Day 1 – Rennes-le-Chatêau, Alet-les-Bains and Limoux
After visiting Quillan and Esperaza, we kept moving north along the main road on our way to visit friends Jan and Andy, whilst making short side visits to any places or villages that captured our interest. Our first venture was to the small, renowned village of Rennes-le-Chatêau, set up in the mountains, population 91. We were the only vehicle in the large car-park provided for visitors, an obviously popular place for visitors in the warmer seasons. This is likely due to the location being central to several popular conspiracy theories relating to religious bloodlines, priests and buried treasure, fantastical stories that later influenced many aspects of Dan Brown’s 2003 novel ‘The Da Vinci Code’.
We wandered around the village, saw the Tour Magdala, then completed a short walk outside the town’s stone walls, to stretch our legs a little. There was nobody else around at all; the dreary, bleak weather obviously off-putting, but the dusty circular path offered nice panoramas out across the tranquil fields below.
Our next stop was at the spa town of Alet-les-Bains, where we walked from the outskirts to the centre, to see the Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Alet, a celebrated ruin mostly destroyed in 1577 by the Huguenots during the Wars of Religion. As we approached, the church bells very loudly rang out for noon and made us both jump in unison. We wandered through the back streets, finding a beautiful medieval square lined with wonky, timber-framed buildings.
Our final stop before reaching Jan & Andy’s village was the main town of the region, Limoux. We found a reasonably central parking spot on the side of a quiet road, and walked into the town, along the banks of the river Aude. Even in the cloudy greyness and occasional drizzle the town was interesting and active, with a beautiful central square surrounded with cafés and stores. The church and the stone bridges across the river added a solid elegance; we enjoyed our short visit here.
We had one last dilemma on the last few kilometres to Jan and Andy’s home in the village of Lauraguel, as Google maps informed us of a shortcut through a vineyard, and with unthinking devotion, we followed the suggested route. After about 600 metres on an ever-narrowing dusty gravel track, we came to a dead end, the ‘road’ we were to follow became nothing more than an overgrown steep, muddy bank that we would have had difficulty cycling through, so were certainly not progressing any further in Benny. With no possible options for turning, we had to reverse the whole way back, with very muddy wheels and egg on our faces.
Soon after, we arrived at Andy and Jan’s to be greeted like old friends, even though we had met only once before, one rather drunken day and night a few months ago in Spain. We fell into conversation easily and settled in as their honoured house guests. We were shown to our very comfortable guest room, complete with personal en-suite, and relaxed fully. Nicky enjoyed her first bath for months and we caught up on laundry, both so thankful for the genial hospitality and the chance to live in a large, spacious house again, if only for a short time.
We had lovely food, great wine and fantastic company, and a very late night catching up and telling tales of all that we had seen since our last encounter. We heard all the chat about the local area and interesting curiosities of living in a French community, as we hope to do some day; Jan and Andy helped sell the French dream to us.
Day 2 – Limoux, Carcassonne and around
There were some delicate heads at the breakfast table, as we planned an exploratory day out around the local sights. We were kindly driven around by our local guides and shown the regional highlights and insights. First we headed over a winding mountain pass to the village of Saint-Hilaire where our hosts first lived when they moved to France.
Next we visited the fortified Carcassonne cité, with its high stone walls with fifty-three strategically-positioned defensive towers. The day was cold and the streets inside empty of people. We passed through squares, normally filled with bustling life, that now sat empty and grey in the winter chill. We saw the central cathedral and concert venue. It was both better and worse to see the historic cité like this; there was space to move, photograph, touch and absorb it all without the inhibiting crowds, but it lacked the excess life, colour and rowdy, bustling noise that a tourist hotspot usually generates in season. If we eventually settle near here, I’m sure this is a place we will visit again and again, in all conditions, temperatures and weather.
We visited a beach area by a large lake, a superb free resource near to Carcassonne set aside for family picnics and barbeques. The lake has kayaking, wake-boarding and swimming, flume water slides and several sandy beaches, yet is, we are told, rarely busy and entirely free to frequent. Another fantastic selling point in a rural area slightly removed from the Med coastline.
Next up on our busy schedule was the Canal du Midi, where we parked up in a small village and walked a portion of the quiet banks. The plane trees lining the banks were in the process of being removed and replaced throughout this stretch, and indeed the whole region and across France in general, due to disease and blight. We saw not a single boat moving on this stretch of the canal, but did see many hire boats moored up for winter, awaiting the invading hordes of tourists in the coming spring.
We returned to and had a late lunch in the lower town of Carcassonne, with views from the central streets back to the walled magnificence of the fortified cité. The new town, actually now designated a city, was itself very typically French, picturesque and inviting with boutique stores and atmospheric streets.
The whole day was an unqualified success; it was a varied and quite lovely selection of places to see and offered us a really good introduction to and overview of the central area of the region of Aude. And we liked what we saw a lot.
Day 3 – Cycling the villages around Limoux
After a hearty breakfast we readied ourselves for an exploration day around the nearby towns and villages. We left our hosts in peace for a few hours and cycled through the exposed local landscape in the biting cold. It was a beautiful countryside, stark and calm, with bare trees and vines. Our imagination filled in the gaps of how the landscape would transform through the seasons; we had been told that many verges have been seeded with wildflowers and poppies, and although only rough, tufty grass at this time, they will become a bright, exploding torrent of colour in the early spring. We look forward to seeing the area come alive when we next visit, as it has in our minds.
We cycled a 40km loop, passing through open countryside and many small villages. Several of the villages were circulades, a traditional medieval design common throughout the Languedoc-Roussillon region. The villages were built in rows of concentric circles, with the centre not the expected castle or church as a focal point, but generally an open space that served as both meeting point and market square.
We ate our picnic lunch on a sunny bench in Limoux, feeling warmed for the first time on our route. The temperature differential between icy shade and direct radiant sun was huge, and we began to think that, despite the chilly air, prudence may have suggested we have sun cream on for protection during the short moments of direct exposure.
We passed the evening playing the table-top board game Carcassonne, chatting over wine and gin. Many stories and fun anecdotes were shared, along with much advice on both the pleasures and pitfalls of purchasing a home in France. Later Andy treated us to a few songs on his saxophone, his playing sublime as usual. This was another strong reminder of my desire to have the discipline to make the act of making music a larger and deeper part of my life. It may take a lot of time, effort, patience and dedication, but the reaped rewards are so great and the ability to reach people through the emotive creation of music is something wonderful. Our recent visit to Girona was a small reminder of this, and Andy’s playing underlined this obvious truth for us in a thick red marker; must practise more.
We said our grateful goodbyes the following morning, with the firm understanding that we will be in touch again soon. We drove the short way back into Limoux for a quick food shop and a look around a recommended second hand bric-a-brac store, before continuing on our way east, rested and happy.