Béziers

BeziersIf you are coming from the the direction of Montlpellier and driving on the A9 you will see the cathedral to your right rising on a hilltop. The city's bloody history is hard to forget. In 1209 the Cathars sought refuge in the city. 20,000 people were massascred by the Abbot of Cîteaux. When his men asked him how to distinguish the Catholics from the Cathars he said "Kill them all; God will know his own." Inside the cathedral you will find some lovely stained glass windows. Definitely worth a stop off if you are going to Carcassonne or just exploring the area. The drive between Béziers and Carcassonne is especially nice. At times you pass the Canal du Midi and drive through quaint little villages.

 

 

Carcassonne

CarcassonneTo me Carcassonne is a Disneyland of the 1800s. You ask why? Because Viollet-lu-Duc was the man who was instrumental in the restoration of the Cité . What you see today is what he thought it should look like. Now this fact doesn’t detract from the beauty of the place, but architecturally speaking it is not 100% accurate. Viollet-lu-Duc built a fantasy castle like the one built at Disneyland. In addition, it doesn’t help that quite a few shops sell souvenirs with a medieval theme and there are a lot of attractions geared for children. One thing you cannot dispute is Carcassonne makes an incredible backdrop for such events as fireworks on Bastille Day. During the month of July a festival of dance, music and theater is held in the outdoor amphitheater behind the Saint-Nazaire Cathedral. Every year the L'Association Les Opéras en Plein Air puts on an opera production. In 2009 it will be Verdi’s Rigoletto. For more information click on the link. I did enjoy the tour of the Chateau Comtal. It was interesting to learn about defenses of a fortress during the Middle Ages. For me the real draw was the Basilica St. Nazaire, an excellent example of Gothic architecture. The magnificent Rose windows are a must see. And the gargoyles and other carvings on the outside were wonderful. I was reminded of Notre Dame in Paris. Even though in need of restoration the carvings were still exquisite. I definitely think a visit to Carcassonne at least once is worth it. And I would probably go back to see either the fireworks on Bastille Day or a theatrical performance.

Tourist Office Carcassonne - has information on events and so fourth.

Château de Quéribus

Is one of best preserved Cathar castles that is also one of the more accessible for non-hikers. Once you park your car it is about a 10 minute walk up to the castle. It is a steep walk and can be windy towards the top, but the path is in decent shape. You just take your time and wear good walking shoes.  The castle has been restored to a certain degree, but it is still basically a ruin. The audio guide (which I though quite good) helps you to imagine what the castle looked like and what life was like living there. There is a great view form the castle. You can see all the way to the Pyrénnées. About 2 or 3 miles away is another Cathar castle, Peyrepertuse is larger and perhaps better preserved, but it is harder to get to. I totally enjoyed my visit and learning a little bit about the history of the Cathars. On my next trip I would like to see a few other castles and do a bit more hiking around the region. 

For more information on Quéribus, other Cathar castles and Catharism go to http://www.payscathare.org/3-6588-History.php.

About a mile away is Cucugnan, a charming village where you will find several restaurants.

The snow capped Pyrenees in the distance.

abbaye de FontfroideAfter visiting Queribus and a lovely lunch in Cucugnan (a few miles north of the chateau, you can see the village from the top of the chateau) I decided to head east of Cucugnan and explore the countryside. My goal was eventually to visit the beautiful Abbaye de Fontfroide (just south of Narbonne), which has one of the loveliest rose gardens. There are over 2,500 varieties of roses. The smell of the roses while exploring the cloisters in just incredible. Along with the carvings and stained glass windows this one of my favorites places to visit. From Cucugnan I drove towards Padern continuing on until I hit the D611 (a little ways past Tuchan you pass another ruined Cathar castle, Chateau d’Auilar romantically perched high up on a hilltop), at which point I went north on the D611 until the D613 and headed east for about 5 miles, then I made a right onto the Chemin de Fontroide and drove another mile or two to the abbaye. The total trip was about 36 miles and took about an hour. I was in no hurry and wanted to enjoy the beautiful sunny spring day. If you are planning on visiting the Abbaye be sure to check opening times so you arrive in time for the guided tours that last approximately one hour. After visiting the Abbaye I decided visit Narbonne, partly to see the Cathedrale St-Just and partly for a light snack. With the driving and visiting the abbaye I was in need of sustenance. Getting back to Cucugnan. Two places I can recommend for lunch are Auberge du Vigneron, 2 rue A. Mir. Tele: 04 68 45 03 00, menus from 22.00 - 38.00 Euros, regional dishes (the cassoulet is delicious) and local wine (I highly recommend the wine from the Corbieres area), an outdoor terrace with a great view of the countryside and the second place is Auberge de Cacugnan, 2 Place de la Fontaine, Tele: 04 68 45 40 84, once again great regional dishes along with local wine at reasonable prices. Remember most restaurants serve lunch from around noon to 1:30 - 2:00.   

