Languid Languedoc, mellow Minervois: life beyond the Canal
- Recommended for:
- Family, Short Break, Budget, Mid-range, Expensive
The Canal du Midi meanders gently through Languedoc, picking up and dropping off boat passengers en route. For landlubbers, equally gentle options lie beyond: the wines and slow inclines of Minervois
Excitement? Not a chance
Welcome to the Minervois, in Southern France.
Today in Siran village is not going to be exciting, you can bet your beret on it. How wonderful is that? Another day in the sun, staring over vineyards; perhaps a gentle cycle down to the Lac des Jouarres for a swim in the lake and a leisurely lunch. Or should it be a forty-minute drive to the Mediterranean coast at Narbonne-Plage, for a stroll along its vast, breezy beach?
Decisions, decisions. Decisions which can be safely postponed until after the daily stroll to the baker's for the pains au chocolat, the unhurried exchange of pleasantries with Sylvie (the baker's wife), the trip to the Bar du Minervois to sip on a cafe noir. At the end of the bar, the man in orange trousers waits menacingly with his plastic fly-swat for his next victim. Day after day, nothing much happens here.
Not many of the options in this lazy region of France will pump your adrenalin, but the inactivity is varied, and guaranteed to enhance your relaxation. France's Minervois region keeps a low profile, midway between the medieval city of Carcassonne (a worthy daytrip, though hardly relaxing in the tourist-thronged heights of summer) and the Mediterranean coast which stops its east to west journey at Narbonne and heads south towards Spain. Linger a while in Minervois and when you do head home, you will be relaxed, well-fed and watered. Or more likely, well-wined.
The French autoroutes could hurry you the 1000 kilometres or so from the Channel ports down to this beautiful region, but will punish you with motorway tolls and driver fatigue in the process. Why endure the hassle?
Tiny Carcassonne airport receives only a few flights every day, mainly from UK destinations such as Stansted, East Midlands, Glasgow (Prestwick), Bristol and Liverpool. Check www.ryanair.com for details. An aerial view of Carcassonne's medieval fairytale turrets can usually be enjoyed from the plane, so tick the "I've seen Carcassonne" box and avoid the crowds. Instead, take your hire-car and head east, letting countless vineyards soothe your mood, the distant Pyrenees off to your right and the closer-but-lower Montagne Noire (Black Mountains) to your left. After half-an-hour, you're in the Minervois.
Of course, you may be arriving in the Minervois on a canal boat (www.houseboat-hire.com can hire you one from Carcassonne), in which case tie it up for lunch at peaceful Homps , where anything that happens, happens on the quayside. It's a useful base to explore the hinterland. If you have the energy, you can hire bikes from Velolocation (27, quai des Tonneliers, tel 00 33 (0) 637070500), and the superenthused can head for the hills while the less well-conditioned can pedal gently along the canal paths. Just watch out for tree-roots, which can up-end the unwary cyclist: the Canal is attractive, but you don't want to be swimming in it.
Three hundred days of annual sunshine is the Minervois claim, and while that seems a bit optimistic, anytime between May and October should be warm. Some may find July and August too hot - and remember that France itself goes on holiday in August, so it' ll be busy. The region is often breezy, which in summer is a blessing.
Where to stay
The Minervois villages are not bursting with hotels, but at Castelnau d' Aude the Clos Cavailles (2, Avenue du Paradis) is an excellent, friendly B and B with doubles from 65 euros. It is beautifully appointed, with a lush garden to let you enjoy the sun.
But If you really, really want to treat yourself, village life can be properly absorbed in leafy Siran which has a stunning, newly renovated and elegant hotel in the Chateau de Siran (Avenue du Chateau). Doubles from 110 euros, suite 200 euros. If staying three nights or more, ask about half-pension rates, which could be a bargain. Despite its opulence, new owners Nadege and Gerard extend a genuinely warm bienvenue to the hotel and its wondrous restaurant, the Au Coeur des Vignes (menus 36-54 euros), where you'll be spoilt by chef, Philippe Haond. A Michelin 2-star chef in village France? That's something to write on your postcards.
