Châteaux de Lastours

The image of four ruined castles standing on a rocky crest high above a river is a romantic one. In the case of the Châteaux de Lastours, the reality is even more spectacular.

Chateaux Lastours

Lastours is a little village 12 kilometres north of Carcassonne situated by the side of the River Orbiel. On a spur above the village are the four Châteaux de Lastours – their names are Cabaret, Surdespine, Tour Régine and Quertinheux. They were originally built to control access to the Montagne Noire and the Cabardès region and during the Cathar Crusade became one of the strongest centres of resistance to the French crusaders.

The French government has now classified the Châteaux as historic monuments and for a ticket price of 6 euros you can walk all the way around and inside them. That trek takes two hours and you wouldn’t want to do it at midday in the height of summer. A less energetic alternative is to see them from the viewing platform called the bélvèdere that looks across the valley to the four Châteaux on the opposite side. The day we visited was a hot, still day in July and as I stood on the bélvèdere the four ruins were one of the most dramatic and historic sights I’ve ever seen. For a lovely YouTube video of them see: www.payscathare.org/histoire-17.

Lastours isn’t only famous for the Châteaux but also for a one Michelin star restaurant called Le Puits du Trésor, which is right beside the entrance to the Châteaux. The day of our visit was also my birthday and we decided to celebrate it by having lunch at Le Puits du Trésor. Because it wasn’t yet high tourist season I had decided it wasn’t necessary to book a table. When we arrived at the restaurant only two people were in there eating so I thought I had been right. The waiter who greeted us then informed me that if we didn’t have a booking the restaurant couldn’t accommodate us. If it hadn’t been my birthday I don’t think my husband would have spoken to me for the rest of the day.

Fortunately the restaurant’s chef, Jean-Marc Boyer, also runs the bistro called L’Auberge du Diable au Thym which is next to the restaurant. We had lunch on the terrace of the auberge overlooking the river. The lunch was good quality and much cheaper than the restaurant would have been but not quite the special meal we had been anticipating.

Twice a week in July and August a sound and light show takes place at the Châteaux, starting at 10.30pm to allow for nightfall. On our next trip to the Aude I really hope to see one of these shows, which are apparently stunning. The 10.30 pm start will give us time to have a leisurely dinner at Le Puits du Trésor first, with maybe a digestif or two to finish off and this time I will book.

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Toulouse

Bridge over the Garonne

Bridge over the Garonne

Toulouse is not actually in the Aude, it’s in Haute Garonne. However as the city is on the border of those two departments and is so close to the Aude, I feel I can stretch a point and write about it on this website. In addition lots of visitors to the Aude fly into the international airport in Toulouse.

cafe

A cafe in Toulouse

It’s France’s 4th largest city and has the country’s 3rd largest student population, after Lyon and Paris. According to the French newspaper “L’Étudiant”, Toulouse is the best city in France in which to study. You just know that somewhere recommended to students has to be a place where you can enjoy yourself. There are students everywhere and on sunny days they congregate on the banks of the River Garonne that flows through the city, talking, laughing, lying in the sun, maybe reading. As I look at them I sometimes wonder if they know how very, very lucky they are.

Apart from its appeal to students, Toulouse has a lot to recommend it. It’s known as la ville rose because of its rose-red brick buildings, their attractive colour caused by the bricks being made from the local soil. During the Spanish Civil War, many Spaniards moved to Toulouse, which has helped give it a relaxed, southern European feel. Currently it is one of France’s fastest growing cities and considered the southern version of Paris, not only enjoying better weather but also being smaller, cheaper, friendlier and less crowded. There are a range of things to see, from the medieval Old Quarter near the place du Capitole or, bang up to date, the factories of the leading aircraft manufacturer, Airbus.

Of course it’s a city full of restaurants, cafes and bars of every description. My favourite restaurants are the lunch-time only ones on the first floor of Les Halles Victor Hugo right in the centre of town. On the ground floor of Les Halles is Toulouse’s biggest covered market with a hundred stalls selling food of every kind – meat, fish, cheese, bread, cakes, olives, fruit and veg, ice-cream, quiches – and a wine stall called “Au vin qui chante”. Definitely a place where eyes grow bigger than stomachs.

The staircase up to the restaurants is at the side of Les Halles, unmarked and rather dilapidated. The door at the top looks as if it leads to a storeroom but open it and the whole of the first floor is revealed. The floor is divided into about half a dozen sections with a different restaurant in each section, their fixed price menus for that day chalked on blackboards. The restaurants cater to the lunchtime trade providing efficient service and meals made using the fresh “produits du terroir” sold in the stalls downstairs.

