Our friends Rebekah and Frank joined us in Dublin and from there we all flew together towards the South-West of France. We stayed in the quaint village of Villenouvelle, located about 20 minutes from Toulouse, for the entire week (plus one night in Toulouse at the end because of a certain airline's cancellation shenanigans). I will tell you about our visits to Toulouse and Carcassonne in future blog posts. For now, let me introduce you to Villenouvelle and the nearby Canal du Midi.
Staying at Maison Joséphine
E. had stayed at Maison Joséphine on the occasion of a family reunion 10 years ago and we thought it would be the perfect place for a week stay in the region. The guesthouse is owned by Franco-Irish couple Gwen and Paul Reid, who are really friendly and welcoming. We stayed in one of the self-catering cottages: gîte Rose. It was really comfortable, spacious and had everything needed in terms of amenities and cooking equipment (a very important point for me).
We had rented a car and were able to drive to the nearest town, Villefranche de Lauragais, and stock up on food and drinks at a Super U ( a big supermarket).
The boulangerie Fred l'Artisan is located right behind the guesthouse on the main street of the village. The baguettes were excellent and we ended up going there almost every morning (it is closed on Mondays) to get bread, pastries and the occasional bag of chouquettes for breakfast. We also had some of the little cakes for one of our lunches and they were really delicious.
There is also a pizza place, Fleur de Pâte, in the village if you do not feel like cooking one evening. We had some as a takeaway the night before we left and it was quite nice.
One of the highlights of the stay was the dinner we had at Maison Joséphine for Frank's birthday. Gwen and Paul cooked a wonderful meal for the occasion. We had a starter of salad with foie gras and smoked duck magret slices. It was followed by magrets de canard (duck breast fillets) cooked with the most delicious mushroom and whisky cream sauce (I still dream about it) and accompanied by a tian of seasonal vegetables. After many types of cheeses and a strawberry chaser, we had the birthday cake which consisted of a tarte aux fraises made by Paul. It was such a great way to celebrate!
Apart from the day visits in Toulouse and Carcassonne, our plan was just to take it easy and explore the area at our own pace.
The first day we spent in Villenouvelle was a Sunday so it was the perfect excuse to just relax and explore the village a bit.
After a lazy morning with breakfast dragging into brunch, we went for a walk. The village is not really big but we got to find some really interesting buildings. The architecture, choice of colours and details are very different from the part of France I am from.
We kept walking for a bit, randomly picking which turn to take each time we met an intersection. Eventually, we found ourselves beside some big fields where we could see entire families dragging buckets and pushing wheelbarrows filled with fruit and vegetables. We were quite intrigued (and also very curious to be honest) so we walked towards the main farm at the centre of the fields. The place is called Les Jardins de Saint-Sernin and happens to be a farm where you can pick your own fruit and vegetables. You get a map of what is where and at each spot you will also see a sign indicating whether you can help yourself or if it is forbidden because the fruit or vegetables in question are in the growing process. After you have found all you need, you go back to the farm shop with it and pay by weight for what you got (the shop also sells a lot of other delicious things: meat, cheeses, ice creams, etc.). We grabbed a bucket and headed for the tomato plants where we got a lot from the Roma variety ( Rebekah made some really flavoursome tomato salads with creamy burrata cheese out of them). We all found the idea of that farm fantastic. If you are staying in Villenouvelle and especially in a self-catering cottage like we had at Maison Joséphine, it is the perfect place to stock up on seasonal and local food for your stay.
(scroll after the photos for the story of our epic bike ride along Canal du Midi)
On the day of Frank's birthday, we all thought it would be a great idea to rent bikes at Maison Joséphine and go cycle along the Canal du Midi. I suggested we aim for the town of Castelnaudary, the birth place of cassoulet. And by making this suggestion, I clearly had no idea how unprepared we were for the ride...
None of us had cycled in a long time so we all started at a leisurely pace, admiring the beauty that is Canal du Midi. The weather was great and the path mostly flat but let's just say that a) we were not dressed for what turned out to be a very long ride and b) yep, very long ride...
After what felt like forever since we had left, we checked the distance and realised we had barely covered one third of the way to Castelnaudary. So we decided to cycle a bit faster. Let's say that if pairs of padded shorts had miraculously appeared at that stage, we would have been really grateful. The bikes were great but the saddles probably not meant for long distance rides (or meant for people who know what they are doing and wear appropriate clothing, aka not any of us).
We passed a lovely restaurant by one of the canal's locks and kept going with me telling everybody "I think we're nearly there!". Except we were not really nearly there whatsoever and not only that, but we were going to miss lunch time too (French restaurants usually just open for lunch time between 12 and 2pm). A few minutes later, we realised one of us was missing and we cycled back to find him. One of the bikes had had a problem and luckily, a Belgian man had stopped to help with the right tools (he was cycling from Belgium to Portugal, very clearly much better equipped than we were. Thank you so much by the way!!). We decided there was no point going further so we went back towards canal de Ségala and had lunch at Le Relais du Riquet. The view was really lovely, the food was delicious and we were able to taste the local cassoulet.
After that, there was the ride back to Villenouvelle and Maison Joséphine. We had already cycled 25kms at that stage and knew we had to cycle the same distance again. Most of what I remember from that point on was pain and delirious laughter (probably from said pain).
All in all, we never made it to Castelnaudary but came back with fun memories!
Let this story be a warning to you if you are planning a ride along Canal du Midi: don't try biting off more than you can chew (or wear padded pants!).