The Montagne Noire in Languedoc may not be a well-known part of France, but it’s well worth considering if you’re looking for a rural hideaway that’s not too cut off,
If you’re looking for a rural hideaway that’s not too cut off, Languedoc’s Montagne Noire is worth considering
Flying into Carcassonne, you notice a long ridge of darkly wooded slopes on the town’s northern horizon. These are the southern ramparts of the aptly named Montagne Noire – the ‘Black Mountain’. They don’t look formidable, but the red-and-white telecoms tower that’s visible from miles around marks the summit of the region’s highest point, the Pic de Nore. At 1,211m, it’s 126m higher than Snowdon and only 133m lower than Ben Nevis. Compared to the Pyrénées, looming on the southern horizon, though, it’s a mere pimple.
The Montagne Noire is a gentle crescent of hills, approximately 100km long, near the borders of Aude, Tarn and Hérault, stretching roughly from the east of Castelnaudary on the Canal du Midi towards St-Pons-de-Thomières, gateway to the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut Languedoc.
The D612 runs along its northern edge, from the sleepy market town of Mazamet through St-Pons and on to Béziers. Its southern fringes reach Aude and the vineyards of Minervois. Only a few roads cut through the hills, following the course of little rivers and trout streams like the Orbiel and the Arnette that rush down its steep-sided valleys to meet Aude.
Looking at these thickly forested ramparts from the lowlands, it can be hard to believe anyone lives up there, but tucked away in little glens house-hunters will discover villages of sturdy stone houses built and sometimes roofed with the characteristic grey schist of the region. Few, if any, are home to more than a thousand inhabitants.
Mazamet, on the Montagne Noire’s northern edge, is the nearest thing the region has to a real town. With a population of around 10,000, it’s a pleasant, unassuming place, with a lively Saturday market and the full range of commerces, including tradespeople, hypermarkets, a railway station and an airport with flights to Paris (Orly) and Corsica. It was once a centre of the wool and sheepskin trade, and you can still shop for a lambskin coat or sheepskin rug at the outlet stores along Rue de la Richarde. There’s shopping of a different kind in Montolieu, on the southern slopes
which bills itself (rather ambitiously) as Languedoc’s ‘book village’. Its dozen or so bookshops trade mainly in French works, but Librairie Abelard, on Rue de la Paix, devotes a floor to English-language titles.
North of Lastours, the Orbiel winds its way along its narrow valley to the range’s watershed, passing through tiny Roquefère, a village fleuri that is the venue for a rather excellent summer jazz festival. Carry on for a few kilometres to reach Labastide-Esparbairenque, the tiny village where I bought a ramshackle house in 2001. In spring, the loudest sounds around here are woodpeckers drumming, cuckoos calling, and the six-note shrill of black redstarts. Summer evenings are loud with shrieking swifts. Autumn is heralded at weekends by bugles, beagles and the crash of gunfire as boar-hunting season gets under way, and by the distant scream of the chainsaw as my neighbours prepare their winter firewood. Winter nights are quietest of all, with only the occasional owl call and the soughing of wind in the leafless Spanish chestnuts.
It’s hard to believe that this rural idyll is only half an hour from one of France’s three busiest visitor attractions: Carcassonne’s Cité Médiévale is only half an hour away. I can drive to the nearest hypermarchés just outside Carcassonne in 25 minutes and be at the airport in 30-40 minutes. Toulouse, with all its big-city attractions, is around 90 minutes away on the autoroute. Heading east, the sands of Narbonne Plage and the oyster beds of the Bassin de Thau are a similar distance. For a summer dip closer to home there are lakeside beaches, lifeguards, snack-bars and pedalos to rent at Lac de Pradelles, directly beneath the Pic de Nore, or Lac des Montagnes, near Mazamet. For families with kids, they are a boon on hot summer days.
In summer, it’s a couple of degrees cooler up here than on the scorching flatlands of Aude, but still plenty hot enough for swimming. The downside of that is that winter temperatures are cooler by the same margin. That’s the difference between chilly and truly freezing, as I discovered to my cost when all my plumbing froze solid one winter. Sub-zero temperatures aren’t uncommon between late December and early February, when the Pic de Nore is often snow-covered, but winters are happily brief. Spring flowers are out in February and cuckoos are calling and woodpeckers pecking by March. In summer, this is a landscape so lushly verdant that it looks almost tropical. In summer, there are occasional spectacular thunderstorms and monsoon-like deluges on the high slopes of the Montagne Noire. Happily, these rarely last more than a day.
Below left: The paper mill in Brousses is the last working mill in Languedoc Below: La rigole de la Montagne Noire supplies water to the Canal du Midi
Above: The view from Saissac is spectacular