The Aude

I first discovered the Aude in 2013,  when I came to visit a friend in late September for a long week to relax and recuperate.  I stayed in a holiday home that was just outside Saint-Hilaire, looking south west across vines and villages off toward the Pyrenees.  It didn’t take long to decide this was a good place to spend time and I set about looking for somewhere to make my home.  I wanted to find somewhere with position, aspect, age… basically an old farmhouse in the vines deep in the country, with the sort of isolation that would set you back a King’s ransom at home.  It was a slow process but eventually I found St. Roch and rented a small farmhouse on the estate.

Now, working with the owners we are beginning to put the Domaine St. Roch out there as a place to come and spend time, making it available to anyone wanting to experience life on a working vineyard in the Aude.

The Aude, she has it all: great wine, great food (not everywhere but it’s there), beautiful landscapes everywhere, mountains to walk in, ski on, be inspired by; rivers to paddle in, raft on, drink from; sea-sides to visit; beaches to walk on and water to splash in; sweltering heat and windy squalls, and sometimes even snow!  The people are jolly, uncomplicated and always up for a natter, French withstanding. Carcassonne is more than just a proper country capital, with top star hotels, the Unesco site and the best Bastille Day firework display anywhere in France.

Nothing is too far away and the cost of living is among the lowest. There are several airports, rail stations and motorways that link you to Barcelona in two hours and Paris in less than five.

Life in the Aude is not bad at all.  I should know, I visited and never really left.

Gasparou, site editor.

Our little corner of the Languedoc is centred around the city of Carcassonne and its spectacular medieval citadel. To the south west is our local town, Limoux with it’s tradition of sparkling wines: Blanquette and Crémant de Limoux. The traditional grape variety here is Mauzac but more recently Chenin, Chardonnay and red varieties have been planted. Blanquette is claimed as the oldest sparkling wine in France, pre-dating Dom Perignon by about half a century. The still white wines of Limoux were given AOC status in 1993. The variety of micro climates and aspects has led to the definition of four different zones: Autan, Oceanique, Mediterranean and Haute-Vallée. This is a comparatively small region, although each of the sub-zones displays markedly different characteristics. The Cave Coopérative in Limoux is responsible for about three quarters of the production in the area; as well as making sparkling wines they produce Chardonnay from the four climats. The Haute-Vallée, from vines grown at 450m in altitude, reveals the tightest structure with marked acidity and the greatest ageing potential and is, to coin a cliché, Burgundian. The Côtes de la Malepère is at the frontier of the Languedoc and Aquitaine, what the French call le partage des eaux, the watershed between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. As Rosemary George writes in her excellent book, The Wines of the South of France, the vineyards are “a melting pot of grape varieties… Midi mingling with Bordeaux”. Climatically, the Malepère has more affinity to the Atlantic, although the vegetation is mixed as is the terroir ranging from sandstone terraces of glacial origin, to slopes of clay and limestone to gravel. The primary grape varieties are Merlot, Malbec and Cinsault; Cab Franc, Cab Sauv and Grenache Noir are also present. Certainly, the Bordeaux varieties seem to be gaining favour at the expense of those of the Languedoc. The wines from this area of are good inexpensive examples of wannabe claret (though why would you wannabe claret) with sweet ripe fruit flavours, graceful pepperiness and quench-worthy acidity. That’s the sort of Cabernet Franc that wins instant converts. Try it with lentils with bacon or with cassoulet. So be sure and visit Carcassonne – the old cité, the summer fête de Limoux – the local Crémant, Toques et Clochers wine festival and the festival du Carnival, which celebrates the French obsession with masked theatre, quite a sight to behold! In Lagrasse, there is the annual street brocante in Saint-Hilaire and l’Abbaye, where the monks were doubling up as alchemist producing the famous Crémant from here long, long before the Monks of Dom Perignon…

Eating & Drinking

There are many restaurants dotted around the countryside and in the town of Limoux.  Some are better than others and most offer quite simple food.  Our favorites are:

La Tantina in Limoux’s Place de la République, where an excellent lunch will cost you no more than 14€ lovingly produced by Robert and his team, with a creativity that is quite a surprise and definitely not the norm.  For this little town it is a triumph and simply not to be missed.

La Grande Bouffe in Carcassonne. We had been in the Aude for going on a year and had not found it.  It’s the national dish don’t forget, so everyone’s doing it, but that don’t mean a thing! And then I did find it. Not purely by chance, because I’d been looking, but it was unexpected and was all the more satisfying: a better steak than you can dream of eating. From the outside the place is typical enough to look at… a bistro that sits off the beaten track, not far from the hustle and bustle of Carcassonne’s train station, right opposite the Canal du Midi.  Quite unpretentious and very modest with an eclectic mix of decor typical in this corner of France. But all cacophony fades when you first see the fire. It isn’t dead and centre like some altar and as soon as you appreciate the simplicity of the place and how purposefully it quietly supports the role of the fire, you understand the point of the restaurant. It is of course all about steak.

We arrived quite early by French standards and the fire crackled over its silence, like calm water that will eventually ripple from the ebb and flow of activity. It’s then that you realize you’re in someone’s home more than their restaurant. This is a place run by two people who respect their produce and celebrate its quality by paying it the complement of serving it justly grilled and correctly seasoned. Nothing more, nothing less.

