Ancient Bones, Fine Wine and Fairy-Tale Castles
“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 Carcassone and the Languedoc-Roussillon region of Southern France. Benedictine abbeys, medieval castles, and Michelin-starred 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.
Expert oenologists guarantee that this region will remain not only one of the largest wine-making regions in the world but also one of the best.
A special owner at the Château d’Agel by the name of Martine Ecal-Besse introduces me to a sweet white favorite that I’ll continue to request long after this trip is over. It’s called Muscat and it’s grown from grapes that are said to have high concentrations of antioxidants called Flavanoids.
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.
The artistic pair encourages overnighters to make themselves feel right at home by offering an expanded tour of their colorful and unusual premises.
Jean has a flair for painting exotic and whimsical renditions of mermaids, fish and aquatic animals with two sets of eyes while Christine is a world-renowned sculptor of decorated clay pottery and ceramics. She began collecting when she was 16 years old and now boasts more than ten-thousand pieces of Renaissance-style dishes.
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.
Visitors can’t help but get caught up in their passion and creativity. Before I leave, Christine and Jean remind me that their predilections have a purpose: “to make others feel inspired to see beyond their normal vision,” hence the double set of eyes.
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.
You’ll need a flashlight and good directional compass to navigate the spooky passageways of the Horreum, this a town within a town with small cells where giant Gallo-Roman vases and urns are stored, probably once used for grain.
Be careful of a mysterious black cat that writhes through your legs unexpectedly. A sound recording of ancient times pumps through speakers and adds to the supernatural experience.
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.
Signs of the original Roman polytheistic religion quickly disappeared when Christianity built cemeteries of large white marble tombstones and mosaic tile in the 3rd century. Only recently have these relics been unearthed.
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.
Sure enough – dinner was prepared by a fresh new face, Chef Lionel Giraud, whose flair for using liquid nitrogen in desserts was a mouth-watering experience.
The dinner included a thick two-inch pan-seared medallion of steak, with the fat still intact to keep the flavors in and a dollop of mashed potato with an egg yolk in the middle. Be sure to bring your appetite for experimentation because being a picky eater can be a dining disaster as well as unhealthy for the morale of top cooks.
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.
Special note, our tour guide played us a tape recording of the choir that performs Gregorian chant here every summer, inside the Church. It was so beautiful it sent shivers up my spine and goosebumps down my arms. Make sure to ask about it.
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.
At one time, its defenses were impregnable and if by some rare chance the enemy did get inside, trap-doors and battlements were waiting. The ‘pièce de résistance’ is the boundless camera opportunities available inside these formidable city walls.
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.
The resident manager, Xavier LaBlaude speaks impeccable English and will graciously give you a lengthy tour of the herb garden, wine cellar, conference rooms, restaurants, and pool. At nighttime, the four-star accommodations glow like kryptonite when the castle illuminates and the restaurant, La Barbacane opens for late dining.
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.
Specific rules apply and though the food was delicious some wait staff took umbrage that we were not as versed in French etiquette as we should have been. Who knew that buttering a baguette is a faux pas?
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.
I dream of the day I return for the giant fireworks display on Bastille Day toasting with good friends and fabulous Muscat wine.
TOP TOUR GUIDES/INTERPRETERS
MORE INFORMATION ON SITES
Restaurant La Table de St-Crescent
Route de Perpignan
tel: 00 33 04 68 41 37 37
11 100 NARBONNE
Tel: 33 04 68 32 45 30
Open 9am-noon and 2pm-6pm
Closed Mondays from the beginning of October to mid-May.
Abbaye de Fontfroide
Route Department 613
tel: 00 33 04 68 45 11 08