Monday, 19 July 2010

Castelnaudary France, Home of Cassoulet

Castelnaudary is the capital of the 'Pays de Lauragais region and a town of charm and history. It sits astride the Canal Du Midi and is famous for its haricot bean dish Cassoulet, the festival for which (Fete Du Cassoulet) is held each year during the 7 days that make up the last week of August (in 2010 that is the 23rd to the 29th August) and you can get the details via the link.

If you want to sample an authentic cassoulet, first of all you have to have one that has been prepared in a locally manufactured 'cassole' and as tradition had it the cassole had to be one made by the pottery in Issel. A bit difficult these days as the pottery has now closed for business. The best alternative is to use one of the hand made ones from the 'Potterie Not' which sits on the side of the Canal Du Midi just short of Segala, a good destination for a Canal Du Midi cycling trip from Castelnaudary. The 'Potterie Not' is the last survivor of what was a major local industry for the area from around the 19th century. There are more potteries in the area which are also very good, just not as old as this one.

I had my first ever cassoulet in the restaurant of the same name the 'Maison Du Cassoulet' and I really wasn't disappointed. It came with the traditional Toulouse sausage, a nice piece of very tender pork and an equally tender leg of duck. It was delicious but you need to be hungry to take on this traditional dish, there is a lot of it.

Castelnaudary is the home to the largest port on the Canal Du Midi, the 'Grand Bassin' which is some 7 hectares in size. A good time to see it is on the 13th July when Castelnaudary celebrates 'National Day' with it's own fireworks display launched from a boat in the middle of the Grand Bassin.

I love the fireworks display at Carcassonne, and didn't think this one would be able to come even close to that display. But I am glad to report that I was proved wrong, it was a fabulous display and well worth the visit. Plus being so local i.e. within 10 minutes of our house, made it a little bit more special.

It's been a busy few weeks for Castelnaudary, aside from the normal hubbub of being a popular tourist destination, there has been the National Day celebrations, with marches and bands playing, this week saw the Tour De France passing through and in a few more weeks we will have the Fete Du Cassoulet starting. We are determined that this year we will make it there for one of the cassoulet dinners and might even try on a stripey blue and white jersey. Well maybe not, don't think it would be a flattering look for someone with my natural physique.

So what else has Castelnaudary got to offer besides the Canal Du Midi, cycling, boat trips, wine tasting at the Cave du Canal,  loads of restaurants, hotels, B&B and gites.

Well you will be pleased to hear that the Corn Exchange in the main square has now been completely refurbished and so has the Quai du Port where you will find the Cave Du Canel, the launch place of the daily boat trips and the snack bar that offers itself as a 'Location des Velos' as a sideline.

History of Castelnaudary

Castelnaudary featured quite significantly in the history of the Cathars. Simon de Montfort, persecutor of the Cathars and leader of the Albigensian Crusade, held occupancy of the castle in Castelnaudary (which means new castle by the way) in 1211. He was marched upon by Raimon VI, who was the Count of Toulouse, aided by the Count of Foix and the Count of Comminges.

Simon de Monfort only had about fifty knights with him, so when he was besieged in Castelnaudary he sent for reinforcements from Carcassonne.

When the convoy from Carcassonne arrived it was attacked by the Count of Foix, who in return was attacked by De Montfort and his fifty knights when they ran out of the castle and put him to rout. Raimon didn't take part in the fighting although being very close with part of his army settled in 'Le Pech' which is where the Moulin de Cugarel now sits. So now when you visit the mill you can imagine the area occupied by a 13th century army with designs on putting an end to Simon De Montfort and his crusaders. Things could have been very different had they succeeded.

The Moulin de Cugarel is the last of what used to be 32 windmills that were located strategically around the town in the 17th century. So not actually there when the siege was going on, but a good location marker with a certain amount of its own history. The inner workings have been preserved and you can see how it all operated on certain days.

This is also a lovely viewpoint for the views across the Carcassonne plains and towards the 'Montagne Noire'. from the 'Table de Orientation' which details all the different towns and villages.

