Romantic castles perched on jagged hills and walled medieval cities and villages that look like a fairytale; it’s all still magic to those of us who grew up in the New World. The juxtaposition of history and modernity has been muted after living in Scotland for seven years, a mile away from a 13th century castle, but this holiday in Carcassonne brought it into focus again. Carcassonne and the nearby Cathar villages and castles are pure fairy tale – appearing unchanged and unmodernised (although often heavily restored). It was a world apart from both Canada and North-East Scotland and it made a bit of history – the cathar crusades – feel real.
This was our second year of holidaying in France with my parents and unlike the Loire valley, which was still relatively crowded in April, we were fortunate enough to miss the tourist season this time and had most of the attractions to ourselves – far more atmospheric than standing in lines or snaking uphill in a long crowd. We also had some insider advice from Bex, a friend of one of my best friends, who lives in nearby in Beziers and has two kids of her own and so is aware of what a child-friendly day out actually means (Ice cream, non-fussy restaurants, places to run around and make noise, things to climb, and not too long in the car), and who recommended Minerve and Peyriac de Mer. And we avoided the heat too – the lizards running over the cream coloured stone walls reminded us how far south we actually were. As none of us belong in a hot place, the 15 degree weather with a few rainy moments worked in our favour.
My favourite outing was the visit to the Abbaye de St-Hilaire, south of Carcassonne near Limoux. I think I was alone in this though, with everyone else prefering some of the more breathtaking options of our week. But the peace of the abbey, and the fact that it wasn’t a grand installation of luxury and political power, made the faith that had sustained it feel much closer. I can’t often feel God in soaring cathedrals or monastical palaces – but in small places like this abbey the peace and spirit seem real.
The medieval village of Minerve was the most breathtaking for the adults, perched at the edge of a gorge and bathed in sunshine. At the foot of the town, the caves caught the boys attention and they only returned back to the light grudgingly, bribed by the prospect of food and the prospect of a steep climb uphill back to the village. Steep climbs that deter middle aged adults thrill five year old boys – as do cliff edges, long drops, and windy spots. Which is why the should-be-breathtaking Châteaux de Lastours actually had me using my breath for a repetitive round of instructions and nagging reminders while trying to keep hold of my oldest son. He came away wondering why I was in such a grumpy mood, convinced he was just like a mountain goat. We’ve climbed a few small mountains here in Scotland, climbs that go much higher, much steeper, and are much harder physically, but crucially – have less cliff edges. I have let him scamper up Bennachie and Clachnaben without any restrictions but a fall there would likely mean a broken leg at worst. Lastours, with actual drops to rocks below, was amazing but stressful from a parental point of view.
The medieval town of Lagrasse was lovely, although only a limited bit of the abbey; is open to the public. The medieval streets are narrow and charming and in the summer season when shops are open, and if not too many people were there, I can imagine spending a happy day soaking in the atmosphere. The covered medieval market shown in the photo of the boys was gorgeous. But with two small boys in tow – who are beginning to realise that their friends are on holiday at beach resorts or at Disneyland Paris rather than touring historical sites – we needed a couple of outings just for them. Peyriac de Mer was perfect for them – they played spies as they ran around the boardwalks (and faced with nothing worse than a few feet of water, I was thrilled to let them run) and we had lunch in a lovely square – my mother’s favourite day.
And other favourite days? Cory votes for our night out without the boys – a 3km walk along the canal into the village of Trebes, a drink by the boats, dinner, and then the 3km walk back. The boys unanimously vote for playing with the other kids from the gite next to ours. And my father, as usual, just enjoyed it all quietly (fortunately speaking a bit more french than last year as he’s far better at it than the rest of us).
Captions (top to bottom)
1) In the centre of the medieval city, with the castle walls behind the boys
2) St. Hilaire Abbey, near Limoux
3) exploring caves at the foot of Minerve
4) the castles of Lastours
5) the medieval covered marked in the centre of Lagrasse
6) best of friends in Carcassonne
7) and the best downtime ever, cuddles and chuckles while watching Wallace and Gromit. My parents hadn’t seen it before, but then my mother didn’t know what a Death Star was either. It’s amazing I turned out as normal as I did, growing up insulated from pop culture.