The Mystery Continues to Unfold - Days 4, 5 and 6
Let the Mystery continue to unfold as we explore the great cities and regions of Carcassone, Rennes le Chateau and Pezenas over days 4, 5 and 6.
Read on for Euan Landsborough's 'The Mo', daily commentary.
Click here for days 1, 2, and 3 of the Magical Mystery Tour.
Day 4 - Overnight Couiza - Monday 14th September
Heading north for about an hour we visited the extraordinary city of Carcassonne. As we approached we could see the massive walled town come into view on our left. This medieval castle, with its gigantic double walled fortifications and 53 watchtowers, is the 2nd most visited site in France outside of Paris. Justifiably so!
On arrival we were joined by a local guide, a lovely young lady called Charlotte. First she walked us between the massive, twin city walls. I say ‘twin’ because unlike most castles there is a double row of huge ramparts making any idea of an attack from an enemy seem ridiculous. Charlotte showed where the original Roman walls with their red brick insertions were and the later additions and improvements; each one an adaptation to changes and development during siege warfare.
Then we ventured into the old town, dating back to the 13th century. Carcassonne is an extraordinary timepiece, and walking through the cobbled stone streets that twisted and turned, was both a delight and an adventure back in time. Our last call was the massive Cathedral. As we sat on the wooden pews, flanked by massive, colourful stained glass windows, with the sunlight streaming in, a quartet of singers standing in front of the alter, started to sing Ava Maria….. And could they sing! It was such a beautiful experience as we were mesmerized by the sound of their voices soaring and resonating from the gigantic vaulted ceiling and gothic buttresses 20 metres above.
After we explored the ramparts and the citadel there was still time for shopping and a leisurely lunch in the old town of Carcassonne.
In the afternoon we visited the nearby hilltop village of Rennes-le-Chateau. This village and its church are famous for so many conspiracy theories surrounding the treasures of the Knights Templars, the secret location of the Holy Grail and even the remains of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. After visiting the church we ventured up to the top square with its sweeping views down across the valleys and lush countryside. Here we set up a bright red checked tablecloth, and laid out various types of stinky cheese, rich salamis and cured meats rolled in herbs and… then we indulged. All washed down with ‘Blanquette’ – crisp, white bubbly wine. A genuine French picnic! What more could we want.
As a finale, we played Pétanque, just in front of our chateau. Some started with little ability, like Louise, but soon played outstandingly to come home the clear individual winner… but we all reckon she cheated, ha ha!
Dinner was in the beautiful 550 year old Chateau’s Grand Hall.
Day 5 - Overnight Pezenas - Tuesday 15th September
Crossing towards Narbonne, we had a morning stop to visit Fontfroide Abbey, one of the original Cistercian Abbeys of France. Joined by our local guide we explored the outer walls of this ancient abbey before going into the peaceful cloister courtyard. In the centre was a magnificent, colourful flower garden, surrounded by covered walkways with ‘broken’ archways supported by ancient stone and marble columns. After a wine tasting of Rose and Chardonnay, we continued on to enjoy the next few hours exploring the oldest town of the region – Beziers.
Much of the regions’ history and importance stemmed from the trade route down the Canal du Midi, which winds through the countryside. We made 2 fascinating visits just outside of town. First stop was a walk on the longest canal bridge in France. It was an awesome sight to see boats cruising across on an overhead bridge, high over the River Aude, which flowed below.
The next stop the 9 ‘Ecluses’ – the 9 ‘locks’ (only 7 exist now) all lined up in one continuous row. Built so long ago, it still remains in full use. Popular with leisure boats and particularly with people hiring canal boats, it was easy to see who knew what they were doing when negotiating these locks and who were pretty clueless! Needless to say there was a lot of collisions, embarrassment… and laughter…. as well as photograph taking.
Later we continued to the town of Pezenas where we stayed 3 nights in La Distillerie de Pezenas - a hotel converted from an old distillery.
Day 6 - Overnight Pezenas - Wednesday 16th September
Pezenas is an absolute gem and our hotel is barely 100 metres from the old centre of town. As described by our fearless leader, Karen, the beauty of this place is that it is not really famous for anything. No major structures, no awesome sights, no gigantic statues and no significant events. That’s the beauty of it, because it means the mass tourism movement bypasses it. What we have is a city that revolves around the central square. Streets span outwards and are all cobbled, archways are hundreds of years old and within each building are older structures built over even more ancient structures. It abounds with character.
After a leisurely start we met up with our local guide called Christine. This lady had such a passion for the way Pezenas was built and rebuilt, taking us into hidden courtyards, alleyways, and up private staircases. Each area had its own story, its own style and it was fascinating to follow her as she unravelled a wealth of historical anecdotes and secrets.
Then, the rest of the day was completely free. We had plenty of time to find our own local restaurant for lunch and dinner. Did I forget to say that the shopping was excellent? Because the souvenir hungry tourist masses completely bypass Pezenas, the shops are quaint with quality regionally produced foods and artisan products.
Many had lunch in the main square, beside the town hall, under the shade of a huge chestnut tree. It was in the evening though that one of the local cafés had a serious assault on their sangria stocks by 4 ladies who should not be named…..your secret is safe with me - Jacqui, Linda, Leeta and Margaret!
Stay tuned for further updates on The Magical Mystery Tour!