts and racing cars to participate in time-trials. The sports scene is actually eclipsed by the arts scene, which even includes three surprisingly good local bands. The expected brass band, Les Hauts de l’Aude, perform their own versions of anything from classical to rock and can keep an audience enthralled for well over two hours. Les Filets de Rouget are a passably good jazz band created by a married couple and whose line-up changes show by show. Best of all is the rock band G63 who play an energetic Gallic version of Dire Straits-esque soft rock and are fronted by a vocalist who sounds like the mutant offspring of Rod Stewart and Feargal Sharkey.
There are also photographers, sculptors and painters of various styles and abilities dotted around the area. In fact, one of the local restaurants, which has recently reopened under new management, is called Le Gallerie – the original owners were artists who decorated the interior with murals and turned the upper floor into a gallery where diners could enjoy their post-meal coffee while browsing the paintings, all of which were for sale. Other restaurants in town include two pizzerias (Le Nord Sud – basic food but huge portions, and Les Platanes – better food and quirky dcor), Le Capio (bar downstairs, restaurant upstairs), Caf Le Gare (all food made in-house: smoke their own salmon, make their own pt, etc.) and the hotel/restaurant Le Pierre Lys (traditional French food). Other hotels include the Cartier, Le Canal and Le Chaumiere, which has a Michelin star. For a more personal experience book into a Chambre d’Hotes (the tourist office can call them and book rooms for you) and see if they do Table d’Hotes, where for an extra fee you join in the family’s 3- course dinner and generally get a half-bottle of local wine thrown in too. Speaking of wine: this is the Languedoc region so even the local rough stuff is thoroughly palatable and pleasantly cheap. When eating out always ask for a carafe of local wine rather than a bottle as the quality will still be great and the price much lower.