Almost at the centre of the département of Aude lies the two-tiered city of Carcassonne. The lower town – La Ville Basse – is built around the bastide of St Louis, built in 1260 to the customary chequer-board pattern of these fortified settlements. There are over 300 in the south of France, and as well as meeting defensive strategies, they served to garrison and control the changing and feckless populations of the Middle Ages.
Above the bastide, across the River Aude is the Upper Town, La Cité, the largest fortress in Europe , consisting of a central building, the Chateau Comtal, surrounded by a double curtain wall within which hundreds of people once lived. Today, there is a resident population of a little more than a hundred here, with access by the narrow Porte Narbonnaise, a crenellated redoubt built on a bridge across the moat. Wandering the floodlit streets of La Cité at night, after the clamour of tourists has subsided, is one of the great pleasures of Carcassonne.
Gruissan, on the coast, is something of an odd-ball. The old town of Gruissan used to be isolated in the middle of lagoons, and was an important point of defence for Narbonne. Today, the demands of tourism have thrown up hundreds of duplicated pastel-coloured apartments stacked like freight containers on some ocean-going ship, plus all the trappings of a wealthy marina and popular beach-side holiday resort. Less well-known is the comparatively narrow tract of limestone countryside you have to pass through to get to the coast. Known as the Montagne de la Clape, this is an eye-catching hinterland, and a producer of some fine and largely unknown wines beyond the immediate realm.
Further west lies Pays de la Haute Vallée de l’Aude, a region that focuses on the town of Limoux, and the production of that delicious alternative to champagne for which the region is renowned. But further south, high above a superb landscape of farmland and mountains is a small, seemingly innocuous village, Rennes-le-Chateau. The village is a delight, and a most pleasant place to mooch around, but, perhaps surprisingly, given its modest size, this is a place with international renown, not only through the novel, Sepulchre, of Kate Mosse, but because of its notoriety as a place where a 19th-century priest is said to have found proof of a secret society established to safeguard the bloodline of Christ, the source material from which the Da Vinci Code was fashioned. The ‘secret society’ legacy persists. The truth is, no-one knows for sure. So, while sceptics, pedants, rumour-mongers, philosophers and assorted nutcases skate on the thin ice of truth and faith, the village very sensibly prospers, still considered by tourists to be packed with clues to an alternative view of religious history...if only we knew where to look!
The extreme western part of Aude is consumed by the Pays du Lauragais, which centres on the town of Castelnaudary, arguably the cassoulet kingdom of the world. Castelnaudary is a typical French provincial town, but one that proclaims no distinctive merit (beyond its cuisine), yet is a great pleasure to explore, to have a relaxing coffee and a quick tour of the market to buy something for lunch. Today, the town is important to the surrounding farming communities of Lauragais in much the same way that it formerly proved of importance to trade along the Canal du Midi.
The final segment of Aude’s jigsaw is the Pays Carcassonnais, the region of Minervois wines that spreads northwards into the rolling heights of the Montagne Noire. The scenery here is heavily rural, farmland, vineyards and cornfields dotted with poppies ripple in all directions once you quit the suburbs of Carcassonne. There are yet more ‘Cathar’ strongholds here, numerous small chateau, and isolated villages of some considerable age and simplistic beauty, attractions that appeal to those in search of peaceful retreats either for holiday purposes, or as permanent ‘away-from-it-all’ homes.