Disappearing into the depths of a strange new land for a week or two of relaxation and indulgence is for many the epitome of holidaymaking (writes Anna Zuchowski-Morrison). This is exactly what my husband and I did when we arrived in the district of Corbières in southern France - we checked out of the rat race and into a world of soothing warm sun, medieval villages and secrecy among the crumbling mountains.
Corbières is located in the Languedoc region of southern France, and stands north-west of the striking Pyrenees - the mighty, cloud frothed mountains bedecked with myth and legend. Corbières is a magnet for those seeking tranquillity and untainted natural beauty. Appealing to all tastes, the scenery ranges from mountainous countryside paired with crawling vineyards to undisturbed coastline fringed with historical prominence.
Corbières is sprinkled with little villages which are hauntingly medieval and overflowing with historical landmarks, including abbeys, fortresses and castles, criss-crossed with twinkling rivers. The buildings that are the most characteristic of the area are probably the ancient Cathar castles. The most striking of these are found in Quéribus. Perched atop rugged limestone mountains, the castle seems to melt into the rocks that hold it, and feature dramatic drops and jagged rocky formations. Although known for its peaceful ambience, Corbières’ present atmosphere couldn’t be further from its tumultuous past. It is the spot where many battles raged due to the somewhat rebellious Gauls and Cathars who would hide from the powerful Roman army in these safe houses throughout Corbières.
Now, Corbières' greatest aim is to be as welcoming as possible to those in need of sinking into a place of serenity. The region has the lowest population density in France, and is practically untouched by tourism, making it a pleasure to roam the deserted countryside underneath a sun that shines for 300 days of the year.
After a tough few months of fast-living London life, my husband and I immediately dived into the area, eager to rejuvenate mind and body. The warm Mediterranean climate and the long uninterrupted coastline proved perfect for this intention. The beaches are encapsulated by high craggy rocks and offer its guests the opportunity to spend the day sunbathing aimlessly all day or indulge in something more energetic like windsurfing.
In particular, we visited the beach in Gruissan, which is a small fishing village built around an ancient ruin. It has a wide golden sandy beach and also harbours a multitude of calm and peaceful lakes, filled with quaint floating boats, making you feel as if you’ve just stepped into a Monet painting. Flamingos are also fond of these lakes and they can be admired in their dozens, nuzzling their beaks into the warm waters.
The Mediterranean climate has also enriched the countryside, giving rise to hundreds of wild flowers which lay strewn across the wide fields. This has in turn attracted many to go pony trekking and hiking through the woods, and there are many organisations which arrange specialised trekking trips, knowledgeably taking you to the best parts of Corbières.
Among the villages dotted throughout Corbières, we were drawn to the charming streets of Lagrasse, due to its reputation as being one of the most beautiful villages in France. Lagrasse is separated by a wide green-blue river (River Obieu) and surrounded by lush countryside abundant with grapevines. The Marie d'Orbieu Abbey (complete with bell tower) sits gracefully beside the river, which is accessed via a set of ancient stone bridges, and the cobbled streets are teeming with stalls, cafes, restaurants and craft shops. The village also draws artists, potters and sculptors, and there is a chance to view the local talent in rustic little art galleries which slouch along the narrow cobbled lanes.
The markets were full of local cheeses, wine, pâté and cured meats, and we managed to take packages of the delicious delicacies back home with us, to savour later. Wine spills over aplenty in Corbières, and Lagrasse was one of the many places that we lost ourselves in the hazy comfort of lunch time wine sampling, sitting in the confines of an authentic French bistro.
The golden sands of Corbières’ coastline decorated with the ancient castles and abbeys were beautifully unique, and we got swept up in the carefree south French lifestyle almost immediately. By the time we arrived back in England we were completely revitalised and ready for the next challenge. The hushed terrain of Corbières is filled with memories of the Cathars and Gauls who chose the land as a safe-house from their enemies, so it is no surprise that many are so delighted to re-enact history by finding refuge in the folds of its wild rugged mountains, even if just for a few days.
About the author
Anna Zuchowski-Morrison is a freelance writer based in London. She writes for various national magazines and regularly blogs for moneycompare.au.com where she shares her love of all things food, travel and design.
She has travelled extensively throughout Europe, Asia and America.