A hub-and-spoke itinerary is a deep, rather than wide, approach to travel and can be very gratifying, unless your main goal is to hit as many cities or countries as possible.
I’ve done both of those—the tasting menu of travel is pretty typical for a first trip abroad. After all, it’s expensive and who knows when or if you’ll be back. So I’m not being judgmental.
But if you want to get into the daily life of a place and pretend you’re a local, then staying in one place is a good idea. You get to try it on for size, instead of browsing the racks. It’s also very good for travel with a group or family, because you aren’t constantly packing up and moving.
One reason we chose to move to Carcassonne was because of the diversity of sights and activities in proximity. Mountains to the north and south; beaches to the east (and, if we want to drive longer, to the west). Lovely cities like Toulouse and Montpellier an hour-ish drive away. And all over the plain, beautiful vineyards sprinkled with charming villages and so many medieval ruins.
Another reason we like Carcassonne is that it’s small enough that life is easy. And on vacation, who needs hassles? Aside from the Michelin-star restaurants (and even then), this isn’t a place where you have to reserve a table a week ahead or have special connections to get in. You can walk blindly into almost any restaurant and get a good meal at a reasonable price. Parking is easy and often free. Traffic is light and relatively polite (I’m constantly shocked, but then I go someplace else and see that Carcassonnais are very nice drivers all in all). In fact, if you don’t want to drive, you can do plenty of things on foot, by bike or by public transportation. If you do rent a car, check out my driving tips.
Although so many people descend from all over Europe to bake on the beaches of the Mediterranean in summer, once you head inland a little it doesn’t feel very touristy. Yes, there are tourists—there are amazing things to see—but this region remains mostly undiscovered and authentic.
Here’s an example of a hub-and-spoke vacation for a week, using Carcassonne as a base:
Day 1: La Cité. Duh. Go early or go late. The beach hordes will come by for a requisite few hours of culture in the middle of the day, so avoid it then. It’s really lovely in the evening, a nice place to stroll after dinner. In the middle of the day, walk around the Ville Basse—the lower “new” town (built in 1260) that is full of locals. Or walk upstream along the Aude River—there are shady paths on both sides—and you’ll soon be out of town, surrounded by vineyards. Or check out the antique shops in and around the Ville Basse (also called la Bastide) and the Trivalle neighborhood. Stop by Barrière Truffes for a wine tasting with some truffle appetizers. Definitely eat dinner at le Clos des Framboisiers, which will get its own post soon.
Day 2: Bike along the Canal du Midi. Pack a picnic lunch, or, if you bike toward Trèbes, you have a large selection of waterfront restaurants (we are partial to La Poissonnerie Moderne and Le Moulin). A canal bike ride is really lovely—no cars, flat, out in the countryside, still a lot of shade despite the sad removal of many plane trees that have been destroyed by a fungus.
Day 3: Village life. You can catch a bus to, say, Villeneuve-Minervois (half an hour away), spend a couple of hours exploring, then catch a later bus to Caunes-Minervois (about five minutes from Villeneuve). If you look at the bus schedules, keep in mind that when school is out, there are far fewer buses—look for the chaise longue with parasol, which indicates summer hours. Don’t miss the last bus back! Caunes is a bit far to bike and very hilly. Alternatively, if you have a car, it’s a pretty drive and you can stay for dinner at the Hotel d’Alibert.
Day 4: Head for the hills. The train to Quillan is just €1 per person. Can’t beat that. It takes an hour and 20 minutes, so leave plenty early. Perhaps a hike on the Sentier de Capio? If you go by car, you can also explore the Gorges de la Pierre-Lys, a bit south of Quillan, a spectacular collection of sheer rock faces worn down by the Aude River. There’s a hike to a lookout (called the Devil’s Lookout).
Day 5: At some point in your trip, Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday will roll around with the market at Place Carnot in Carcassonne. Saturday is the best day, with the most vendors and all the locals stopping each other with hands full of carrots and radishes to double or triple or quadruple kiss cheeks before heading to one of the terrace cafés for coffee or a cold glass of rosé. Beware: the market packs up around 12:30 p.m. If you miss the market in Carcassonne, then you can catch up on Monday morning in Mirepoix. It’s a cute town with a nice collection of antique shops to occupy your afternoon.
Day 6: Hit the beach, because what’s a trip to the south of France without paying homage to the Mediterranean? Again, go early or late. The French live highly regimented lives and you can use that to your advantage by being slightly off schedule. They will swarm to the sand a bit after lunch, and then leave in time for apéritifs, raising havoc for parking and huge traffic jams for leaving. We are partial to the beach at Gruissan (la Plage des Chalets), because the beach bungalows on stilts are low and barely seen from the water’s edge, whereas Narbonne has some high-rise buildings. There are many other beaches up and down the coast, but Gruissan is nice because it’s huge, so even with crowds, you aren’t crowded, yet you don’t have to walk forever to get to it, and you have a choice of the port or the old town for dinner. Our strategy is this: we head to the beach around 3:30, getting there just as the earlybirds are feeling their sunburn and fleeing, freeing up parking spaces. Then we stay and enjoy as the throngs continue to thin, and finally hit a local restaurant for dinner rather than sit in a traffic jam on the autoroute. I am sure you can get to the beach by bus, but I wouldn’t want to do it because we haul so much stuff with us (umbrellas, shade tent, blankets, balls, change of clothes in sealed bags for sand-free changing afterward).
Day 7: Castles. For this, you need do a car. Those Cathars built their fortresses in out-of-the-way spots. They weren’t looking for trouble, in fact they tried to hide from it, but when invaders came calling, they were in perches that were very hard to attack. Many of them, including Lastours and Puilaurens, require a vertiginous hike. If climbing isn’t your thing, try Saissac or Villerouge-Termenes. In July, Carcassonne is full of medieval re-enactments and jousting tournaments.I haven’t even gotten to wineries (our favorites are la Tour Boisée and Saint Jacques d’Albas)! Or Fontfroide and Lagrasse. Or the underground wonders of Cabesprine and Limousis, so welcome on a hot summer day. Or the cool museums, like the one about prehistoric man at Tautavel.
We have had many couples renting our apartments for honeymoons, wedding anniversaries and birthdays, so I’ll do a similar itinerary with a romantic focus. Coming soon!