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Carcassonne to Collioure

Epic scenery where time stands still

Carcassonne, the largest medieval fortified city in Europe, is a prodigious conjuring trick, with sleight of hand worthy of Walt Disney himself. For if you wonder how its fortress walls survived in perfect condition despite two ferocious sieges in which great lumps of rock were hurled at them time after time by giant catapults, the answer is they did not. By the end of the wars of religion against the heretical Cathars, Carcassonne’s 13th century fortifications were in utter ruin. What the siege engines could not achieve on their own, the underprivileged completed, working like termite ants to carry off building materials for their own homes. The fortifications were rescued from oblivion by Viollet-le-Duc, a 19th century architect with the skill and determination to rebuild a double wall and no fewer than forty seven towers. The result is a circumference stretching for almost two miles, enclosing the medieval town with its intricate network of winding streets. The compelling fascination of Carcassonne is also its Achilles heel: at the height of summer it has more visitors than it can handle. Come early, abandon the car on the outskirts, eat lunch at midday and aim to be gone by three.

On the autoroute from Carcassonne, the most southerly point of the French Mediterranean coast is only a couple of hours away. But almost a parallel universe exists south of Carcassonne on minor roads in the Pyrénées-Orientales, unchanged for centuries. The route follows the twisting valley of the River Aude, with rolling vineyards giving way to forested ravines. In this land of perpendicular gorges and gravity-defying passes, the Gorges of Galamus reign supreme. Over countless centuries a fierce tributary has cut deep into the hillside, and fat trout swim through the crystal clear water. High above, the Hermitage de St-Antoine clings to the almost vertical rock face, a triumph of man’s faith and will.

Rennes-les-Bains is a spa resort with the remains of a Roman baths. Formerly called Régnes, the town was once infested with huge spiders, happily long departed. Whenever they reappeared, they were known as "A Régnes" which gave rise to the French word for a spider, araigneé.

Soulatgé, a sleepy little village with a charming church, has huge numbers of box trees, which would cost a fortune back home in ornamental vases. Nearby, on the hikers’ trail, Eléanor of Aquitaine’s waterfall marks the halfway point to the ruined châteaux of Peyrepertuse. 

The further south you go, the more towns take on a Catalan character. Even just east of Carcassonne at Lézignan-Corbières a lively French/Spanish mix already invigorates the atmosphere of its bars and restaurants. Inviting cafés can be found at Ille-sur-Têt, just west of Perpignan, lying in a valley of peach and nectarine trees baked by the sun.

The best of the French seaside resorts near the Spanish border, Collioure is an evocative mix of the old and the new. Its chateau, once the seat of the Kings of Majorca, dominates a harbour where sailing ships have sheltered since the days of Ancient Greece.


Getting there

By air (Carcassonne, Toulouse, Béziers, Perpignan)
Airlines and flights >>
By car
Cross-Channel ferries >>
Motoring tips >>
Driving through France >>
By rail
Eurostar/TGV >>

Porte d'Aude, Cité of Carcassonne
© Images Bleu Sud, Philippe Benoist

Collioure © Dominique's Villas

View from Galamus © Dominique's Villas

Collioure © Dominique's Villas

Collioure © Dominique's Villas

Soulatgé © Dominique's Villas

Rennes-les-Bains © Dominique's Villas

Our villas near Carcassonne

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