Things of interest in the Minervois

There are guide books for your use in the houses  and the Tourist Information office is located in the Abbey down behind the house past the Town Hall (Mairie). On one side of  the Abbey is an entrance to the office for local tourism information. The helpful staff and the many brochures available will provide copious information on all aspects of local interest. The following is the map page of one such brochure that lays out four different tours in the Minervois; it also clearly shows the central position of Caunes and its relationship with surrounding villages.

Four local tours - click to enlarge
Four local tours - click twice to enlarge
Chateau de Lastours, Lastours

There are also signs on most of the roads around here pointing out things of interest such as the various chateaux at which you can go wine tasting, the local sights such as mills (Moulins) or the “Chateaux de Lastours” nearby. Look out for these as you drive around. The ruined Cathar fortresses and fortified towns are introduced and described in the History section.

The nearest beaches are around Narbonne, a 45 minute drive away and there are plenty to choose from so have a read about them in the guide book and head for whatever takes your fancy!

There are also various lakes nearby that you can swim in – the Tourist Office here or in Carcassonne can give you details.

Other villages of special interest nearby include Minerve for its spectacular setting and fabulous restaurant (see Restaurants guide). And of course the “cite” of Carcassonne is a must see on any visit to this area. Again the guide books have lots of suggestions.

The mountains of the Pyrenees are only an hour and a half away as is the Spanish border and the tiny state of Andorra.

Canal du Midi

This is also a great area for cycling (both in the mountains and through the vineyards), running and climbing. For running you will need to just head out and explore as there are hundreds of unmarked paths around the village and through the vineyards. The nearest climbing walls are down behind Notre Dame du Cros which you get to by heading out of
the top of the village by road and turning left just under a kilometre after leaving the village (it is signposted). You can buy cycling and walking path maps from larger Tourist Offices.

Walking/cycling/running and boating along the Canal du Midi is also popular in summer. The gravel tow-paths are mostly well shaded in the summer months. And don’t miss the amazing markets in Carcassonne (Saturday morning) and the surrounding villages (various days).

The following article gives a taste of one possible day trip further south and into the fortified crags of the Cathars — the ancient border area between Occitania and Catalonia (see History for details of the Cathars and their tragic story).

Languedoc: A historic break in the South of France

Cathy Packe follows in some ancient footsteps down south into the green heart of the country, and finds a host of hidden delights along the way

Independent, Saturday, 6 December 2008

The Château de Quéribus stands out against the mountainous landscape of southern Languedoc, a striking monument that appears to cling to the shrub-covered slope like a barnacle on a rock. At first, only the keep is visible, a solid structure whose walls are five metres thick. Then, behind it, a more extensive complex emerges: a hall with impressive vaulting, a courtyard, the remains of a barracks.

The Cathar stronghold of Peyrepertuse
The Cathar stronghold of Peyrepertuse

There are views of the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees from here and, to the west, another castle, Peyrepertuse, whose ruins are draped across the ridge. The two are part of a chain of fortifications that once protected Languedoc’s southern frontier. They also provided shelter, during the 12th and 13th centuries, for Cathars, religious dissidents who broke away from the established church.

The route south from Peyrepertuse to the Aragonese frontier would once have involved negotiating the canyon at the foot of the Gorges of Galamus; now a road has been built, which clings precariously to the rock face, edging carefully around sharp indentations and sudden bends. A nerve-racking drive for any motorist, a trip through the Gorges is nevertheless one of the most breath-taking experiences that Languedoc has to offer. The view – at least if you are driving – is best admired from the southern end, from where a path leads down through the woodland as far as the Hermitage, once a refuge for prayer and now a place of pilgrimage at Easter and Whitsun.

West of the Gorges of Galamus, the road through the valley of the river Aude is more gentle. Along the river are some attractive villages, such as Alet-les-Bains, beautifully preserved with its medieval houses and quiet squares. A spa town since the Romans came to the region, it is dominated by the ruins of a Benedictine abbey, founded in the 9th century and upgraded to cathedral status in the 14th. The building is in ruins now, but the walls and arches that remain show how vast the original structure was. To the north, the village of Limoux straddles the river, which can be crossed by a medieval bridge. Arcades line the main square, and the skyline is dominated by a large Gothic church.

At Carcassonne the river Aude almost collides with one of the great marvels of French engineering, the Canal du Midi. Opened in 1681 to link the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, it is 240km in length and took 15 years the build. The statistics are impressive: it has 64 locks and 54 aqueducts, and 45,000 cypresses and plane trees were planted beside the canal to secure its banks. These days, most of the boats on the Canal are used by tourists, who rent comfortable barges as a relaxing base for exploring the countryside.

On an autumn day on the outskirts of Beziers, I found several small groups of people standing around in the sunshine beside the Canal. Behind them was a series of locks, the Écluses de Fonserane. On the Canal itself, three barges from the Crown Blue Line were waiting patiently as the water gushed through the lock gates, lowering them down, so they could continue their progress towards the Mediterranean. A few miles earlier the boats had travelled through a tunnel designed back in the 17th century in response to a challenge. Just outside Colombiers was a hill and, unable to find a way around it, Pierre-Paul Riquet, the engineer from Beziers who designed the canal, decided to build through it. On the top is the Oppidum d’Ensérune, a fortified village built by the Gauls in the sixth century BC.

The diversity of its natural surroundings is one of the pleasures of Languedoc, and parts of the region, including the Cévennes with its dramatic scenery, have been given Park status to protect the flora and fauna. One of the first to be created was the Natural Regional Park of Haut-Languedoc, a mountainous area slightly north of the Canal du Midi, two-thirds of which is covered by forest. The river Orb cuts through it, and along its banks are some delightfully picturesque villages: Roquebrun, with its Mediterranean gardens, Olargues, with its medieval bell-tower, and peaceful Villemagne-l’Argentière, with its attractive churches.

There was a wealthy Benedictine abbey here which made much of its money from pilgrims travelling along the Route of St James. During the 17th century it expanded, and a women’s community was created three kilometres away in the village of Herepian. The nuns remained in the convent until the Second World War, when the building became a school; it has now been given a new lease of life as a luxurious, but still atmospheric, hotel.

Like the convent at Herepian, the Abbey at Fontfroide, a former Cistercian monastery, is now also in private hands. It, too, was on one of the pilgrims’ routes to Santiago de Compostela; a pilgrims’ chapel is part of the monastery complex, and an ornate cross on the hilltop above the Abbey points out its location.

From the grounds of Fontfroide waymarked paths lead uphill, through the bushes and tall cypress trees, and out of sight. The Abbey disappears, seeming to sink back into a dip in the landscape. But here, as in the mountains and valleys all over rural Languedoc, there are plenty more hidden delights to discover.