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, Ophrys bombyliflora, O. ciliata and O. fusca.
We will find more rich flora in the Pyrenean foothills; the wild tulip, Tulipa australis, Pyrenean Fritillary (Fritillaria pyrenaica) and some spectacular and rare orchids — including Ophrys corbariensis, O. lupercalis, O. tenthredinifera, O. scolopax and Orchis olbiensis — 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!
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.
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.