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Castles, Cathars and The Little Red Train

Created: Wednesday, 23 May 2018 Written by Julie Savill

For our exploration of the Aude and Pyrénées-Orientales, we chose the amazing medieval town of Carcassonne as our base.
From here we would roll slowly into the area to the south, enjoying the light traffic of this part of the Languedoc Region, where you can still reckon to beat a Sat Nav safely. Or so the plan went…...

Of course what then happened on day one was we lingered over a rather nice buffet breakfast and too much good coffee, left our hotel late, and suddenly we had 50 minutes to cover an hour’s journey to catch the Little Red Train.

As we flashed past the quintessential lines of plane trees, pastures and vines, the minutes racing away with the Sat Nav stubbornly continuing to predict a late arrival, I wondered how much the landscape had changed since the Cathars fled from Carcassonne and district ahead of their pursuing tormentors. My heart pounded in my chest. I was a fleeing Cathar….
Okay, maybe a tad dramatic.
We were only ever going to miss a train. We were never going to leap off a mountain or be burned at the stake like those who refused to recant.
We breezed through the outskirts of Limoux, most famous for fast-improving sparkling and still wines. The tasting visits advertised at the roadside would have to wait for another time.

Still tracking the river Aude, we passed villages such as Alet-les-Bains and Esperaza, that promised much for another time and through the larger workaday town of Quillan, also on the river. Quillan is a town ‘on the up’ with affordable properties being snapped up and renovated and an ambitious street renovation plan afoot.
Now the countryside became more dramatic as we entered the Fenouilledes valleys.
Signs for chateaux (Saint-Pierre de Fenouillet, Château de Peyrepertuse), thermal spa towns (Rennes-les-Bains, Ax-les-Thermes) and ski stations (Camurac, Les Angles) sprang up at the roadside.

Making tracks
To our great relief we arrived at the station of Axat with a few minutes to spare and redeemed our online train tickets, joining a queue of mostly French holidaymakers.

And we waited……….
Apparently someone was …..running late. Fifteen minutes later we greeted them with ironic applause, and we were off in our open-topped carriages behind a small and charismatic diesel train.
Happy childhood memories revisited, we passed through tunnels (we were encouraged to whoop and make echoes) and mountain passes (where we fell silent in some awe and reverence). We crossed viaducts and vineyards and alpine pasture. Altogether a heady mix.
The train stopped for a photo opportunity below the spectacular Chateau Puilaurens.
Should you ever retrace our steps I challenge you to be unimpressed.

County lines
We had now crossed the Departmental line from the Aude to the Pyrénées-Orientales and the mountains retreated slightly to the margins. We tooted at road crossings and waved happily to seen-it-all-before workers in the fields.
At St-Paul-de-Fenouillet we doubled our numbers for the return visit, whilst others continued on a separate train for and the Mediterranean coast and Rivesaltes near Perpignan. Practically Spain. Next time……..

For the return journey we chose a different carriage for a slightly different view.
At Axat once more, our guide announced that we would be continuing a little way to the end of the line to drop a few customers at a restaurant for lunch.
The train would return later to collect them. How very civilised!

For ourselves, we meandered back to Quillan and ate a simple lunch of vegetarian lasagne in a shady square before driving back to Carcassonne at a more sedate pace via the Beau Village of Lagrasse.


Lagrasse sits on the river Orbieu.
This is the landscape that’s home to Corbieres wine and olive groves. Gorges and plateaux, slow, winding roads with long views. It is just beautiful.

The town dates back to the founding of the abbey by Charlemagne in 783.
Nowadays, medieval streets, the old town walls and a decent range of shops, bars and restaurants offer much.
We arrived late in the afternoon. It was easy to get in and out, and there was a buzzy atmosphere. The extensive scope of the car and coach parking suggest that at times it might be extremely busy.
We ate rather too well for not a lot of money at La Petite Maison on the Boulevard.
Thirty kilometres ‘home’ to Carcassonne.

And so we had made a bare start on our exploration of the southern Languedoc.
The rich and diverse culture of this part of the world is something to behold.
‘Unspoilt’ becomes harder to find as life progresses. This area is pretty much unspoilt.
Here, truly, time moves more slowly - if you get up in time for it…………….

Getting there.
We drove on the A62 toll road via Toulouse.
Carcassonne has an airport serving Dublin, Glasgow, Stansted, East Midlands Cork, and Manchester. And more.
The area is also served by major airports at Toulouse and Perpignan.

Know the Aude

10 useful websites to get your trip started:












First published in French Property News magazine

Take a look at what we have to offer in the Aude