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Things to see and do in
Caunes Minervois
Mountain trails, ancient ruins, great food and wine ...
 
 

Caunes Minervois is an ideal base for exploring the Minervois and nearby areas of Languedoc-Roussillon on foot or by bicycle, car, or boat on the Canal du Midi. Nearby attractions include the red marble quarries for which Caunes is famous, vineyards, villages and Cathar castles, spectacular crystal-studded caverns, the Canal du Midi, and the scenic Black Mountain.
Try a sample day trip from Caunes.

Walking and Hiking

We start each day with a walk, usually straight from the village. Four marked trails leave Caunes.

A good introduction to hiking around Caunes is the Quarry Trail, which leads north up a small alley just to the left of the intersection of the Allée des Carriéres (Alley of the Quarriers) and the Avenue du Minervois (the D115 to Trause). The trail runs along a steep ridge, then skirts a vineyard on the left side, before bending sharply right and leading to the Royal Quarry. Red marble from this quarry, reputed to be active since Roman times, was used at Versailles, the Paris Opera, and Napolean's Arc du Triomphe at the entrance to the Tuileries Gardens. A active quarry nearby still produces commercial marble. On a clear day, you can easily see the peaks Pyrenees, a good 100 km to the south and southwest. The Quarry Trail is marked in yellow by a symbol reminescent of a quarry rockface. You can also walk to the quarry up the Allée des Carriéres. Round trip: 1 hour. Trail Map

The Sheep Trail leaves the Avenue Jean Juarès (the D620 to Carcassonne) at the intersection with the Chemin du Haut de la Cabrerisse, and follows the Chemin up the steep hill to the north. The Chemin quickly becomes a gravel forest road leading past several abandoned dry-stone shepherd's huts and ruins of larger houses. The view toward the southwest toward Carcassonne, with the Pyrenees in the background if it's clear, is excellent. After about an hour of walking, a sign will point you to a path leaving the road on the right, which runs through thick woods to an overlook over the canyon of the Argent Double. The trail descends the canyon steeply, crosses the D620 to Citou, and returns to Caunes along the ridgetop, ending at the starting point of the Quarry Trail. A yellow sheep symbol marks the trail. Round trip: 3 hours. Trail Map

We recommend the Swallow Trail for those seeking panoramic views and some history. Either walk to the chapel of Notre Dame du Cros (about 20 minutes from Caunes via the Chemin Vieux du Cros), or drive to the chapel and park. Follow signs for "La Borriete" from the chapel. The trail follows a pleasant, unpaved country road east toward Felines Minervois, then turns steeply uphill toward the Plateau de la Matte. Once on the plateau it returns westward toward Caunes. At the western edge of the plateau is a fallen wall of unworked stone, which a trail marker (in French) identifies as the remains of the defensive structure of a Bronze-Age trading village almost 3,000 years old.

Cleared of trees, this spot would have afforded a view of the entire valley of the Aude. Egyptian and Phoecian artifacts were found here, confirming the involvement of inhabitants of the Minervois in long-distance trade centuries before the Roman era. A bit farther down the trail is the huge "Italian Quarry". Pick up a chunck of rough marble for a souvenir, and make your way down the steep rock-strewn road back to La Borriete and Notre Dame du Cros. Stop in the Chapel to see some beautiful examples of the marble-carver's art in the ornate railings and alterpieces. A yellow painted swallow marks the trail. Round trip: 2.5 hours. Trail Map

For a longer walk, follow the PR4 from the dirt-road intersection just south of the Royal Quarry to the town of Citou with its medieval tower proudly flying the Languedoc flag. A side trail about half way to Citou lets you loop back to Caunes for a shorter walk. Yellow signs with arrows and an occasional castle symbol mark the trail. About 3 hours one way. Trail Map

There are also plenty of one-lane roads, usually unpaved, that criss-cross the vinyards around Caunes and other nearby villages. Most are pleasant for walking. It is hard to get lost, as the Black Mountain is always visible as a backdrop. The towpaths along the Canal du Midi are also great for walking, and have the advantage of village cafés, wine châteaux and other attractions every few kilometers. Local tourist offices in almost every town can provide maps of marked trails in their vicinity.

Beware of hunters between August and December. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday are legal hunting days; many locals hunt on non-legal days, too, especially for birds.

Bicycling

The Canal du Midi, built in the 1670s to link the Atlantic with the Mediterranean by barge, turned Toulouse, Carcassonne, and countless villages into commercial ports. Today it supports pleasure boating, and its well-maintained towpaths provide a 240-kilometer bicycle path through the heart of Languedoc, perfectly flat except for the gentle rises and falls that correspond to locks on the canal. Most of the canal is shaded by rows of graceful plane trees on either bank, planted so that their roots would stabilize the soil. Villages are conveniently spaced an hour's ride or less along the canal, so it is easy to find refreshment - some of the friendly lock-keepers even offer wine and snacks for sale at their locks.

The farm tracks through the vineyards are good for bicycling too, but are generally much rougher than the towpaths along the Canal du Midi. The fearless or fatalist French ride their bicycles on the roads, but the less-trafficked ones are typically very narrow with nowhere to pull over if a large truck should come along. Serious trail riders can find long-distance routes marked "VTT" (velo tout terrain) leaving locations such as Notre Dame de Cros (from which the VTT trail extends all the way to Montpellier).

