The Prehistoric Wonders of Occitania

This mountainous region of Occitania in the deep south of France is very ancient. Many millions of years ago, this part of the world was the realm of dinosaurs and many other prehistoric creatures that are now extinct.
Some of their remains have been found in the Aude Valley, well preserved in the soil, only to be discovered by a French geologist at the end of the 19th century.

The Dinosaur Museum in Esperaza offers a real journey back in time to the origins of life on Earth almost 3.5 billion years ago; a showcase of biodiversity through the great geological periods. It is aimed at all generations: from the youngest who meet their favorite dinosaurs, to the adults immersed in the heart of this long history of life on Earth. The museum opened in June 1992, three kilometers from the largest French dinosaur deposit. Since 2007, and after some work, it now offers a permanent exhibition area dedicated to dinosaurs and other fossils of reptiles, mammals, invertebrates and plants found around the globe.

The Dinosaur Museum is managed by the DINOSAURIA Association (non-profit). Website: www.dinosauria.org
Throughout the millennia, the weather and the environment changed. The landscape was ground out by ice and water, creating valleys and ridges, and fast flowing, giant rivers carved out deep caves. About 950.000 years ago, the first human immigrants from Africa arrived on the Iberian peninsula. They only left us their tools to find, until in July 1971, after 7 years of methodical excavations, Professor Henry de Lumley's team discovered a skull
(one face and one frontal) in a cave near Tautavel. This cave at Tautavel is one of the largest prehistoric deposits in the world. Since then, annual excavations have revealed more than 100 other human fossils (visible at the Tautavel Prehistory Museum). These remains made it possible to reconstruct the life and the environment of these groups of Homo erectus and suggest that this place was frequented by nomadic hunters who lived there between 690.000 and 300.000 years ago. Some 600.000 years of climatic variations have also been archived. The activities of the excavation site are managed by the European Center for Prehistoric Research. Being about 20 years old, the man of Tautavel was 1 m 60 (ca. 5 ft 3 inches) tall. This Homo erectus had all the characteristics of the first Europeans.
Although he did not master fire just yet, he turned out to be an excellent hunter. One might think that he would have chosen the site of the Caune de l'Arago for his privileged situation, for here he could dominate the valley, its source of water, and therefore his prey.

Visit the Prehistoric Museum at Tautavel and dive back into this incredible history!
Website: www.tautavel.com.

Also the Neanderthal people were here around 100.000 years ago, and finally, between 60.000 and 30.000 years ago, the Cro-Magnon people appeared. They were the ancestors of the modern Europeans and are known for their (cave) art and advanced hunting techniques. At the Prehistoric Museum in Tarascon-sur-Ariège, one travels back in time to a world that was still very empty; with nature ruling the planet; with mighty rivers and long winters, and with migrating herds of bison. While people stayed in caves during the winter months, working together with other clans to survive, they built summer camps in the valley, where they slept in tents like yurts and wigwams.

In that same period, symbolism appeared, e.g. circles and dots; a language perhaps? Sometimes we see phallic symbolism. The first Venus figurines (e.g. the Dame de Brassempouy, ca 25.000 years old) and handprints on cave walls appeared around the same time as the cave paintings, as well as incredibly fine artwork (made of e.g. ivory, bone and antlers) and there is evidence of travel. Similar objects and symbols have been found throughout a vast territory, giving the idea of traveling, intermingling, perhaps even trade among the various clans in southern and central France. This was the era of the fire makers, for to enter the
deeper parts of a cave one needs light. Only when humankind had found out how to create and contain fire, they could go further into a cave and sense the silence, the sacredness, and the idea of being in the belly of the Mother Goddess. That dark, quiet space became their first cathedral. A holy place where shamans used the cave walls to create their sacred art. Today we can visit several prehistoric caves in Occitania, such as Lombrives (photo), Niaux with its original cave paintings, and Bedeilhac, which is particularly sacred and special, for it contains both paintings and symbols. This underground realm is very ancient with its giant halls and thick columns, and one can only speculate how long ago it was, when those first brave souls finally dared to enter this sacred space, holding onto a torch which, after all, only has a flickering, temporary flame...

For more information, visit the website: www.grottes-en-france.com

Guided Tours: Anneke Koremans (anneke@panoccitania.com).


A Secret of Wine

When you think of the south of France, one of the first things that come to mind is French wine. The taste of wine depends mostly on the soil it grows in and the amount of hours of sunshine it gets. So, when you get those two right, it can only get better if the winegrower puts large amounts of love and devotion into his grapes. Then, the vineyard becomes legendary. If this particular vineyard is small, there is only a limited amount of wine available and the wines remain just a local secret. The Domaine de St. Jacques near Montazels is such a vineyard.

