For our latest family adventure, we headed south to Languedoc in search of warmer climes, history and fantastic food…
We flew in to Carcassonne, picked up our hire car and headed south for 30 minutes, fetching up at Languedoc Hideaways, located between the authentic market towns of Mirepoix and Limoux.
The brand-new venture from hospitable Tilly and Will (former owners of nearby Le Tresor), these big old barns turned great-value boutique gites enjoy a glorious view over valleys, vineyards, woods and a small lake.
We stayed in the largest cottage, Le Jasmin, which has an open-plan kitchen-diner-living room next to a big bathroom on the ground floor, with a hammock by the front door and a deck for alfresco meals to the rear.
The main bedroom on the first floor has enormously high ceilings, and sits next to a TV snug. Above is an attic bedroom carved out of the huge roof space and accessed via a spiral staircase.
Tilly, Will and their 2 boys live in the middle of the estate, and our 4-year-old, Cormac, made himself at home there immediately, commandeering Jake’s toys. On the other side is 3-storey L’Etoile, which has a master bedroom at the top, a living room with a sofabed below, and a kitchen/diner on the ground floor.
Separated from the main barns, beside the fenced infinity pool, is a little 1-bed cottage, Le Figuier, which is ideal for couples.
The kids spent their time charging about the ample grounds, which boast a treehouse, a small orchard, hammocks, a trampoline and a mini-playground.
There are chickens to feed, too.
Tilly showed us the raised beds where she grows vegetables for the light suppers she creates on request. There’s also a communal Sunday night BBQ (changeover days are Saturdays), and an open-air ‘Barn Bar’ housing table tennis, an honesty bar, squashy sofas and a pool table.
You get a bottle of the local tipple, Blanquette de Limoux (the inspiration for Champagne), as a thank you for booking through i-escape – a delightful accompaniment to the scrummy take-away pizza we enjoyed on our first evening. On other nights, we eschewed cooking in the well-equipped kitchen for dinner in a local winery restaurant (where, to our astonishment, the kids behaved appropriately!) and tasty cassoulets picked up in the village.
The highlight of our daytime excursions was exploring 2 Cathar castles. The first was the legendarily besieged Château de Montségur – it’s a steep climb to the top, but you’re rewarded with amazing 360-degree views and 17th-century ruins that offer hours of make-believe. The other, medieval Château de Puilaurens, is accessed via a twisting pathway designed to repel attackers and sits atop a breathtaking rocky outcrop. Our 8-year-old daughter, Esme, morphed into Lady Marcia for the rest of the trip.
For our last 2 nights, we headed 10 minutes north of Carcassonne to supremely comfortable and colourful 5-bedroom B&B Metairie Montplaisir. It’s owned and run by the charming Amelie, who cannot do enough to ensure that her guests have a memorable and relaxed break, organizing everything from walking tours to winery visits.
We stayed in the vibrant Carlota Suite, which features Mexican folk art and has a huge bath as well as a walk-in shower.
Breakfast was a feast of local delights, including homemade yoghurts and home-baked pastries. In the evening, we dined on divine duck and chocolate mousse (Amelie’s mother is a superb chef).
Although too chilly to swim in the pool, we did have fun exploring the large gardens. We also peeped into the other rooms, which work for all configurations of party from couples with a baby to families of 5.
Our last full day was spent in the UNESCO-listed, fairytale-inspiring town of Carcassonne. We entered via turreted gates and meandered around cobbled streets, marvelling at the restored stone buildings and imagining life in bygone days.
Amelie had provided us with a treasure hunt for the children, which led them from fountain to chapel to crenellated window in the search of clues to solve a hidden-knight mystery.
We also toured the castle, had lunch beside the moat and succumbed to purchasing medieval costumes for the kids, who lost no time in getting into character and battling on the ramparts.
On our last morning, we left Metairie Montplaisir after fond farewells to Amelie and her team. But our trip wasn’t quite over yet, and on the way back to the airport we stopped to explore the highest limestone cave in Europe: the impressive Gouffre de Cabrespine, whose depths could supposedly house the Eiffel Tower.
The children were less awestruck than their parents by the pillars, stalagmites-and-ctites, underground rivers and columns akin to creamy-coloured ice formations, so a playground was quickly found for one last hurrah.