Living France - - DESTINATION -

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

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