The département (region) of Aude is in southern France. And it's stunningly beautiful. A beacon for tourists is the Pays de la Narbonnaise. Facing out onto the Mediterranean it's a long sandy stretch of coastline backed by large lagoons and fronted by popular, modern holiday resorts like Narbonne-Plage and Gruissan.
The focal centre here is undoubtedly Narbonne itself, a very easy-going and bright city at the heart of the wine-producing business. In its time, it has seen a Roman presence – parts of the Via Domitia are visible in the square in front of the Hotel de Ville – and a Visigoth dynasty. But the charm of the River Robine lined with mini-cruisers, the narrow streets and elegant boulevards make Narbonne a most agreeable and laid-back place.
But perhaps the abiding impression when you travel through Aude in France is of never-ending vineyards. And for very good reason. This is the land of Corbières, Minervois, Fitou and the delightful bubbly known as Blanquette de Limoux.
Although Aude is undoubtedly the setting for some of the most enjoyable wines produced in France, there is, of course, much more to the place. Mountains in the north; mountains in the south; the Mediterranean to the east, and the amazing Canal du Midi which pulses right through its middle.
The attractions of Aude are many. The superb heritage, the history, the mysteries and intrigue. The puckered landscape like crumpled paper and the heady scent of broom, sweet cicely and thyme. Don't forget the villages and hamlets tucked neatly into hillsides. Put all that together and Aude in France provides you with a vastly different perspective on all the good things in life.
And when the sun shines (and even if it doesn’t), there is no more relaxing place to wile away hours, days, weeks…a lifetime, maybe.
Books and mega-hit movies has brought Aude in France to worldwide attention. Dan Brown instigated a landslide of interest through the Da Vinci Code book and movie. Brown used the history of a persecuted religious sect known as the Cathars as the basis for his book. Those interested can follow ‘Le Pay Cathare’ and the numerous ‘Routes du Pay Cathare’ which are actively promoted by the local tourist offices.
But it is arguably Kate Mosse’s award-winning Labyrinth and its sequels, Sepulchre and Citadel that make the history of this fabled land of troubadours, knights and blaggards come superbly and imaginatively alive.
The highlights of the department of Aude are many, and far flung. There is no greater delight than simply driving around the winding country lanes into the foothills of the Pyrenees. You'll pass vineyards shoe-horned into the tiniest plots, or will suddenly discover some hidden village where time is something for others to worry about.
A place with international renown
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. It was built in 1260 to the customary chequer-board pattern of these fortified settlements. There are over 300 in the south of France. 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 is the largest fortress in Europe. It consists 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. Access is 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. And it has 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.
Inland from Pays de la Narbonnaise is the gently undulating wine country of Corbières and Minervois, where serried ranks of vine either spread across vast acres or are shoe-horned into the tiniest of corners. But at the southern edge of this region the land becomes contorted in the most engaging fashion. Vineyards still persist, but there is more of the rough garrigue countryside here, and a twisting, turning succession of gorges that lead in anything but a direct fashion to the mountain strongholds that made their stand long ago against the Cathar persecutions.
Quéribus, on the border with Pyrénées-Orientales, is accessible by a short and easy walk, while, within viewing distance, the much more complex Peyrepertuse blends so closely with the rocky upthrust on which it stands as to be indistinguishable from it at a distance. These huge fortified castles are astonishing just in themselves, without the pallor of religious ‘cleansings’: the drive to them traverses the most spectacular of intricate landscapes.
Between the two lie the 10th-century perched village of Cucugnan with its neat 17th-century windmill, and the rather less compact medieval village Duilhac. Both are marvels of culture and architecture and more than adequately able to provide refreshment for visitors. In many ways, the finest approach to these two mountain strongholds from Carcassonne is by way of Limoux, and south to Quillan and Axat, slipping briefly into Pyrénées-Orientales, as far as Muary, before turning off and heading north to Quéribus.
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 by 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. This is 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. And it's 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 in France 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. This is 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.
In summary - and if you hadn't already guessed - Aude in France has so much to offer. You really shouldn't need any further encouragement to jump on a plane or train and explore this amazing region.