The wild Corbieres Hills are central to Aude, 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 or get on your walking boots to follow marked Cathar trails. The 250km Sentier Cathare -Cathar Way - is well marked with red and yellow signs in 20km stages, some of which cover wild and rocky terrain.
Travelling through Aude, from coastal Port-la-Nouvelle across the Corbiere Hills and foothills of the Pyrenees, to Foix in Ariege the route takes in 9 of these fortresses.
See Aguilar and spectacular Termes, not missing the precarious voids and breath-taking views of Chateau de Peyrepertuse lodged at an altitude of 800m on a rocky ridge.
This latter is perhaps the most stunning although visiting is banned during storms in case of a lightning strike. Its amazing views take in nearby Chateau Queribus standing high on an isolated rock and also banned in bad weather. It can be accessed by road from Duilhac. Famous Carcassonne and her ‘Five Sons ‘ Queribus, Termes, Aguilar, Peyrepertuse and Puilaurens were all placed to defend France’s borders against Spain before the frontier moved south.
To learn more about why the Cathars were seen as a threat and who they were, visit Catha-Rama in Carcassonne. See www.catharama.d-av.com for more about this multi-media presentation in English.
The forests, green valleys and lakes of the Montagne Noir or Black Mountains to the north of Carcassonne, with their Atlantic climate, form the western fringes of the Haute Languedoc Regional Natural Park located along the southern tip of the Massif Central.
The whole park extends across parts of the departments of Aveyron, Tarn and Herault. Off the beaten track in all but high season, the park is a place of quiet beauty to be enjoyed by lovers of outdoor activities such as walking and horse riding along ancient pilgrim routes.
In the east, the drier Mediterranean limestone peaks around Mont Caroux and Monts d’Espinouse are much favoured by back packers and rock climbers. At the heart of the Park are plateau and mountain lakes enjoyed by fishermen and watersports enthusiasts. Vine-covered valley slopes descend to the south.
Such a range ensures a huge variety of fauna and flora for visitors to enjoy including 240 species of birds and mouflons - red-brown wild sheep - which have been reintroduced from Corsica.
The Canal du Midi, linking the Mediterranean with the Atlantic and fed by water from the Montagne Noire (black mountains), makes a wonderful venue for a leisurely canal boat cruise or for short canal trips.
This 240km feat of engineering - it has 99 locks and 130 bridges - stretching from Herault’s Bassin de Thau to Toulouse, is now a World Heritage site and was already known as the ‘Wonder of Europe’ by the end of the seventeenth century.
In 1666, tax inspector Pierre-Paul Riquet persuaded Louis XIV to let him begin work on his dream waterway which 14 years later brought trading prosperity along its route until the coming of the railways.
In the twenty-first century, commercial traffic has given way to holiday craft slipping quietly past green tree-lined banks sunny with yellow irises in spring, with towpaths making excellent walking and cycling trails.
For boat hire and excursions tel (00) 33 4 48 46 00 97 from mid March for daily boat hire from Narbonne. No licences are needed and navigation on the Canal du Midi and Canal de la Robine is open from March to November restricted only by lock operating hours.
This giant cave has an extraordinary collection of crystals and limestone rock formations with mineral coloured stalagmites and stalactites.
Taller than the Eiffel Tower at 220m high and 80m long it is the largest cave in the world open to the public. See the amazing red ochre ‘Salles Rouges’ and magnificent views from the ‘Devil’s Balconies’ in a 45 minute tour easily accessible even for those who are disabled. A more difficult extended 5 hr group trip including an underground river with walls of blue marble can be booked in advance, tel: (00 33) 4 68 26 14 22.
Interconnecting saltwater lagoons account for over 50% of Languedoc Roussillon’s coastline where the westernmost reaches of the vast Rhone Estuary that forms the famous Camargue wetlands meet the sea.
Beaches along parts of Aude’s flat coastal plain are backed by saltwater coastal lagoons. These ‘inland seas’ provide a unique light and landscape and offer a wealth of outdoor activities for holidaymakers.
Two of the most stunning are found south of Narbonne. The Bages-Sigean Lagoon is part of the Narbonnaise Mediterranean Regional Natural Park inaugurated in 2003. Walk or cycle round parts of the 75km old Gulf Path and spot coots, cormorants, herons and storks as well as the region’s signature flamingos; pass the Roman port of Port-la-Nautique and cross the old salt farm at Periac-de-Mer by boardwalk. See vines at Portel-des-Corbieres and a wind farm at Portel-des-Corbieres. Swimming in the little Etang de Doul near Peyriac is an interesting experience as the water is 43% salt - similar to the Dead Sea.
Oysters are traditionally farmed in the Leucate-Salses Lagoon bordering the department of Pyrenees-Orientales. Here on 19,300 watery acres you can discover egrets, herons and pink flamingos, and learn to sail and windsurf in safety. Port Leucate and smaller resorts along its shores offer relaxing restaurants to enjoy the local seafood.
There have been salt farms in Languedoc Roussillon since Roman times and of the 3 still operating in Aude, the Saint Martin’s Island Salt Marshes near Gruissan are part of a protected environment where this trade continues.
Take a 2 hour guided walk across the marshes, including a commentary on the birds and salt-loving flora, to see production techniques on the salt pans.
Taste the delicate ‘fleur de sel’ harvested at the end of summer and visit the island’s Eco-museum exhibition of photographs and old tools. Open daily with shorter hours in the winter, tel: (00 33) 4 68 49 59 97 for more details.