Another travel post! I promise I will post some new recipes soon as well, but let’s first explore how a vegan fared in France. My friend and I returned form a long weekend in Southern France, in the town of Carcassonne. You might know the place name from a popular board game, but it is, indeed, an actual place near Toulouse. The town (it has a cathedral, so I guess it is technically a city) is famous for “La Cité”, the walled city that looks straight out of a fairytale, towering over the ‘new’ town. The original castle had been in ruins for a long time until in the 1850s an architect petitioned to rebuild the old city to save it from demolishing. The result is what you see today, a slightly historically incorrect version of a medieval castle, with three walls, many bastion towers, and a whole lot of restaurants and shops in one place, surrounded by vineyards. While we were there, the castle was adorned by a bright yellow sound wave visual art project that did not seem to be very popular with the locals, but I guess art is also there to provoke.
Thanks to Ryanair, you can fly directly to Carcassonne from various airports such as Stansted or Brussels. There is a shuttle bus that stops right outside the small terminal, and takes you for €6 per person (one way) into town. The bus times to and from the airport are timed to the flights, so that is a great and stress-free way to start a couple of days in Carcassonne. As for accommodation, there are many options available, from a youth hostel in La Cité to luxury hotels on vineyards in the vicinity of the city. I booked a charming, central AirBnB that was conveniently located between the old and new town, and came with a fridge and a kettle.
The following itinerary is a suggestion for a relaxed long weekend; you could possibly do most of Carcassonne’s major attractions within a long, busy day, or a day and a half. All sights are within walking distance.
Day 1 (Friday)
Start your visit to Carcassonne the active way, and put on your walking shoes! Either download the walking maps from the tourist office’s website or pass by their physical office on Rue de Verdun to grab a brochure. We decided to leave the town behind us and enjoy the sunshine and surrounding landscape, and headed out for a 10 km loop through the vineyards to a hill overlooking the old and new town, and with views of the Pyrenees mountains. The loop starts by the cemetery by the walled city, and takes you through gentle hills, vineyards, and local forests. A very pleasurable walk with beautiful views along the way.
After being so active, you might need some sustenance. Instead of having lunch with the tourist masses in La Cité, go to Freaks Café and Cantine on Rue de Verdun, and inviting café serving fresh fare from the markets. They have a handful of daily specials that you can choose from, and while not having a specifically vegan option, they made me a delicious and nutritious salad and some roast veg without a problem. The vinaigrette of the salad was so tasty, I had to complement the chef just on that. If the weather is nice, you can sit out front, or if its rainy, they have a cosy, hip area in the back where you can read and enjoy a drink or two.
After airing our your shoes, in the afternoon head back up the hill to the old part of town, La Cité. You can cross the river via the foot bridge Pont Vieux, and then climb the hill up to the castle. The majority of the old town is open to the public without paying entrance, except for the Chateau Comtal, which houses a museum. There is also an inquisition museum within the walled city, a school museum, and the Basilica of Saint Nazaire. You can explore the walled city with its little shops, stop for an ice cream, and enjoy the views over Carcassonne.
In the evening, Carcassonne was not the most lively, which might have been due to the season (late April). Enjoy a sundowner by the river, then for drinks, burgers and some entertainment, check out the Irish pubs (Celt or O’Sheridan’s).
Day 2 (Saturday)
If you happen to be in Carcassonne over the weekend, start your Saturday morning with a visit to the market that is happening on Place Carnot. Marvel at the fresh produce, get yourself some fruit for breakfast or as a snack, and then coffee and chill like the locals in one of the cafés around the central square. Great for people watching! If you want to stock up on further goodies, the market halls (Les Halles) are one block away, for fresh fish, cheese and meat. On the main square there is a Carrefour City, and a little further down the pedestrian main shopping street there is a Monoprix supermarket that is cheaper than the Carrefour. They both have lots of vegan products such as different milks, yogurts, hummus, burgers etc. Don’t forget to get a bottle or two of wine! Finally, you MUST drop by Boulangerie Papineau on Rue de Verdun to get a fresh baguette traditional, one of the best breads I ever had (and I am a bread-spoilt German).
Now that you have your picnic sorted, head towards the train station where you will find the other one of the two UNESCO heritage sites of the town: the Canal du Midi. The canal was built in the 17th century to connect Toulouse with the Mediterranean. Nowadays it is mainly used for pleasure boating and as a recreation area. You can either chose to do a chill 1.5 hour cruise on one of the boats leaving from in front of the train station towards Trebes, or be more active and either rent a bike and cycle or use your feet and walk along the canal. If you decide to walk, it is 11 km to Trebes, so either only walk parts of it (as we did, then turning back), or jump on a bus back to Carcassonne. Don’t forget to picnic under the leafy trees by the canal, watching the river boats go by.
For dinner, we headed to Comte Roger within La Cité. It is a more elegant restaurant serving modern French cuisine with a focus on regional and seasonal ingredients, and, best of all, it has a vegan menu, a rarity in France. We went for the 3-course meal and a bottle of vino. The starter was my highlight taste-wise: a simple sounding grilled green asparagus from the chef’s friend Jacques’ farm, with a tomato and chive French bruschetta. Delicious! The main was Sardinian fregola pasta with lentils and different veg, with a local spirulina sauce (that could have had a little more punch for my taste). Lastly, the meal finished with a Granny Smith apple compote with fresh, local strawberries and fresh pineapple, that was also tasty, but nothing to write home about. However, we both enjoyed our meal and the service there, and rolled out of the place for a late evening stroll back down to the new town.
Day 3 (Sunday)
Sundays are quiet in Carcassonne, as most shops are closed. However, you can go for a late breakfast at one of the brasseries. Grab some skillful and delicious patisserie from Remi Touja on Rue de Verdun (they also do vegan sorbet with exciting flavours – I had raspberry and red bell pepper!) and head towards the river Aude for a stroll along the river banks. Or you could do another of the walks suggested in the walking brochure of the tourist office.
Another option would be a day trip into one of the surrounding villages or vineyards, or even to Toulouse, a one-hour train journey away. The tourist office can help you arrange these trips (they are closed on Sundays though, so arrange ahead of time). We just enjoyed chatting, sampling some more local wine and having a relaxed Sunday, before catching our flight back to London in the late afternoon.
All in all, we had a relaxed time in Carcassonne. We were surprised at the lack of nightlife and of wine bars within the town, but that might have also been due to the season in spring. Wether you are staying for a long weekend or passing by on a road trip through Southern France, Carcassonne is a lovely little destination where even a vegan can survive! I would recommend going in late spring or in autumn, as the locals told us that it will get around 40°C in the summer.