Montolieu or The Village of The Books

For book lovers not yet converted to e-readers who find themselves in the Aude, Montolieu is an ideal spot. It’s an idyllically pretty little village of 800 residents situated 16 kilometres from Carcassonne in the heart of the Cabardès vineyards. Built on the top of the ravine that separates the Alzeau and Dure rivers at the foot of the Montagne Noire, Montolieu has some spectacular views (best seen from the Place de l’Esperou) but what also makes it special is that it’s known as The Village of The Book.

This title is thanks to Michel Braibant, a bookbinder from Carcassonne who in 1989 gave the village a new identity by making it known as a centre for books and book production. He created the association “Montolieu, Village du Livre” and founded the Arts and Crafts Museum of the Book in Montolieu, which contains lots of ancient printing presses and old documents. Bookshops, bookbinders, calligraphers and artists all followed and set up shop so that there are now fifteen bookshops, seven artists’ workshops and galleries (illustrators, designers, glass blowers, photographers, sculptors) and seven calligraphy and bookbinding shops in the village. Cultural events such as “Le Printemps du Livre” and “Lire en Fête” take place throughout the year.

Michel’s enterprise certainly gave life to the village as nearly fifty buildings have been renovated and fifteen bed and breakfasts opened. 52,000 people visit each year, including 2,000 school pupils on trips to the workshops.

Village of the Books



Even if lots of second hand books don’t do it for you, the village is lovely to explore. The best place to park is in the main square with its fountain and café and 14th century church of St André de Montolieu. The narrow streets leading off the square take you past ancient village houses and then if books do interest you, to the workshops and bookshops. The rule with the second hand bookshops seems to be that the cheaper paperback books are placed in boxes outside the shops, which makes them easy to browse through, while the more expensive antiquarian books stay inside the shops.

Montolieu may have 52,000 visitors a year but the day we were there in early September the whole place was very quiet and peaceful and not at all touristy. I had an unhurried time searching through the boxes of books and bought two paperbacks in French for two euros each (my New Year’s resolution is now to read them). Bang on midday the shop assistants took all the boxes of books inside the shops and closed the shutters for the two hour lunch break. We ended up eating large plates of salad on the terrace of the Café du Commerce opposite a charming little school that looked like something out of a Marcel Pagnol novel.


Cafe in Montolieu

With the coming of e-readers no-one is sure what the future of print books will be but as long as Montolieu exists, there should always be a place for them in the Aude.

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Bastille Day in the Aude

The 14 July is the French national day, known as la fête nationale or le quatorze juillet. It’s the day France celebrates the beginning of the French Revolution, when on 14 July 1789 the people of Paris stormed the prison known as the Bastille (in the English speaking world the day is referred to as Bastille Day). It’s a big day, a public holiday where the main event is a march past along the Champs Élysées attended by the President, and all over France firework displays and public dances take place.

The biggest firework display on 14 July in the Aude is in Carcassonne. At 10.25 pm the street lights are extinguished and at 10.30 pm fireworks are lit among the ramparts of La Cité. The show is watched by a crowd of 700,000 people, most of whom have been pouring into Carcassonne since the morning to find a good viewing spot on the banks of the river Aude. The sight of the citadel lit up by 100,000 euros worth of fireworks is one worth waiting for.

Fireworks over la Cite

Fireworks over la Cite

I’ve never actually made it to the Champs Élysées or Carcassonne on 14 July but I have made it to the rather more modest march past and firework display that happen in Castelnaudary on 13 July. Castelnaudary is only 34 kilometres from Carcassonne and so pragmatically holds its fête nationale celebrations on 13 July to enable people to go to the events in both places. It also has the advantage of being the home of the 4th Regiment of the Foreign Legion. Early in the evening of 13 July the soldiers gather in the place de la République waiting in ranks until they are given the order to begin the march. They lead the way down the cours de la République past the locals who turn out in force to watch. Following the soldiers come the police, the sailors and finally the fire service engines sounding their alarms. The engines go round two or three times, apparently because the occupants greatly enjoy waving to their friends along the way.

Castelnaudary 13 Juillet

Castelnaudary 13 Juillet

After that the crowds move to the Grand Bassin to watch the firework display. The Bassin is the biggest piece of open water on the Canal du Midi and the fireworks start from a boat in the middle of it. There’s a small island on the Bassin that has now become a bird sanctuary. A few years ago a stray firework set fire to the vegetation on the island which rapidly went up in flames. In my ignorance I thought it was a spectacular part of the display. Fortunately the fire was soon put out, there was no lasting damage and all the birds returned.

Of course the bars and restaurants in town are open until the small hours and do great business. The Foreign Legion soldiers are replaced by free bands and dancing in the place de la République. It may not be Paris or Carcassonne but a good time is had by all.

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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:

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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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.


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 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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