If you are in search of beautiful ancient villages with narrow cobblestone lanes, amazing mountainous scenery and rustic bistros then Minervois in the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region in southern France is the perfect destination.
Just a short flight from London Stansted to Carcassonne and you find yourself in the heart of the land, which is situated along the canal du midi, and is mostly famed for its wine yet is home to a wealth of heritage and art. The inhabitants are a proud lot, who are passionate about their history of resistance against the Catholics during the Albigensian Crusade − if you dig deep you may find there is still a sense of old wounds that haven’t healed − but tourism is a huge part of life, boosting the local economy, and hundreds of thousands of visitors flock to this area every year looking for the authentic Gallic experience it offers.
Explore the ancient walled city of Carcassonne
Here you will find the largest medieval fortress in Europe that has all the characteristics of a fairytale kingdom.
The town, that was built between the 12th and 14th centuries, was restored in the 19th century by Viollet-le-Duc and today sits on a hill by the Aude River and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site because it is such an excellent example of a medieval fortified town.
Take a tour to see the Narbonne gate, which defended the eastern entrance to the town, and the Tresau Tower, which dominates the north east façade.
There are open spaces where tournaments and jousts were once held, and venture into the old town to find people still practising ancient crafts.
It truly is a magical place and can best be taken in any time of the year, although spring is ideal if you want to avoid hoards of tourists.
Take rooms fit for a king
If the sights of Carcassonne leave you wanting a taste of traditional accommodation, Château de Siran in the regional park of Haut Languedoc among the vineyards is a 16th century country house built on a wall dating back to the middle ages.
It has vaulted walls, high ceilings and a remarkable renaissance sandstone staircase. The rooms are light and airy with frescoes in Tuscan style paintings as well as mod cons and, best of all, the hotel holds wine workshops that take you through the wines of the region.
Take the village art trail
From the quiet village of Aigne (off the main road between La Caunette and Aigues- Vives), travel through to Azilanet, Mirepeisset, Caunes-Minervois. Minerve, Ginestas, Paraza, Pépieux, Le Somail, Ste-Valière and La Livinière where you can explore artists’ workshops to your heart’s content.
On your travels find Jean Michel Lafitte at 1 Rue de la Tour. The Moroccan-born painter and sculptor uses red marble from Caunes- Minervois and pink, white and green marble from the Pyrenees to create his figurative pieces that take inspiration from the rich history and landscape.
If you want to take home a reminder of the views, painter Morag Charlton uses oil to recreate the sights of the Southern French vistas from her Minervois workshop while Yvonne Kervévant Fraiseé uses clay to form pots that look like they belong in the local history museum.
And for wonderful second-hand book discoveries pop into Le Trouve Toute du Livre in Le Somail to while away the hours.
Designer dining to agricultural delicacies and, of course, wine.
The hot news of the region is Michel del Burgo leaving L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong to lead the kitchen at ultra cool Hotel 111, which opened in Carcassonne 18 months ago. They are hoping for a Michelin star.
He uses local ingredients sourced from the markets to create Mediterranean dishes synonymous with the region, while the wine list will take you on a tour of the best it has to offer. Enjoy a tipple from the champagne list or sip a cocktail by the pool terrace.
The five star boutique hotel with white decor and hints of pink − very design-led − has 10 elegant rooms costing from 350 Euros a night.
For a more traditional dining experience, Le Clos Occitan is a converted garage serving rustic fare, which can be taken in the quaint garden or inside the vintage dining room, and La Barbacane has an attractive Neo-Gothic
setting where guests dine on specialities, such as charolais beef fillet with foie gras, potato onions and truffle.
Saving the best until last. The wine of Minervois is the best of the Languedoc- Roussillon region, in particular the reds.
There are carignan vines planted as far back as 1905 at Domaine Pierre Cros while at Barroubio not far from Château de Siran there are 27 hectares of vines dedicated to producing some of the highest quality wines in the area.
Château Coupe-Roses reminds visitors yet again of the inhabitants’ struggles during the crusades by its vantage point high up in La Caunette.
The family-owned vineyard is run by Françoise and Pascal Frissant, who produce four reds, a rosé and four white wines.
They pride themselves in not overbearing the ground with vines to allow the characteristics of the earth to flavour the vine.
One of the best ways to truly take in the wine is, simply to drink it. There are more vineyards than you can shake a stick at so journey, stop taste and discover. Your cup will runneth over.
By Abena Bailey