Located in the south of the country and part of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, Aude can legitimately claim to appeal to all types of tourists and buyers, with great sights, wine, cuisine, skiing and much more.
Aude is one of the smaller departments in France, with a population of 309,770 across a land area of 6,139 km², and the largest percentage of citizens resides in the prefecture of Carcassonne. The following are also important communes:
While the department was only established in March 1790 during the French Revolution, there have been human settlers in the territory as early as 3500 BC and Aude today is shaped predominantly by its Roman and medieval past. Narbonne, in particular, greatly prospered under the Romans due to the nearby Via Domitia bringing in trade from both Italy and Spain. Such was the city's success that, Narbonne became capital of the 'Gallia Narbonensis' region of Southern Gaul.
As the Roman influence dissipated, Carcassonne came to the forefront as the heartland of the medieval Cathars, a Christian sect who suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church during the 13th century Albigensian Crusades. Both the fact that Aude is today marketed as 'Le Pays Cathare' (Cathar country), and that the Occitan dialect continues to thrive, reflects the enduring impact of the past. Indeed, it is this respect for their history, coupled with its proximity to the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees, that highlights Aude as a true haven for visitors.
Aude enjoys a Mediterranean climate, with excellent summers and mild winters in general. Carcassonne is representative of average quarterly temperatures:
Average temperature in Carcassonne
Situated next to the Mediterranean, there are many excellent beach resorts in Aude. The most popular of these are the Leucate Plage and Narbonne Plage, but you will find alternatives wherever you go, such as the Lac de la Cavayère in Carcassonne and Plage des Montilles in Port-la-Nouvelle.
So you've come to Cathar country to see some of the architecture, right? Wrong! Unfortunately, many of the current 'Cathar' castles were constructed on the old foundations after the Crusade. The only actual examples are the Pieusse Castle, 'Les Templiers' fortress in Le Bézu and Usson Castle. There are also remains to be seen at the castles of Puivert and Peyreperteuse.
While these genuine options are all well worth your time, they pale into insignificance compared to the Château Comptal in Carcassonne. The best preserved Cathar castle, despite heavy restoration work, the Château was besieged in 1209 during the Crusade but remains practically in full glory as one of the finest medieval remains in France.
The Château is contained within the fortified city of Carcassonne, which has been classified in its entirety as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The fortifications stem back to late Antiquity, when the Roman takeover in 122 BC saw the establishment of Carcasso. The current incarnation consists of ramparts built by Louis IX and Philip III, the Porte Narbonnaise (the only entrance by car to the city) and some 53 towers. Once an impregnable bastion, the fortified city fell into disrepair until the mid-19th century when a massive restoration project was undertaken under the guidance of Viollet-le-Duc. Now a recognised national monument, the fortifications are considered one of the great examples of medieval architecture in the world.
There are a number of other sights in Carcassonne. First and foremost is the Gothic-style Cathedral of Saint Michael, actually located in the fortified city and built in 1247 with beautiful stained glass windows added between the 14th and 16th centuries. Also highly impressive is the Church of Saint-Nazaire, developed between the 11th and 14th centuries in Romanesque and Gothic style and again lit up by fantastic stained glass windows.
Outside of Carcassonne, Narbonne is another obvious port of call for tourists. This is due both to the range of Roman ruins like the Horreum passageway, and examples of fine religious architecture such as the Cathedral of Saint-Just, completed in the late 13th century, and the Palais des Archevêques.
Should you visit Castelnaudary, you will find the Canal du Midi, another UNESCO World Heritage site, and fine edifices like La Chapelle Notre-Dame de Pitié. However, if you'd prefer to stay away from the more populated communes, you won't be disappointed by places like Lagrasse, officially listed as 'one of the most beautiful villages in France' due to its view of the River Orbieu, historic centre and 8th century abbey. All of this reflects the view that, wherever you go in Aude, you are sure to encounter something exceptional.
Sport features heavily in Aude's activities. Carcassonne is part of the Tour de France and home to AS Carcassonne, one of France's top rugby league teams who also compete in the English Challenge Cup. Across the way in Narbonne is the department's chief rugby union team, RC Narbonne, who play their games in the Top 14 league at the Parc des Spots et de l'Amitié.
If you'd prefer to find something more than spectator sports though, you'll find opportunities for all types of watersports like canoeing, rafting and kayaking in Quillan.
For a family day out, one good idea is a trip to the Réserve Africaine zoo in the village of Sigean.
Perhaps not one for the kids, but you will even find casinos in the department in Gruissan and Alet les Bains.
Museums, galleries and culture
Aude doesn't have the greatest selection of museums, but there are a few worth checking out. The museum at the Château Comptal is particularly good, while the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the Museum of the Middle Ages both attest to the history and culture of Carcassonne and Aude as a whole.
These are complimented elsewhere by the Archaeological Museum in Narbonne and the Terra Vinea, located south of Narbonne and holding a museum on winemaking in the region (including opportunities to sample and buy the produce).
A number of festivals and events are held in Aude. Unquestionably the most reputable of these is Limoux's Fècos Winter Festival, held between January and Easter.
You won't find much high street shopping in Aude, but there are plenty of good markets held during the week. Perhaps the best of these is the daily Halles de Narbonne covered market, specialising in local foodstuffs and flowers.
Carcassonne holds a market on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at the place Carnot, as does Limoux on Fridays.
Camurac ski station is the only official resort in Aude, focusing mainly on cross-country skiing. However, the department is just a short distance from Andorra, which offers all manner of opportunities for skiing in the Pyrenees.
There are a few pleasant areas for walkers such as the steep hills of the Corbières Hills and the parks like Parc Australien in Carcassonne (yes, it is Australia-themed).
The best area for hikers is Narbonne, home to a number of trails ranging from the 23 kilometre Abbey Path trail to the challenging terrain around the telegraph ruins.
There is just a single course in Aude for golfers, the Golf Club de Carcassonne in Carcassonne.
Aude has a historical connection to wine production, with Limoux famous for its Blanquette de Limoux, a forerunner of champagne and the first sparkling white wine (first produced in the early 16th century). Many of Aude's vineyards are contained within the vicinity, but Carcassonne is also a part of the AOC region, serving up regional wines like Banyuls, Maury and Vins doux naturels. The various chateaux littered across the department will provide free tastings of local produce.
Food and drink
Aude's cuisine is practically synonymous with that of the Languedoc region, speciality dishes being bourride de Bages (a type of fish soup), goose and duck confits and cassoulet (stew with beans, pork and sausage). Carcassonne and Limoux have the best restaurants in the department.
Ease of access
If you're travelling from outside France, Carcassonne Salvaza Airport is a convenient option, holding a link to a number of UK cities through Ryanair. The rail system, with Carcassonne at its centre, is also an option for reaching other parts of Aude and other major French cities.
Despite its proximity to the Pyrenees, the terrain is good for driving, facilitating travel by car from commune to commune.
Value for money
There are plenty of choices available for accommodation at a decent price in Carcassonne, from hotels to gites and campsites. The average price for a double room is very reasonable, being around 70-80 Euros in a 3-star hotel.
If you want to stay out of Carcassonne, Quillan and Narbonne are very popular with tourists.
Whatever you're looking for from a holiday or a home, Aude really is a fine option, with plenty to see and do. Moreover, despite the appeal of Carcassonne to tourists, the department can still be considered one of France's secret treasures, so now is definitely the time to visit.