5 Best Places to Visit in Aude, France
Aude is a gorgeous corner of the Languedoc Roussillon region, with coastline and beaches to the east, and the jagged peaks of the Pyrenees looming in the west. The terrain in between is similarly dramatic: rolling vineyards and dusty villages are watched over by the mysterious Cathar castles, which are perched precariously above deep gorges and sheer cliffs. Aude is a fascinating area to visit and retains a real rustic feel that more touristy regions of France seem to have lost. It’s also surprisingly accessible; from the UK cheap flights can be found to either Perpignan (just over the border in the neighbouring Pyrenees-Orientales department) or Carcassonne. Car hire is available at either airport and necessary for exploring the region; French roads are generally good with excellent signage.
Any visit to Aude requires at least a stop-off in Carcassonne, home to the famous fortified fortress. Referred to as the Cité de Carcassonne to distinguish it from the more modern city centre over the river, the massive citadel was largely restored in the nineteenth-century, although there has been a settlement here from the Roman period onwards. Many visitors to the area only stop by the Cité and neglect the rest of Carcassonne however, which is no less lovely and substantially less touristy. Much of the upmarket centre is pedestrianised and full of smart shops and restaurants: the grand Place Carnot at its heart is the perfect spot for cafe hopping and people watching. Despite being the bustling site of one of France’s most popular tourist attractions, driving in Carcassonne is relatively straightforward, and parking options are surprisingly plentiful. Stopping off for lunch in the new(er) city then working your way towards the old fortress later on in the day is a nice way to incorporate both sites, and may help to avoid the worst of the crowds at the latter.
Limoux and Pieusse
Situated on one of the main roads on the way to Carcassonne, and on the River Aude, Limoux is one of the larger towns in the area and boasts a lovely central square and fountain. Place de la Républic is ringed by charming cafes and restaurants, and the Church of Saint Martin (Eglise Saint Martin) – just off the main square – is also worth a look. Originally built in the 12th century, and subsequently restored in the 15th and 19th, it has an imposing spot right on the river, and also overlooks the town’s beautiful 14th century stone bridge. Pieusse is a smaller village several miles north of Limoux and, along with the usual honey-coloured stone houses and pretty frontages, boasts one of the best restaurants in France that I have ever come across. La Taverne a Bacchus is unassuming from the outside, but its delightfully ornate interior and mouth-watering menu are an absolute delight. The restaurant specialises in local produce, essentially of the meaty kind, and offers up dishes that are so slowly and carefully cooked that flavours you never even knew existed are released and developed. Choices are from a set menu, ranging from the traditional (a charcuterie platter) to the more unusual (pork cheeks and bone marrow), with many of the dishes being cooked on the crackling fire behind the counter. Go – you won’t be disappointed.
Down in the south-west corner of the region, the little town of Quillan is also on the River Aude and features a quaint old quarter, complete with a crumbling castle overlooking the town. The Wednesday market’s food stalls congregate in the Place de la Republique and sell a varied array of the region’s produce, including beautiful fruit and veg, meats, cheeses, olives and nuts. Pair with some bread from the boulangerie round the corner, and have a relaxed picnic on the banks of the river. There are also some excellent options for dining out a little further afield: the brilliant Petanque et Poulet Bicyclette restaurant at nearby Saint-Ferriol is surely another contender for one of the best restaurants in Aude and is very much worth the drive (and what a drive it is – do stop and ask for directions if you get confused). Perched up on the side of a hill and in the middle of nowhere, it feels as though you are dining in the depths of a forest, and the setting as the sun sets and the candles flicker is utterly magical. The food is no less stunning – booking in advance is advised.
Another easy drive from Quillan is Chateau de Puilaurens, mind-bogglingly positioned at the peak of a bare outcrop of rock high above the little village of Lavagnac. Driving up to the castle provides one stunning view after another and, like many of the Cathar castles, its spot in the clouds leaves you wondering at the feats of engineering and architecture needed to get it there. The fact that the castle has stood here since 1162 is similarly striking, if you weren’t already suitably impressed. Entrance is €5 for adults and €3 for children, and there is a steep walk up to the castle from the car park.
Technically, Mirepoix is just outside of Aude, but is well worth the trip – particularly on a Monday, which sees the pretty centre taken over by dozens of market stalls. The central
square (the Place des Couverts) is surrounded by beautiful medieval houses with colourful timber frames, and arcades full of shops run underneath. If you do visit when the market is in full swing, it’s a good idea to stop until the afternoon when the stalls start to disappear: the carvings and colourings of the houses themselves are worth viewing, and tend to be obscured by the stalls and their canopies. There are also heaps of coffee shops and restaurants in the square and the picturesque alleys snaking away from it, but for something a bit different try La Cardamone in the Place Marechal Leclerc. This quirky hippy hang-out serves up wholesome veggie food with Asian and Indian influences, ranging from light-bites to hearty meals and plenty of organic beer to wash it all down.
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