Top 6 Things to Do in Aude, France
Updated: Apr 28
On paper, my trip to the south of France in May seems like a bit of a cliche. Cannes was hosting its iconic film festival, international tourists were beginning to flood the resort-like beaches, and seaside cities were starting to open up for the season. However, my trip was not to Provence in the southeast, it was to the Aude Valley in the southwest, a region that hasn't gathered the same level of fame or same number of tourists. The southwest of France is more peaceful and provincial, a great chance of pace for anyone looking for a relaxing vacation in a scenic environment.
Most of the places I went were day trips from where I was staying, and while they are a bit spread out over the area, the drive between destinations was gorgeous, even if the roads were a lot more narrow than I'm used to.
As an American, I am always blown away by buildings that have existed longer than my country, and medieval Caracassone does not disappoint on that front. The whole fortified city is a mix of ancient and brand new. Touristy souvenirs and trendy brands, like Pons, are in storefronts that casually say "Depuis 1409" above the doorway. Fake amour is sold where real knights battled and French history was made. If you are a fan of history or like looking at castles, Carcassone is definite the top attraction in the area.
This is a nice day trip, though there is a hotel inside the medieval wall if you want to stay longer and check out the modern neighborhoods in the city. I would recommend getting tickets to see La Cité, which is the inner most castle, and wearing comfortable shoes so you can explore the area without cursing the cobblestones.
While the Aude Valley is not at the top of the list for most sommeliers, I loved it. Sparkling wine is my favorite, and according to legend, it was invented in this region. They say, that hundreds of years ago, the Aude valley was a religious battleground. Every town was fortified in some way, and the hill tops were home to isolated monasteries where monks survived on whatever they could make or trade at a local market. At one of these monasteries, the monks made wine. Since they were such devote men, they forgot about the barrels fermenting in their cellar, and the wine went through a second fermentation, which changed the gases inside and created fizzy bubbles. Rumor has it, once they discovered this new type of wine, it was prayer that the monks forgot about.
Like I said, I am a huge fan of bubbly, so I was very excited to try sparkling wine made in the region. It turns out most of the grape varieties used for these wines are also used to make reds and whites in other areas. Determining what kind of wine you end up with all depends on the blend and how you ferment it. Since each vineyard uses a different mix of grapes and has their own secret process, there is a huge range in what each wine tastes like. Some have a hint of apple, other are semi-dry, or very sweet. At home, I can limited to either Champagne or Prosecco, which made it even more exciting to try such a wide spectrum of sparkling wines on this trip.
Though technically not in Aude, this small city, like most in the area, is a mix of very old and very new. Standing in front of the 15th century Perpignan Cathedral, you can see store selling trendy menswear and restaurants serving nouveau cuisine. Wandering down the cobblestone streets, you pass luxury brand names and castles turned into museums. There is even a large market in the city square once a week that sells a variety of local snacks and goods.
The city itself has alternated between French and Spanish rule, like many parts of the region, and it really shows. From the architecture to the food, this city is proud to be Catalan and has a lot of monuments and museums dedicated to remembering its turbulent medieval days. I loved learning a bit about the history and trying some yummy Catalan specialties.
#3 The Markets
The markets in the south of France are like nothing I'd ever seen. Stand after stand with artichokes larger than your fist, whole rabbits and chickens dangling by their legs, and local cheeses stacked high in coolers. Everything was so fresh and local, and unlike the barren spring farmer's markets in New England, so full of variety. Nearly every town holds their own market, and the larger ones expand to selling scarves, hand-made knives, and nearly anything you could need at a cheaper price. The ones in Quillan and Limoux were my favorite.
#4 Rennes Le Chateau
The abbey in this village was the inspiration for the Da Vinci Code. In the 1800s, a mysterious priest started at the church in Rennes-le-Chateau, and after some time began spending more money than anyone thought possible. He restored the church and build a whole new section that includes the iconic tower on the hilltop. No one ever discovered where he got his fortune, and dozens of different theories arose claiming everything from he found an ancient kingdom's lost treasure to he found the Holy Grail to he found the decedents of Jesus Christ himself. Regardless of what you believe, it is thrilling to hear more about the real-life mystery and the area is a beautiful sight to see.
This region of France is known for having a quieter lifestyle. The villages are small and divided by big stretches of fields and woods. The roads that take you between towns are thin and winding, and depending on the time, rather empty. Take advantage of this and get in touch with nature!
A couple of great hikes around are the Labyrinthe Vert Loop from Nébias that takes you from wide grassy plains to mossy, temperate jungle, and back, the Château de Quéribus Loop from Peyrefitte that takes you around a rocky, desert-like mountain and the castle sitting on top, and the Kleiner Aussichtspunk Loop from Route de Bages that takes you from downtown to a tranquil beach. With so many different landscapes to soak in, you may have to go on more than one.
#6 Abbey St Hillaire
This abbey is really a medieval Benedictine monastery famous for it's Romanesque art and for holding the sarcophagus of Saint Sernin. In one former bed chamber, the ceiling beams are painted with religious images, like angels and the Virgin Mary on one side so anyone walking in can be inspired by God, and with sexual images, like naked women and orgies on the other, for the man who lived there to see. It was a big surprise to see, and made me wonder how many people noticed back in the day.
My main interest in the Abbey stemmed from a rumor that the monks here were the first people to make sparkling wine. The Abbey's gift shop sell's wine made the traditional way like the monks used to make it, however, it is now bottled off site. So after taking in the view of the abbey's courtyard, I wondered around the little village nearby, and eventually had a sip of the original sparkling wine.