The couple work quietly and efficiently and it’s immediately obvious they’re more than just business partners… the warmth of their union adds to the atmosphere.  She is Spanish, he is French. Together they offer up gloriously fantastic meat. They run the place without help. He deftly butchers the meat, while manning the wood-fired grill. He weighs it before laying it over the blistering coals that have fallen through the fire grate on to the hearth below. It is a spectacle indeed, that is as impressive as it is mesmerizing.

Considering all that she must do single-handedly, she seems to glide effortlessly about the room, delivering people and plates, carafes and steaks. There’s no rush and there’s no fuss. She is seen but not heard… until that is you engage her in a discussion about beef. Here the passion in the Spanish blood stirs as she speaks without pause on the provenance, the quality and the superiority of their beef. It’s all from one of two farms, she tells me, one in Kansas and the other in Nevada. Entendu! This is US beef and it’s incredible! And considering the price – 23.50€ for a 14.1oz (wet weight) perfectly cooked sirloin of faux filet steak or 25€ for the rib eye or entrecôte of the same size, this is also incredible value and further testament of commitment to their craft. 

And if you choose the house red – a worthy wingman from Corbiéres, punching well above its weight at about 10€ for a litre – you’ll get out for two for just about 60€. This is a tour de force: it’s the beat to a great track: you’re in for a treat here.  There’s simply nothing to match the quality of this meat… and that my friends is all I have to say about that! Google to find this place, it makes the find all the more personal! But if you can’t guess where it is, email us and we’ll give you details.

Gorge Swimming

The flooded hillsides are still evident when the water level drops, revealing tree stumps and the thick sticky clay (marl) so typical of the Ariège. On quiet hot summer days the water takes on a beautiful turquoise colour which is very photogenic.

The area is relatively undeveloped and quiet and privacy are a great attraction. The mountains of the Pyrenees are visible in the background. Other lakes for swimming near Montbel include Lac de la Cavayère and a smaller one at Pradelles-Cabardès.

Lac de Montbel

Lac de Montbel is a reservoir 5 minutes from Chalabre, which is a popular location for watersports and swimming. It is located at Sainte-Colombe-sur-l’Hers on the border between the Ariège and Aude départements of southwestern France.

Located between the beautiful town of Mirepoix and Limoux, 30 minutes south of Carcassonne, you will find this amazing lake. A centre for windsurfing, Lac de Montbel also has a kiosk where you can hire pedalos and there is also a nice little beach-side shack where you can get a beer or a cup of coffee. The nearest village to Montbel is Chalabre, and if you are heading out this way, make sure you go on a Monday and take in the excellent market at Mirepoix.

The Pyrenees

Most days you can enjoy spectacular views of the Pyrenees off to the south west, and with little more than an hour’s drive you can find yourself standing with them.  They stretch from the Bay of Biscay east across the border separating Spain and France to the Mediterranean sea at Cap Creus.  At their highest point they reach just over 11,000 ft or 3,400 metres.  The Pyrenees’ natural beauty is in abundance with varied peaks offering flora and fauna, lakes, valleys and local farmed and wild livestock throughout.  Skiing, Walking, lang-lauffing, are all available, as are guided riding trips, which offer a connection to the mountains that is hard to beat.  Trips are offered with overnight stays en route in auberges or even in shepherds huts.  A number of useful sites are listed below.

http://www.ski-camurac.com/

http://www.lesangles.com/en/skiing-and-snow-sports/skiing-area/skiing-area

http://www.cheval-en-pyrenees.com/

http://www.ariege.com/equiloisirs/

Crémant

Blanquette de Limoux is produced around the city of Limoux. The main grape of the wine is Mauzac, followed by Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Wine historians believe that the world’s first sparkling wine was produced in this region in 1531, by the monks at the abbaye in Saint-Hilaire, Aude.

The heart of the town is the place de la République, a wide square with some fine stone arcading and a number of timber framed houses. Limoux straddles the river Aude and the banks are lined with grand houses, especially on the eastern side, the so-called Petite Ville (lit. “Small City”).

The town likes to party in a most un-selfconscious way and for its own pleasure rather than for the sake of tourists. While worth visiting in itself, it is also an excellent base for discovering the history of the region and is ideally placed for exploring the coast, the mountains and some of the finest walking country in France.

Weekly market every Friday (or Thursday if a public holiday falls on a Friday).

Flea market or Brocante the first Sunday of each month on the Promenade du Tivoli.

Evening markets on Tuesdays in July and August.

Limoux

Wikipedia describes Limoux a commune and subprefecture in the Aude department, a part of the ancient Languedoc province and the present-day Occitanie region in southern France. It lies on the river Aude about 30 km due south of Carcassonne. Its vineyard is famous for being first to produce sparkling wine known as Blanquette de Limoux.

Start your visit to Limoux in the historic centre, an attractive area around the Place de la République with some 15th-16th century houses and other monuments and a pleasant spot to stop for lunch. There is a covered market here as well as an imposing fountain as well as a selection of cafes and small shops. Elsewhere in the town, you can see traces of the original fortified gateways, as well as a few medieval houses and renaissance period houses.