"Racing around circular stone staircases and wooden tunnels atop the Bastille, envisioning heretics and horsemen attacking from the other side, that really struck a nerve in my travel soul."
by Sony Stark
Unhurried pleasures and fairy-tale photography await you in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of Southern France. Benedictine abbeys, medieval castles and Michelin-rated restaurants complement a country rich with bountiful vineyards and boundless hospitality. In Southern France you’re welcome to stay as long as you like.
Location, Location, Location
More than 740,000 acres of Languedoc-Roussillon border the Mediterranean coastline, providing perfect temperatures and soil content for grape growing.
Generations of vintners carry on a tradition that lends itself to some of the best bottles of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon sold today.
Flavanoids also go great with side platters of goat cheese, green olives and sweet honey. All are made fresh in the little hillside hamlet of Agel surrounded by alluvial terraces and vacation villas.
Appetizers here are a catered affair and for the next two hours my belly and brain soak in as many flavors and combinations as possible. It’s not like I need to indulge - less than 16 hours earlier I was scraping my plate clean from a delicious home-cooked four-course meal at Château de Raissac.
Living Large in Châteaux
Château de Raissac is only 25 miles up the road near the town of Beziers. An eclectic couple by the name of Christine and Jean Viennet defy all stereotypes and generously cook feasts of seaside cuisine for their guests.
It's 200-year old château-turned-museum. And the romance between the adoring couple, in love since they were teenagers, spills out into the food they cook, the canvasses they paint and the walls-turned-frescos.
Both the Château de Raissac and Château d’Agel offer overnight accommodations in private mansions that have been restored and refitted with modern amenities and private vineyards.
Ancient Bones of Narbonne
The oldest known European human skull in existence was discovered in Languedoc-Roussillon so it’s no surprise that I should see plenty of bones in the city of Narbonne. Just six feet underground lie the early remains of a former Roman capital.
Archeologists began digging up sources of antiquity dating back 2000 years in places like the passageways of the Horreum Roman warehouse, built in the 1st century BCE.
Other glimpses at history can be seen in front of the Archbishop's Palace like Via Domitia, the first strategic road to join Italy and Spain, while a grab-bag of skulls and skeleton bones collect dust underneath the St.Paul-Serge Basilica just up the street.
Restaurant La Table de St-Crescent
I knew immediately the two-star Michelin rated La Table de St-Crescent in Narbonne was worth visiting when I observed the owner’s miniature white greyhound resting comfortably on plush leather in the lobby. If a restaurant is willing to let their dog enjoy genuine cowhide imagine how they can cater to their patrons.
Fireplaces at Fontfroide
Nearly complete in its preservation is the Abbey of Fontfroide just outside Narbonne. With fireplaces, elaborate iron gates and marble pillars in the cloisters, the architecture suits the needs of royalty rather than simple ecclesiastical monks.
Decorative purple flowering vines in the courtyard add warmth to the hollow stone corridors. Our tour guide shows us rooms for prayer, work and rest including the Chapter House, the only room where monks could speak freely to each other and repent their sins.
Longest Wall in Europe
The doubled walled city of Carcassonne, built high on a hill, offers a labyrinth of medieval history and unparalleled picture-taking. Two miles of fortified walls date back to the early crusades when feudal lords, kings and seneschals ruled the land.
Empires have come and gone but today it remains the longest wall in Europe with restored drawbridges, tall narrow archways, secret passages and empty moats. The fairy-tale town inside is called La Cité and welcomes two million visitors a year to experience lodging, dining and shopping on the cobblestone streets.
Upon entering La Cité, through a huge castle flanked by two towers, an overwhelming feeling of protection and safety consumes you. This is a sentinel that has staved off hundreds of besieging armies and ultimately provided refuge for historic personages like Emperor Charlemagne and Count Roger le Vieux.
Unique shops and covered markets interest me as well but the enchanting tales as told by my guide while we scale barbicans and hoardings make the best memories. With what little time we have I capture hundreds of vantage points including a wide shot of the beautiful Basilica of St. Nazaire.
In heaven there is paradise - on earth there is Hôtel de la Cité. This ivy-covered mansion is built atop the remains of a Bishop's Palace from the 13th century. Full of mystery and charm, my room has a balcony overlooking the lower city called Bastide Saint Louis and the river Aude.
Be prepared for a fabulous meal provided you understand and abide by proper dining etiquette. You’re in a Michelin four-star restaurant and using your neighbor's extra steak knife when you accidentally drop yours or getting up from the table before finishing is frowned upon.
Of the three cities I toured, Bezier, Narbonne and Carcassonne, admittedly I have a crush on the storybook charm of Carcassonne. All were inviting and wonderful but racing around circular stone staircases and wooden tunnels atop the Bastille, envisioning heretics and horsemen attacking from the other side, that really struck a nerve in my travel soul.
TOP TOUR GUIDES/INTERPRETERS
Restaurant La Table de St-Crescent
Abbaye de Fontfroide
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