It is on one of those hot Occitan Spring days that my sister and I arrived at the Bodega for some wine. "We are sitting on one of the ancient pilgrim roads to Santiago de Compostela", says Mr Torregrosa, the owner of the vineyard. "That's why it is called 'St. Jacques'". He and his family are all in the wine business and they speak passionately about their products, one of which is the real ancestor of a world famous sparkling wine called 'Champagne'...

Originally invented by accident in 1531 in the abbey of St. Hilaire, not far from Limoux, the 'Blanquette de Limoux' is the oldest sparkling wine in the world. According to the story, it was a monk called Dom Perignon who introduced the method to the Champagne district, where the bubbly white wine took off for world fame. Although this is merely a legend, it is very likely that the Benedictine community of St. Hilaire was indeed the first to produce sparkling white wine.

The local soil is basically clay, sandstone and limestone. As the Mediterranean climate of the region, with its strong dry winds, has more Atlantic influences than most other wine regions in the Languedoc, this unique combination of soil and climate creates the perfect conditions for top wines with their own special character. On the right is a photo of my own favourite bubbles: the Blanquette de Limoux, demi-sec, medthode ancestrale' of the Domaine St. Jacques. ♥

If you would like an original sparkling white wine from the region where it was invented in the early 16th century, the Domaine St. Jacques has one of the original recipes. Try the very popular 'Blanquette de Limoux, demi-sec, methode ancestrale' for only 6,50 Euros per bottle, and collect the super juice from the bodega at the vineyard near Montazels. You will taste the grape; pure and unspoiled.

Of course there are more than just sparkling wines at the Domaine St. Jacques. There are for example the fabulous velvet Merlot-Cabernet; not too dry, not too sweet, and an incredible rosé called 'Rosé du Coin'. For the Summertime, the Rosé du Coin is an elegant wine; not too dry, though similar to a good gris, and fantastic with meals (vegetarian, meat or fish dishes) or just as a late afternoon pre-dinner drink.

Visit the website of the Domaine St. Jacques: www.blanquette-saintjacques.com. The Domaine St. Jacques also has a market stall on the Esperaza Sunday morning market.

Tips: Combine one of your excursions in Cathar Country with a wine tasting and/or start your group tour with a 'Meet & Greet' with some local bubbles!

Cheers, everyone! ♥


Guided Tours in Cathar Country, France

This region - now once again known by its old name, Occitania - has a rich history, set against the backdrop of stunning natural beauty and spiced by unsolved mysteries. It is the lesser known south of France; more rural, more adventurous, and many sites are not so easy to find. When you would like to explore this region by car, or as a member of an organized group tour, an experienced tour guide can make history come to life and help you discover the incredible historical and cultural heritage of Occitania.

My name is Anneke Koremans. For over a decade I have been a 'guide accompagnateur' here in Cathar Country, France. I can be booked on demand, and therefore my tours usually do not have a date. The tours I describe below are the popular tours that can be done in one day, provided your accommodation is in the immediate area.

“Anneke will provide you with the experience of a lifetime. She knows every nook, cranny, mystery, and secret of Cathar country.” ~ Steve Berry, New York Times Best Selling author, known for e.g. "The Templar Legacy".

You can hire me as your private tour guide from one person to small groups from 150 to 200 euros per day, depending on the number of people, the length of the tour and the destination (the maximum group size for this fee is 7 people). Large groups: 250 euros per day per group. These fees are excl. transport, lunches and entrance fees. Half days start at 100 euros per day, depending on the destination and number of people.

Private tours with transport:
(In cooperation with Barinca Travel)
Small car with driver and tour guide: 250 euros per day, max. 2 people.
Comfort car with driver and tour guide: 350 euros per day, max. 2 people.

Group tours with transport:
(In cooperation with Barinca Travel)
Mini-bus with driver and tour guide: from 450 euros per day depending on the destinations and requirements for the tour. Max. 7 people.
Large bus with driver, tour guide and tour management, organization, transfers and itinerary assistance: prices on request. Max 50 people.

All fees are excl. of all lunches and entrance fees. It is customary for a client here in France to pay for the lunches of the guide and, if booked, the driver.

There is a maximum mileage and time for day-excursions. The tour starts and ends at your accommodation.

It is often asked if I also do tours in the Provence or Spain. However, I only accompany tours here in Occitania.


