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Trip Report Lazing in Languedoc

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Some people go to France to see the sights, some to sample the French lifestyle – the famous joie de vivre – and most probably some combination of the two. My wife and I have done our share of sight-seeing but for this trip we sought a more thorough experience of the French lifestyle; relax and enjoy the place was our motto this time and we found the ideal spot for accomplishing that in Languedoc.

Also known as the “other south of France,” to distinguish it from Provence, Languedoc is a large swath of Mediterranean countryside stretching from Montpellier to Narbonne and then up to Toulouse. Relatively poor and underdeveloped compared to the rest of France, Languedoc has the advantage of being off the beaten track for the hordes of tourists who descend on France for the summer. After a lot of Web searching, we honed in on the village of Caunes-Minervois, about a half hour drive east of Carcassonne. There was a romantic attraction to being near Carcassonne, a restored medieval city, but the determining factor was a concentration of good rental properties in Caunes in the time period we were targeting, late July. We settled on a house owned by an American woman that was positioned across from the village’s main tourist attraction, an 8th century abbey.

A working village in the heart of the Minervois wine growing district, Caunes is large enough (pop. 1,400) to attract some seasonal cultural events and features a large and thriving English-speaking expat community. In fact, if you restrict your outside dining to the two restaurants run by Brits, you can easily spend the whole day in Caunes without having to speak a word of French. Caune’s abbey is worth a visit and it certainly provides a great architectural focal point for the village, which also features ramparts dating back to the Middle Ages and other structures from subsequent centuries. But for us, Caunes served its purpose as a pleasant base from which to explore the surrounding countryside.

Our days usually began with a morning visit to the boulangerie for a baguette or to the Chez Marlene corner grocery for eggs and then it was hop in the car for the day’s excursion. We particularly enjoyed driving down to the Canal du Midi, only about half an hour to the south, where we would have a picnic lunch by one of the locks and walk along the bicycle trails running alongside the canal. Having taken a canal trip ourselves several years ago, on the Meuse River, we amused ourselves by watching the boaters struggle through the locks – and helped one Canadian couple when they needed assistance with the ropes and bollards.

We also made the obligatory trip to Carcassonne to tour the medieval ramparts and jostle with the throngs of tourists – the one place in Languedoc where you will encounter that phenomenon. It’s easy to dismiss Carcassonne as a “medieval Disneyland,” when you see all the tourist shops, the “torture museum” and the knightly jousting displays, particularly when you realize that much of the 19th century restoration work was an architectural fantasy, courtesy of one Eugene Emmanuel Viollette-le-Duc. On the other hand, Viollette-le-Duc’s architect’s eye for form and space designed a monument of exceptional beauty so perhaps that’s the way we should view Carcassonne – as an example of what a medieval town should have looked like.

We also spent an afternoon in Narbonne, shopping in the covered market and having lunch on the esplanade along the Canal de la Robine as a horn band played the evocative “La Mer” (“Beyond the Sea” in the English version). “La Mer” is a French song, written by Charles Trenet in 1943 while taking a train from Paris to Narbonne. This, curiously, was one of the few bits of French music we heard in Languedoc; mostly, it was English language pop. For example, on the evening of Bastille Day, we followed the village parade to the Mairie (town hall) and listened to the middle-aged jazz group swing with that patriotic French standard, “Ain’t She Sweet?” During an outdoor market in nearby Rieux-Minervois, a rock band startled us with the truck-driving anthem “Six Days on the Road,” delivered with rounded French vowels rather than country twang. Americans, it seems, can travel nearly anywhere in the world and never quite escape their culture, at least the musical part of it.

Some of our evenings were devoted to wine-tasting tours of some of the neighboring domains organized by the Caunes tourist office. The guided tours were free, but for a very reasonable 5 or 7 euros, they would also serve a plate of local cheese and meats, virtually a complete meal washed down by the vigneron’s wine. We did two of these: Chateau d’Argeres in Laure-Minervois and Fontanille le Haut, in the same village. We enjoyed both, but for different reasons. Chateau d’Argeres featured the best food and wine, but the tour by owner Denis Cros-Mayrevielle was conducted all in French, which left at least half of our group somewhat in the dark over details. He did show us the remains of Roman tombs on his property from which relatives several generations back had extracted coins and other valuables.

At Fontanille le Haut, owner Joan Fournil and her son thoughtfully provided an English translation of most of the salient points – ah, so those rock huts you see in all the fields, les capitelles, were built to shelter vineyard workers in bad weather. The wine, however, suffered by comparison. For quality wine and a good English explanation, we recommend dropping by the Chateau du Donjon in Bagnoles, where the charming Caroline Panis will chat amiably while you sample her domain’s excellent production. Languedoc is actually the largest wine region in France, as measured by sheer volume of production, but the Minervois appellation has never enjoyed the cachet attached to Bordeaux or Burgundy. To put it bluntly, Minervois is mostly thought of in France as everyday wine or vin de table. That’s changing now as a new generation of vignerons, such as Mdme. Panis, pursue quality over quantity. We found most of the Minvervois we drank to be accessible and enjoyable at a very reasonable price. Our favorite, the Pierre Cros Vieilles Vignes (“Old Vines”), made from 100% Carignan grapes grown on century-old vines, was a steal at 11 euros.

While the local wine may be affordable, eating out in France is not cheap, even in Languedoc (unless you’re fancying pizza or a croque monsieur). We ate in most evenings, both to avoid that menu sticker shock and also because my wife enjoyed cooking with the fresh vegetables we bought at village markets. We also liked drinking our evening wine on the outside terrace or balcony of our rental house. Caunes does feature good restaurants, however, ranging from tapas with a rock band to haute cuisine at the Hotel D’Alibert, which is presided over by its irrepressibly engaging owner, Frederick Guiraud. Frederick served up the best meal we had on the trip, with me particularly fond of the foie gras in a crème brulee dish and my wife very happy with her roast lamb. We can also recommend the two more moderately priced restaurants run by the British ex-pats: La Mangeoire and La Table d’Emilie. The former includes free wi-fi, which was a blessing during the first half of the trip when we were struggling with the Internet connection at our rental.

Good food, wine, sunny climate – what else do you need? How about culture? During the time we were in Caunes, the village was hosting weekly classical music concerts at the abbey. The first night we were there, we heard snippets of Mozart’s Don Giovanni from the outside terrace at our house. A week later, we were coming back from dinner at the Hotel D’Alibert when we saw a large crowd gathered outside the abbey. We followed the surge back in when the doors were opened, taking a seat in the back pews. For the next hour or so we were regaled by Vivaldi, Handel and Bach performed by well-known French trumpet player Bernard Soustrot, soprano Ariane Wolhuter and les Cordes de France string ensemble. Now, that’s how such music was meant to be enjoyed – in a medieval church with amazingly good acoustics

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