The affordable French city that’s the perfect base for a car-free holiday

“Where would you go, if you could choose anywhere in the world?” I asked my mum. Her 70th birthday was approaching, and I liked the idea of surprising her with a special holiday. Had she said the Maldives or Mauritius, that would have been the end of it, but her answer was much more feasible.

“It’d be amazing to experience rustic, rural France,” she replied.

Despite learning and loving French at school, my mum had never been to France. She longed to practise speaking the language, to enjoy the food and wine and to see the countryside.

And so, I started to research how to make her Gallic dreams a reality. The “rural” part was a problem: most people who go on holiday in the French countryside do it in a car. I don’t drive, and I knew my mum wouldn’t want to drive abroad. Plus, as she has some mobility problems, we wouldn’t be able to cover long distances by foot. My requests for ideas on travel forums and social media were met with negativity. I wanted the impossible, it seemed: there was just no way to enjoy a rural break without a car.

Undeterred, I booked flights to Carcassonne, a fort city in southern France’s Languedoc Area (there are direct flights to its airport from several UK cities). It isn’t exactly rural, but it was certainly scenic – and cost-effective. The €6 Carca’Pass offers discounts on more than 60 sights and, according to data from short-term rental analytics company Airdna, the average accommodation price is around £60 a night.

La Cité, its hilltop medieval fortress, has far-reaching views of the Montagne Noire and snow-capped Pyrenees, so we’d be able to gaze out across the countryside. Plus, Carcassonne is well situated for day trips by public transport.

Medieval castle town of Carcassone at sunset, France
Carcassonne is the largest walled city in Europe (Photo: Getty)

Then I stumbled across Les Jardins Secret, a trio of gîtes with powder blue shutters and La Cité looming beautifully right behind them. The smallest started at £63 (plus tax) for two.

The listing promised “the feeling of being in the countryside”. Parfait.

Fast forward three months and I met my mum at Manchester airport, clutching a birthday card revealing our destination. She was delighted. She had forgotten our conversation about France, but told me she’d secretly hoped that’s where we were going.

Les Jardins Secret’s walled gardens, dripping with wisteria when we arrived, are reached via an unassuming passageway from Rue Trivalle, a narrow street of antiques shops and pavement cafes winding from the River Aude up to the fortress.

Consummate host Matthew, who’s from the UK and had moved to Carcasonne with his partner, has lovingly converted a neglected outbuilding into three homes.

emily morris
Emily wanted to help her mum visit France for the first time (Photo: Emily Morris)

He has added modern bathrooms, with touches such as heated towel rails, powerful showers and skylights, and antique furniture (think Beauty and the Beast-esque sconces and beds). Culinary plants take centre stage in the garden and, each morning, Matthew delivered breakfast, including fresh croissants and his delicious homemade preserves, to the door.

He also helped us to plan, laying out various maps of the area on the dining table, and suggesting trips from the city that we could make without a car.

Within our first day, mum was putting her French to the test. That evening, tired from travelling, we dipped into O Deliz, a simple cafe on Rue Trivalle. Straight away, she was ordering fluently, despite having had no idea we were going to France and, therefore, no chance to revise beforehand.

While we were in Carcassonne, we couldn’t not visit La Cité, a Unesco World Heritage Site and the biggest fortress in Europe. However, scaling its uneven ramparts would have been difficult for mum. Instead, we watched two excellent virtual reality films at the tourist information centre, which is within the walled city. This gave us an overview of its history, which dates to the 6th century BC, before we took a mini train around the fortress perimeter, taking in pastoral views.

Old town of Carcassonne in France
The old town of Carcassonne (Photo: Getty)

My mum and I don’t spend enough time together, really, and hadn’t been on holiday together for years. With the scenic backdrop of this walkable city, we enjoyed a rare chance to relax, chat and laugh. Usually, I would have chosen a big city for a short break, but the slow pace of life in Carcassonne was contagious.

From the Bastide Saint-Louis, the newer (13th century) part of Carcassonne, we took a cruise on the Canal du Midi. Built in the 17th century to connect the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the serene waterway passes through vineyards, tranquil countryside and cyclists ambling along leafy towpaths.

We loved wine tasting at Le Comptoir de la Cité, a boutique of Vignobles Foncalieu, a co-operative of 800 Languedoc winemakers.

I chose the Belle Epoque mansion for its relaxed terrace with views of the fortress, but Manchester weather had followed us to the South of France, and we huddled around a barrel inside instead.

We loved the friendly, pressure-free service – and took home a tasty rosé for less than the price of a UK supermarket bottle.

Dining out, mum enjoyed the local speciality, cassoulet – and I found a surprising array of vegetarian options. A highlight was watching the sun set and bats flit over La Cité from the deck of Café La Métairie, a hillside bar with rotating pop-up food options. That night, a van served fish and chips; not very French, but just the ticket on a chilly evening.

Small street in the village of Montolieu Aude Languedoc - Roussillon France
Montolieu is among the villages that are reachable from the city (Photo: Getty)

Among the places we wanted to visit beyond Carcassonne was Montolieu, also known as “The Village of Books”. However, it is recommended to stay overnight when travelling there by bus from the city, as the service is infrequent (it is around 30-minutes’ drive and about €30–40 each way, if going by taxi).

If we’d visited Carcassonne in the summer, we might’ve jumped on the Line 2 bus for the 21-minute ride to Lake Cavayère. There are three beaches on this manmade lake, which is surrounded by lush greenery in the outskirts of the city.

Or, to delve deeper into the area’s history, we could have taken the 30-minute train ride to Narbonne, known as Ville d’Art & d’Histoire, with its medieval palace, Roman remains and soaring gothic cathedral. There is also a 45-min, €1.20 bus ride to the vast golden sands of Narbonne Plage.

Narbonne, Department of Aude, Languedoc-Roussillon. The town is bisected by the Canal de la Robine.
Narbonne is known as Ville d’Art & d’Histoire (Photo: Getty)

Instead, we hopped on the single-carriage train for the 30-minute journey to the town of Limoux, on the Aude River.

It was well worth the 90-cent fare (per person, each way), and travels through neat rows of grapevines and wispy cypress trees. In Limoux, we visited the captivating, if a little creepy, Museum of Automata (it has a collection of handmade, fairytale-like dolls that make clockwork-driven mechanical movements) and sipped crisp Blanquette, the local sparkling wine that’s said to predate Champagne.

On a sunnier afternoon, we could have whiled away hours in the shade of the plane trees in Place de la République, surrounded by stone arches and timber-framed houses. Others might fancy taking another 90-cents bus ride from Limoux to Quillan, a town known for white-water rafting and hikes.

The Occitanie sunshine finally appeared during our final morning in the city, lighting up our gîte’s garden in all its gorgeous glory. We dug out our sunglasses and sat outside a bistro on “our” street, ordering ice cream. Once upon a time, Rue Trivalle was a village in its own right. With its chiming clock, birdsong and gently bustling atmosphere, this was easy to imagine.

My mum and I had quickly adjusted to this (sort-of) rural French life. And, while chatting to lots of people in Carcassonne and its surrounds, my mum loved putting her 52-year-old French language skills to good use.

France was everything she expected it to be. After we got home, she said: “I can’t believe I have wasted 70 years not going to France. I was so comfortable there, and I can’t wait to go back.”

Mission accomplished, and all without a car.

Travel essentials

Getting there
Ryanair fly direct to Carcassonne from Bournemouth, East Midlands, London Stansted and Manchester.

Staying there
La Jardins Secret has gîtes from £63 per night, plus tax, airbnb.co.uk/rooms/19710035

Further information
tourisme-carcassonne.fr/en/