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France - Carcassonne & Cathar Country

Tour Code: FRA07

An 8-day spring holiday focusing on Cathar history and the birds, butterflies and wild flowers (especially orchids) of the coastal wetlands, limestone garrigue and Pyrenean foothills of south-western France.

8 days from £1495(inc flights) Land Only Price: £1375 SRS: £160

This holiday focuses on the history and natural history of Languedoc in southern France. Its coastal areas offer salt flats, lagoons and marshes, while inland are vineyards, Mediterranean garrigue and the foothills of the Pyrenees. During the Middle Ages, Languedoc was the heartland of the religious group known as Cathars and their ruined fortresses and castles still dot the landscape today. This is an ideal holiday for those with twin interests of history and wildlife. We’ll visit some of the most spectacular Cathar ruins, explore the area’s habitats in search of migratory and resident birds, and at the time of our visit the landscape will be awash with wild flowers.

  • Flamingoes, Purple Gallinule & other wetland birds on the coast
  • Thousands of migrant species plus birds of prey on the Leucate Plateau
  • Little Bustard on steppe, & nesting Eagle Owl on rocky outcrops
  • An abundance of wild flowers & butterflies on ‘garrigue’ habitat
  • Rare orchids in the Pyrenean foothills such as EM>Ophrys corbariensis/EM>
  • Visit the fortified city of Carcassonne plus Quéribus castle
  • Picturesque villages such as Minerve & Lagrasse
  • Tour led by an expert naturalist based in France


All included in the price.


A pleasant and traditional village hotel serving good local French cuisine. All rooms have private facilities.

Ophrys sp. (unknown)

Ophrys sp. (unknown)

Outline Itinerary Download

Day 1 Fly Carcassonne and transfer to Vinassan.

Day 2/7 Natural history excursions from Vinassan.

Day 3 Fly London.

This holiday focuses on the history and natural history of Languedoc, a spectacular landscape blessed with picturesque and colourful villages, the heartland of the Cathar movement during the Middle Ages. Here we will not only visit the magnificent city of Carcassonne and some of the many Cathar villages and historical sites, but we will also explore the wealth of habitats within this charming region. Coastal Languedoc offers salt flats, marshlands and lagoons, punctuated with rocky outcrops, whilst inland lie ancient vineyards, Mediterranean garrigue and the foothills of the Pyrenees, each habitat attracting numerous migratory birds at this season, and awash with colourful spring flowers, amongst them many orchids.

Catharism was a Gnostic movement that began in the 10th century and was considered heretical by the Roman Catholic church. Although it existed throughout much of Western Europe, its home was in Languedoc and the persecution of the Cathars here was severe, especially during the 20-year military crusade against them between 1209 and 1229. During our tour we will explore the cobbled streets of the medieval fortified city of Carcassonne, which was besieged during the early phase of that crusade. We will also visit the castle of Queribus, perched high upon a rocky outcrop in the Pyrenean foothills. This stronghold served as a sanctuary to Cathars, finally falling during the last crusade in 1255. Also included within our itinerary are the picturesque medieval villages of Minerve and Lagrasse. The former, overlooking the Cesse Gorge, was the scene of a massacre inflicted during the early crusades. The latter, reputedly the most beautiful village in France, lies in the Corbieres massif and holds a 7th century Benedictine abbey which was of great influence during the crusades. To conclude our lesson in Cathar history, a visit to the Cistercian abbey of Fontfroide is essential. Founded in 1093, the abbey played a predominant role during the crusades and is a monastic estate miraculously preserved in its entirety.

Between these cultural highlights, this holiday will also be packed with natural history excursions. At coastal wetlands we will look for Flamingoes, Kentish Plover and Slender-billed Gulls, plus a wide variety of egrets, ducks, waders, gulls and terns. On the Leucate plateau nearby, a hotspot for migrating birds, thousands of spring migrants may be seen during favourable conditions. Many vagrant birds of prey have been observed here, but it is such common species as harriers, Red and Black Kites, Short-toed Eagles and Honey Buzzards that we are likely to see, plus storks, hirundines, flycatchers and warblers. One of southern France’s best kept secrets is the Vendres Lake, a vast wetland area where Cattle Egret, Purple and Squacco Heron, Glossy Ibis, Redcrested Pochard, Osprey, Little Gull, Whiskered and Black Tern and Fan-tailed Warbler may all be seen. To the north of the lake, wet meadows and steppes harbour Great Spotted Cuckoos, Woodchat Shrikes and, on a rocky outcrop, nesting Eagle Owls in most years. On the banks of the River Aude, and in the surrounding meadows and vineyards, we will search for Rollers, Hoopoes, Bee-eaters, Ortolan Buntings and the rare Lesser Grey Shrike.

