History and Mystery in Carcassonne and Cathar Country, South of France

If you visit the South of France, take some time to explore Cathar Country, South of Toulouse. UFOs, buried treasure, and naked hippies – my weekend in and around Carcassonne has it all…

Carcassonne

The medieval city of Carcassonne is the largest walled town in Europe, and one of the few with its walls fully intact. No tour of the region would be complete without a visit. The Cité Médiéval is the starting point of my exploration and I head into this part of the city on Saturday morning of my stay, huddling under my hood against the cool drizzle that fills the air as I wander over the footbridge which crosses the Aude, Rue de Pont Vieux. I clutch in my hand a ticket (OK, I clutch in my hand my smartphone, with a digital ticket) for entry to the château and ramparts. You can purchase these directly from the Château website or through third party providers such as Viator. Digital tickets are accepted on site. It is worth mentioning, however, that you do not need a ticket to enter the city itself – shops and restaurants are within the city walls, and you can walk freely around these, and on parts of the walls.

View towards the Cité Médiéval from the pedestrian bridge over the river Aude

I gain access to the Château grounds and take a deep breath. To say it is impressive is an understatement; not only am I surrounded by the stunning 13th century towers, but now privy to the view towards the old city, vineyards, and mountains beyond, visible through archways and windows waiting to be found along the sprawling ramparts. It is early in the day still, and I have large parts of the structure to myself. One can exit the ramparts at various parts of the city – a ticket is valid all day, so you can climb back onto them at any point. Walking the defences allows a bird’s eye view of some of the many restaurants, cafes, and shops which populate the inner walls of the city, all now beginning to fill with fellow explorers. Many languages drift through the cold air to my ears above.

The old city of Carcassonne, separated from the walled town by the river Aude, is also well worth a visit. A Saturday evening dinner with fellow traveller Patrick (a summer-time resident of the city) is my introduction to this part of town and, whilst it takes a little imagination at the very start of the season to imagine the squares busy with tourists and diners, there is no denying the charm. Side streets show the city bears the scars of empty stores borne by many a town across Europe as shopping moves online and out of town, but there are enough full restaurants and bars to suggest that the summer months will be lively and bustling. The impressive Musée des Beaux-Arts presides over the Square Gambetta, one of several newly renovated areas.

The Musée des Beaux-Arts

On Sunday morning, I walk along the Aude to Patrick’s guesthouse and its sunny, Castle-gazing terrace (check it out here: http://carcassonneguesthouse.com/ ) and we begin a trip through what he affectionately calls “the arse of France”. Lacking in trade and industry, and frequently losing young residents to neighbouring university cities, the tiny towns and villages in this area are some of the poorest in the region, despite their beauty and heritage.

Limoux

Our first stop is Limoux. In a bid to encourage visitors to the town, train fares to  Limoux from Carcassonne start from just €1, although we are exploring by car. As we attempt to manoeuvre into a tiny parking space, after travelling in the wrong direction down a one-way street for the second time, I’m sure Patrick (driving) begins to feel the appeal of the rails. Limoux has one main claim to fame: the creation of Blanquette de Limoux. This was the first sparkling white wine, invented by Monks and perfected before production began in the Champagne region. The earliest written records of its production date to the early 16th century, although the region had been producing still wines since times of Roman occupation.

The town centre of Limoux

We head to the Place de le République, the large and lovely town square. It is like the squares of Carcassonne in that cafes, restaurants, tables, and chairs fill the edges of the square, but differing today in one very obvious way – it is full of people. Patrick remarks that something “must be going on” as we make our way to a market stall selling fruit, to purchase snacks for our trip. A churro van is parked adjacent to the stall; clocking our accents as we begin order, the vendor asks me what I think of Brexit before I even have a chance to decide how many churros I want (I was a ‘Remainer’, in case you hadn’t figured that one out already!). Deciding that I probably do not know quite enough French to begin discussing the impacts of leaving the EU, we pay for our food and take a glimpse into the beautifully presented L’Atelier des Vignerons, a store stocking many local wines. If, like me, you are travelling with a budget airline and have not brought a suitcase, fear not – the store will deliver bulk orders across Europe to your home. Just hope that this is not adversely affected by the topic so keenly approached by the churro-seller.

Remarking once more upon the densely populated square, we do not realise at the time that we have stumbled upon Carnaval de Limoux. The world’s longest carnival, it runs every weekend from January to April, with music, parades, and other events taking place every Saturday and Sunday. Carnival activity is centred around the Place de le République, and bands move between stages in the surrounding bars and cafés.

