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Music from the show: The Bandolets top

Accompanying the scenery today are a trio of Pyrenees singers called the Bandolets, who sing traditional songs from the region. Their songs are half chanted, half sung, a custom that dates back to the minstrels of the middle ages.


Find out more about these traditional singers of the Pyrenees at www.pyrenees-pireneus.com.


Carcassonne top

The medieval fortress of Carcassonne thrills at first sight. The largest medieval fortress in Europe, Carcassonne seems frozen in time by some magical spell. Over the centuries the castle fell into ruin. In the 19th century, architect Violet le Duc restored Carcassonne—building up the walls and replacing the turret tops. Some accuse Mr. le Duc of overdoing it – he added a big dose of romance for some tastes, but the result is spectacular.

Visitors can wander the ramparts and examine the double walls of the fortress that successfully thwarted many attempts at invasion.

At its height in the 12th and 13th centuries, Carcassonne was ruled by the Trencavel family who were allied to the Counts of Toulouse. It was a time of relative peace and prosperity and the Trencavels ruled with tolerance. They extended protection to a religious group known as the Cathars or Albigensians who lived in the area. The Cathars practiced an austere Christianity, that the Pope condemned as heretical and dangerous.

The Pope and the King of France joined together to squash the Cathars and seize the land of Pays d’Oc. A savage crusade against the Cathars followed that decimated much of Pays d’Oc and Carcassonne was defeated.

To this day the vicious leader of that crusade, Simon de Montfort, is reviled here. Carcassonne stages tournaments in the summer, recreating the jousts between the crusaders and Trencavel loyalists.

In the early Middle Ages, jousts were nothing more than military training. Later, when ideas of chivalry spread and troubadours sang of love and war, jousts became popular spectacles, drawing huge crowds. The winner usually took the loser’s horse and armor.


Info on Trencavel jousts & other events: www.carcassonne.org.


Hôtel de La Cité top

After a long day of swinging war hammers and wearing sweltering armor, it’s nice to cool down at a first class hotel like Carcassonne’s Hotel de la Cite.

First, an after-battle dip in the pool really hits the spot. From the elegant, wood paneled rooms, you can survey the fortress and keep your eye out for attacking crusaders. And to dine like a King, even if you are not staying here, check out the hotel restaurant, La Barbacane.

If you stay at any hotel inside the walls at Carcassonne, call ahead for driving instructions.


Visit www.hoteldelacite.com for more about the hotel.


Driving in the Carcassonne region top

A car is essential for exploring the region around Carcassonne. Leasing is the least expensive alternative if you need a car for a couple of weeks or more.

Several car rental companies such as Europe By Car offer a variety of lease options. We picked this car from Peugeot's Open Europe program.


For a helpful guide on driving in France, check out www.francetourism.com.


Albi top

Our wheels take us to the historic town of Albi.

The medieval quarter with its many mansions recalls an era of glory. The Counts of Toulouse, once one of the most powerful rulers in Europe, held a huge amount of land Pays d’Oc in the 12th century, including Carcassonne. Under their rule, Albi’s town’s bridge was built and trade began to flourish. Merchants grew rich making blue dye from a local plant and they built half timbered houses along Albi’s narrow streets.


Visit www.mairie-albi.fr if you're interested in visiting this historic town.


Roquefort Cheese top

We’re in Roquefort country, and I cannot resist this pungent cheese. Roquefort is made from sheep’s milk, as opposed to cow’s milk. It’s aged in caves for a minimum of three months where it develops its intense flavor.


Visit www.roquefort-societe.com if you're interested in a tour of a Roquefort cave.


Toulouse Lautrec top

The counts of Toulouse are remembered for having been one of the great ruling families in France. But one count led a very different life and is remembered for his vivid paintings of bohemian Paris in the late 1800’s: Count Henri de Toulouse Lautrec.

Born near Albi, and raised here, Toulouse Lautrec is now celebrated in a museum that contains the largest collection of his art anywhere.

Crippled by a congenital bone disease that may have resulted from the fact that his parents were first cousins, Lautrec nonetheless possessed an ebullient spirit and a desire to embrace the world.

As a young man, Henri moved to Paris and enrolled in art classes in Montmartre. These were heady times: the Impressionists were experimenting with light and color, Vincent Van Gogh was a fellow student, and artists and models were kicking up their heels at famous nightclubs like the Moulin Rouge. Lautrec found his niche in the late night world of Montmartre, painting dancers, and prostitutes...and drawing posters for the acts that took to the stage.

With the territory came too much indulgence and by 37 Henri was dead from alcoholism and probably, syphilis.

As an artist, Lautrec had a style all his own:...with bold, fluid lines,...a love of color...and above all an ability to capture people caught in private moments.

For Lautrec lovers, or anyone curious about this exceptional artist, an excursion north takes you to the family chateau at Bosc. This was Lautrec’s childhood home and his great grand niece is here to show us about.

In these rooms, Lautrec first developed his love of drawing. Often bedridden because of his fragile bones, Henri could not engage in sports or hunting or any of the activities his father and uncles enjoyed. In fact, he was unable to live up to any of the roles expected of the young count of Toulouse. Drawing became his lifeline.

"He was a person who attracted people with his joy of life, his gaiety, his drollery and at the same time he had a sensibility for others."


Check out Toulouse Lautrec by Julia Frey for a fascinating read. Or, visit www.lautrec.info for more information about the artist.


