Issel village, tranquil and peaceful in the French countryside with views across the Carcassonne plains to the Pyrenees. Drive for few minutes and you can be in the thick of French life. Castelnaudary, Carcassonne and the Canal Du Midi, all on the doorstep.
Situated at the top of a hill in the Pays de Lauragais and South West of the 'Montagne Noire', Issel is a pretty little village with a population of around 500 people.
From the village on a clear day there is an impressive view of the Pyrenees. To the west of the village lies a valley called 'Le Glande' and to the north is the valley called 'l'Argentouire' through which the river Argentouire runs. Issel is about an hour and a half from the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean coast and only about 40 minutes from the Black Mountains national park.
Dating back to the medieval period the centre of the village used to be occupied by a primitive castle called the 'L'Hort Grand' which was the tallest building in the village and was surrounded by a moat, sadly no longer there. The village was once thought to be home to one of the Knights Templar so there is a good chance that the castle would have been the residence in question, something I really would like to verify.
The newer part of the village, separate to the castle, has the circular shape typical of many of the fortified villages in the region, which the French refer to as a 'village circulade'.
Around the 14th century, an Italian called 'Jean Gabalda' establish and launched a pottery in the village that drew on the clay soil surrounding the village as a natural resource for the production of the products manufactured in the pottery. In it's heyday during the 19th century the pottery employed around 72 people.
The famous haricot bean based 'cassoulet' which is the premier food dish of Castelnaudary was not considered to be truly authentic unless it was cooked in one of the clay dishes that came from the Issel pottery. A little difficult to be authentic these days as the pottery ceased to operate a little before the 2nd world war, but there have been one or two other potteries that have taken up the mantle to produce the distinctively shaped clay pot used for cooking cassoulet.
Of course if you go cycling on the Canal du Midi between Castelnaudary and Segala, you will find the 'Poterie Not' which is the last surviving pottery from the 19th century industry that was thriving in Castelnaudary and the surrounding area back then. They will supply you with a cassole and that is about as authentic as you can get these days. Be nice to give a 200 year old business a little bit of support as well.
Although the castle is no more there is still plenty of the original architecture from the medieval period and you can enter the village through the splendid 'Porte d'Aval' which leads to the centre of the village named after the original castle and is called 'La Place de l'Hort Grand'.
The building attached to the door of Aval is called the 'Conciergerie' (caretakers lodge) and still has some original parts from the medieval period preserved in the current house. There are also some remants of the original moat that surrounded the castle close to these buildings.
It is believed that the church suffered serious damage at the end of the 16th century but was later restored around 1602. Today the chuch has undergone a total restoration and is a well preserved and maintained example of the walled belfry style of chuch that can be found across the region. You will notice in the photographs that there are 5 bell chambers in the belfry but only one is actually used.
In addition to the village itself there are many routes and walks that can be taken from the village and into the woods where you can find plenty of evidence of the red soil that was traditionally used by the pottery. Plus a number of wonderful views that can be seen from the higher parts of the village or surrounding countryside.
The gite we operate just on the outskirts of the village is available as self catering accommodation and you can find more details about the gite and the location by having a little look around the website. Le Moulin is on one of 2 sites where you can find historic mills, Le Moulin was a water mill and dates back 300 years or so, there is also a former windmill at the top of the hill called Le Moulin a Vent.
The next village along from Issel is St Papoul which is famous for its abbey from the 'Cathare' period and is only about 5 minutes drive from Issel. After St Papoul you can head to Saissac and its famous chateau for a visit and if you want to go a little further then you can head off to Carcassonne from Saissac via Montolieu village du livre (village of books) and turn into a bit of a day out.
The easiest way of seeing small villages like Issel, which are a bit off the beaten track, is by using a car. Driving to Europe is relatively easy to do these days however, and France is no exception. You can hop on a ferry to cross the channel or you can hire a car when you get here and the roads, compared to the UK, are so quiet they shouldn't really pose a problem.
On a clear day as you leave the gite and drive up the hill towards the village, you reach a point where you pass over the brow of the hill and then you get this magnificent view of the Pyrenees. They look so close that you wonder how it is possible there are days when you simply cannot see them. Ironically that tends to be through the heights of summer when the heat haze from the Carcassonne plain rises up to hide them.
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