Rennes-le-Château

Moving further South, and then up ear-popping mountain roads, we spiral our way to Rennes-le-Château, a tiny village atop the hills which peers towards the Pyrenees. Rennes-le-Château is famed for two main reasons; first, the area is shrouded in a mystery concerning Béreneger Saunière, a 19th century priest who became suddenly and mysteriously wealthy. Stories abound of hidden riches and, to this day, metal detectors are prohibited in the area to avoid a deluge of potential treasure hunters. The hamlet also inspired the novelist Dan Brown to pen The Da Vinci Code. One can enter the little church and get a sense of why – and we do just this.

Two small groups of other early-season tourists make their way up the winding road as we stand to take in the views. Patrick tells of summer crowds on the hillside in summer months, and it is easy to see why. We briefly acknowledge that consuming some of the earlier-perused French wine in such a a spot in July or August, together with a picnic, would be wonderful, but also concede that – on this first weekend of April – we are becoming cold and windswept, so retreat to the warm car.

Bugarach

Driving back downhill from Rennes-le-Château, Patrick puts on a CD of what I can only describe as Gregorian-chant-dance-music. I can’t imagine a more perfect, atmospheric, or hilarious soundtrack to our descent, particularly given the mysterious stories behind our next destination, and we can’t help but laugh. Bugarach is our next stop and promises more tales of intrigue. Nearing the village, I become far too excited about encountering fields and fields of mountain goats, guarded by beautiful – actual – mountain dogs. With the exception of one, who seems determined to find a way into our vehicle with no notion of the fact that he could meet the end of his days by trying to do so whilst the car is in motion, they continually bark and howl at us as we stop the car, Patrick hanging out of the car window to capture the perfect picture.

Howling mountain dogs who just did not want to pose for a photograph…

Bugarach is a region of many interesting and bizarre tales. Its mountain – Pic de Bugarach, the tallest in the region – is inexplicably ‘upside-down’; its top layers are millions of years older than those near the ground, and there are countless reports of aliens and UFOs atop the mountain. The area is also said to possess a strong magnetic field – one which interferes with technology and aircraft, and is linked to several mysterious disappearances. During the run-up to the Mayan prediction of Armageddon on 21st December, 2012, word spread that Bugarach was the place to be to escape the “end”. The population of 200 braced themselves for an influx of believers from all over the world.

Pic de Bugarach looms over the village

As we drive through, the mountain certainly has an air of the surreal about it, shrouded as it is in low, brooding clouds and tendrils of smoke from a nearby bonfire.

Rennes-les-Bains

Parking alongside the river of Rennes-les-Bains, there is no denying its beauty. Patrick tells of swathes of bright flowers in the summer, and it is not difficult to imagine the impact of these against the colourful old buildings which nestle along the banks of the water. More geological oddities are at play here; the properties of the surrounding rock mean that the river Sals is salty. Furthermore, both hot and cold springs can be found at various points along the water, and small parts of original Roman baths remain in the village.

The river Sals winds through the village of Rennes-les-Baines

We stroll over the bridge and make our way down to the water’s edge, where we are drawn to a group of people sitting along the bank, one of whom is playing a non-descript melody on an oboe. There are piles of clothes on the stones, and clothes pegs mounted onto one of the stone walls, and we assume these people live here. Walking in a small loop to the stone bridge across the water, we look down again just in time to see someone emerge from the water to claim the pile of clothes. Intrigued, we see another of the group take off his clothes, climb in, and completely disappear. Baffled, we walk on, until we are on the opposite side of the river. Here, we can see where he went; there is a small ‘cave’ of sorts beneath the stones on which we had walked alongside the river. Laughing as we realise we had walked right over the previous bather without noticing, we watch steam rising from the cave, and note that we have stumbled upon one of the thermal springs.

Beginning to drive along the road adjacent to the river, we notice another interesting point in the water and stop the car. What can only be described as a natural ‘shower’ gushes from the stones of the river banks. We clamber down to the water and walk towards it. As we near the site, we hear a shriek, and a naked bather hurriedly retrieves her clothes as she spots us arriving. It is another point at which naturally hot water joins the river from the neighbouring rocky mountains, and a very pleasant one. The grassy bank is decorated with wood carvings and the river happily gurgles by, the sun beginning to creep through the cloud, warming us for the first time that day.

Wood carvings opposite the naturally hot ‘shower’

Trèbes

We drive through endless acres of vines – themselves of a surreal appearance, vast and twisting, but still bare – to our final stop before I have to fly home; Trèbes. Just outside the city of Carcassonne, Trèbes can be found on the banks of Canal du Midi, built in the 17th century to link the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Carcassonne and surrounding areas can be reached along the towpaths.

We stop at a spot alongside the three locks of the village, watching meandering boats navigate the impressive engineering. By now, the day really has blossomed into a sunny one, and we sit beneath the trees of the towpath, thinking once more that a glass or two of Blanquette de Limoux would not be unwelcome in that moment.

Stops made on the trip

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