And I’m back! Let me recap the giveaway results, thank you all – and share with you travel tips & impressions from one of the most fascinating, unspoilt, less explored slow travel destinations in Europe.
My much-needed holiday ended exactly one week ago, and the first BEAUTYCALYPSE task on my to-do list was of course related to the Christmas in September giveaway: namely to random.org-pull the lucky numbers. The winners now are waiting for their eco-ethical goodies to arrive. The prizes have well some travel adventure ahead of them, going to Italy, Spain, Canada, Germany and Hungary!
A huge thank you to everyone who participated, commented and shared. You’re the best! Those of you who suggested what they would do as a BEAUTYCALYPSE reader of the year – excellent comments. Maybe “the reader of the year” should become a thing!”
And now let me follow up with my green and slow travel series and talk about:
6 Reasons To Visit Aude,
The “Cathar Country”
Most people, when hearing “South of France”, think of Cannes, Nizza and all the Côte d’Azur-ey dolce vita of the rich and the famous. Romantics will think of the lush lavender fields in the Provence and the wild white horses galopping through the flat wetlands in the Camargue. Lovely!
But still, today I want to rave about one of my favourite French destinations (personal score: #2 Alsace, #3 Bretagne): Aude, located at the heart of the beautiful Département Languedoc-Roussillon in the South of France.
And my favourite landscapes here is the Corbières region, the largest part of the Aude Département, stretched from the foot of the Eastern Pyrenees towards Carcassonne, Narbonne (thus, the Mediterranean), and Perpignan.
So why should one consider going there – if one can go anywhere?
1. Because it’s breathtakingly beautiful
To say it all in one passionately articulated paragraph, Aude is the most impressive, harmonious patchwork of landscapes set in a variety of climats: from the breathtaking gorges and plateaus of the Corbières mountains to the wild serpentine routes meandering through the vineyards; from the lovely, calm green waterways to the soft and friendly or wild and raw beaches of the Mediterranean; from exciting flavourful local food markets to the beautiful historic towns framed by the ubiquitous fragrant cypresses and the ruins of castles and forteresses, those that witnessed one of the most bloodcurling wars of history – the Cathar Wars – speaking loud and clear if you pay close enough attention.Holidays in the Cathar Country are best enjoyed… as you wish! Go alone, you know, quite like the painters and the poets, or à deux as a couple, visit en famille – with your family and a bunch of friends. Whether you love walking, hiking, biking, boat tours, wine tours or swimming, whether you want to enjoy lovely local meals or, as a foodie, explore local markets – holidays in Aude will feel like the regular, normal life you wish you had. Or maybe it’s just me 😉If there is ONE word to describe Aude, then it’s dramatic.
Aude looks to me as though Nature has created a showroom to demonstrate what she can do, a not too small but not too broad either range of things she can whip up in some million years or two, offering spectacular contrasts and the most striking abundance of textures, colours and details.
The weather, too, can change rapidly and moodily from dangerous thunderstorms with rain to a heavy thick fog that eats all sounds and looks just like clouds that want to rest in the hills, only to light, within minutes, a dramatic crown of sun rays and produce a perfect blue sky, bright and clear and wiped squeaky clean.What you see above btw is the Ermitage de Saint Antoine de Galamus, perched at an impressive altitude of vertigo-inducing 367 meters right into the gorges. Yes, it’s built into the canyon. Which is absolutely awe-inspiring itself (passing it by car though is utterly nerve-wracking; personally, I avoid the roads pointing to the Gorges de Galamus by all means). Underneath the Ermitage is the canyon and the river Agly. The Ermitage is open to visitors April through October. Make a selfie and tag me, I’m @BEAUTYCALYPSE on Twitter, to let me know you’ve made it! 🙂
2. The food here nurtures your body and your soul
Waking up to the sound of fresh green figs slushing onto the sandy, mineral soil is something.
Ripe grapes and figs that you can pick just from your vacation cottage’s bedroom window is a simple yet so luxurious and even sensual experience. Fruit that seems to be bursting with sun-warmed, sugary juices in the palms of your hands is so abundant here that the fruit baskets regularly dropped off at your door by the darling cottage owners seem to say “now just take them for goodness’ sake!”
Tip: while the many hotels and rooms at the various winemakers are great for short trips, if you plan to have a ‘home base’, book a holiday home with Gîtes de France – an accomodation association.
Food here qualifies as “Mediterranean diet” with red wine, fresh fish and snails, lots of vegetables and legumes and an occasional boar stew (the hunting season somewhat conjuncts with the grape harvest).
In general, seasons are essential to the local life, and it’s so beautiful to see how the clocks of Nature define what has to be done – the calming power of Nature’s dance, sun or rain, winter or summer, lazy afternoon or busy harvest – is able to comfort the most tormented urban soul. Everything here sings the song of Time, and instead of terrifying, it soothes you.
Hand-picked and wild ingredients play an important role, too: wild berries, mushrooms, wild leek and asparagus. Wild flowers are used to create rare vinegars and exquisite syrups.
Good to know: us vegans/ vegetarians and gluten intolerant folks find all we need in local supermarkets’ aisles dedicated to organic, vegan, and GF foods. Yay for that. Or: Génial.
Typical sweets are simple and unpretentious – no macarons – with a strong Spanish/ Catalan influence, while main courses tend to be very savoury, very comforting like cassoulet, a hearty bean stew (that you can veganise easily).
Speaking of local specialties: Aude is renowned for its naturally fragrant honey varieties, olives and olive oil, lentils and string beans, pastries like the delicate anis-infused Rousquille cookies or sweet and heavy Garriguet cakes, fleur de sel from Gruissan, goat and sheep milk cheese, and – of course! – wine.
