Tuesday, October 4, 2016

From Cathars to cassoulet: Castelnaudary

A recent biking trip along a section of the Canal du Midi includes an overnight in Castelnaudary — just enough time for a bit of sightseeing and a cassoulet dinner.

Moulin du Cugarel in Castelnaudary

Castelnaudary is located between Toulouse and Carcassone in the Aude department in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. I see only a few tourists, perhaps because it's midweek and after rentrée, meaning the kids have returned to school and vacation is over for most workers here in France.

Doorway of Hôtel Latapie in Castelnaudary

The city was pulled back and forth between the Cathars and the Catholics in the 13th century, survived the Inquisition, and was pillaged by the Black Prince during the Hundred Years' War. Castelnaudary prospered in the 17th century when it became the most important port on the Canal du Midi. Nowadays, le Grand Bassin, is used mostly for recreation.

Grand Bassin in Castelnaudary

Our hotel is located downtown, close to Place de République and Place de Verdun. After our bikes are safely stowed in the basement of our hotel, I head to the tourism office. I ask the staff to point out five places on the city map that are "not to be missed." He circles only four, and after a round of beer, my friends and I set out to explore Castelnaudary.

Flowers in an upstairs window in Castelnaudary

Building-topper in Castelnaudary

Our first stop is Collégiale Saint-Michel. The church has closed for the day but we are duly impressed by the enormous Gothic building with its nine-sided chapel and towering spire. Only later do I find out that the bell tower contains a carillon of 35 bells, one of the largest in Europe.

Bell tower of Collégiale Saint Michel in Castelnaudary

Gargoyle at Collégiale Saint Michel in Castelnaudary

Skipping the suggestion to visit le musée du Lauragais because it's also closed, we head to the north edge of town to visit Moulin du Cugarel. It's here that I take some of my favorite photographs of the day. The winds of Castelnaudary fueled this and 31 other mills a few centuries ago. Abandoned in 1921 and restored in 1962, the windmill is absolutely beautiful. In the summer months, visitors can see the inside of the mill. But this evening, simply walking around the outside of the mill and checking out the views of the surrounding countryside are satisfying enough.

Moulin du Cugarel in Castelnaudary

Millstone at Moulin du Cugarel in Castelnaudary

Moulin du Cugarel in Castelnaudary

On the way back to our hotel, we pass Castelnaudary's covered Halle, adorned with colorful flower baskets. The place seems to be a popular hangout for teens. 

Castelnaudary's market hall

French poet Prosper Estieu (I love that name!) was
a prominent citizen of Castelnaudary

It's finally dinner time, and despite the warm weather, I'm compelled to order the cassoulet. The white bean casserole with sausage and goose, is smoky and delicious, but it's more of a winter meal. And even though this is the hometown specialty, I believe my version, made with duck or chicken, is better.

Cassoulet is a specialty of Castelnaudary,

On our way out of town the next morning, we cross over Pont Vieux, ride along Grand Bassin, head into the wind, and set our sights toward Carcassone.

Castelnaudary's Pont Vieux was built in the 17th century.

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