Glass spends a magical weekend in Carcassonne, France

A view of the Cité. Photograph: ADT–Aude

IT TAKES about 90 seconds to walk from one end of Carcassonne Airport to the other. Barely two storeys high, it might be one of the smallest public airports you’ll ever visit. This makes sense when you consider that Ryanair is the only commercial airline it services, but is somewhat more surprising when you note that Carcassonne receives over two million tourists a year, and is one of the most visited towns in France.

Carcassonne may be popular, but it isn’t populous. Fewer than 50,000 live there, around fifty of whom live in the “Cité” – the town’s most famous attraction, a former fortress marked by the medieval walls that inspired the popular board game Carcassonne. Though the traditional language of the town – of the whole region, Occitanie – is Occitan, it has suffered the fate of all France’s other regional languages: it is not recognised by the French state. But unlike its Spanish neighbour Catalonia, Occitanie harbours no separatist pretentions – only a general suspicion of diktats from Paris.

Nonetheless, its cultural quiddities are its own – still visible, edible and potable. Although Occitanie was created as an administrative region only last year, from the merging of Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées, it draws on the wider historical region of Occitania, and Carcassonne and its surrounding area are still characterised partly by various traditional dishes. You’ll find plenty of restaurants and eateries serving cassoulet – a slow-cooked casserole made of white beans, sausage and confit de canard or confit d’oie (duck and goose confit respectively). Even in the less upmarket establishments it may well be served in a large clay pot, or cassole. Duck foie gras is another staple.

Cassoulet. Photograph: ADT–Aude

Less famously, the region provides fertile ground for truffle cultivation. The black truffles that emerge in winter are rich and flavoursome, and ought to be eaten within a week or two of purchase – a fact all too well known by the pigs historically employed to locate truffle hotspots. Villeneuve-Minervois, a 25-minute drive from Carcassonne, is home to the annual Marché aux Truffes, which takes place between December and February. In Carcassonne itself, there’s the Atelier de la Truffe on Rue Trivalle, where “pape de la truffe” Philippe Barrière himself will serve you truffle dishes for between €8 and €25, best consumed with one of the local wines.

You can’t get to Rue Trivalle without spotting the Cité looming over it to the south, but one of the wonderful things about the Cité itself is how it sneaks up on you despite being so conspicuous. The drive to the town from the airport, or from anywhere west (Carcassonne is three hours’ drive from Barcelona), provides a perfect illustration. You take the D119 eastwards and follow it onto the Square Gambetta, by which point you’re absorbed in the town planning and the look of the old houses. You break out onto the Pont Neuf, which takes you over the River Aude, and before you’ve even reached the western bank the densely packed spires and thickset crenelated walls of the Cité jostle into view ahead of you and to the right. I don’t think the pleasure would be any less on a second trip.

What to do on your first trip

You could, if you started early and finished late, do both the “low town” (the lovely commercial district, where you’ll find most of the locals going about their business with the hustle-and-bustle so characteristic of French market towns) and the Cité in a day. In spring and autumn, the Cité isn’t heaving with tourists even in the afternoon, which means you can start in the low town in the morning as the day’s business begins.

Formally known as La Bastide Saint-Louis, the lower town is just across the Canal du Midi from the main train station. If you imagine La Bastide not quite as a hexagon but as a handleless teapot, the Square Gambetta is its spout, a pleasant spot with flower banks and benches and sculptures and nifty access to underground parking. It’s located in front of the Musée de Beaux-Arts, which houses a variety of European art dating back to the 17th Century. Much of the work of neoclassical artist Jacques Gamelin, one of Carcassonne’s most beloved sons, will be on display from late October until January 2018.

The Square Gambetta. Photograph: Regan Glider

Proceeding directly from the Musée and the Square is the Rue de Verdun, the longest road in La Bastide and flanked by eateries, bars, and every kind of shop you might feasibly need. There’s a wine shop wittily named Le Verre D’Un, and a bakery at the corner of Rue Chartran – but best of all is the Rémi Touja Pâtissier, a discreet confectionery stocked with small, sumptuous, stunningly presented goodies. Touja, an award-winning pâtissier who set up shop here in December 2016, can generally be seen bobbing around on the premises. Perhaps his most renowned and visually striking is “Le Satin” – a luminous glazed green roundel made of lime, pineapple and juniper berries, among other things.

You could easily spend all morning wandering around La Bastide, but if you’re pushed for time, take a right from the Rue de Verdun onto Rue Chartran, and spend a few minutes weaving through the market on Place Carnot, where gigantic wheels of cheese and prodigious amounts of fresh produce lie waiting to be bought on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Also of note here is the Fountain of Neptune, made of marble from Caunes and Italy. Head northwest, however you please, and come to the T formed by the Boulevard de Varsovie. Just beyond it lies the Canal du Midi.