Canal Boating

Boats can be rented without a license at Homps, about 20 minutes southeast of Caunes on the D610 to Béziers, and at Carcassonne at the canal port near the railway station. The locks all have professional lock-keepers, so you don't have to worry about swamping your boat or draining the canal into the sea. Two people are sufficient for passing the locks in a rental boat, but most boats we've seen have parties of four. Many boats come with bicycles as part of the rental.

Part-day boat tours are available in Homps if you don't want to rent a boat. Some boats function as hotel "barges" and offer multi-day itineraries with gourmet meals. Don't expect great off-season deals in the winter, though, as parts of the canal may be drained for maintenance.

Ancient Ruins and Medieval Castles

The earliest known inhabitants of Languedoc were Homo erectus cave dwellers who lived around Tautavel and presumably elsewhere in the region some 450,000 years ago. Cro-Magnon cave dwellers left spectacular paintings of bison, horses, and other animals on the walls of Niaux Cave, two hours southwest of Caunes, about 15,000 years ago. Celts began marking important sites with menhirs (standing stones) and building dolmens for burials around 5,000 years ago, and took to fortifying hilltop villages at least 3,000 years ago. We always take visitors to the Dolmen des Fades, just east of Siran on the D168, about 15 minutes by car from Caunes Minervois. An impressive menhir stands on what appears to be an artificial hill just north of Malves-en-Minervois, about 20 minutes from Caunes.

Serious urbanization started with the Romans, who built Carcassonne, Béziers, Narbonne, and other major cities throughout Southern France, often on sites previously chosen for settlements by the Celts or Greeks. The A9 throughway along the Mediterranean coast is built on the path of the Roman Via Domitia; the N113 (or D6113) from Narbonne to Carcassonne is the old Roman Via Aquitania to Toulouse and Bordeaux. The Roman cities were expanded by the Visigoths after the fall of Rome, by the Franks after they defeated the Visigoths, and by the medieval Counts of Toulouse and Lords of this town or that in the centuries thereafter. The abbey in Caunes itself was built on the site of a Roman villa; a Roman bridge crosses the Argent Double just north of town. The best collection of Roman-era artifacts from the area is in the municipal museum of Narbonne, founded as the Roman colony of Narbo Martius in 118 BCE near the site of a Celtic village. Unmodified traces of the Visigoths are harder to find; we take visitors to the touching Visigoth graveyard near Villarzel Cabardès, about 15 minutes from Caunes off the D620 to Carcassonne.

The culture of medieval Languedoc, remembered for the troubadors, courtly love, and the Cathar religion, reached its peak around 1200 AD. It was destroyed by the Albigensian Crusade, a war of conquest organized by Pope Innocent III, who was outraged by Cathar doctrines of pacifism and poverty for the church and by Languedocian cultural concepts such as social equality for women. By 1300, the cities of Languedoc were in the hands of the King of France, and the newly-invented Inquisition was capturing and burning the last of the Cathars. This bloody period is recalled by the eerie ruins of the "Cathar Castles" at Lastours about 15 minutes west of Caunes, Minerve about 20 minutes east of Caunes, the great arc of castles along the southern margin of the Corbières Hills from Aguilar to Quéribus, Peyrepertuse, Puilaurens and Montségur, and many others scattered through the Back Mountain and the Corbières. While many of the castles were rebuilt and used as fortresses or outposts for centuries after the crusade, it is difficult to visit them without reflecting on the savagery they witnessed, and wondering how the world might have been different if the far more liberal and cultured people of Languedoc had won the day.

Markets

Market days in Caunes are pretty basic, but some nearby towns have excellent weekly markets. Our favorite is the Monday market in Mirepoix, about an hour away between Carcassonne and Foix. The medieval town center and the streets around are filled with vendors of every kind of seasonal produce, meats, cheeses, and baked goods, as well as cloth, clothing, hardware, shoes, and just about anything else you might be after. Mirepoix itself is well worth the visit, with its centuries-old half-timbered houses, wooden arcades, and exquisite carvings, on the ends of the joists of the town square's main building, of medieval townspeople, animals, and imagined monsters. Limoux has a good market on Sundays, and friends tell us that the paella for sale at the Wednesday market in Lezignan Corbières is the best in the area.

For local color and occassional great deals, keep an eye out for hand-lettered "Vide Grenier" (cleaning out the attic) signs by the sides of the area's roads. Some village or other has a vide grenier almost every Sunday, with people from miles around showing up to sell used household items, as well as antiques, food, wine, farm tools, and whatever else they have on hand. We've obtained most of our dishes, a fine collection of quite functional hand- forged axes, crystal wine-glasses, curtains, and countless other items as such informal markets, all for a fraction of the price they would go for at the brocantes (antique and "junk" shops) or the outrageously-expensive "antiquités" stores.


Art, Music and Festivals

There is a festival somewhere in the Minervois almost every weekend, celebrating wine, the planting or harvesting of a special crop, wine, local artists, wine, an historical event, or if nothing else suggests itself, wine. Caunes celebrates an annual Marble Festival in early summer, a music festival in mid-summer, and a festival for the new wine harvest in mid-autumn. There are autumn pumpkin festivals, apple festivals, and onion festivals in nearby villages. Local tourist offices and hand-lettered signs appearing on the roadways are the best guides to festival dates and locations.

Languedoc is a land of artists, some excellent. In Caunes Minervois, stop by the Atelier du Monestier in the Place of the Abbey, a collaboration between painter Morag Charlton, designer Thierry Pierre-Ivanoff, and jeweler Bob Kimberley. Potter Líonel Postal makes fine stoneware in both functional and decorative styles.


 
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