In this sunny corner of Languedoc-Roussillon, Aude is a quiet department where summers are cooled by gentle sea breezes and villages nestle among sunflower fields and vineyards guarded by hilltop castles. Named after a river flowing between the Pyrénées and the Massif Central, it ends on the sandy shores of the Mediterranean to the east, but stops short of Toulouse to the west, claiming just two towns in these rural heartlands. Forget glitzy crowds and high prices, this is southern France at its most enticing.
The French have long known about Aude’s ‘Secret Riviera’ where families return year after year, drawn by crystalline waters and broad, sweeping sands. Even in summer, there’s plenty of space; just bring your parasol and pick your spot. Beaches stretch for 50km or so and beyond the holiday apartments, you soon get away from souvenir shops, though you may come across a naturist.
Gently shelving beaches provide plenty of safe swimming while riggings tinkle in the marinas and kite and windsurfers pirouette to their heart’s content. Favourite resorts include Leucate-La Franqui and Gruissan with its beach chalets on stilts and old village coiled around a small hill. From pine-covered slopes to beaches, sand banks and lagoons, the coastal reaches of Aude are protected by the Parc Naturel Régional de la Narbonnaise en Meditérranée, a place to ramble along the footpaths, look out for rare plants and birds and explore the Massif de la Clape, a high rocky plateau carpeted in vineyards and fragrant Mediterranean scrub. There you will find the unique abyss of Le Gouffre de l’Oeil Doux where sheer limestone cliffs plunge down to a circular pool of emerald water.
Eight years ago, Jane Coombes and her brother bought a house on the edge of the Massif. “We did a lot of research,” explains Jane, “and found that Aude had a really good choice of affordable properties and a diverse landscape: both mountains and sea. It’s not as commercialised as other areas, yet there are plenty of natural wonders and, of course, we love the wine. Salles-d’Aude, our village, is surrounded by vineyards – we converted our own wine cellars into accommodation – and it feels really French. We like the beach too, especially Gruissan, the ‘ village escargot’, and the oyster beds, and we’re fascinated by the rich history of Aude. There are medieval castles everywhere and Roman remains on our doorstep.”
In Narbonne, history goes back 2,500 years though the town really came into its own when the Romans arrived in 118 BC. At a crossroad of trading routes, the old Languedoc capital rivalled Marseille, blossoming as it did on the wine trade for centuries until the River Aude changed course and the port silted up.
It’s a Ville d’Art et d’Histoire: proud of its museums, its Roman granary and remains of the Via Domitia – the first Roman road in Gaul – not to mention its medieval centre clustered around the former Archbishop’s Palace and the Gothic cathedral, never completed, since the