The Canal du Midi. Photograph: C.G. Deschamps

The Canal itself is 150 miles long, and connects Toulouse to the Mediterranean. You can walk along it, shaded by plane trees, and traverse the centuries-old bridges at your leisure; you can use it as a location marker; you can, if you’re confident enough and staying for more than two or three days, hire a barge and float serenely down, waiting for the old locks to open and shut. There are numerous gorgeous towns along the way: Bram and Castelnaudary to the northwest, Trèbes to the east. Given how pleasant the Canal is, it’s strange to think it was originally an economic weapon: its pioneer, salt-tax collector Pierre-Paul Riquet, pitched it to Minister of Finances Jean-Baptiste Colbert in 1662 partly as a way of reducing the utility of the Straits of Gibraltar, thus denting the revenues of the King of Spain.

This soft power complements the hard power symbolised by Carcassonne’s Château Comtal: the fortress within the fortress, exemplifying the strength of the Cité’s defence. Not only can you see a handmade Cité replica that took decades to make, but there are various captioned gargoyles, murals of the Crusades, and disembodied parts of the old castle: remnants of the 19th-century Cité-wide renovation by Viollet-le-Duc that saw the famous spires installed and the Romanesque stylings substituted for Gothic ones. There are also medieval remnants, including giant stone missiles that had been launched by catapults in assaults on the Cité; and artistic depictions of the troubadours whose peregrinations had done so much to foster and disseminate Occitan culture.

A closer view of the Cité. Photograph: C.G. Deschamps

From the first floor, through the small windows or between the stone pillars, the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees are clearly visible. Fans of the board game Carcassonne may wish to visit the 13th-century Porte d’Aude – it’s this gate that appears on the front cover, and although the Aude barbican was partially demolished in 1816 during renovations, the ramp and the outer crenelated walls remain. It’s surprising how openly traversable, how light on health-and-safety restrictions, the walls are. Other things to do in the Cité, especially if you’re with children, include visiting a haunted house (€7), hanging out with an 8th-century knight (€5), and taking in an evening show at the Théâtre de la Cité (prices variable).

Day trips from Carcassonne

If you’re in Carcassonne for more than a couple of days, day trips are recommended. Caunes-Minervois, a 20-minute drive to the northeast, is particularly lovely. The 9th-century abbey there, which contains displays of the relics and remains of four local 10th-century martyrs, is on the east bank of the canal tributary known as L’Argent-Double, which flows south from the Black Mountains. These mountains overlook marble quarries whose grey slabs of produce were for decades a significant part of the local economy, though Caunes is well known for its own red marble exports: much of the marble of the Paris Opera House, for example, is from Caunes. Centuries-old plane trees, recovering from disease and internally reinforced by concrete, also feature prominently, as do cobbled streets and Romanesque-Gothic facades.

Caunes-Minervois. Photograph: Arjun Sajip

A 20-minute drive west will take you to the Four Castles of Lastours: majestic strongholds held against steep odds by the Cathars during the Crusades of the early 13th Century. Basking on a valley hillside, overlooking mountain streams, nestled among cypress trees, the castles are best viewed from the Belvedere of Montfermier opposite (where you can park near the caravan park); it’s a wonderful spot for an afternoon picnic. From there you could hike down into the valley and up towards the castles – a steep walk, but not a long one.

Two Castles of Lastours. Photograph: Liz & Johnny Wesley Barker

Where to eat… and drink

Afternoon, around 2pm, is the perfect time to visit the Château St Jacques d’Albas, a family-owned vineyard open 9am-5pm Monday-Saturday during the summer (though it’s open during other seasons too; you can contact them for details). It goes without saying that wine is a huge part of the regional culture. The front page headline on one of the local newspapers was ‘Comité d’Action Viticole a frappé cette nuit, 5,000 hl de vins répandus’, detailing the serious vandalism committed hours earlier by members of a 110-year-old sect of vigilante wine-makers (yes, really).

25 minutes’ drive from the Cité, the Château has been run for over 15 years by former financier Graham Nutter, who informed us – as he no doubt informs all visitors – that you “have to be a nutter to do this”. Having poured millions of his own euros into this viticultural venture, the margins are as slim as he is, but he keeps the 90-hectare vineyard a profitable concern. Nutter is a canny, modern proprietor: the vats are huge steel mechanised canisters, everything digitally measured and recorded, and he’s embracing the increasingly globalised demand for wine even as domestic demand continues to steadily fall. Full of energy, ever the salesman, and particularly enthusiastic about the vineyard’s summer evening jazz concerts, Nutter is a delightful host. It’s rare to meet someone with quite such boundless knowledge of a job they clearly adore. There are other vineyards near Carcassonne – the family-owned O’Vineyards, for instance, or the grandly neoclassical Château Pennautier – but none with the balmy Sunday evening vibe the Château St Jacques d’Albas so memorably exudes.

Graham Nutter in his element. Arjun Sajip

Much closer to home are some superb restaurants. Even vegetarians are spoiled for choice, though vegans may struggle. Le Jardin de la Tour is the first one to visit, ideally for a dinner while the sun is still in the sky. Nestled within the ramparts of the castle itself, through the Porte d’Aude entrance and to the left, its small, cramped front door belies the restaurant’s scale, comfort and homely garden. Especially when eating outside, you feel encircled by history without feeling claustrophobic, and so al fresco dining is recommended when the weather is pleasant, which it probably will be. One dessert stood out: the Chocolat Rock, served in a glass and comprising Chantilly, dark chocolate mixture and a Rocky Road-type base. The whole package is excellent value, a filling meal with wine (the wine list here is extensive) costing you around €35.