There are one or two placards there that will tell you a little more about the history of the town, including the Riot of the Languedoc' and the battle of 1632 which saw Henri de Montmorency, the governor of Languedoc captured and subsequently beheaded at Toulouse in the Capitole's courtyard in October 1632.

For even more information, you could visit the Musée de Lauragais to get a lot more detail on the town, its history and that of the region.

This sits at the top of the hill just along from the church of Saint Michael which was built in Gothic style and is impressive in its own right, as you can see in the photograph. It holds an imposing position on the skyline overlooking the rest of the town.

The museum would be just to the right of the church had I panned a little further around when I took this photograph, hindsight is a wonderful thing.

You can find a few of the places I have mentioned and quite a few other places of interest on this map of Castelnaudary which will hopefully help you find your way around this delightful little town.

The Quai du Port and the corn Exchange

Fete Du Cassoulet In Full Swing

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Tour de France Stage 14 Revel to Ax 3 Domains

So there we were relaxing in our sleepy little village in Issel when all of a sudden there was the sound of helicopters whirring overhead and some frantic activity suddenly kicking off.

I thought for a second the relatives have finally tracked us down and we were going to have to give away some free holidays in the South of France. Only joking :-)

But no, we realised it was the 17th of July and the Rodez to Revel stage of the Tour de France must be rapidly approaching Revel and St Ferreol, which is surprisingly close as the crow flies hence the sound of helicopters.

We couldn't really participate because we were waiting for our next guests to arrive for the week. Plus of course there was always tomorrow and the junction at the Issel turn off between Revel and Castelnaudary, which was less than 5 minutes away. So we settled down again and decided to wait for 'demain'. We did of course watch the highlights on ITV4 and spent the time trying to spot all the landmarks we knew, quite successfully I might add as we know that road quite well.

So this morning we waited a little while, didn't want to rush off and be standing around for too many hours and we had seen the caravan before. If you haven't seen the caravan it is worth getting there early enough because it's quite the spectacle. We set off around 11.30a.m. for our little junction which was about an hour before the race was due to come through and got that nice picture of Issel on the way. How relaxed were we.

It wasn't quite as crowded as we remembered the last time we went, but someone had put up a big sign saying 'Vive la Tour de France' and there was a nice little crowd gathering, some of which I have to say had no option because they had to wait for the road to open again, but the vast majority were there for the race and very excited.  We met our local farmer who was with his family and we realised that this particular spot was a local knowledge gathering. Then we were quite impressed when we realised that we actually had some local knowledge!!

Anyway we settled down to wait for the cyclists to arrive and we knew we would get forewarning from the advance helicopters that circle the leaders filming proceedings, or so we thought.

Then I looked up and there were the leading pack with not a helicopter in sight. We nearly missed the whole thing due to being half asleep in the sun and enjoying the ambiance, we found out later that they don't really follow the very early stages of the race which was why the helicopters weren't in place.

The leaders soon whipped by and then the main pack came around the bend going hell for leather. I didn't really have time to pick out Lance Armstrong, so I was a bit gutted because that was one of my objectives when I went to watch. I wasn't really bothered that he is not doing too well this year, as far as I am concerned he is the man when it comes to the Tour De France and I just fancied spotting him.

The pack went by like an express train with a few cheers from the crowd, but it was nearly all over as quickly as it had begun and before we knew it we were watching the tail enders disappearing down the hill towards Peyrens the next little village. Well all except this guy that was all on his own at the back end of some of the cars carrying the spare bikes. Don't know what happened to him but I am guessing it wasn't a good day.

Now I have to admit my photography is not as sharp as I would have liked, they appeared and disappeared so quickly that I couldn't make up my mind whether to use landscape or sporting mode and was a bit slow getting the camera ready. So where normally I would say you can click on the photograph for a bigger picture, on this occasion I am a little hesitant, because I am pretty sure it won't do my  reputation as a budding photographer much good.

