Think of Castelnaudary and people normally think of The French Foreign Legion, sometimes The Canal du Midi and almost always Cassoulet – after all it is dubbed the world centre of Cassoulet!
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There is a lot more to the town than first impressions yield, it looks a pretty ordinary medium-sized town with pretty unremarkable features, compared to some of the more tourism oriented sites in the region, but don’t by-pass the town as there are lots of things to discover.
It is a garrison town with a large barracks of The French Foreign Legion on the outskirts, where every legionnaire goes through during their training period – if you catch a train at the station you will hear all kinds of accents spoken by young, shaven-headed soldiers on their way to or from leave.
The name « cassoulet » comes from the earthenware recipient in which the cassoulet is made The « Cassole », first made by an Italian potter in the nearby village of Issel at the foot of the Montagne Noire. There are two other claims to fame for the famous South Western French dish – Toulouse and Carcassonne – both of which are subtly different in the meat that is used in the making of the dish.
Cassoulet is a wholesome dish, not for the faint of heart, made from dried beans from Pamiers or Mazères, sometimes the Tarbais variety from Tarbes is used although the traditional variety is « Soissons », and any varying quantity of duck, goose, pork, sausage, garlic sausage and even lamb, all from la Montagne Noire, of course.
In the past it would have been cooked in the local baker’s oven overnight – a good Cassoulet is supposed to be cooked gently, overnight, where a crust forms, which should be broken seven times and stirred back into the dish, before serving with a Corbières red or a Fronton, which both have just enough body and tannin to stand up to this robust peasant’s dish.
One of the best cassoulets can be eaten at L’Hôtel de France in Castelnaudary – We can vouch for this – and the portions are more than generous! Castelnaudary also has the largest Cassole in the world, it is the water tower on the road out towards Toulouse, which is in the shape of a cassole, complete with the overflowing Cassoulet painted on the edges.
In the old town there is the museum of the Lauragais, which is surely worth a visit, the best place to park is in the square in the centre of the town and then to take the winding narrow streets that snake up to the Church Collegial of St Michel, on the hill. Whilst you are up here, go on up to The Moulin de Cugarel, which is a fully restored Windmill which offers excellent views across the Lauragais plain, la Montagne Noire and The Pyrenees – this is also a nice place to stop for a picnic, if you aren’t going to venture down to the town to try a cassoulet.
The windmill is the last remaining of the 32 mills that were present in the town in the 17th century, during the prosperous period of « la Cocagne » or pastel production (Wode), and was lovingly restored to its present glory in 1962.
There is a guide, during the summer months, who will tell you about the history and give a guided tour of the little windmill.
Be sure to visit the Grand Bassin of The Canal du Midi, which is a huge ‘harbour’ covering over 7 hectares and looks more like a Mediterranean harbour than a basin on the canal – this is also another excellent place for a picnic and a walk.
For those interested in architecture there is also the Church Notre Dame de Pitié on the hill near the church of St Michel.
A bit of history…
In 1211 the château was occupied by Simon de Montfort and the crusaders against the Cathare heretics as it formed a strategic point between Toulouse and Carcassonne, where they could survey the plain with ease.
The army, commanded by the Count of Toulouse, Raimon VI took their encampment on the « Pech » (a local name for a hill) on the site where the Moulin de Cugarel stands today, thence commenced The battle of Castelnaudary, which ended pretty much inconclusively, with both sides claiming victory, but which would be definitively decided at The Battle of Muret, near Toulouse at a later date.
The second siege of Castelnaudary was a reversal of roles – this time the Toulousains were besieged by the Crusaders, the siege lasted 8 months, from July 1220 until the end of February 1221 and with all the efforts of Amaury, son of Simon de Montfort, the inhabitants of the « Castrum » of Castelnaudary could not be broken and they were not even weakened by hunger, and at the end of February 1221 the crusaders pulled up camp and left for Carcassonne, where their biggest garrison was situated.
The Languedoc Rebellion
The battle of Castelnaudary pitched the troops of Louis XIII against the Languedoc rebels who had rejected the crown on 22 July 1632.
The King’s brother, Henri de Montmorency, influenced by Marie des Médicis, who wanted to get rid of Cardinal Richelieu, the King’s influential minister, headed of the rebellion along with members of the minor nobility of France, but Toulouse, Carcassonne and Narbonne stayed loyal to the King and refused to welcome the rebel army at their gates.
Louis XIII ordered Maréchal Schomberg to rid the country of the languedoc rebels, which happened at the Battle of Castelnaudary on 1st September 1632, which ended fairly rapidly. Montmorency’s horse was killed and he was grievously injured before being taken prisoner.
Montmorency was charged with high treason and subsequently beheaded at the Place Capitol in Toulouse on 30th October 1632.
Not to be missed…
Do go down to the Grand Bassin on the canal du Midi, there is a lovely walk not far from the town centre down to the locks after the Grand Bassin.
The filling of The Canal du Midi, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, began at Castelnaudary on 19th May 1681, Pierre Paul Riquet, the genius behind the building of the canal was unable to witness the fruit of his dream as he had died 6 months before the inauguration. The Grand Bassin is the biggest port on the whole length of The Canal du Midi, it covers 7 hectares, being originally built as a feeding reservoir to maintain the level of the St Roch Lock, which allows boats to ‘climb’ 9.42 meters after Beziers, which consists of 7 locks, which is the biggest chain of locks on the canal.
In the Grand bassin, there is a little island, L’Île Cybelle, which was built as a windbreak to stop boats, moored up in The Grand Bassin from colliding into each other during the frequent appearance of the « Vent D’Autan » the strong wind that blows in the Lauragais region.
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