The Chateau also does wine-tasting courses.... and cooking lessons. Pay attention: maybe you too could become a Michelin chef?
Where to eat
Apart from dining at Au Coeur des Vignes, a short excursion to the village of Beaufort and its Auberge de St Martin (in front of the church, 00 33 (0)468 91 1618), with outside tables, wood-stove and excellent food is another true culinary delight. This former village school never disappoints, with set menus from 22 euros. Phone to book, and in summer, ask about their wonderful Friday night music soirees.
Another option is Restaurant Lo Cagarol (Place de la Fontaine, tel 00 33 (0) 468 27 8422) in Aigne, only slightly further away. Outdoor tables and shady trees provide a pleasant setting for fine cuisine, without breaking the bank (mains 15-20 euros).
Canalside at Homps, the Restaurant En Bonne Compagnie (6 Quai des Negociants, tel 00 33 (0) 468 91 23160, www.in-good-company.com) opens from Easter, with set menus from 23 - 35 euros. Terrine of Goat's Cheese with Red Onion Marmalade? Ginger Creme Brulee? Yes, please.
What to do
Back in Siran, the Bar Minervois faces onto the leafy square, with live music outdoors on Friday evenings in July and August. In front of the church, the elderly men religiously play boules at 4pm, every day. There's one shop, a post office, a three-legged dog and no traffic - oh, except in October when a fleet of narrow-gauge tractors appear to pick those grapes. So, relax.
If you must expend some energy, the key for the tennis court is available from behind the bar. Horse-riding on well-looked -after Camargue horses, in a beautiful rural setting, can be arranged with Manue at the Ferme de Bragos (00 33 (0)607670808, 2 hours, 27 euros) in nearby La Redorte. She speaks English in a limited but utterly charming manner.
The spectacular Cathar village of Minerve (www.le-guide.com/minerve.html) is a short drive away from Siran, perched above a gorge. Nearby Caunes-Minervois has a pleasant walk around a red-marble quarry, while Olonzac features a lively market on Tuesdays. At Homps, on the quayside, Le Chai des Vignerons has wine-tastings, art exhibitions, local products for sale and a semi-official status as tourist office.
If you do visit in high summer, Bastille Day (14 July) evening can be spent in urban Carcassonne, where the fireworks are spectacularly released from the heights of the walled city. Allegedly, these are the second-best Bastille-day bangers in France, after Paris. Back in the Minervois, the locals put on a pretty decent show from the lake-pontoon at the tranquil Lac des Jouarres,on the outskirts of Homps. Take your pick.
August, though hot and busy, is a true festival month. Each village has its own event of some sort, so keep your eyes peeled for posters -or ask at the Mayor's office in Siran. There's nearly always something happening in the locality this month, and wine is nearly always involved. Friendly locals will advise you which is the best wine, but as they all recommend a different one, you'll just have to try them all.
Vineyards form the backbone of the agriculture here, and while the best wines in France may be in Bordeaux or Burgundy, you can have great fun touring the dozens of chateaux in the region, finding something to your taste. Spare a thought for your designated driver. You could start at Chateau Festiano in the village of Tourouzelle (tel 00 33 (0) 468 91 2344; www.chateaufestiano.com) where the enthusiastic ex-rugby league playing proprietor will talk sport and wine in equal measure.
At other times of the year -May to July- , the harvest of cherries or chestnuts will be celebrated.
Within easy reach of Siran, you can find caves (www.grotte-limousis.com), and in the neighbouring Corbieres region - to the south- the atmospheric Fontfroide abbey (www.fontfroide.com) and imposing Cathar castles (Peyrepertouse, Queribus or Lastours)
But wait a minute, you came here to relax, didn't you? Yes, there are plenty of options, but being on holiday in the Minervois means that you don't have to take all of them.