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Day Trips to area
Cities and Towns
Explore Languedoc's historic cities and market towns

Carcassonne is our local city for shopping, catching trains to anywhere, and picking up friends flying in from Britian or Ireland on Ryan Air. The downtown has shops of every description and a lovely central plaza - occupied on Tuesday, Thursday and (especially) Saturday mornings by the fruit and vegetable market - lined with cafés, bars, and banks. The rocade (ring road) around the north and west sides of Carcassonne leads to the A9 motorway, and is home to supermarkets, do-it-yourself stores, and shopping malls. The Canal du Midi runs around downtown to the north; the canal port is just below the railway station.

Carcassonne the inhabited commercial city - as distinct from the restored Medieval Cité on the hill across the Aude - was constructed as a fortified bastide in the 13th century by King Louis IX after the capture and forced depopulation of the Cité in the Crusade against the Cathars. Bits of the bastide walls still exist, primarily on the south side; they are encircled by the counter-clockwise running inner ring road and flanked by spacious and convenient underground parking garages. The main north-south street through the city is a pedestrian thoroughfare, and walkers outnumber and dominate cars throughout the area within the walls.

Summers are festival time in Carcassonne, with Medieval pageantry in the Cité, fireworks on Bastille Day, and free concerts and general revelry in and around the bastide. Any day is a good day for cruising the shops and restaurants, or for picking up a sandwich and some wine, and lazing around the central square (the Place Carnot), the pedestrian-only Pont Vieux across the Aude, or the banks of the canal for a picnic.

For a different urban experience, head to Narbonne, formerly Narbo Martius, the capital of Roman colonies in Languedoc. It was once a booming port, with a harbor on the mouth of the river Aude. The Via Domitia ran through the forum - a bit of it is excavated in the current city's main square - and crossed the Aude where the current Pont du Marchands shopping street now crosses the Canal de la Robine. The Roman heritage of the town is celebrated in the archeology museum in the Archbishop's Palace on the main square (the Place de l'Hotel de Ville), which houses reconstructed floor mosiacs, pottery and utensils, some statuary, and latin inscriptions invoking gods and caesars.

Narbonne's skyline is dominated by a massive cathedral, which would have been the largest in Medieval France had the Aude's changing course and the consequent collapse of the city's finances not rendered it a forever-unfinished monument to grandiose ambitions. The cathedral contains some beautiful tapestries, a circuit of amazing stained- glass windows, gilded chapels and tombs of various notables. A pleasant garden overlooked by leering gargoyles separates it from the Archbishop's Palace and the Hotel de Ville.

Minerve looks like a village, but is an historical cité dating back to the Romans, who named the ridgetop settlement surrounded by forests and vineyards for Minerva. Minerve suffered horribly in the Crusade against the Cathars: it was taken by seige, its castle was destroyed, and a good many of its inhabitants were burned as heretics. A corner of the ruined castle, a museum and local place names recall this grim history.

Today Minerve is an attractive but somewhat-touristy arts village, with an good restaurant (the Chantovent) and wonderful hiking through the river canyons that intersect below the town. Cars are forbidden in the village; park in the public lot (3 €) on the hill north of town. Following the D147 north from Minerve takes you past an area of limestone causse with several dolmens into the Black Mountain. South of Minerve are the Minervois vineyard towns of Cesseras and Azillanet and the arts village of Aigne. The scenic canyon of the river Cesse snakes west and north toward Ferrals-les-Montagnes, high enough in the Black Mountain for purple heather to flourish in the summer. A glance at the caves and excavations along the canyon walls suggests that Minerve and its environs have been inhabited since the dawn of man.

Collioure is our favorite Mediterranean port town, with its tiny beaches, enormous Templar castle, anchovy fisheries and views painted by Matisse and friends. Collioure is a favorite vacation destination, and is thronged with families in the summer, but spring and fall are a treat - when everyplace else in Languedoc is cloudy, you can usually bet on sun and a gentle breeze in Collioure. A pleasant 45-minute walk leads from the town museum past a restored windmill to Fort St. Elme, part of the former coastal defenses and now a private residence. The fort tops the ridge between Collioure and Port Vendres, an active fishing port, and has a splendid view. Terraced vineyards built by the Knights Templars (they had to have something to drink, after all) surround the town. A quick hop on the train will take you south to the pleasant town of Banyuls-sur-Mer, famous for its sweet fortified wine, and the border town of Cerbère, last stop before Spain and scene of heroic escapes during World War II. Well-marked trails above Cerbère lead through the vineyards to pre-Celtic menhirs overlooking the harbor, a reminder of the long habitation of this beautiful spot.

Collioure is full of restaurants. We used to like Dalí, south of the castle, across the street from the main downtown parking lot. Try it and let us know. Recently we've been partial to the seafood and salad place right next to the main pedestrian bridge from the castle to the center of town.

Ceret is half an hour inland of Collioure, near the base of the Canigou mountain. It has a lovely downtown, a vibrant Saturday-morning street market, and the most delightful modern art museum in southwest France. Catalan musicians playing traditional instruments that look hand-crafted sometimes romp through the streets. There are tourists here, but nothing like the coast towns; one suspects that most English speakers live in town or nearby. If you're looking for a place to relax in a café and watch the world go by, Ceret may be it.

How to get to Collioure and Ceret

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