Last stronghold of the Cathars, the department of Aude, set between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean, is as rich in history as in the diversity of its coast and countryside.
Central to Aude are the wild Corbieres Hills, a mixture of herb scented garrigue, oak forests and vineyards, deep valleys and almost inaccessible hilltops where the thirteenth century Cathars (regarded as heretics and oppressed by king and Pope) built their medieval strongholds.
Drive through the mountains to spectacular Arques and Termes, not missing the precarious voids and breath-taking views of Chateau de Peyrepertuse. Those with walking boots can find marked Cathar trails and enjoy the wild orchids and flowers of early summer.
Aude’s fairytale capital, Carcassonne, is probably the largest and most impressive medieval citadel in Europe. A World Heritage Site, parts of the citadel are over 1,400 years old.
Wine lovers can enjoy tours and tastings at chateaux and domaines, ranging from the soft Fitou of the coast to sparkling Blanquette de Limoux and the fuller bodied mountain wines. Have fun sampling regional cassoulet in Castelnaudary - the town where it was invented to sustain townsfolk under siege from the English. Doubtless, this casserole of beans, goose confit and sausage still nourishes French Foreign Legion recruits who train in Castelnaudary today.
Sports enthusiasts can climb or pothole, ski at Camurac and nearby in Pyrenees-Orientales and Andorra, or find watersports at Quillan on the River Aude. For a gentler pastime, cruise the tree-lined Canal du Midi - Europe’s oldest major man-made waterway - watching yellow irises and vineyards drift, and kingfishers dart by. The towpaths are great for cycling, walking and fishing.
Find lively markets at Limoux, Lezignan-Corbieres and Narbonne, which also has Roman ruins and festivals ranging from wine to medieval pageants. Sandy beach resorts of the Gulf of Lyon, such as Narbonne-Plage and Gruissan, offer great facilities including restaurants and nightlife, crèches and watersports equipment hire. The Narbonnaise Mediterranean Regional Natural Park includes coastal lagoons and cliffs at La Clape - a wonderful area to explore on foot, on horseback or on mountain bike - where man has traditionally reaped fish, salt, vines and willows. A bird-watcher’s paradise, buy rosemary honey, and get close to the animals at the Sigean Safari Park.