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The Hidden South of France

  • Submitted by: suzy, Ireland
  • Submission Date: 12th Sep 2009

The Hidden South of France
The very words ‘The South of France’ evoke images of sophistication based on a shimmering sea, exclusive hotels and boutique villages. However an altogether different version of Southern France awaits the visitor the western banks of the Rhone. Here in Languedoc, tourism is only just beginning to make an impact. For those who want to taste the real flavour of France, there is no better place to start then south west of the old Roman town of Narbonne, deep in the Corbieres hills. These rugged outcrops of the more famous Pyrenees boast dramatic castles, ancient monuments and sleepy villages.
In summer it is hot. Long days of sunshine drive temperatures as high as anywhere in Europe. It’s in the shoulder seasons that the area gives of its best. In spring, the mountains to the south along the Spanish border still gleam with winter snow. The famous Catalan peak of Canigou rises 10,000 feet above the vineyards whilst below on the plains of Roussillon, the orchards celebrate with floral displays in pink and white. It’s warm enough to sit out and enjoy the local cuisine or perhaps a glass of Muscat des Rivesaltes, the noted sweet wine from a small village just inland from the Mediterranean.
In autumn, the hills are also a welcoming place for those looking for good weather but without the August heat. By mid September, the harvest preparations have begun across the Corbieres as the vines change from green to every shade of gold imaginable. Little tractors haul the carefully picked Carignan, Grenache and Mouvedre grapes to the local cooperatives for weighing and inspection. Local growers watch the assessment of their hard work with nervous anticipation as rising standards means less room for mediocrity. For the wine lover, the Corbieres AOC offers deep, powerful reds of ever improving quality and a smattering of decent restaurants helps attract a small but growing number of visitors.
Without the vines however, there would be little in the way of employment. The landscape is harsh but beautiful and for those who visit the area, there is no lack of sights to see. Foremost are the amazing castles of the Cathars. This name was given to a Christian religious sect who flourished in the region in the 12th and 13th centuries and who were annilhated by the French monarchy. Deemed to be a threat to both the Catholic faith and the development of the medieval French state, the Cathars were persecuted and eventually disappeared. However the ruins of their castles live on, gazing as silent sentinels across a beautiful landscape.
The castles were built on prominent and strategically important sites, providing both a refuge and a military outpost at a time of tremendous historical upheaval. Today, the visitor to the castles such as those at Peyrepertuse, Termes, Queribus or Montsegur is rewarded with an amazing mixture of scenery and history. A visit to even one of these fortresses spread out south of the city of Carcassonne will reward the traveller with a memorable experience.
An interesting ways to explore this historic landscape is to rent a house in one of the pretty Corbieres villages. It’s possible to head off each morning on an itinerary combining history, scenery, a wine tasting and an enjoyable lunch. It’s also a good idea to stop off at some of the village markets to stock up on the ingredients for a French evening meal back at your vacation home.

One of the most centrally located of the villages is Durban Corbieres, located in the hills about an hour from Carcassonne Airport and its range of Ryanair air routes. Durban has its own inevitable ruined Cathar castle, towering over the village and its sleepy backstreets. The village is neat and compact and has a supermarket, ‘boulangerie’ for the morning croissants, pharmacy, cafe and bank. Looking down on the village and just a five minute walk away is Villa La Cascade - . This is a cut stone Languedoc villa to rent, tastefully appointed with all mod cons (including broadband) with 3 en suite bedrooms and a gorgeous garden with magnificent views. For those for whom historical sites hold little appeal, the villa also has a private pool and secluded deck – just perfect for lazing around.
If activity based vacations are more your preference, windsurfing is available at Cap Leucate down on the Mediterranean coast just a 30 minute car drive away. There are well maintained tennis courts in the village and golf is also available not far from the town of Narbonne. Cross country hiking trails criss cross the hills and in winter, snowsports are about two hours away in the Pyrenees.
If all of that sounds a bit too much, remember, this is the South of France. So sitting outside the cafe with a coffee watching the world go by (sometimes very slowly!) is perfectly acceptable. It may not be the Riviera, but in many ways this is the best reason to go. The Cathars may be long gone but their castles are still there, just waiting to be rediscovered.