Carnival is the final festivity before the commencement of the 40 days of Lent, during which Roman Catholics abstained from eating meat. Carnival either has its roots in a primitive festival honouring the beginning of the new year or it may be linked to the pagan Saturnalia festival of ancient Rome. In Limoux, they start their Carnival celebrations in early January and continue them until March/April. Even when carnival finishes there are still murals depicting carnival at the entrance to the town. It was explained to me most towns in France have a roundabout on the edge of town, on which is placed something the people feel best represents their town.
Limoux is also famous for producing the dry sparkling wine blanquette (little white in the local Occitan language). This production started a full century before Champagne. On the way into the centre there are many small co-operative wineries producing large quantities of this wine. Limoux wine is produced under four Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) designations: Blanquette de Limoux, Blanquette méthode ancestrale, Crémant de Limoux and Limoux. The first three are sparkling wines and dominate the production around Limoux. The main grape of the region is the Mauzac, locally known as Blanquette, followed by Chardonnay and Chenin blanc.
There’s been a bridge over the Aude River at Limoux for hundreds of years and this bridge played a huge part in making the town wealthy, starting in the 14th Century. Traders and merchants paid a levy to use the crossing and this money was used to build a strong set of defensive town walls that kept everything at bay apart from the Black Death and Edward, the Black Prince.
Walking up a set of steps from the banks of the Aude the various high floods are marked on the walls of St Martin’s Church. The highest one of all is marked at head height on the front of the church, which means the whole of the town would have been flooded, a quite amazing thought given the river was twenty feet below me and the town is in a flattish valley.
The Place de la Republique has fine arcades, half-timbered buildings, and cafes. There are two museums one of local artists and the other charting the evolution of the piano from the 18th Century to the modern day.
10 miles upstream is Alet-les-Bains. It is believed Nostradamus lived here for a number of years and his house still has a Star of David drawn on it. There is the old abbey of Notre-Dame which was destroyed in 1577 during some religious strife. The stones from the abbey were used to build the defensive walls of the town, which seems to me to be closing the door after the horse has bolted. The town has many timber and stone houses lining the streets and is a truly charming place to stroll around especially as the town is situated in a heavily forested valley.
On the edge of the town away from the river, there’s evidence of holes being made in a rock face, with the removed stone being used to arm siege-engines firing missiles at the walls. The town has a loudspeaker system where announcements can be made from the Hotel de Ville. When I was there, an announcement was made that a lost cat had been handed in to the authorities – could the owner please come and collect the cat. Brilliant – although it’s hard to believe any self-respecting cat would get lost in such a small town.
This extract is from the book Travels through History : France by Julian Worker