Abbaye de sthilaire

The D104, less travelled than the D118, is a pretty alternative route between Carcassonne and Limoux, running through vineyards enclosed by garrigue, cork oak trees and wild strawberry bushes.

Precisely 13km north of Limoux, you reach the Abbaye de St-Hilaire (% 04 68 69 62 76; adult/child €4/2; h 10am-7pm Jul & Aug, 10am-noon & 2-5pm or 6pm Sep-Jun), in the village of the same name. Ask for its explanatory guide sheet in English. Even the most diehard unbeliever may wish to make a pilgrimage here, where Blanquette de Limoux first sparkled.

The arcades of this Benedictine abbey's harmonious 14th-century Gothic cloister are supported by slender double columns. Abutting it, the abbot's house has a lovely 16th-century painted ceiling, much touched-up in a 19th-century restoration (look for the three vignettes in the top right-hand corner, the middle one unequivocally erotic; the ecclesiastical 'restorers' omitted to blank out these relics of the time when the house was a noble mansion).

On the south side of the refectory, there's an unusual stone reading chair, set into the wall up high, from which the scriptures would be read as the monks dined.

Highlight of the Romanesque abbey church is the sarcophagus of St Sernin, carved by the Franco-Catalan Maitre de Cabestany (p40), the itinerant 12th-century master sculptor. Though traditionally called a sarcophagus, it's too narrow to take a body and was probably originally an altar.

Leave the cloister by the steps on the south side to poke your nose into the caves, carved into the rock, where Blanquette de Limoux first fizzed. Before moving on, perhaps pick up a bottle or two from the outlet of Caves Anne de Joyeuse - could there be a happier name? -in the parking area immediately north of the abbey. You won't find Blanquette here, but you will come across quality red wines. Reds make up 85% of the production of this cooperative of growers, bearers for 15 years of the Protect the Planet label for its commitment to sustainable agriculture and biodiversity.

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