Take a 2CV ride around Carcassone and discover a boutique hotel breathing life back into a village
‘The brakes are a little… inefficient,” says our guide Paul, with typically Gallic nonchalance, as we prepare to hit the road in a Citroën 2CV.
But we embrace his apparent lack of concern, and set off on what proves to be an exhilaratingly windswept journey through the tranquil, sunny backroads of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region, the vehicle’s cherry tomato paintwork contrasting brightly with the surrounding greenery.
Paul later describes the gears as tricky, and the steering as “imprecise”, but we somehow make it safely to and from the traditional market in Saint Chinian, browsing the stalls and concluding with an espresso or two in the square like a local.
It’s one of a host of activities during my visit to Village Castigno, a boutique hotel based in – indeed said to have breathed life back into – the picturesque village of Assignan. And it offers a technicolour twist on the ultra-French charm of its location with the occasional injection of influences from much further afield.
I arrive into Carcassonne on a direct flight from Edinburgh via Ryanair, which also flies to the airport from Glasgow.
After a car journey of about an hour, we pull into the village square, the epicentre of the hotel, and I immediately feel like I’ve walked on to a film set.
Many of the walls, shutters and pieces of outdoor furniture boast the colour scheme of opulent reds, pinks and purples that I will later see spread across the hotel, a nod to its Château Castigno wine-production arm, while two pristine cream Vespas sit neatly outside the reception area. George Square it ain’t.
Our arrival is just in time for lunch, and we head to La Petite Table, one of the hotel’s three restaurants, where the “fire” menu showcases the Uruguayan heritage of chef Pablo with a range of barbecued meats. These include pluma Iberica, a beef-like cut of pork, followed by a chocolate fondant dessert flavoured with a subdued kick of Jamaican pepper.
This is followed by a bread-making class with Rosina, who guides us in charming and interactive style through recipes such as one for a light, springy focaccia, punctuated with rows of perky rosemary sprigs. We sample the finished product piping hot out of the oven.
We then head to our accommodation, comprising luxury rooms at the Maison Des Amis, a self-contained property with its own pool.
My “Rosé Brut” room is awash with a sea of purples that Prince himself would not have been disappointed by. Various shades cover almost every surface, from a near-pastel violet to much darker regal shades, and even extend to religious vestments recontextualised as artwork on the wall. The sparkling mauve of the bathroom tiles is offset by two waist-high white sinks, while toiletries are by rightly renowned French brand Nuxe.
There is no TV or wifi in the rooms, part of the hotel’s policy to encourage guests to detox digitally. But who needs access to the real world when there is more eating to be done? And it’s time to make our way to the haute cuisine of La Table, which is run by Belgian brothers Pieter and Ruben.
The meal personifies elegant decadence throughout, from grissini (Italian breadsticks) coated in rich chicken liver paté, to an impeccable beef tartare with oysters that is entirely hidden under a dashi jelly whose colour scheme blends perfectly with the plate on which it is served.
Sweeter dishes include a quenelle of chocolate mousse whose richness is counterbalanced by the likes of delicately grated lime peel, plus a cloud-like petit four of aerated white chocolate that melts in the mouth, a suitably sophisticated way to end the meal.
The next day we team up with Paul again, an oenologist (wine expert to you and me) who previously lived in Edinburgh and, for a Frenchman, can put on a pretty impressive comedy Scots accent. He takes us to the new “chai”, a vast, stunning wine cellar resembling a giant wine bottle rising from the earth, covered with bark from cork oak. Designed by Belgian architect Lionel Jadot, it was built for Castigno’s tenth harvest.
Its facilities include a wine-tasting area where Paul talks us through the region’s wine-producing history, and guides us through the basics of wine-tasting, such as analysing its colour and viscosity. We sample the spectrum of Château Castigno’s entirely organic range from the light acidity of a Grâce des Anges white to my room’s crisp Rosé Brut namesake and an earthier Terra Casta red.
Château Castigno wines are served across all the hotel’s restaurants, which also include Le Thai. Decorated outside with rows of red lanterns, this establishment is led by Dutch-Indonesian chef Cathelijne.
Just yards from its front door are some of the photos currently on display across the Castigno properties, including its vineyards, that form part of the Tribu exhibition resulting from on-site residences by three renowned photographers from the Tendance Floue Collective. (It runs until 30 September).
Each has their own unique take, although the most striking to me are the portraits by Stéphane Lavoué, whose previous subjects have included Vladimir Putin. The compelling images don’t shy away from the sometimes brutal realities of life dependent on the surrounding nature.
Some of these are on display in La Petite Table, where we have breakfast each day, providing my fix of fresh, crusty bread, proper French butter, flaky pastries and ultra-smooth coffee, which are my top priorities when visiting France, and a key factor in booking a trip in the first place.
We also sneak a peek at some of the other types of Castigno accommodation, ranging from standard rooms, to the family properties that sleep up to four, and the top-end prestige suites housed in converted stables. The latter are very much suited to romantic breaks while the property we stayed in can be rented out as a whole and would be a great base for a high-end hen weekend or birthday celebration.
Other activities on offer include a guided ride through the vineyards and beyond on horseback, ceramic-making, and a picnic for two complete with a battery-operated turntable and music from a genre of your choice, including folk, jazz or classical.
It’s also less than an hour to the sea and a few hours’ drive from Barcelona, meaning you could spend a few days in the Spanish city and then relax in the calm of the hotel. Although the latter journey is perhaps best not attempted in a 2CV…
Village Castigno, 34360 Assignan, France, +33 467 24 26 41, villagecastigno.com. Prices for a standard room start at €130 per night, room only