3. Oh the wine!
In all honesty, all I know about the actual process of wine harvest I know from Lawrence Durrell’s Provence book – and from watching the vendanges from the cottage window. What strikes me as a fun thing, is that sometimes you’ll see a veritable castle behind a “Château So-and-so: wine cellar and guest rooms” sign, but sometimes you’ll smirk at the rotten, roofless cobblestone cottage that seems to be a perky château in its own right. It’s cute like that.
Travelling the countryside in Languedoc, you will see that the local Aude winemakers form cooperatives to be more profitable but you’ll realise, too, that there are venturous indie artisan winemakers and even ex-pats that settle down as hoteliers and winemakers.
Tip #1: I know you know about one jolly French widow who revolutionised champagne, but how about female artisan winemakers from Aude? Organic vineyards and traditional wines low in sulphites, now doesn’t that sound good! Check out Fanny Tisseyre (I love the page where she shows the old vines and the landscapes they thrive on), organic winemaker extraordinaire Véronique Robin Cuculière (woohoo: online shop!), and Château Fabre Cordon (offerings a gîte, or a holiday home, for rent as well).
Tip #2: in terms of local juices, look, for example, for the AOC Corbières label and for the black-and-yellow road signs “ROUTE 20 CORBIÈRES”, this will lead you to all the makers of the most traditional reds and whites. There’s also a nicely info-packed PDF guide (in French, but you can figure out the routes) that shows five wine routes that will also lead you along many places well worth a visit.
4. La mer! La plage! 50 km of sandy beaches!
I’m not much of a mermaid really, but Aude’s picturesque beaches and étangs (exotic landscapes of wetlands, ponds and marshes) with their salty fresh air and their amazing warm and white sunlight that permeates all things and beings are a beauty to behold.There are six beautiful beach areas sitting along the shore like white pearls on a string, from North to South, all belonging to the Regional Natural Park of Narbonne:
Speaking of nature: hiking trails in Aude come in all varieties from a 2-hours stroll by the seaside and a challenging tour-de-force that lasts a whole day to a walking holiday of a full week (plan ahead to arrive at a time when you can sill knock on a door and get a room, or book in advance – as I said, there are a plenty of winemakers scattered all over the landscape that also offer guest rooms; guided tours are also available). Walking is still the most natural way of movement, and the most sustainable, too.
And if you are not just a passionate hiking but also a history buff, the Cathar sites, the medieval abbeys and the ancient villages, chapels and churches are simply unmissable:
5. Where the soil is red with Cathar blood
The hilltop Cathar castles add to the overall dramatic look of this wild region: majestic silent ghosts, whitened by the time itself. And for those who ask themselves Ca-who? let me explain briefly:
The Catharism was an ascetic, purist Christian movement in Northern Italy and Southern France between the 12th and the 14 centuries. Dubbed ‘Western Buddhists’ for their belief in incarnation cycles by modern-day historians, Cathars also were sort of proto-feminists, basically because gender was seen as meaningless – and equally evil. As the Cathars opposed the Church officials in what the former perceived and voiced as an example in moral decline and political corruption, you can’t say they were neccesarily set up for a peaceful co-existence with the earthly powers (but be honest, they have your sympathy). Completely destroyed in the course of a brutal 20-years long war known as the Cathar War or the Albigensian Crusade, the Cathar movement had ceased to exist.
They say that the earth is still red with Cathar blood spilled there, and as you move upcountry, the bright red ruptures flashing between the vineyards and the cypresses become more and more intense-looking. Of course, the earth is rich in iron, but…
If you want to look into the historic sites and forteress ruins, the Association of the Historic Sites has got you covered (website in English): Pays Cathare.
My favourite castles include Quéribus, Aguilar and Peyrepertuse (below; respectively), Puilaurens, Puivert, Arques (first photograph under #1), Termes, and Cité de Carcassonne – the rebuilt medieval forteress surrounding the old city. The most significant Cathar castle of Montségur, the tragic witness of the downfall, is unmissable, even though the ruins to behold do not belong to the original Cathar castle. As you can imagine, the victorious folks that have burnt the defeated Cathars at stakes did not leave a stone standing…
Movie fact: remember the 1988 flick The Ninth Gate? The final scenes were filmed at the castle Puivert.
True story, bro: As I climbed the rocky path to the hilltop of the Aguilar castle (below), all of a sudden barking and howling sounds shook the already spooky scene, overcast by the pale yellow light of a rainy, soon-to-be sunset. It truly sent a chill down my spine, as I was – gulp – one of the last two visitors… Peyrepertuse:
Having nothing to do with the Cathars but a lot with the Holy Grail Mysteries and, more recently, Dan Brown’s writing, Rennes-le-Château has become quite a tourist magnet also. You even can’t park in the village anymore, but you still will get a scoop of the most delicious artisanal ice cream (tip: sheep milk–verbena) and a café gourmand – black coffee with miniature sweets – as well as a more substantial meal at the Restaurant Le Jardin de Marie under old chestnut trees’ airy ceiling.
6. Sustainable tourism
Okay, this one sounds like a bore in the middle of my troubadour-like marvelling, but let’s admit it: you’re here for the green stuff!
And this is maybe the main reason why I love the region so much – it seems to cleverly use individual, sports and wine tourism to create opportunies for local growth, sustainable development and heritage protection. It feels like there’s a Heart & Soul behind the business; something holistic, something simply real. All the fun activities (this year btw we’ve spotted rather noticeable amounts of sport cyclists) are offered without compromising on the raw, pristine nature and the traditional lifestyle.
There’s the excellent official tourist info site in English for your research pleasure: Aude Tourism
– or hey, you know, ask me 🙂