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Enter the Labyrinth!

FOR centuries invaders failed to breach the mighty walls of the fortress city of Carcassonne - but our driver seems to be making a pretty good go at it.

With sensors bleeping to distraction, he successfully negotiates the tightest of moat bridges and heads into the winding lanes. Tourists hug the medieval walls and stare in wonder and disbelief as we turn the narrowest of corners.

And as our car works its way through a double bended gateway I feel myself cowering back from the walls, just in case.

But seconds later we pull up, safe and sound, outside the Hotel de la Cit in the heart of the citadel.

The hotel is a relatively new addition, built in 1909 on the site of a former Bishop's Palace, and it lies less than a minute away from many of Carcassonne's main sights including the Basilica of St Nazaire, the Chateau and the double ramparts.

The cit's impressive inner defensive walls were built in medieval times with the outer walls added in the 13th century.

In fact, the defences were so impregnable that the cit died on its feet as traders upped sticks and moved to the new city, known as ville basse, which abuts it.

From the 1850s the cit was restored under an ambitious project lead by one architect, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, and it now resembles a fairytale castle with conical turrets and dramatic gateways. What is particularly attractive about the cit of Carcassonne is that it is so small.

Its narrow winding streets constantly lead you back towards the ramparts, which can be walked, or into nooks and crannies filled with stores selling the local fare: delicate lace pillows, bags of Provencal herbs or - a children's favourite - plastic swords.

These alleyways suddenly break out into sun-filled squares where you can put your feet up with a glass of local wine or enjoy a cassoulet, the traditional stew.

The basilica, which was the city's cathedral until 1803, is a glorious blend of Romanesque and Gothic with stunning rose windows with the southern glass catching the light of the setting sun and bathing the church in ruby light.

The restored chateau offers plenty of opportunities for wandering on ramparts and catching some fantastic views across the countryside.

Pirates It has the added bonus that all the information, including the introductory film, can be found in English. The medieval cit can easily be seen in a day but it is worth giving Carcassonne a bit more time as there are plenty of neighbouring sites to visit.

Picturesque Montolieu, just to the north-west, is known as the Village of Books because over the last century it has developed as a centre for booksellers and local crafts and features a museum of bookmaking.

We pop into the workshop for glass company Diversion where we are treated to a demonstration of glassblowing. The company, led by sisters Julienne and Irene Daniaux, makes each piece individually and supplies beautiful water goblets to our hotel.

Then on to the Autelier de Livre, where groups of schoolchildren create their own books using traditional methods. A display wall shows the results of their efforts with colourful tales of princesses, pirates and poetry.

Just at the edge of the village but definitely worth a visit is La Cooperative, a centre for art and literature based in a former winery. The cavernous space is perfect for displaying art of all sizes and features changing exhibitions. And talking of wine, we cannot resist a bit of imbibing at the Chateau Saint Jacques d'Albas. Bought by Brit Graham Nutter and his wife Beatrice nine years ago, the couple have turned it into not only a successful vineyard but also a place where visitors are welcome.

We are given a tour of the site, where Graham explains the diffi-culties of growing the syrah and grenache grapes in such arid conditions and the stringent controls to ensure the wine receives its Minervois appellation.

Then it is inside for a bit of wine tasting. We swill our way through rose, white and half a dozen reds trying to size up how many bottles we can take through customs. Half an hour later we are duly deposited back at the hotel.

Owned by the Orient-Express group, the Hotel de la Cit is a perfect hideaway. Despite being part of the tightly packed cit it has beautifully landscaped gardens from where it is possible to admire the views of the ramparts and take a dip in the open air pool.

Dining options include the open air Jardin, the gourmet Barbacane, the Chez Saskia brasserie or a private dining experience in the wine cellar.

We had a wonderful three-course meal in Chez Saskia including roasted cod's back with a mustard sauce and Grand Marnier chocolate dessert. And at La Barbacane the next night we enjoyed fresh anchovies, pan fried scampi, roasted rockfish fillets and roasted guinea fowl, followed by peach and Brittany biscuit. A feast.

Over the past century the hotel has proved to be a popular destination for all kinds of luminaries - many of whom have signed the guest book. I manage to persuade the hotel to bring out the so-called Golden Book, so I can have a peek.

Feeling like I should be wearing white gloves, I am allowed to turn those hallowed pages and see the writing of royals such as Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, Princess Grace of Monaco and politicians Jacques Chirac and Winston Churchill.

They sit alongside musicians including Sting, Led Zeppelin and Nigel Kennedy, film industry stars Johnny Depp, Gary Cooper, James Stewart and Walt Disney and writers Rudyard Kipling and William Somerset Maugham.

I pick up a pen to sign - but my offer is politely declined. The book is returned to its hiding place, under lock and key, and I pick up my suitcase and prepare for the white knuckle ride back through the cit to the airport.

fact file A deluxe classic double room at Hotel de la Cit starts from EUR345 (approximately pounds 289) per room, per night on a bed and breakfast basis. Visit or call Orient-Express on 0845 077 2222 East Midlands Airport offers flights to Carcassonne.

For more information on the walled cit, head for website www.carcassonne.



ABOVE: The grounds of the Hotel de la Cite and below, Montolieu. Far left, the entrance to the walled city. It has attracted the rich and famous for hundreds of years - and starred in Kate Mosse bestseller Labyrinth. DIANE PARKES visits the walled French city of Carcassonne.
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Jan 9, 2011
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