Saturday, 23 January 2010

Historic Languedoc

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.

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.

Article published in The Independant 
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