Oh and I learned a little something today, as good the sound of the Tour De France rushing by is, I think the next time I go and watch I am going to pick an uphill section and give myself a fighting chance of seeing a bit more and sorting my camera out. You live and learn as they say.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Paris Pass for Access to the Top Attractions in Paris

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Free entry to Palace of Versailles - Save €20!
The Palace of Versailles, is one of the largest and most opulent castles in the world. Boasting around 2,143 windows, 1,252 fireplaces, and 67 staircases, the Castle is one of the most visited attractions in France.
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Visit Arc De Triomphe for FREE - Saving €9!
The Arc de Triomphe is perhaps the most iconic of all French monuments. It is at once instantly recognisable and deeply evocative of the military glories and follies of France. Napoleon ordered its construction
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Sunday, 4 July 2010

Canal Du Midi Cycling and Self Catering

You may or may not know that our gite in France is only 10 minutes away from the Canal Du Midi, a UNESCO world heritage site and a very popular holiday destination.

There are lots of reasons why the Canal Du Midi is so popular, the beautiful countryside it passes through, the wonderful cities on route to the Mediterranean coastline, the locks, the boats and of course the opportunity to ride along its tree shaded tow path knowing that you are never going to meet a serious hill that is going to sap every ounce of your energy. There are of course some mad fools who think that riding a cycle up a steep hill is fun and of course you can do that as well in this region; just not right next to the Canal Du Midi.

So what are the options for taking a Canal Du Midi self catering holiday in the South of France. You can of course hire a boat and navigate the canal from point A to point B and possibly back again. A very nice way to pass a week or two it has to be said, and many people do exactly that. Alternatively you can book a gite near to the Canal Du Midi, identify where you can find a 'location de Velos' near to the gite and take excursions along the canal for as long as you wish, 2 hours, 4 hours or perhaps a whole day if you like.

There used to be a 'Location de Velos' in Castelnaudary right next to the Canal Du Midi where you could hire cycles for the day, but this has sadly closed and the nearest location is now 'Velos Severac' which is close to the 'Poteries de Naurouze' on the free road between Toulouse and Castelnaudary . It is only 20 minutes from our self catering gite in Issel and they do provide a great service.

When the bike hire in Castelnaudary was still available, we took a little half day excursion from Castelnaudary, hired the bikes for 8€ each giving us 4 hours cycling time and set off to Le Segala, which is in the direction of Toulouse.

The first section of the tow path was actually a relatively new road, after which it changed to a hard core track and the final section was a dirt track but all of it in reasonable condition.

The route is 13km there and 13km back so just slightly under 18 miles in total. There is the bonus of a little cafe near the bridge at Le Segala where you can get a drink or an ice cream and relax for a little while to get your puff back. We passed by 5 locks following this route and some lovely scenery which is set to improve shortly when the Tournesols (Sunflowers) come into bloom. There was also a pottery on route called the 'Poterie NOT' which has a bit of history having been around since the 19th century and its a good place to buy an authentic 'cassole' in which to cook a cassoulet. I am not sure how you would carry your pots though, if you decided to purchase any, some of them were quite large.

Le Segala is about 2km further on from Labastide d'Anjou which is where you can find another 'Location de Velos'. So note this as an option to drive out to and put another northern section on your list of to do's.

This really was a lovely way to spend an afternoon and giving yourself 4 hours means you can comfortably ride from Castelnaudary  to Le Segala without killing yourself and with time to spare for chilling out at the cafe the other end. Or calling into the pottery for a bit of browse and perhaps making plans to collect some goods later.

You could of course have chosen to head South towards Bram and Carcassonne if you wanted to, or made that another days cycling, I think we might just be going to do that now we have discovered how much pleasure you can get from cycling the Canal Du Midi.

As a final note and a little aside, I got the distinct impression that not everyone knows what they are doing when boating on the Canal Du Midi. I don't think this counts as a navigating the whole of the canal. It should be end to end, not side to side. Nice try though.

You can click on any of the photos to get a better view from a larger picture.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Euro Traveler UK

A brand new European Travel Advice Website for all the major European destinations.

A comprehensive guide for all of Europe with information on the number of countries in Europe, their capitals, currencies and whether they are in the European Union.

Also includes a very useful European travel shop, and a helpful travel check list that you can download and print.

It is also  is a one stop shop for all modes of transport to and from Europe that includes:
A great resource for anyone wishing to travel around Europe.

French Theme Zazzle

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