France’s southernmost Languedoc region is home to two of the country’s most culture-rich cities, linked together by a 100km stretch of the renowned Canal du Midi. Blessed with good weather almost all year round, a high concentration of UNESCO-listed sites, ideal conditions for wine-growing, and a fine gastronomic heritage, Languedoc is the perfect place to spend a weekend or longer.
Toulouse, often called La Ville Rose (the pink city) due to the red bricks used in many local buildings, is a place which blends the old and the new seamlessly. The 18th century architecture displayed at the Place du Capitole and the Jardin Royal remind us of the city’s early importance, while today, Toulouse is a vital contributor to the French economy as the home of airplane manufacturer Airbus – amongst the country’s most prestigious businesses.
One of the best ways to enjoy Toulouse is to take a walk along its river, the Garonne, and admire the architecture along its banks, and the city’s reflection in the water below. Toulouse’s abundance of awe-inspiring private mansions owes much to revenues from the pastel trade, which experienced a golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries. Pastel is the plant from which manufacturing can extract a blue dye for colouring textiles, and an oil renowned for its dermatological properties. Toulouse prides itself on this heritage and you can learn more about the trade at the Pastel Museum, or explore the beauty benefits by patronising the Graine de Pastel spas and shops.
A stone’s throw from the river, new luxury hotel La Cour des Consuls has shaken up the historic Carmes district, since it opened in September 2015. Created from the union of two 18th century private mansions, the restoration and conservation has been executed impeccably, preserving a number of listed elements all while adding an extremely modern and tasteful décor. The Cénacle restaurant, presided over by Michelin-starred chef Jérôme Ryon, and the Graine de Pastel spa all serve to complete the five-star experience which defines the Cour des Consuls as Toulouse’s leading luxury city hotel.
Rail and road are perfectly convenient ways to travel between Toulouse and Carcassonne, but you’ll be missing out if you don’t take a trip along the Canal du Midi by boat, or by bike. Either way, no journey between Toulouse and Carcassonne should be made without a pit-stop at Castelnaudary. Connoisseurs of French gastronomy will recognise the name from labels on jars of Cassoulet – France’s legendary slow-cooked casserole made with white beans and various meats. Cassoulet is the local speciality and you will be hard pushed to find a better quality version that at Le Tirou. Located on the edge of the city, the restaurant’s homemade stew melts in your mouth, and the head chef passes from table to table to discuss his fine creation with every customer.
The Languedoc-Roussillon is the world’s biggest wine region, and home of the world’s oldest bubbly, Blanquette de Limoux, which dates back to the 16th century. Oenological instruction is available at the English-speaking wine school Vinécole, near Limoux. It’s a slight detour from the route between Toulouse and Carcassonne, but a worthwhile one to learn to navigate among the 24 reputed AOC wines from the surrounding area, including many of my personal favourites.
South-east of Toulouse, Carcassonne has been a popular stopover for those travelling between the popular resorts of Nice, Biarritz and Barcelona ever since the 1920s. The upper medieval city – the oldest fortified city in Europe – attracts the lion’s share of the attention compared to the modern part of the city below. The fortified city was restored to its former glory in the 19th century, and has held World Heritage status since 1997. It captured the heart of Kate Mosse during a visit twelve years later, leading to her writing the internationally bestselling Labyrinth, a medieval epic set within the city walls (fans can download her personal guide to the city here).
Must-visits are the World Heritage-listed Chateau Comtal and nearby Romanesque-gothic St Nazaire Basilica, but even just wandering through the city’s cobbled streets, gazing up at the fairy-tale towers, the sense of centuries is palpable, especially in the summer when live jousting and falconry shows add to the atmosphere. Carcassonne does have a reputation for being on the busier side of busy in the summer, but scholars have argued that this density of people is akin to how it was in medieval times, and may be considered to make the experience more authentic. The encircling ramparts allow for a little more room to breathe, and I would especially recommend visiting them just before sunset.
Adjacent to the Chateau Comtal is the first hotel built within the city walls, the Hotel de la Cite. Still the only five-star hotel in Carcassonne, it exudes history from every single beam and brick, whilst offering all the necessary modern comforts, such as an outdoor swimming pool and a new Cinq Mondes spa. The garden’s private view over the chateau and city is breathtaking, whilst the interior spaces have been crafted exquisitely, with a special mention going to the Salle des Correspondances where visitors can enjoy jazz piano in the evenings. Walking down the grand, listed staircase, you are treading in the footsteps of greatness, including Grace Kelly, Winston Churchill and French novelist Colette, who famously wrote in the visitors’ book, “After so many hotels, I have finally come home”.
If you don’t opt to dine at hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant La Barbacane, consider local favourite La Brasserie du Donjon, or for a more relaxed meal embracing Carcassonne’s proximity to the Spanish border, try tapas at and drinks at L’Escargot, which is open until late.
You can fly to Toulouse or Carcassonne directly from many locations across Europe. Enjoy a stay at La Cour des Consuls and Hotel de la Cité from €350 for two people. The price includes accommodation in the room category of your choice (minimum stay of two nights with one in Toulouse and one in Carcassonne) and buffet breakfast in the restaurant.