Rugged, mountainous Corbières is the perfect destination for wine-loving walkers who like a challenge, says hiking fan Nigel Buxton
Near Duilhac-sous-Peyrepertuse, 6,000m up in the high Corbières – which is to say the foothills of the Pyrenees – the two recently built chambres d’hôtes at the very old Bergerie de Bugamus might fairly be called spartan: amenities minimal; décor austere; appeal limited to the necessities of the simple life – shelter, rest, hygiene.
Not that the sort of people who patronise the Bergerie are likely to ask more of their accommodation. Most have walked a long way: some on the GR36, which as the walker goes leads more than 80km south from Carcassonne by way of Lagrasse; some on the so-called ‘Sentier Cathare’, which starts on the Mediterranean coast at Port-la-Nouvelle, and with not infrequent stretches of fairly hard going runs east to west for 50-odd kilometres through Roquefort-des-Corbières, Embres-et-Castelmaure, Durban, Tuchan and Padern. None of these stop-offs is without a cellar and a tasting room worth a visit, making it a potentially long trip to join the GR 36 at Duilhac, and continue to Mont Ségur, site of the Cathars’ last stand.
By whatever route they have travelled to Duilhac, it is not so much the medieval village which has been the prime objective for the majority of visitors, but the serrated walls of limestone which for many miles have dominated the skyline – the ramparts of the Château de Peyrepertuse, one of the most entrancing ruins in France. From the battlements 150m higher than the Bergerie, the view invites every cliché in the book. ‘Breathtaking’ might for once be excusable, given the exertions required to reach this vantage point. Around 80km to the north, beyond Carcassonne, is the Montagne Noire. Further east is the Mediterranean. Take wings in a long, steeply descending glide and you’ll be flying over the idyllic valley of Cucugnan, with the village immortalised by Alphonse Daudet (Lettres de Mon Moulin) perched prettily above a vista of neatly ordered vineyards. Rivalling Peyrepertuse, soaring above the eastern wall of the valley, the Château de Quéribus would be frowning down on you. Someone with a poetic cast of mind called these awe- inspiring ruins of the high Corbières ‘Les Citadelles de Vertige’.
An ever-growing number of those who make the climb up to Peyrepertuse have come also in search of the wines, which here have reached the southern limits of the largest appellation in the Languedoc. To the south are the vineyards of Roussillon; north, beyond the valley of the Aude and the Canal du Midi, are those of Minervois. To the west is Limoux. As wine country goes it has no equal for walkers. Sauvage (wild) is a term the tourist brochures are fond of. Forget the Médoc with its alluvial monotony relieved only by elegant mansions and racehorses in white-fenced paddocks. Forget the Côte d’Or with its impeccable ranks of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay marshalled on a parade ground 20km by 5km (Corbières embraces more than 1,500km2). Set against well-disciplined Alsace, the 11 terroirs of Corbières are a riot of topographical nonconformity. Compared with every stage of the Cathar Trail, there is nothing in Champagne that offers more than a stroll in the park.
Even on the scale of 1:100,000, the IGN map 3615:Beziers-Perpignan clearly shows the lie of what is often a spectacularly beautiful land. Hills of varying height and area are interspersed with valleys of equally varied extent. A detailed motor map shows no major roads; few secondary ones; and a labyrinthine perplexity of tracks both carrossable (suitable for motor vehicles) and often eminently not, due to the erosions of summer storms. For walkers, the 1:25,000 sheets of the IGN Blue Series are indispensable. Away from well-organised community and GR trails, signposts are rare. You might wander all day and find nobody to tell you the way.
The Romans may have grown grapes on high ground near Narbonne, but even less than a century ago Corbières’ vineyards were mostly on the low ground. Those, however, were the days when vast quantity and grievous quality distinguished the wines of Languedoc – le pays du gros rouge – and Carignan was king. Today, in what often seem the most unlikely places, even hillsides once cloaked in impenetrable garrigue – the territory of the wild boar – you will find carefully tended, low-yielding parcels. Yet there is still infinitely more garrigue than Grenache, and walkers who have bought a bottle of what is truly a vin de terroir from a domaine visited in the morning may well identify thyme, rosemary and box in the nose of what they drink with their picnic lunch.
As ever in the Languedoc, spring and autumn are the seasons to walk in this corner of France. The boar is still the bane of anyone who wants to cultivate anything, but in spring the garrigue blossoms with yellow broom, cistus, eglantine and lavender, while in October and November the vine comes into its own. It is not easy to avoid ‘patchwork of colour’ when striving to convey the autumn beauty of every shade of yellow and red improbably framed in the dark green of juniper and cade and evergreen oak under the blue of a pollution-free sky.
The patron of the Bergerie de Bugamus does not regularly offer table d’hôte and rarely cooks wild boar; by special request, however, he has been known to do agneau à la ficelle, the joint slowly cooking, suspended over glowing coals of old vine roots in a hearth that could accommodate an ox. ‘Oh that’s from Bruno Schenck, down the road in Padern. One of my bouteilles trouvées,’ he said once when I remarked on an excellent, unlabelled red we were drinking with supper. ‘Sometimes I find I have more than I need when I go up into the hills and I leave a bottle under a rock, then find it by chance months later. Corbières seems to age wonderfully in the mountain air.’