Moving inland, we will enjoy that typically Mediterranean habitat, the garrigue, covered with fragrant thymes and sages and, at this season, awash with flowering plants. Asphodels, rock roses and brooms are dominant, but a wealth of other species will also be in full bloom, attracting an abundance of butterflies on sunny days, amongst them Green-underside Blue, Mazarine Blue, Chapman’s Green Hairstreak, Western Marbled White and Bath White. This habitat is also favoured by a wide variety of birds, including Montagu’s Harrier, Crag Martin, Woodlark, Tawny Pipit, Black-eared Wheatear, Red-rumped Swallow, Red-backed and Woodchat Shrikes, plus such Mediterranean warblers as Orphean, Spectacled, Subalpine, Sardinian, Bonelli’s and Dartford. In the Clape Hills we will look for one of the last remaining nesting pairs of Bonelli’s Eagle, and also three rare orchids, EM>Ophrys bombyliflora/EM>, EM>O. ciliata/EM> and EM>O. fusca/EM>.

We will find more rich flora in the Pyrenean foothills; the wild tulip, EM>Tulipa australis/EM>, Pyrenean Fritillary (EM>Fritillaria pyrenaica/EM>) and some spectacular and rare orchids — including EM>Ophrys corbariensis/EM>, EM>O. lupercalis/EM>, EM>O. tenthredinifera/EM>, EM>O. scolopax/EM> and EM>Orchis olbiensis/EM> — being amongst the highlights. As for birds, we will look for Alpine Swifts, Crag Martins and Blue Rock Thrushes in the Calamus Gorge, woodpeckers and Crested Tits amongst the hillside forests and, on the Feuilla Pass, a well-known observation point for raptor migration, we may see Rock Thrush, Rock Bunting or perhaps a Golden Eagle or Griffon Vultures overhead.

The warm Mediterranean weather in early spring, a rich natural heritage, magnificent scenery and a touch of history makes this region a rich cocktail indeed!

Narrow-leaved Cistus, VinassanMinerveGruissan salt pans with the Pyrennes in the distanceFontfroide Abbey - the cloistersSome of the group admiring a Lady OrchidOrchis purpurea, Lady Orchid, St Paul de FenouilletOrchis olbiensis, QueribusOphrys tenthredinifera, Sawfly Orchid, St Paul de FenouilletOphrys sulcata, TalairanOphrys lupercalis, TalairanOphrys arachnitiformis, a Spder Orchid, QueribusNeotinea maculata, Dense-flowered Orchid, St Paul de FenouilletMinerve with Judas tree in foregroundLavandula stoechas, French Lavender, VinassanCephalanthera longifolia, Sword-leaved Helleborine, St Paul de FenouilletBath White, GruissanA mass of Ophrys lutea, Yellow Bee Orchid, TalairanUrospermum dalechampii, VinassanAudouin's GullSaint Cirq Lapopie
Excellent leader, nice hotel with fantastic food, good birds, excellent flowers. What more needs to be said?
Beautiful scenery. Good group. Wonderful food. Mini bus with more space than usual. Bedroom with good lighting (remarkably unusual). Beautiful flowers and butterflies, especially on first three days when weather lovely. Nightingale singing outside bedroom. Singing in basilica at carcasonne. Nice to have wine included with meals.
The evening food was superb in quality and presentation with a good choice every night. Overall a great blend of nature and culture in this interesting area of France.
The hotel used on this trip is friendly, spotlessly clean and has excellent food.
I would like to say that the bird and plant knowledge of both leaders was amazing! So were their picnic lunches.
I would like to say how excellent our two tour leaders were and it was thanks to them that we had such an enjoyable holiday.
Overall, the holiday was very enjoyable. The hotel food was excellent and the Nightingale outside the window was great.
A very relaxing and happy holiday. The leaders maintained their good humour, despite the unusual weather causing some itinerary changes. The hotel was very pleasant and the food good. I thoroughly enjoyed my first trip with Naturetrek and I am looking forward to my next trip!
This was a lovely holiday - beautifully balanced between birds, flowers and history of the area. The tour leaders were first class - very helpful and informative.
I thoroughly enjoyed this holiday. It was well conceived by Naturetrek and very well led. Thanks!
J. & R.G.
East Yorkshire
Maurice and Eva were excellent. Their knowledge extensive and their willingness to make it a good experience for us never ending. Excellent English spoken by both. Wonderful picnics provided and care taken to find suitable places even on the wet day. Good drivers – we always felt safe with them. I cannot praise them enough.
Friendly, warm and welcoming. Both leaders did a sterling job – doing their best to answer questions on a wide range of subjects. If information was not to hand, it would be looked up and produced at the earliest possible opportunity.
This was an excellent and very enjoyable trip – our leaders made every effort to help us to see as much as possible. Maurice’s lunches were beyond compare - quite wonderful! I was very grateful for all the help and kindness I received.
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Sun 22nd April 2018 - Sun 29th April 2018



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Flights: Flights are included in the tour costMore info

Regional Departures: Regional Departures are limited. Call 01962 733051 for detailsMore info

Land only cost: £1375 More info

Room sharing options: More info

Visiting: France

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Andy Tucker
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Tour Reviews

Excellent leader, nice hotel with fantastic food, good birds, excellent flowers. What more needs to be said?
J.A., Nottinghamshire