Irish Independent, November 17th, 2012
This château may just be the perfect French retreat, says Thomas Breathnach
“Avez-vous une voiture française?!”, I quizzed the Hertz attendant. I’m usually quite laissez-faire about my rental car demands, but making my first trip to a traditional château, I wanted my grand arrival to be authentically French – just as I’d always dreamed it would be. My wish was duly granted, and just an hour after landing at Carcassonne airport, I was zipping my pocket Peugeot up the vine-hemmed driveway of my fairytale getaway – high on an oh-la-la overload.
“Les Carrasses”, located in the less tourist-trundled region of Languedoc, is a 19th century château catering to the luxury self-catering niche. Arriving in the estate, I first peeped into a converted grape-pickers cottage which blended rustic charm with an at-home-with-Carla-Bruni Parisienne chic. I was staying in the château proper however; in an airy attic suite where loft beams, L-shaped leather sofa and Smeg oven added a bachelor pad feel. My lounge was also fitted with an iPod dock, loaded with mood-setting playlists, so I popped on an afternoon mix of Brigitte Bardot while exploring the rest of my demesne. Le highlight? A rainforest shower – in a turret! I really was king of the castle.
Peering at the grounds below, I spotted an infinity pool and clay tennis courts but it only seemed franco-fitting to grab some fresh air with an afternoon game of boules. The game was certainly trickier than it looked, though resident dog Oscar seemed to enjoy my rather gauche ball toss. “Hey Oscar! Down boy!”. Fortunately he was bilingual.
Languedoc is France’s largest wine region producer and after sampling some of Les Carrasses’ own house blends, I headed to nearby Château Capitoul to visit local alchemist of the vines, Charles Mock. As an unseasonal tempest brewed outside, Charles taste-guided me through his extensive catalogue, from cloudy rosé must straight from the vat, to vintage Syrahs and Marsannes from the cellar. I finished with a punchy 20% proofer named “Les Oubliées”; interesting stuff, but hey, any port in the storm.
Although wonderfully secluded, Les Carrasses sits within quick drive of Capestang, a quintessential French village where baguette-bearing ladies, bereted gents, and French bulldogs all observed a slow pace of life. Other postcard pit-stops included the city of Narbonne, with its covered marché and gothic cathedral and Pézanes, a medieval town bursting with Gallic grace. I wandered between its charming lanes of hidden galleries and old-world stores which included a magical sucretérie brimming with the sweet specialities, berlingots. Mmm, très bon bon indeed.
By my final day, the cloud-blotted skies momentarily dehazed and the first ray of Mediterranean sun beckoned me down to the nearby coast. After a quayside lunch in Mèze (take your pick of the restaurants offering platters of seafood and cauldrons of bubbling bouillabaisse), I drove to nearby Bouzigues; the self-appelled birthplace of shellfish farming. A boat ride with local fisherman Sébastian Noël (bleumarin.fr; €12) jetted me across the Étang de Thau, a lagoon dotted with hundreds of oyster farm stations. Dropping anchor, Sébastian clambered out onto a floating beam before hauling up a Neptune’s larder of live mussels and oysters. “It’s big business”, he explained, pointing to the cctv cameras above us. Oystercatchers, take note.
After handpicking some fresh oysters myself, that evening I retreated to my pad to dine chez moi. Once I’d Youtubed the knack of chucking oysters, I was soon sitting down to the ultimate French mis-en-scène; shellfish supper, chardonnay, and the moody melancholy of Yann Tierson’s Amélie score. Cleary this was the “reflections” playlist. And reflect I did. Azure skies may have evaded my weekend, but I may have just found the perfect Languedoc escape at Les Carrasses. And no Mediterranean storm was going to pleut on my parade.
Ryanair (0818 303 030; ryanair.com), flies from Dublin to Carcassonne from €66 return.
Self-catering rates at Les Carrasses (0033 4 67000067; lescarrasses.com) start from €57pps. The château also features a brasserie and is Irish-run, so expect English speaking staff and a céad míle bienvenues ambiance.