Corbieres – A Four Day Walking Holiday
DAY 1: about 10km easy going into the valley of the Verdouble stream.
After an early breakfast, drive or walk 2.5km out of Tuchan and catch the Château d’Aguilar (the first of the three famous ‘Cathar’ ruins to be seen in the course of your four days) in the foreground of great views as the sun comes up over the high ground immediately to the east. Later (not too much later; for the sun climbs fast and shade is hard to find) leave your transport where you spent the night, or in the carpark in Tuchan, and hug the foothills of the Montage de Tauch down into the gorge and the bridge before Padern. You may want to visit the tasting barn of the acclaimed Domaine de Grand Arc before dinner. Not a hard day, but a gently rewarding one.
DAY 2: About 11km, some of them demanding, all of them memorable for uplifting prospects of wild Corbières. Start early once more and take your time, for the path up to the spectacularly situated Château de Quéribus is in places as hard as paths come. The château itself is something else again (you will get the point about the ‘Citadelles de Vertige’), and having returned to the valley and followed the sentier cathar up and into Cucugnan you will have earned a glass or two on the terrace of the auberge. Down again and up to Duilhac and your lodgings for the night, or still another climb if you are staying at the Bergerie. Unless you are made of notably stern stuff , leave the Château de Peyrepertuse for another day.
DAY 3: Distance optional. A delightful day is to be had by a 12–16km walk from the village of Duilhac (shorter if you have slept at the Bergerie) to the Gorge de Galamus, just northwest of St-Paul-de-Fenouillet. The way is never exacting, and most is downhill. Roughly halfway is the Plateau de Brézou, an idyllic pasture offering shade beneath evergreen oaks. Down in the Gorge of the Agly stream are oleander-fringed pools of water running clear and cold from the hills. Dive in them. Swim in them. Picnic beside them if you have not already lunched. Stay the night in St-Paul or in a B&B (Domaine Bourchard) near Cubières, or in the village.
DAY 4: 12–16km back to the Bergerie or Duilhac, perhaps by way of Soulatgé, then up again to rejoin your outward path on the GR36. Alternatively, enquire at your lodgings about the possibility of transport as far as Rouffiac: Crown the Corbières experience with your not-to-be-missed visit of the Château de Peyrepertuse, then take your well-earned ease with a glass of wine at the Bergerie before a specially ordered supper; preferably the agneau à la ficelle.
Corbieres – A wine loving hiker’s address book
Comité départemental du tourisme de l’Aude
MAPS & GUIDES
The Cathar Way by Alan Mattingly (Cicerone Press).
An invaluable guide.
Maps: IGN Série Bleu (1:25,000) 2547 OT (Durban-Corbières Leucate); 2447 (Tuchan)
Hereford Map Centre
WHERE TO STAY
Carcassonne Hôtel Domaine d’Auriac, Route de St-Hilaire BP 554.
Tel: +33 4 68 25 72 22
Narbonne Domaine de Grand Beaupré Route d’Armissan Tel: +33 4 68 65 85 57
Talairan Mrs Paule Chertier Place de la République
Tel: +33 4 68 44 09 92
Montseret Domaine Sainte Marie des Ollieux
Tel: +33 4 68 43 59 20
Tuchan Gîte Saint Roch
Tel: +33 4 68 45 47 91
Padern La Fleurine,
Tel: +33 4 68 45 01 03
Duilhac Bergerie de Bugamus
Tel: +33 4 68 64 34 42
Hostellerie du Vieux Moulin Tel: +33 4 68 45 02 00
Boutenac Château la Voulte-Gasparets
Tel: +33 4 68 27 07 86
Camplong d’Aude Vignerons de Camplong
Tel: +33 4 68 43 60 86
Cucugnan Domaine du Trillol Tel: +33 4 68 45 01 13
Ferrals les Corbieres Domaine du Grand Crès
Tel: +33 4 68 43 69 08
St-Julien de Septime
Tel: +33 4 68 45 11 08
Montseret Château Ollieux Romanis Tel: +33 4 68 43 32 74
Peyriac de mer Château Montfin Tel: +33 4 68 93 84 27
Domaine des 2 Anes
Tel: +33 4 68 41 67 79
Portel des Corbieres Domaine de Lastours
Tel: +33 4 68 48 64 74
St Laurent de la Cabrerisse Château de Cascadais Tel: +33 4 68 44 01 44 (By appointment)
Talairan Domaine Serres-Mazard Tel: +33 4 68 44 02 22 www.serres-mazard.com
Thezan des Corbieres Château de Donos
Tel: +33 4 68 43 32 11
NARBONNE Le Petit Comptoir 4, Boulevard du Maréchal Joffre. Tel: +33 4 68 42 30 35
Auberge du Vieux Puits
Tel: +33 4 68 44 07 37
VILLEROUGE TERMENES Restaurant Médiéval La Rôtisserie Le Château
Tel: +33 4 68 70 06 06
MONTSERET Le Relais de Montséret 1, Rue de Bufolenc Tel: +33 4 68 43 29 51
FABREZAN Le Clos des Souquets Avenue de Lagrasse Tel: +33 4 68 43 52 61 www.le-clos-des-souquets.com
CUCUGNAN Auberge du Vigneron Rue Achille Mir.
Tel: +33 4 68 45 03 00
Written by Nigel Buxton