PRACTICAL GUIDE: CYCLING IN THE LANGUEDOC REGION
Almost 9 years later we were back in Carcassonne. That mind-blowing medieval citadel in France’s Languedoc region. Last time, we devoted ourselves to exploring the ramparts, playing the board-game, and eating cassoulet. This time we wanted to taste a little more of the region’s history and surroundings. We wanted a true medieval adventure.
We strapped our backpacks to our trusty Jacob and Yolanda and set off in the morning. The air was iced with snow from the Pyrenees, their white peaks visible in the distance beyond the vineyards as we cycled out of Carcassonne and towards Limoux.
The vines along here are hundreds of years old. They fruit with Mauzac, the original grape used for creating sparkling wine. The first record of sparkling wine is actually from the Limoux region, from the Abbey of St Hilaire in 1531 (we visited it on our way home the next day), which is more than a century before Champagne decided to become boss of the bubbles. Legend has it that Dom Pérignon discovered the process of making sparkling wine when he visited St Hilaire on his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the 17th Century, and began experimenting with the technique upon his return to Champagne.
Limoux itself is a cute town and worth stopping at for lunch. From Limoux, you venture deeper into Cathar territory. The region becomes more wild and decretive, allowing you to easily imagine the flight of the Cathars, escaping the persecution of the Catholic zealots. On either side you will spot crumbling remnants of castles, once safe havens, now all but disappeared. Thickets loom on either side, thick with ghostly whispers, until you emerge in the small town of Esperaza.
We decided to stay here for the night at La Maison de la Riviere B&B. It’s owned by British expats Roy and Jo, and you couldn’t get a better place to stay - it was a highlight of our trip so far. The rooms are enormous and comfortable, and the hosts are are all round great people: they brought us a welcome beer, allowed us to store our bikes in their cellar, helped us out with where to grab dinner, and supplied a ridiculously good breakfast spread. In the morning, Jo showed us a great route to take back to Carcassonne while Roy captivated us the mysterious story of Rennes le Chateau.
After breakfast we cycled up to the Chateau, keen to discover the legend for ourselves (you can read about it here and you really should)…
The trip back from Esperaza is just as beautiful. We took some more ‘rugged’ paths (ie. unexpectedly terrifying trails) which eventually took us through more vineyards, nougat-coloured villages, and crumbling abbeys.
Our favourite wine stop was Domaine du Grès Vaillant. The estate was founded in the 13th Century and bought 2 years ago by a couple from Paris. Aigline and Laurent are animal lovers and work with 3 gorgeous draft horses to cultivate this organic farm. They don’t use any pesticides or chemicals, their wines contain significantly less sulphites than other wines, and during harvest, the grapes are hand picked and collected in small boxes (not the big ones some commercial grape-growers use) to prevent damage on the way to be pressed. Oh, and did we mention the wines taste good? They do. They taste REALLY good. If you love this area as much as we do, you can also stay on site in their stunning guest house.
Upon arrival back at our campsite, we unloaded our backpacks from Yolanda and Jacob (who were a few bottles of bubbly heavier than when we left), and took a picnic to the nearby Jardin Bellevue to watch the sun set over the turrets of Carcassonne Castle.