Canal du Midi – Part 3
Best Places to Visit
Abbaye de Fontfroide
The Abbaye de Fontfroide was founded in 1145, on the site of an earlier Benedictine establishment, and soon developed into a highly respected and wealthy Cistercian abbey. One of its abbots became Pope Benedict XII in the 14th century.
The massive church, with its 65-foot-high roof, has the simple, clean lines typical of Cistercian abbeys; enter via a 13th century cloister. The church fell into decay as a result of the Plague of 1348. It was subsequently run by nobles who were given the courtesy title of Abbots without actually being monks. They added various luxuries such as fireplaces, elaborate staircases, and marble pillars in the cloister, which make parts of the abbey look more like a château than a religious establishment. In the monks’ dormitory, there is a display of collages made from fragments of glass rescued from bombed churches in eastern France after the First World War.
L’Oppidum d’Ensérune is a hilltop settlement close to the Canal du Midi. UNESCO has declared it the “most important pre-Roman settlement” in southern Europe. Greek and Iberian excavations, which date the settlement to 600 BC, have been unearthed, with later Roman additions found amongst the original foundations. Residential dwellings, shops, a town hall, and workshops have been excavated across this vast site. Among other items, huge terracotta cisterns which stored wine, olive oil and water in the floors of the buildings, have also been unearthed. An archaeological museum displays the treasures of this extraordinary site.
Medieval monks drained the Etang de Montady, an ancient lagoon, by cutting radial ditches. The ditches all flow to the center, from where the water runs through an underground culvert under the same Malpas hill as the canal tunnel. The radial design creates a remarkable pattern of triangular field plots, unique to the region.
Overlooking the archaeological excavation site of a Gallo-Roman potter’s workshop, the Amphoralis Museum describes the history of amphorae production in Sallèles d’Aude, which lasted from the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD. The museum is divided into four sections, and details the production, firing, daily life and trade of the Roman potters, who mass-produced the earthenware vessels for the transportation of wine. Outside there are reconstructions of kilns and a potter’s village, as well as a garden which features over 900 plants which would have existed during the Roman period.
Lézignan-Corbières is a lively and friendly market town near the Canal du Midi, which plays a pivotal role in the lives of the neighboring Corbières and Minervois. It has a long history, appearing in a Carolingian document of 806 when it was called Licinianus. Built on a viticultural economy, the town houses the Vine and Wine Museum. It is also home to the Reyes family, better known as the Catalonian flamenco and salsa group, the Gipsy Kings.
Minerve, the ancient capital of Minervois, sits atop a rocky outcrop at the junction of the Cesse and Brian Rivers, and is many consider it to be the quintessential medieval village. First founded in the 8th century, it is surrounded by deep limestone gorges and offers magnificent views of the countryside. Along the riverbed are caves and bridges carved out of limestone by the power of the water. An octagonal tower, “La Candela,” is all that remains of the medieval castle. It is famously remembered as the site of the first mass burning of Cathar heretics during the Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century. A small museum in the center of the village recalls this gruesome chapter of its history. The 10th century Church of St-Stephen contains a 5th-century altar, thought to be one of the earliest Christian altars in Europe. It is inscribed with the initials and names of the inhabitants of the town who swore to God they would pay their taxes while under Visigoth rule.
Pézenas was the seat of Languedoc’s local government during the 16th and 17th centuries. The entire old town was one of the first in France to be protected as a state historic monument. It is rich with “hôtels particuliers” (private mansions) with wonderful wrought-iron balconies, stone sculptures, and ornate doorways. The interior of the Consular House dates back to 1552. It is recorded that the consuls of Pézenas met on this site from 1242 until the Revolution in 1789. Today, the town is famous as a market town. Artisans and craftsmen from all over the world come to Pézenas to create and sell their wares. One shop of particular interest is the silk-weaver’s workshop at the crossroads in the old town. A refugee from Damascus, he toils all day weaving beautiful silk scarves on a traditional 17th century loom, the only thing he took with him when he left Syria.
Pézenas is a town rich with the sort of good living that the Canal du Midi region is famous for. The Boudet family have been manufacturing “Berlingots de Pézenas”, a unique variety of hard-boiled candy, for many years. Legend has it that the recipe dates back to the time of the medieval fairs. Lord Clive of India brought another specialty to the town, the “petit pâté de Pézenas”, in 1768. The town’s bakers proudly keep the recipe secret and continue to produce this famous pastry.
The town has always been popular with actors, singers, and all manner of performing artists. It was this love of the arts that attracted the famous French playwright Molière to Pézenas in the mid-1600s, after being exiled from Paris. Molière is reputed to have created some of his famous characters in Pézenas while sitting in the barber’s shop (now the tourist office).
Narbonne was the first town outside of Italy to be colonized by the Romans and grew to be the second largest town in Gaul and the largest port outside Rome. Once a coastal port, it prospered until the sea receded in the Middle Ages. It is now eight miles inland. Today Narbonne has a well-restored medieval quarter and is famous for its magnificent art nouveau styled, covered food market. A must visit for anyone cruising on the Canal du Midi.
Buried deep below street level, the Roman Horreum (public warehouse) is thought to be unique in antiquity. Part cold store and part market, this subterranean maze was first discovered in the 1830s and briefly used by residents as cellars. Staircases and tunnels were dug below ground, giving them access to the many rooms it concealed. The excavated Horreum gives a unique insight into the life of Roman Narbonne.
