Most people who are not French (and quite a few who are) are not aware that France is divided into 97 Departments, one of which is the area in the southwest that could be called “the other south of France”, known as the Aude. It’s a Department in Languedoc-Roussillon that stretches from Castelnaudary in the west to the Mediterranean on the east, and from the Montagne Noire in the north to the Pyrenees in the south.
The capital city of the Aude is Carcassone, situated on a mountainside and dating back well over 3,000 years to its origins as a Celtic settlement, or so it is believed. Carcassonne’s history is long and fascinating, but the citadel, or la Cite that overlooks the town from its mountaintop is literally the high point, for the views it commands and the history it contains.
Carcassonne is really two towns; the old town with its streets of dizzying steepness and views to match, and the ‘newer’ but still medieval area down the hill and across the bridge. The novel by Kate Mosse, Labyrinth, which won the 2006 ‘Best Read of the Year’ in Britain, was set in Carcassonne, and rekindled interest in the region and its history.
Narbonne is the other main population centre in the Aude, once the capital of the first Roman colony in what was then Gaul. You will find a lot of both the ancient and the picturesque, including the remains of an old Roman route, the Via Domitia. Les Halles, the covered market open every day, is one of the best in France, and there are many attractive shops and cafes.
The Canal du Midi flows through Narbonne and a long stretch of the Aude; it is a UNESCO world heritage site and a wonderful opportunity for a leisurely boat trip through this scenic country. The Canal was constructed as a link between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean; it took 15 years to build and opened in 1681. It represents a stupendous feat of engineering, even today.
The Aude has some of the best terrain in France for walking and caving. Containing one of the largest limestone formations in the Pyrenees, the region is dotted with caves ideal for exploration. Underground rivers and giant cavities are best explored with special equipment and an experienced guide, but there are plenty of caves and grottoes perfect for amateur spelunking.