Possibilities of advance payment:
This is possible via PayPal & bank transfers, or, on one day tours (last minutes), cash on arrival at your accommodation before the tour starts (possible with small amounts only). I am unable to accept credit cards.

If you are interested in creating a group tour yourself, and hire me as your local guide, please read my blog page "Discover Cathar Country!"

Click HERE to read some of the reviews we have received.



The Cité of Carcassonne, a day excursion to the largest medieval fortified town in Europe.


Puivert Castle, where we discover the story of the Troubadours, and Alet-les-Bains, known for its stunning cathedral ruins, late medieval square with half-timbered houses and the 'House of Nostradamus'.


A guided tour to Puilaurens Castle in the Fenouillet and Galamus, where we visit the Hermitage of St. Anthony of the Desert.


Montségur and the Fontaine de Fontestorbes. This day is dedicated to the story of the Cathars and the courage of the local lords of Occitania, called the faidits, who not only tried to protect their lands from the northern invaders, but also the Cathar community: gnostic Christians who were branded heretics by the Roman Catholic Church. The Fontaine de Fontestorbes is a unique natural phenomenon.


The Rock Church of Vals and Mirepoix. During this excursion we will see one of the oldest and rarest murals in France, in a church that was built atop a rock on a very ancient site. Mirepoix is known for its Cathar past and the witches of Mirepoix, and on Monday morning there is a lively Occitan market, the most picturesque in the region next to Esperaza (the Esperaza market is on Sundays).


Tarascon-sur-Ariège; Prehistoric Park and/or one or two caves. Around Tarascon in the Ariège (not Tarascon in the Provence), are prehistoric caves and a very beautiful Prehistoric Park. Famous caves are Lombrives, the Bethlehem & Hermit's Caves (very steep climb), Bedeilhac and of course Niaux with the famous cave paintings (reservation and limited number of visitors).


Excursions and guided tours around the mystery of Rennes-le-Chateau. This tour can include a visit to the Devil's Chair aka Throne of Isis and the Fontaine des Amours, Rennes-les-Bains, Coustaussa (beehive shaped houses (only possible on individual tours and with small groups, max. 7 people) and Bugarach (lake, church and/or Roman Bridge (steep walk)).


Guided tour to the Cathar Castles of Queribus and Peyrepertuse, two strongholds in the Roussillon which are known for their impressive remains and location atop rocky mountain ridges. Only possible on individual tours and with small groups, max. 7)


Guided tour exploring the strongholds of the Knights Templar in the Fenouillet and Conflent, in the area around Sournia, Belesta and Caramany, and the chapel of St. Michel.


Full day visiting the Abbey of St. Michel de Cuxa near Prades and the fortified town of Villefranche-sur-Conflent, known for its caves (the Canallette Caves aka the Underground Versailles) and the Yellow Train. Time-wise, a choice has to be made between the caves and the Yellow Train.


Full day at the very pretty Mediterranean port town of Collioure, with a visit to the Royal Castle in the morning. Famous painters from the early 20th century were attracted by the beautiful light and colourful houses and fishing boats. This town on the Med is known for its many artisan shops, a unique place to buy a souvenir. It is possible to stop at the abbey of Elne on the way back, provided we leave a little earlier from Collioure. Elne is known for its mystical symbolism in the cloisters.


The Prehistoric Museum of Tautavel, discovering the oldest Europeans known at the moment (ca. 450.000 years old). This excursion can be combined with a visit to Queribus Castle or the castle of Aguilar (individual tours or small groups only, max 7).


Exploring the Corbières with a visit to the Donjon d'Arques and the castle of Villerouge-Termenes, where the last Cathar Parfait was burned at the stake.


Day trip to the Cité de Minerve, famous for its fatal siege and first site of mass murder by fire during the time of the Crusade against the Cathars, followed by a short visit to the enigmatic Dolmen de Fados, a beautiful prehistoric tomb.


Guided tour of Lastours, aka the castles of Cabaret, with its troubadour and Cathar history. The four towers that dominate the present village are situated in a beautiful landscape. This tour can be combined with Carcassonne or the crystal cave, the Gouffre de Cabrespine.


Half day or day excursion to Limoux, visiting the Notre Dame de Marceille basilica with its many stories and mysterious symbolism, and/or St. Hilaire Abbey, where the local bubbles called the Blanquette de Limoux, aka the mother of Champagne, was invented.

Other destinations are on request. Some combinations can be made, provided the destinations are in the same direction and the time schedule allows for it.

Below you can see a map provided by Google Maps, showing you the general area
where I do my tours.

Hope to see you soon! From Occitania, with love! ♥