Le Jardin de la Tour. Arjun Sajip

Also in the modest, rustic vein, and also very central, is the bistro of chef Robert Rodriguez, on Rue Coste Reboulh. A practitioner of “zéro-kilometre” cuisine, using only locally sourced produce, Rodriguez clearly takes great pride in his work: he is a master of seasoning and texture, and adept at presenting food. The décor seems lost in time rather than self-consciously hip, with a decades-old till and a seriously old-school phonograph (accompanied by sufficiently old-school French records) complementing the various liqueur cabinets. You might expect to pay €50 for a hearty meal chez Rodriguez. Most of the local chefs know how to coax maximum taste and colour out of local asparagus, available in great quantity and quality in the summer, but Rodriguez in particular nails it.

In the way of Michelin-starred restaurants, Le Puits du Trésor, situated on a picturesque brook in the lee of a large hill, makes up for in service what it lacks in plentiful outdoor seating. Its chef is Jean-Marc Boyer, who is also the mastermind behind the bistro next door, L’Auberge du Diable au Thym, which lacks Michelin stars but offers better outdoor seating and more reasonable prices (a three-course meal coming in at around €25). The real jewel of the area, though, is the restaurant at the Domaine d’Auriac.

Sitting on a veranda overlooking the flora-bedecked Ruisseau St Jean, on the other side of which gently climbs a lushly maintained golf course, you can’t miss an outdoor meal at the Domaine. Named after the Domaine’s founder, and family-run for over half a century, the Restaurant Bernard Rigaudis is notable not only for its serenity, views, convivial atmosphere, rotating menu and often locally inspired cuisine, but for a dessert that will surely imprint itself deep in the memory of anyone lucky enough to consume it: chef Philippe Deschamps’s warm Grand Marnier soufflé, the softest substance known to man made softer than you ever dreamed, hugging a sweet molten liqueur centre, sheltered by a firmer yet easily yielding crust. In form, texture and taste, its simplicity is its perfection. A full meal there, with a different glass of wine to complement each course, ranges between €100 and €170. If you’re going to spoil yourself once on this holiday, here’s the place to do it.

The ravishing Domaine d’Auriac. Photograph: Arjun Sajip

Where to stay

Of course, you can also stay at the Domaine. Five minutes’ drive from the Cité – and boasting 24 bedrooms, two restaurants (the other being the more affordable Bistro d’Auriac), an 18-hole golf course, tennis courts and an outdoor pool – high-end comfort in a verdant, spacious setting is what to expect. Unless you’re going in winter, nightly bedroom prices range from €165 to €420 (or €190 to €450 between 26 June and 24 September). The cheaper rooms are 21m2; shelling out full euro could get you spacious lodgings as large as 115m2. All the rooms are beautifully, comfortably upholstered, and offer very pleasant views; photos and more specific details can be found here, in the “Les Chambres” section.

More affordable, and more central, is the Hôtel du Pont Vieux. Run by the lovely Jean-Michel and Catherine Robbe, and occupying an 18th-century building, most of its rooms have been recently refurbished, with a few to go before it can comfortably lay claim to three-star status. But two stars belie its chief perk: other than the comfort of most of the bedrooms, several of which offer excellent views of the Cité (ten minutes’ walk uphill), the hotel boasts a flowery, secluded garden where you can eat, among other things, warm homemade croissants with delicious homemade fruit jams. There’s also a small terrace, accessible to anyone, just large enough for a family to sit or stand around awhile and gaze at the walls of the Cité. Prices and interior photos can be found here.

Most homely of all is a hillside bed-and-breakfast – and if you have some downtime in the evenings and access to a car, Glass recommends you stay here, at La Maison Sur La Colline. The views here impress in quite a different way: around five minutes’ drive southeast from the Cité, you’re looking down at the citadel rather than up at it, separated from it by acres of vineyard and shrubbery farmland, and as the sun bows out off to the left, the fields turn auburn and the castle gold.

La Maison sur la Colline. Photograph: Arjun Sajip

There’s an outdoor pool, surrounded by broom, cypress, aloe, thyme, wild mint and other flora, hanging from baskets and sprouting from pots. Delphine Galinier and her mother Nicole run the place and have taken pains over the years to make it as homely as possible; they themselves infuse the house with warmth and are only as present as they need to be. It’s family-friendly and couple-friendly, and intermingling between guest groups is encouraged. The website, which features great photos and plenty of further information, tells you all you need to know.

Wherever you stay, spring and autumn are the best times to be in Carcassonne. When the night is warm, and a full moon is sat quietly observing the battlements, it’s hard to imagine a more tranquil, relaxing place. The famous three-kilometre walls, and the Cité within, might provide much of the allure – but only when history combines with food and wine to create the headiest of mixes does the magic really happen.

by Arjun Sajip

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