Lazy days near Carcassonne ,Languedoc
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We were looking for somewhere a little different but still easy to get to. A little off the beaten track but not so isolated as to be inaccessible. France (but not Provence), Italy (but not Tuscany). The weather should be as guaranteed as it could be (difficult these days) and the atmosphere Mediterranean. A speculative wander around the Ryanair website showed value in mid week flights to Carcassonne a city about which we’d heard quite a bit but had never visited. In fact we weren’t really sure exactly where it was. The South of France is quite a big place!
We arrived in Carcassonne on a sunny but blustery day in September. The airport is definitely toytown but someone looks as if they have big plans as the diggers were out in force and the extension work was in full flow. We were staying about an hour away in the Corbières hills in a rental villa not far from the coast. Eschewing our normal desire for mid- range small hotels we had decided on a villa holiday, so we stopped in a large Leclerc hypermarket near the airport and stocked up on enough provisions to feed an army. Their annual wine sale was in full force and we treated ourselves to some slightly superior Bordeaux at prices we couldn’t believe as well as a random selection of nice bottles from the Corbières, Minervois and Cote de Languedoc. I swear never to judge a book by its cover but the labels that tried hard to look cleverly reassuring stood out and secured our custom. At an average of €7 we were hardly breaking the bank but we were reassured by the myriad of awards most of the bottles sported.
Our diesel Citroen proved well able for the Motorway east towards the coast- L’Autoroute Entre Deux Mers and didn’t puff smoke and rattle as we thought a diesel might. A quick pit stop at a not particularly clean service area and shortly afterwards we exited the motorway at Lezignan Corbières. We were staying in Durban (not the South African metropolis) but a rather charming sleepy old village deep in the Corbières. Our base for the week was a new villa overlooking the village and in walking distance of the boulangerie. Yes -such are our criteria that easy access to virtually fat free croissants (not) was an essential prerequisite to choosing our accommodation.
This part of France is definitely not the cool sophisticated chic to be found across the Rhone in Provence, but rather 1950’s agricultural rural France colliding with the 21st century with interesting results. For example, because it was harvest time, we had several near misses (or should that be ‘hit’s ‘?) with tiny old tractors driven by equally tiny old men pulling impossibly large trailers of grapes. These wizened vine growers looked no different to what we imagine their fathers looked like. They clutched the steering wheels of their tractors with grim determination and a fearlessness bordering on the reckless. Yet the cooperatives they were delivering to in the main were monuments to modern stainless steel and high tech vinification. The wine industry here has undergone radical change, as the old unprofitable co-ops have been forced to merge with their more progressive neighbours. This is a prerequisite from Brussels in return for European support and funding for the local growers. We spent a week sampling the results and to our untutored palate most of it seems to work perfectly! The Corbières produces mostly Reds- and if you like strongish fruit laden wines reminiscent of the New World alternatives- particularly from Australia and Chile, you’ll like these. In fact in Embres and Castlemaure, the co-op marketing exhorts the new world " to ‘watch out " we’re right behind you!’
The drive from Durban to the co-op at Embres lies over the beautifully named ‘Col de Cantaloupe’ and whilst there wasn’t a melon in sight, there was row upon row of russet blazed vines and later we did dine on Melon from the town of Cavaiilon. These are a bit smaller than a cantaloupe with brilliant orange flesh and smooth pale yellow-green skin. Gorgeous!
Most days we did very little despite plans for a cultural blitz. Our visit to the walled city of Carcassonne was somewhat strange. The citadel looks amazing from afar and even from close up has its charms, but because it is so perfect one can’t help but get the feeling that it’s all a bit Disneyesque. Yes it’s worth a visit because you really do expect to see a damsel in distress calling from her tower and the veritable knights in shining armour thundering across the castle drawbridge. For real drama ,we thought that our visit to the Cather castle at Quéribus really stood out far more. Quéribus is one of the "Five Sons of Carcassonne", along with Aguilar, Peyrepertuse, Termes and Puilaurens: five castles strategically placed to defend the old French border against the Spanish. Quéribus is high and isolated. It stands on top of the highest peak for miles around and is often regarded as the last Cathar stronghold. Perched on this rocky outcrop looking up at the old castle walls and the peaks of the Pyrenees snow tipped in the distance, you really do feel on top of the world. How on earth did people live in this environment with the wind shrieking and besieging armies camped at the base of the mountain, hell bent on starving you out if the cannons should fail?
Back in the modern world, we lounged around the villa pool sleepily exhausted from our medieval time travel. iPod on, Dan Brown or John Grisham to hand, gazing aimlessly at the idyllic view from pool to green hills beyond and a lone pine silhouetted against the skyline. Holiday are meant to be like this full of major decisions such as ‘shower now or later’ and ‘wine or beer’. This is not the South of France of the movies. No adrenalin fuelled open topped rides along the Riviera Corniche for us. No dolled up outfits for the Casino Royale. No this is just the bliss of old castles, quiet canals, sleepy villages and indolent cafes. Red wine, green olives and blue skies make up the colour palette and it’s really too hot to cook.
Our one extravagance was a visit to the Auberge Du Vieux Puits, a two star Michelin Restaurant up in the hills in Fontjoncouse an even sleepier village than Durban. We had heard that the restaurant was ‘perfection on a small scale’ and it’s true. Beautiful food, a great wine list and the most pleasant and welcoming staff imaginable. Expensive? Yes - maybe but all the food was just fantastic and made the barbeque and salad we enjoyed the following night just a bit of a come down back to earth event!
We were unsure about two weeks in the one spot and thus had booked just one week but we were sad to leave the seclusion and wonderful views of Villa La Cascadehttp://www.rentvillalanguedoc.com and we vow to return soon. Languedoc is still waiting to be discovered and not a lot has happened in the Corbières in the past few decades - with any luck it will stay that way.