Durban

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Durban-
Corbières
The castle and winter vines

The village of Durban, dominated by the inevitable ruined castle, is the centre of the emptiest part of the Corbières, where small villages are linked by narrow, winding roads — although Durban itself is on the "main" D611 road, which is relatively civilised. You may think these hills are a deserted wilderness, untouched by humans — but look closely and you will see abandoned terraces supported by low walls, tiny cone-shaped drystone shelters (capitelles) dotted about the hillsides, and stone windmills perched on the crests. This was once winter pasture for vast herds of sheep brought down from the Pyrenees, the capitelles providing primitive shelter for the wandering shepherds.

Sheep are unknown here now, driven away by economic forces. The windmills too are still and silent, their sails long gone, as no grain has been grown here for centuries. As elsewhere in the Corbières, agriculture has been replaced by viticulture. The other local industry is almost invisible: bees buzzing among the flowers, producing the exotically scented honey which is advertised for sale on roadside signs. The rosemary-dominated honey here has been renowned since Roman times. Try some — the flavour varies astonishingly depending on the season and the location of the hives.

Durban itself remains a prosperous and well-kept village on the bank of the River Berre (from which the name Corbières is derived; the prefix cor is from the pre-Celtic word meaning "rock"). There has been a settlement here since Roman times. The château on its hill is a reminder of the chequered history of the Languedoc, criss-crossed throughout history by opposing forces; it was originally built by the kings of Aragon, and was remodelled in the 16th century, into something more appropriate as a residence — the handsome windows in the north and west walls date from this period. The Barons of Gléon lived here for 600 years; the last member of the family died in 1787. The château was sold in 1873 and unfortunately used as a source of building stone thereafter. As always, it’s worth climbing up to admire the view.

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Chapelle de St Félix
between Embres et Castelmaure and St Jean de Barrou

If you are still on the trail of Romanesque architecture, a small detour between Embres-et-Castelmaure and St-Jean de Barrou will take you to the chapel of St-Felix, an odd little church on a small mound, densely surrounded by trees, in the midst of open vineyards. It is overlooked by the ruins of the château of Castelmaure and its deserted village.

The main road through Durban also takes you through the inland part of the Fitou appellation. If you want to try some, Villeneuve-les-Corbières is the main commercial centre, and there are several producers in and around the village.

Apart from Durban, the only other sizable settlement in this terroir is Tuchan, on the slopes of Mont Tauch. This is a serious mountain, 917m (2800 ft) high — its name comes from the Occitan word touch, meaning yew tree. Only a few of these trees, which presumably once covered the slopes, now remain. At the top is a tower, the Tour des Géographes. This was built just after the French Revolution in 1791, for use by a group of astronomers who had been instructed by the Académie des Sciences to measure accurately the line of the meridian from Dunkerque to Barcelona, as part of a revolutionary project to define a standard unit of measurement. This was the birth of the metre, defined as one ten millionth of the distance from the Pole to the Equator. After six years of work, the standard metre, cast in platinum, was presented to the National Assembly in 1799. Just in case you are interested, the metre has since been redefined as the distance travelled by a beam of light in one 299,792,458th of a second ...

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Tuchan
©CDT/Davy

On the slope of Mont Tauch above Tuchan is the chapel of Notre Dame de Faste. It is approached by a precipitous track, described laconically in one of my guidebooks as "peu carrossable" — not very suitable for motor vehicles — but we did it anyway, without undue difficulty. The oddity of a chapel in this remote and inaccessible spot has been explained by the presence of a spring, making it a suitable resting place for travellers. Alternatively you may wish to believe the story that sailors on a ship which had lost its course suddenly saw a light on the slope of Mont Tauch which enabled them to regain their bearings and avoid shipwreck. So naturally they vowed to build a chapel there. Why they chose to build it without windows is not recorded.

Not far from Tuchan is the château of Aguilar, one of the more impressive of the "Cathar" strongholds (evidently these castles were not built by the Cathars — they were feudal strongholds which served as refuges). It was stormed by Simon de Montfort in 1210, and from 1260 it was one of the "five sons of Carcassonne" (the others being Puilaurens, Termes, Queribus, and Peyrepertuse). These formed outposts at the southern edge of the French Kingdom, protecting the frontier with Aragon. Aguilar remains as an impressive four-square keep, surrounded by a wall with circular towers at the corners. There is also a small, simple Romanesque chapel dedicated to St Anne.

Paziols

Paziols is a small village right on the southern edge of the Corbières. It has inspired Annie Spens, who has a house there, to write a page for us.

The best way, the magic way, to come to Paziols is via the Lézignan turn-off from the A61 onto the D611. One minute you’re whistling down the motorway, traffic and towns flying past, cypresses and olives mere flashes in the mirror, and the next — silence, space, a country road, fields of vines reaching to the dark Corbières ahead. Point the car towards the hills and soon you’re driving up a small river valley, hugged by hills, following a brown, glinting stream. The valley widens, the road climbs, the watchful silhouette of a medieval castle appears above you. As the yellow lights of Tuchan appear, you know you’re safely through, into an enchanted land.

Paziols and Tuchan are both tucked into the foothills by the side of a wide plain. Overlooking the plain, on its own rocky island, is the Château d’Aguilar, a stargate into the medieval past. Aguilar, one of the "Five Sons of Carcassonne", was attacked in 1210 by the dreaded de Montfort, but has now settled into an other-worldly peace. In the spring it’s heady with flowering rosemary. In the summer, the rocky ruins and sheltered corners are home to exquisite flowering honeysuckle bushes. It has a tiny, romantic chapel and a wonderful view. The castles of Quéribus and Peyrepertuse — both of which are within easy distance of Paziols — are far more imposing and magnificent, but Aguilar is a castle you could call home.

Behind Paziols and Tuchan the hills and rocky gorges provide magnificent scenery. Although Mont Tauch may have a dusting of snow in winter, in early spring the lower slopes are covered with flowering rosemary and thyme and lavender. Early in March the tramontane still blows: there are rainbows every morning, translucent and vivid against the silvery background. In early summer, the air is sweet with the scent of flowering broom. In late September the grapes hang purple beneath their leaves and on the hills the dorychnium is still flowering for the bees. There is a Miellerie at Cucugnan where you can buy soaps and beeswax candles, and taste each season’s honey. In May the wild flowers run riot, down the roadside verges, clinging to old castle walls, carpeting the uncultivated fields in blue and yellow and white, with the pink cones of the Rosy Vanilla orchid everywere.

Paziols is well placed for exploring the south of the South of France. The Mediterranean coast is 45 minutes’ drive away, and every beach is sandy and every harbour picturesque. You can be in Spain in an hour, and in the high mountains in two. Tautavel, Narbonne and Perpignan offer museums and culture and eating. Rennes-le-Château has a strange unsolved mystery, an exquisite little church and excellent lunch. But you can easily spend the hot afternoons dozing beside the Prade, where the river Verdouble opens out into an almost-swimming pool, and you can sit on the ford with your feet in cold mountain water and watch the little grey fish for hours. For your evening meal, wander up to the Merle Bleu, or take a barbecue to the Fontaine des Eaux. At twilight the frogs chorus, and there are glow-worms in the car-park. And as you drive back, the illuminated church on Paziols hill glows like a welcoming lamp in the window of the night.

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