Collioure top

All over town are reminders of Collioure’s artistic legacy. A walking trail shows the places Matisse and his friends Derain, Dufy and Juan Gris painted. The artistic movement called Fauvism, known for its bright bold colors and skewed perspective, took route in this seaside town.

None of the Fauvists original works resides in Collioure, but there are plenty of newcomers hoping to be the next sensation. The brilliant colors in Collioure continue to inspire local painters like long time resident Carmina. You can visit galleries in the old town and if you are lucky you can meet the artists.


Stop in the tourist office for info on the best Collioure galleries.


Castles Queribus and Peyrepertuse top

The castle of Queribus, built in the tenth century, is one of the best preserved of these castles. Those persecuted Cathars, whom Carcassonne tried to protect, fled to many of these castles to hide out from the crusaders sent to obliterate them. Queribus was one of their last strongholds before they were driven into the mountains.

These castle fortresses mainly served as lookouts and were manned by about fifteen soldiers: a governor, sergeants, and men-at-arms. Nobles and townspeople would hole up at the forts in times of trouble.

Long after the Cathars, Queribus defended the border with Spain. When the region of Rousillion joined France in 1659, the border moved further south to the Pyrenees and the castle fell into disuse.

A stone’s throw from Queribus, the romantic ruins of Peyrepertuse grow out of the cliff. This castle’s name comes from the old language of Pays d’Oc and means pierced rocks. Built about the same time as its neighbor, Peyrepertuse occupies a vertiginous narrow perch on the rocks. It’s easy to see why Peyrepertuse never fell to any invader.


Visit www.casteland.com for great details about Queribus & Peyrepertuse.


Cassoulet top

Legend has it that a French stew called Cassoulet fortified hungry troops defending a town near Carcassonne and gave them the strength to defeat the invaders. And no wonder, this local stew has everything in it!

Many variations exist, but a major French culinary society declared that true Cassoulet consists of pork sausage, mutton or goose, along with white haricot beans, pork rinds, stock and flavorings.

Making Cassoulet can take days and the result is a rich flavorful stew that will leave you capable of taking on anyone.


Visit www.casteland.com for great details about the castle.


The Pyrenees top

Cloaked with gentle meadows, lush forests and inhabited by wild boar and deer, in these inviting mountains you’ll find picturesque mountain villages, easy hikes and spas guaranteed to cure all ills.

The outdoor adventures here are endless—you can trek across the entire range, or amble easily through spectacular canyons. River rafting and hang gliding are popular and of course, skiing in the winter. Trails are well marked and many have inns or huts along the way. Unlike the Alps, most Pyrenees peaks are accessible to strong walkers.


Visit www.parc-pyrenees.com for the Pyrenees National Park official website. Also, check out www.pyreneesguide.com for more information about the region.


Luz St Sauveur top

Our base is the mountain town Luz Saint Sauveur. Legend has it the town was named by Spanish bandits and smugglers who, coming across the mountain passes, were terrified by the great peaks and gloomy gorges, but then they saw a light (Luz, in Spanish) and when they reached it, they found a lively, welcoming village.

The best time to get to know Luz Saint Sauveur is Monday morning on market day. Here, a delightful array of regional specialties lines the street: everything from fresh goat cheeses to edelweiss flowers – and a sample of the regional wine.


Visit www.pyrenees-decouvertes.com for more about the town. For a list of other markets in the region, check out www.lourdes-infotourisme.com.


Cirque de Gavarnie top

The highlight of this region is a natural amphitheatre called the Cirque de Gavarnie. It’s an easy hour’s hike or donkey ride to the entrance to the amphitheatre that Victor Hugo described as “both a mountain and a rampart...it is the most mysterious of structures by the most mysterious of architects—it is nature’s coliseum.”


Visit www.gavarnie.com for more details.


The Spa at Luz St Sauveur top

Back in town at the local spa, there’s nothing like a thermal bath to loosen up those hiking muscles. Prices are quite reasonable and you can come for a swim, a bath or massage. The waters of Luz Saint Sauveur are used to treat everything from poor circulation to intestinal ailments to laryngitis.

Romans recognized the special qualities of these waters, as did people in the 18th and 19th centuries. They would often spend weeks at the spas, hoping to cure an illness. Toulouse Lautrec’s mother took him frequently to soak in the Pyrenees spas, trying to mend his bones, but to no avail.


You'll find the address and phone number of the spa at


St Savin top

All over France, small, quiet villages unexpectedly house lovely hotels with world class restaurants. In the magical stone town, St Savin, the chef at Le Viscos prepares traditional local dishes with a new flair. From a fois gras appetizer to crème brulee dessert – the menu features regional fare that changes with the seasons.


Visit www.tourism.midi-pyrenees.org for bookings, tours, and info on the Pyrenees.


Pic du Midi top

From the top of the pass, a spectacular - and mercifully pain free-- gondola ride climbs another 3,500 feet to the summit of the Pic du Midi.

Once an important research center that provided NASA with maps of the moon for Apollo missions, the Observatory today is a museum open to the public. The bird’s eye view takes in some of the jagged granite peaks in over 270 miles of Pyrenees mountains.


For more information, visit www.picdumidi.com.


Interested in planning your vacation to to Carcassonne or the Pyrenees?
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For a helpful guide on driving in France, check out www.francetourism.com.

Visit www.mairie-albi.fr if you're interested in visiting this historic town.

Visit www.roquefort-societe.com if you're interested in a tour of a Roquefort cave.

Visit www.tourism.midi-pyrenees.org for bookings, tours, and info on the Pyrenees.