Last time we ate up there, on one side of us was a table with a fashionably dressed couple who looked as if they ran the world’s most successful advertising agency. On the other side was a table with three manual workers still in overalls and boots. I noticed that both tables had ordered the same dishes, which to me proved the egalitarian nature of eating out in Toulouse. It’s that kind of place.

The website www.marchvictorhugo.fr has some lovely photos of the covered market and gives details of opening times.

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Anywhere You Hang Your Hat is Home

My 'entry-way'

My ‘entry-way’

Sure. But what if there isn’t anywhere to hang your hat?

The front door of the first house I owned in the Aude opened into the kitchen. In the second house you walked right into the open area living space.

No entry halls or vestibules, no where to hang a hat or cardigan or jacket.

In the first house I tended to pile things on a chair in the living room and then try and remember to take it upstairs when I went. Not always successfully.

In the second house I had one of those rolling clothes racks that you sometimes see in shops. Functional? Yes. Attractive? No.

This weekend my daughter installed ‘an entry’ for me. Looks great, doesn’t it? Little shelf for keys and other small things, lovely Italian basket for mail or magazines. and five hooks for coats and jackets. I’m happy. My coat is happy.

I saw a lot of interesting and creative ideas when I was trolling the internet for inspiration. Some of them on on my Pinterest board – for small spaces.

It’s nice to know that there are attractive solutions to the lack of an entry-way. One less thing to worry about then you’re looking at old French houses in the Aude.

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Small space living – scan and store your papers

You’re probably wondering what on earth a post about small spaces is doing on a blog about the Aude in France. It’s not as weird as it seems. (Or maybe it is – but it seems like a good idea.) I’ll get back to this in a minute. Continue reading

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Snacking on Snails

If there are any Francophiles reading this who have never tried eating snails and think they never will, all I can say is never say never.

During our annual holiday in the Aude last August we spent time with our French friends Claude and Julien. They live on a small holding in the country and are the most self-sufficient people I know.

Julien built their house himself when he and Claude were first married in the 1970s. It’s set in a large plot of land where geese, ducks and chickens wander happily all over the place (at night they are kept safe from foxes inside electrified fences). The vegetable garden is the largest and best kept I have ever seen.

Claude and Julien both firmly believe in the maxim that you are what you eat and last summer offered to give us some cooking lessons. So over the course of three days we arrived each morning, washed our hands, put on aprons and stood as willing pupils in the kitchen.

The first lesson was how to make paté de campagne which consists simply of pork belly and pork liver chopped up and flavoured with salt and pepper. The mixture is then put into glass pots, sealed and steamed for 3 hours.

The next lesson was on Toulouse sausages, made of pork belly minced up and pushed into sausage skins. Some of the sausages were flavoured with “épices rabelais”, a mix of spices that comes in a colourful little cardboard box. Unfortunately I haven’t seen them on sale in England nor found them online. Other sausages had Roquefort cheese added, which were my personal favourite.

Finally we moved onto apricot jam, nothing but apricots and sugar, stirred for hours until the mixture is at the right consistency. Claude said that in her grandmother’s day the stirring had to be done by hand. Fortunately Claude has found a huge steel bowl with a beater attached (made by an Italian manufacturer) that does the job now. There were no flavourings, no colourings and no chemical ingredients in anything we cooked.

During the course of these lessons I mentioned that I had never eaten snails. Julien said that when he was a young man working on the family farm, he would go out into the fields in the morning with some bread in one pocket and a packet of salt in the other. When he became hungry he would look for snails, sprinkle them with salt which kills them, and then eat them with the bread.

A few days later we were invited over for lunch. The salad (all the ingredients grown in the vegetable patch) and cured meat (all from those happy geese, ducks and chickens) were set out on the table. Then a huge bowl of snails was brought in. Julien sat at the top of the table beaming and told me he had found them all in the garden the day before and I should try them. So I did because eating them in that environment was quite normal.

The snails had the slightly rubbery texture you would expect, but the sauce they were cooked in was delicious.

At the end of the holiday we drove back to England in a car loaded with pots of paté de campagne, packets of sausages and jars of apricot jam. And one jar of snails in sauce. The paté, the sausages and the jam were greatly enjoyed. The snails didn’t manage the journey as they were rather rancid by the time we arrived home. I don’t think they liked leaving the Aude.

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