Cathédral St-Just & St-Pasteur, the third tallest cathedral in France, is known for its beautiful stained glass, tapestries, and organ. The famous French singer Charles Trenet was born in Narbonne, and some of his most popular songs are about the region. The house in which he was born is open for visitors and a mural at the entrance of the town is dedicated to him.
On the Mediterranean coast outside Narbonne, Gruissan lies in the heart of the Regional Park of Narbonne. A traditional fishing village, the town surrounds its 10th century castle. Only one tower of the castle remains, known as the Tour Barberousse (Redbeard Tower). Its purpose was to observe the approaches to the harbor at Narbonne and to guard against seaborne invasions of the city. The view from the castle site over the village and surrounding coastline is quite spectacular.
The Salt Flats of the Island of St-Martin are located nearby in the lagoon of l’Ayrolle. Since antiquity, Gruissan has exploited its natural resources of salt. The method of harvesting the salt has evolved over time, and it is still a crucial part of everyday life in Gruissan, with generations of salt gatherers having lived in the village. Guided tours explain the life of salt workers, and the work it entails. A museum also describes the history of salt culture and the connection it has with the production and transportation of wine.
The awe-inspiring Gouffre de Cabrespine in the hills north of Carcassonne is one of the largest natural caves open to the public in the world. At over 1,600,000 m3 (56,503,466 ft3), it could fit Notre Dame de Paris or the Eiffel Tower inside. Formed over millions of years, it was only discovered in the 1970s by two local boys who found an entrance at the floor of the cave. Today, visitors are guided in from an entrance at the top of the mountain in which it is situated. Rock, including iron, marble, limestone and quartz, can be seen throughout its walls. A sound and light show plays daily, showing off its amazing acoustics.
One of the most “Beautiful Villages in France”, the medieval village of Lagrasse was home to one of the most important abbeys in the south of France. Founded in the 7th century, under a charter ordered by the Frankish King Charlemagne, the Abbey of Sainte-Marie d’Orbieu (named after the river which flows through the village) was originally built in the Romanesque style. Thanks to several large donations from noblemen of the area, the abbey soon became very wealthy and acquired lands, castles, priories, and other assets. By the 12th century, it ruled over a large territory encompassing the dioceses of Toulouse, Béziers, and the County of Barcelona. In the early 13th century, the Abbey had further improved its fortunes, in large because of bounties collected by crusaders during the Albigensian Crusades against the Cathars. Lagrasse should be on everyone’s list when cruising the Canal du Midi.
Its fortunes, however, declined from the 13th through 15th centuries, during which it was fortified to protect its riches from the many wars being fought, including the Hundred Years War and the Wars of Religion. The Abbey enjoyed a renaissance and received renovations, including a new cloister, under its penultimate abbot Armand Bazin de Bezons, before being forced to close during the French Revolution, after which it was put up for sale but never bought. In 2004, the Canons of the Mother of God moved into a portion of the abbey and still reside there. The State of the Aude purchased the unoccupied area in 2007 and is currently undergoing restoration.
The Châteaux de Lastours are four, 11th-century Cathar castles, situated approximately one mile from the village of Lastours. The castles are on a rocky spur high above the village, isolated by the deep valleys of the Orbeil and Grésilhou rivers. Built at an altitude of 300m along a rock wall just 400m (1,300 ft) long and 50m (165 ft) wide, three of the castles are in a line, whereas the fourth is on a separate pinnacle close by. Though the four castles constitute a single fortification, they are not a single structure. The construction of each castle is different, reflecting the need to adapt to the natural layout of the rocky sites. The castles have been classified as Historic Monuments since 1905 and archaeological excavations are still in progress.
Often referred to as the “Village of Books”, Montolieu contains fifteen bookshops specializing mostly in second-hand and antiquarian books. Many artists and artisans also live and work in the village, occupying workshops and galleries for painters, sculptors and photographers. Since 1991, bookshops and artisans of books, such as bookbinders and calligraphers, have set up shop in Montolieu. A museum dedicated to the history of the book, “Le Musée des Arts et Métiers du Livre” is in the center of the village. Every year, cultural events focusing on books are held, including “The Spring of Books”, “Lire en Fête” and “Cuvée Spéciale”. If you enjoy a good book, this is the place to go while cruising the Canal du Midi.
Peyrepertuse is a ruined 13th-century castle, and one of the many Cathar castles in the Aude department of France. Located high in the French Pyrenees, near the village of Duilhac, it has been associated with the Counts of Narbonne and Barcelona, and was the former seigneury of the Peyrepertuse. The fortress is one of the “Five Sons of Carcassonne”, a series of castles linked with the famous citadel, all situated atop inaccessible rocky peaks. Sometimes known as Celestial Carcassonne, it is the largest of the five castles and is as vast as Carcassonne. There is so much to see when cruising the Canal du Midi.
This is the third installment of a 3-part series about the Canal du Midi:
- Part 1: The Canal du Midi – An Overview
- Part 2: Towns & Villages Along the Canal du Midi
- Part 3: Best Places to Visit
- Route: Canal du Midi between Marseillan and Le Somail
- Up to 8 guests
- Private charters and Cabin cruises
- Itineraries: Standard classic, Family, Golf, Wine
- Learn more: Online brochure
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