Once upon a time there was a castle in the south of France. This wasn’t any old castle however, this was a château that sat surrounded by vineyards in Languedoc, one of the sunniest corners of the country. The owners made their fortune growing, cultivating and producing wine and the estate grew very wealthy indeed. But, as with any good fairy tale, disaster soon struck. At the end of 19th century, tiny, yellow, aphid-like pests arrived and began attacking the vineyards. This plague was the beginning of the end for the château and it eventually fell into ruin.
Abandoned, the castle quickly deteriorated and lay empty for decades until it was bought by an Irish couple, Karl and Anita, in 2008. The couple were not experts in restoring ancient French châteaux but they were ready for a challenge and itching for a project. Renovation on the property began immediately and, in the summer of 2011, Château Les Carrasses opened its grand wooden doors to guests.
The transformation has been, quite simply, incredible. The building, which even in its most run-down state looked impressive, is now reminiscent of something out of the pages of a fairy-tale. There are Rapunzel towers and witch-hat turrets, Juliet balconies and grand wooden shutters painted cornflower blue. Sun-filled patios dot the grounds, filled with the scent of lavender, honeysuckle and jasmine and there’s a beautiful greenhouse, reputedly designed by Gustave Eiffel (yes, the very same Eiffel!). And almost everywhere you turn, you’re greeted with spectacular countryside views.
Altogether, Château Les Carrasses has 28 properties (soon to be 30) that sit within the château’s original structure. What were once the wine cellars are today three-bedroom villas with private pools, the old stables are now luxury bedrooms and the former gardener’s cottage is a romantic retreat for two. All rooms come with self-catering facilities. For this is the other amazing thing about Les Carrasses; while it looks and feels like a luxury French hideaway, it is also very, very family-friendly.
Appealing to families was something that Karl and Anita wanted to do from the start. As parents themselves, they were only too aware of what made a really good – and easy – family holiday. So, while every room has the option to self-cater, there’s also a restaurant on site if a holiday for you means having someone else cook your dinner. The brasserie serves contemporary Mediterranean cuisine using lots of local, seasonal produce accompanied, of course, by the best regional wines. Or, if you fancy something between the two, you can order a pizza, get the chefs to whip up a takeaway meal or ask front of house to organise a grill box to cook on either your private BBQ or one of the communal ones. The restaurant will also organise picnics, perfect for when you are exploring the local countryside on one of the château’s bikes.
During the summer months (July and August), the château runs a kids’ club where bilingual staff lead children aged between four- and 12-years-old in activities that include painting, acting, singing, dancing and playing. When we visited during the Easter holidays, there was a special circus-themed kids’ club where my older two children learned – or at least attempted to learn – how to juggle.
What I really enjoyed about our stay at Château Les Carrasses, however, was how much the property is invested in the local community. The majority of the staff are local, the restaurant celebrates local cuisine, and the château regularly hosts events open to everyone. Our visit happened to fall over the monthly Jazz night and the venue in the vaults was packed. The other thing that struck me was the constant surprises around every corner; whether it was a view of the Pyrenees in the background or a beautifully simple entrance hall. And of course, the you can’t help but fall in love with the château’s Fairy Godmother formula for keeping both parents and children happy.
Things to do at Château Les Carrasses
The château overlooks a heated infinity pool which, in turn, overlooks the property’s vineyards. There’s a clay tennis court and places to play boules and volleyball. Children and adult bikes are available to borrow and there are communal BBQ areas if you feel like getting to know some of your fellow guests. During high season, there are yoga and pilates classes, tennis lessons, bonfire evenings and much more.
Things to do with kids in the Languedoc region
If you do manage to drag yourself away from the château (and I promise you, it won’t be easy!) there is a lot to do in the surrounding area.
On our drive down from Toulouse airport we stopped at the medieval city of Carcassonne, an incredible fortress, all towers and battlements and an enormous drawbridge. Apparently, the city once fell into such a state of disrepair that the French government issued a decree to have it demolished in the early 1800s. There was such an outcry, however, that they soon backed down and in 1849 the architect Eugène Violet-le Duc, was commissioned to renovate the city. Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and brilliant to visit in March but best avoided during the months of July and August when it is apparently horribly crowded.
During our time at Château Les Carrasses we also visited Minerve, a Cathar castle located just 30-minutes away. It’s not nearly as popular as Carcassonne although that may soon change as it is soon to be a Grand Site. It’s another fascinating medieval city with narrow streets and a catapult overlooking the town. We’re told that you can walk along the river under the city itself during the dry season but we didn’t get the chance on our visit.
On Saturday morning we headed to Pezenas, a beautiful town famous for its weekend market and its antique shops. Here, we picked up some empanadas and salad for our dinner and stopped by what felt like every boulangerie and patisserie in town. The other place to visit for a food market is Les Halles de Narbonne. We only popped into this indoor market but spent enough time to soak up the lively atmosphere and marvel at all the fresh produce on display. Here, you’ll also find Chez Bebelle, a restaurant owned by a famous former rugby player. It’s hugely popular with queues forming not just for the food but for the gregarious man himself. We also spent an afternoon at the Toulouse Space Centre, which was fabulous.
Château Les Carrasses has a detailed visitor book in each room, written by Karl himself, and it’s full of local tips and ideas on how to make the most of the area.
Getting to Château Les Carrasses
Château Les Carrasses is located in the Languedoc region in southwest France, between the villages of Quarante, Capestang and Puisserguier. It’s 30 minutes from both Béziers and Narbonne. We flew into Tolouse and it’s an easy two-hour drive from the airport to the château.
Château Les Carrasses is ideal for younger kids. There’s a second property, Château St Pierre de Serjac, which is better for slightly older children (12+ years). A third property, Château Capitoul, is currently underway and will be located closer to the beach. Capitoul promises lots of adventure activities and will be ideal for teens. It’s scheduled for completion in early 2020.
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Disclosure: We were guests of Château Les Carrasses during our stay. All opinions, however, are entirely my own.