 

Collioure and Port-Vendres

CollioureApproximately 42 miles southeast of the Chateau de Queribus lies one the loveliest ports where artists like Matisse and Picasso flocked almost 100 years ago because of the charm and abundant light (perfect for painting). These days more of a tourist destination (the beaches are quite nice) than an artist colony. Though, along with the usual souvenir shops, there are some interesting galleries. For a rustic and authenticCollioure fishing port head south to Port-Vendres (about a mile south of Collioure). I walked along the coastal path (some great views of the sea and rugged coastline), Sentier de la Mauresque to Port-Vendres (known for their seafood restaurants) where I head lunch at La Tramontanein, 2 Quai Pierre Forgas Tele: 04 68 82 01 51. Great seafood at a reasonable price. Market day in Port Vendres is Saturday. Going back to Collioure, you can sample and buy local wines including AOC Collioure and Banyuls at Le Dominicain (housed in a historic 13th century Dominican church and monastery) located on a hill (south side opposite the Chateaus Royal) overlooking the port on the Route de Port-Vendres (D114). Next door is the Musee d’Art Moderne located in a lovely villa surrounded by a garden. There is a small permanent collection, but they host temporary exhibitions from time to time that focus on artists with a connection to the region. Due to the the narrow streets and the location and size of the town parking can be a pain especially during high season. On the north side of the harbor, behind the Chateau Royal (concerts are held in the courtyard) there is a large car park. You do pay, but it’s reasonable and worth it. If the car park is full try the train station (west of the port), about a 10 minute walk from the center of town. Les Templiers 12 quai de l'Amirauté, a fun bar/restaurant filled with drawings and painting donated by artists such as Maillos, Dufy and Picasso, is a great place to stop in for a leisurely drink or a meal. Don’t forget to try the local specialty - salted anchovies. The tourist office is located at Place du 18 Juin. You can rent bikes and scooters at X Trem 5, Rue de La Tour d'Auvergne (near the Place Orfila) Tele: 04 68 82 59 77. Market days are Wednesday and Sundays and are held in the place du Marechal Leclerc.

Minerve

MinerveAnother Cathar stronghold. Unfortunately, all that is left of the castle is a single pillar. Nonetheless it is a charming hamlet perched dramatically on a cirque between two rivers. One of the most scenic approaches to the village is driving along the D10 from the east following the gorge of the Cesse River. Today the area is known for their excellent  wines. There is shop in Minerve where you can taste and purchase local wines. A few miles south in Beaufort there is an excellent restaurant, Auberge de St-Martin, Tele: 04 68 91 16 18. A changing seasonal menu that focuses on regional cuisine at a reasonably price. May - September closed on Monday. October - April closed Sunday night, all day Monday and Tuesday night.

If you have time there are quite a few other sights in the area worth seeing including Chapelle de Centeilles (frescoes from the 13th to 15th centuries). If you are going to Carcassonne from Minerve take the D610 which at times runs along the Canal du Midi  passing through several lovely little towns.

Quillan

Is not what you would call “picturesque”. It does make good base for exploring the area and as a stop over point. I stayed at the Hotel Cartier, conveniently located with nice basic rooms. I ate the hotel restaurant and enjoyed the meal. I had an excellent wine from the Corbières. For a more upscale accommodation there is Chateau des Ducs de Joyeuse in Couiza (located between Limoux and Quillan off the D118). If you are heading east along the D117 towards Maury and Quéribus the drive through the gorge is fantastic. Tunnels were blasted through the mountains for the trains and it is just an incredible drive.      

Rennes-le-Chateau

Where did Father Saunière (a poor parish priest) get the money to rebuild the church and build a luxurious villa for himself? Speculations range from him finding the holy grail to Solomon’s treasure to horde of Visigoth gold to the more prosaic and more likely that he made money by selling masses. Personally I like to believe he found a buried treasure. We all like a good story so why spoil it. And perhaps Father Saunière really did find a hidden treasure. He  go about renovating the church (in a garish style and added some unusual decoration), bought a fair amount of land, and built a rather grandiose villa (modest by our standards, quite luxurious for the time) to entertain guests; in addition to building himself a fine library in the Tour Magdala and generally  living quite well. Pretty remarkable really given he was a humble priest of an impoverished hamlet. Above the entrance to the church there is greeting (in Latin no less) that welcomes visitors to “this terrible place” and when you walk in you are greeted by font sitting ont op of a horned devil. After reading this my curiosity was aroused and I knew I had to pay this place a visit one day. In the bookshop below the church you can purchase a guidebook. I only paid something like 6.20 Euros for it. It goes into some of the oddities of the church architecture, the paintings, and the statues and so on. You also learn some additional information on Father Saunière’s background. I enjoyed the story and felt without the guidebook - well – my visit might not have been as enjoyable. It’s strange place. And the view of the surrounding countryside is spectacular (both the view and the countryside). Once again who knows what really happened. One thing is definite  Rennes-le-Chateau has a very unusual church, well worth seeing.