Ever since I first read about the Cathar country in the Aude department of southwest France, it has called out to me because of the mystery and drama of the land. There are few cities or towns in the area, but lots of wide open spaces and dramatic Pyrénéen hills with rugged rock outcroppings, often with ruins at the top.
Usually in this kind of terrain, hotels are small and modest. As we drove up, the 3-star Château des Ducs de Joyeuse was a joyous contrast: a well-preserved castle. Its imposing size, four round corner towers and rustic entry gates, all in golden stone, captivated us. The wind was gently blowing in the trees. The Aude River gurgled behind the château. Birds swooped and fluttered overhead. Otherwise, it was quiet and calm in this oasis of tranquility as we parked and walked up the tree-lined entry path.
We were greeted warmly and led up an old winding stone staircase, and then another. There are no elevators in an old château. We were taken to a grand room with two large windows framing views of hills, trees and the river. The room was fit for a duke and duchess, with some medieval touches. Then I learned the story of the château’s name. In the 16th century, there was a marriage between two families, one with the name Voisin, the other, Duc de Joyeuse. To quote the official website: “The spirit of the Duc Anne de Joyeuse, sweetheart of the king Henri III, and fond of big celebrations, has certainly participated in the rebirth of the Castle as an elegant Hotel in the beginning of the 21st century.”
With tennis courts, a heated pool, a garden with seating along the river and an open courtyard, there’s plenty to do (or not!) The nearby village of Couiza is small (population: 1000). Rennes-le-Château became a destination following the 1982 publication of the book, Holy Blood and Holy Grail. It’s about three miles away and a fascinating place to visit. In less than an hour’s drive, you’ll discover the Gorges de Galamus, an incredible work of nature. A little farther on is the commanding ruin of Peyrepertuse.
After the day’s activities, we enjoyed an excellent meal outdoors in the courtyard of the château. There is also an ancient stone indoor dining hall with vaulted ceilings that would be attractive on cool or rainy evenings.
Château des Ducs de Joyeuse is a member of the Châteaux and Hotels Collection and family operated. It is also listed as a historical monument. We enjoyed conversing with the congenial owners who were preparing for a special luncheon for 300 guests the following day. Who could ask for a better setting?
Château des Ducs de Joyeuse, Allée Georges Roux, 11190 Couiza. Tel: +33 (0)4 68 74 23 50. We’ve found special online rates this autumn starting at 70 euros/night.