Thirty-six kilometres west of Carcassonne, on the main road from Toulouse, CASTELNAUDARY is one of those innumerable French country towns that boast no particular sights but are nonetheless a real pleasure to spend a couple of hours in, having coffee or shopping for a picnic in the market. Today it serves as an important commercial centre for the rolling Lauragais farming country hereabouts, as it once was for the traffic on the Canal du Midi. In fact, the most flattering view of the town is still that from the canal's Grand Bassin, which makes it look remarkably like a Greek island town, with its ancient houses climbing the hillside from the water's edge.
In town you'll find some fine old mansions, a restored windmill and an eighteenth-century semaphore tower. However, Castelnaudary's chief claim to fame is as the world capital of cassoulet, which, according to tradition, must be made in an earthenware pot from Issel (a cassolo) with beans grown in Pamiers or Lavelanet, and cooked in a baker's oven fired with rushes from the Montagne Noire. To try it, go to the Grand-Hôtel Fourcade, 14 rue des Carmes (tel 04.68.23.02.08, fax 04.68.94.10.67; closed part Jan & SeptApril Mon & Sun), where you can gorge yourself for €12.20, then sleep off the after-effects by taking a room upstairs (under €30). More attractive alternatives for spending the night are the modern Hôtel du Canal, 2 av Arnaut-Vidal (tel 04.68.94.05.05, fax 04.68.94.05.06; €5570), in a shady position beside the canal just west of the Grand Bassin, and the Hôtel du Centre et du Lauragais (tel 04.68.23.25.95, fax 04.68.94.01.66; €4055; closed Jan to mid-Feb), a converted nineteenth-century house, centrally located at 31 cours de la République, close to the post office. The tourist office is in Castelnaudary's central Halle aux Grains (mid-July to mid-Sept MonSat 9.30am12.30pm & 2.307pm, Sun 9.30am12.30pm & 37pm; mid-Sept to mid-July MonSat 9.30am12.30pm & 26.30pm; tel 04.68.23.05.73).