Aude department, in the Languedoc-Roussillon region, borders Hérault, Abridge and Pyrénées Orientals. Its 309,707 inhabitants live in three districts: Carcassonne, Limoux and Narbonne. Tourists are familiar with three farming and winemaking areas: Lauragais, Carcassonnais and Narbonnais. The department’s 35 cantons total 30 intermunicipalities and 438 towns.
Winemaking grew considerably in Aude after 1905, in particular thanks to the great vintners’ movement led by Marcellin Albert. After that “revolution”, many winemaking cooperatives opened in the department.
Mazamet was a wool-felling centre for 150 years before turning to tawing for a much shorter period. Wool made the town’s name famous as far away as South Africa, Argentina and Australia.
For older rugby fans, SC Mazamet (Sporting club mazamétain), long in the first division, lost the final in 1958 to Lourdes, the hereditary foe, despite Lucien Mias, a doctor and the captain of the national team that defeated the Springboks in 1958.
More recently, Mazamet fell into the second division and won the 1985 French championship before returning to the federal division, which prevented the team from playing against its big neighbour Castres Olympique in pro D1.
Situated halfway (90 km) between Béziers and Toulouse, Mazamet was a major gathering place at the time of the Cathars. Hautpoul, a medieval castle located 4 km from the city centre, is a testimony of Mazamet’s historical heritage.
Sightseers should visit the Maison des Mémoires de Mazamet, the tourist office, and stop by the Fuzier House, where various exhibits are held, as well as the Cathar Museum, which has information about “the perfect ones”, as they called themselves, and the history of Cathar castles.
The Tour will set off for the first time from the Promenade Garden, a somewhat misleading name for what promises to be a treacherous stage. But riders will show all the valour of two famous local boys, the Jalabert brothers. Two races bear the name of the two brothers: Laurent (120 km) and Nicolas (80).
Mazamet’s links to the textile industry have continued long after the town’s mid-19th-century dewooling activities. This is where François Girbaud, who became a fashion designer with his wife Marithé Bachellerie, created a line of blue jeans in the 1970s with Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Goulue as the motif.
The Girbauds found success in Mazamet and, later, the United States, but they designed the clothes Jennifer Beals wore in Flashdance in 1982. In 2005, they sparked an uproar by reproducing posters of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper with women instead of the apostles. A Roman Catholic group called Croyances et liberté (“Beliefs and Freedom”) took them to court, but the Girbauds won their case at the court of appeals.
The idea of linking the Atlantic with the Mediterranean by canal dates back to Roman times. Francis I, Henry IV and Richelieu took an interest in the project, but the surveys carried out were not followed up.
The credit must go to Pierre-Paul Riquet, Baron of Bonrepos (1604-1680), for convincing Colbert to go ahead with the project in 1666.
First called the “Canal royal en Languedoc”, then the “Canal des Deux-Mers”, it did not become the Canal du Midi until 1789.
The waterway is 240 km long and has 91 locks. In the 19th century it took eight days to travel from Agde to Toulouse with 120 tonnes of freight. Today, people enjoy walking and cycling on the towpath or sailing on a barge to appreciate the good things in life.
Whether you are going up towards Toulouse or down towards Roussillon, think of the 12,000 men who took 14 years to build the canal, and of poor Baron Riquet, who died six months before it opened.
Carcassonne’s world famous old town draws three million visitors a year. Historians say it was founded in the second century BC and fortified by the Romans in 118 BC. The town was a Cathar stronghold because Vincent Raimond Roger Trencavel protected it. The pope declared it heretical. Carcassone witnessed many tumultuous events, including the massacre of the Protestants in 1560, and lay in ruins by the 19th century.
It was saved with backing from J-P. Cros Mayrevielle, helped by Prosper Mérimée, inspector of historic monuments. Today it is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Carcassonne is the birthplace of several famous people. Philippe François Fabre d’Eglantine (1750-1794), who wrote the refrain “It’s raining, it’s raining, shepherd girl”, voted for the death of Louis XVI and was connected to Danton.
Paul Sabatier (1854-1941) is another native son. He and Victor Grignard won the 1918 Nobel Prize for chemistry for a “method of hydrogenation of organic compounds in the presence of divided metals.” He was one of Marcellin Berthelot’s assistants at the Collège de France.
The world-renowned Blanquette de Limoux is even older than Champagne! Dom Perignon himself discovered the sparkling potential of this white wine accidentally in 1531, on his way back from Spain. Some even claim that the sparkling was there as early as the 14th century.
The town has an interesting piano museum. Pont-Neuf bridge over the river Aude, with its six arches, was erected in 1327.
Limoux is the hometown of Félix Armand, who originated the Pierre-Lys road, and Reverend Louis Ormières, founder of the Congregation of the Guardian Angel.
Quillan, from the Occitan “Quilhan”, was built in 1223. The village has a Visigoth fortress dating back to the time of Killamen. The castle was burned by the Huguenots. Dismantled in 1575, the building was put up for sale during the Revolution but nobody bought it until 1950!
The town’s three trough-fountains are ideal to drench one’s thirst!
Certain streets are covered, providing a picturesque setting. Sights worth the visit include the Puig family mausoleum and an exhibit on palaeontology.
Ax-les-Thermes, from the Occitan “Acs”, is the birthplace of François Mansard. Boasting no less than 80 springs, the town was very popular in the middle ages. In 1260, Saint Louis had a hospital built there, with a “coward’s pool” for soldiers who had contracted leprosy in Palestine.
Ax was a mainstay of the Tour de France between 1933 and 1965. Since then, the Tour has turned to altitude stage finishes in the nearby Bonascre Plateau, including Cardenas’s victory in 2003.
Beille Plateau (1600-1800 m) proves a daunting climb for the best of climbers: a 7.9% rise over 15.8 km, compared with 7.7% over 14.2 km for the legendary Alpe d’Huez. It’s no surprise that Marco Pantani won the first ever stage finish in Beille in 1998, before going on to claim the yellow jersey in the Alps.
Though only launched in 1990, Beille ski resort has earned quite a reputation in Nordic skiing, becoming the leading centre in the Pyrenees with 70 km of slopes, 7.7 km for dogsledding and luge facilities. Major events are held in Beille, such as the Pyrena, which attracts 450 dogs and their sleds.
In March, 700 children and 500 adults compete in the Transpyrénéenne, a popular cross-country ski race as strenuous as the Transjurassienne, the Foulée Blanche in the Vercors in Isère and the Étoile des Saisies in Savoy.
Other economic activities include Europe’s largest talc mine and livestock breeding, in particular Gascony cows and Tarascon ewes.
Beille Plateau is a remarkable capercaillie migration and nesting site. The mountain pine forest is also remarkable on this plateau formed in the Palaeozoic Era and eroded during the Glaciary Era and during the first Pyrenean folding.