Fairytale France: swapping hamburgers for frogs in the Languedoc - 1 December 2009

We took the Eurostar to Paris and then made our way down through France on the TGV - in itself a wonderful adventure. Beautiful trains, on-time trains, trains with dedicated carriages for 'silence'. No long, wordy, unreadable 'health-and-safety' notices: just a picture of a mobile phone with its eyes shut, and another with a smiley face in the areas where you are allowed to talk.
This method of communication is both simple and effective. Given the standards of literacy in this country, perhaps it is something we should try.
We arrived at night and saw Carcassonne perched high in the hills, subtly and beautifully lit. We were staying in the Hotel de la Cité, a former Episcopal palace next to the Basilica of Saint Nazaire, within the walls of the medieval citadel. It is calm and serene, and, I imagine, a welcome escape in the summer from the crowded streets of Carcassonne.

We had interconnecting suites, with a private courtyard. Room service after the journey was perfect: proper pommes frites with home-made mayonnaise - a step away from the fast-food culture and a step towards French cooking.
The citadel is the ideal size for children to explore: you can walk around the ramparts comfortably in an hour. There are winding steps, towers to dance in and endless scope for living out fairytale fantasies. There are splendid crenellations, 4th Century Roman towers and a proper entrance gate to the city, which one can easily imagine being defended.

It is a superb place to fire the imagination - to learn almost by osmosis. So much better than Disney.

You really need only a couple of days to explore Carcassonne, then you are ready to venture out of the city walls. We chose to go on a barge down the Canal du Midi, which links the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. Our guide was Madame Lablaude, wife of the hotel's deputy manager Xavier, and she supplied a wonderful picnic. It is hard to think of a more satisfying way of spending an afternoon.

The pace is gentle and slow and at all times perfectly smooth. The whole business of going through the locks has its own ritual, and there is something mesmerising about the canal system and way of life.

The next day was my birthday so we decided to have dinner in the Michelin-starred La Barbacane, which is the main restaurant in the Hotel de la Cité. The food that night was another education for the children - and I am still regretting the birthday cake that we were unable to finish.

In fact, it was so good that we asked if we could have a cooking lesson with the executive chef, Jerome Ryon. Now this was just as much of a revelation for me as it was for my eldest daughter, Savannah, 16.

We started with the pastry chef, who taught us how to make delicious biscuits, tuiles à noix de coco, and, quite simply, the best chocolate mousse I have ever tasted. The key to the success of this mousse is the quantity of egg whites involved - 16! And to demonstrate how thick they need to be, he held the bowl upside-down over Savannah's head.

We made a variety of things with Monsieur Ryon: a mouthwatering tagliatelle and mushroom dish, simple fish and potatoes, and, of course, we learned how to cook a frog. I have just found my notes: Put frog in flour, heat olive oil in pan and put in the frog. Add tomatoes, garlic, shallots and parsley. Voilà, how easy is that? And how much more interesting than a hamburger?

Lots of day trips are possible from Carcassonne; the whole of the Cathar country is there to explore. We went to Narbonne, wandered around the extraordinary medieval cloisters and then headed off to the city's famous indoor food market, Halles de Narbonne, for another culinary experience at the Bar Chez Bebelle. This was a very clever recommendation from M. Lablaude, who, quite rightly, thought it would be an interesting contrast to his hotel.
Bar Chez Bebelle is owned and run by Gilles Belzons, who was captain of the Narbonne rugby team and thus a local hero. It is difficult to describe the frenetic activity involved in his new career but I can only imagine that his training on the rugby field is being put to good use.

The bar is in the middle of the market, surrounded by stalls selling all manner of food and drink. The customers sit on bar stools, order their food from the very simple menu, and wait. If Monsieur Belzons has run out of any of the ingredients, he simply gets out his loudhailer and yells the order across to the butcher, conveniently situated opposite the bar. The meat is then hurled across, expertly caught by Gilles Belzons with his great rugby-player's hands and put straight into the pan.

The food was perfect and the atmosphere invigorating. We were the only tourists there, the rest of the stools being occupied by locals who were clearly very serious about their food - and their drink.

It was a wonderful outing and made the more so by the fact that the hotel had provided someone to look after Domenica, at 14 my youngest daughter, who has Down's syndrome. She spent a very happy day in and around the hotel and we were able to do things she would not necessarily have enjoyed.
Domenica made friends with Nathalie, one of the waitresses in the hotel's restaurant, Chez Saskia. She taught Domenica a new French word every morning while getting her breakfast and also helped find her on the one occasion Domenica disappeared. It is people like that, who put themselves out, who make all the difference to staying in a hotel, particularly when you have a disabled child.

Jacques Hamburger, the hotel's general manager, has been in the business all his life - indeed was practically born in a hotel, as his father was also a hotelier. He has the eye and attention to detail that is an essential part of his job. Anticipating a long and hard recession, he has cut his staff to the bone and encouraged his team to multi-task when necessary, although this is difficult with the very strict French employment laws.

The Hotel de la Cité is a very special hotel in an extraordinary position, with its gardens actually on the ancient ramparts and with a commanding view of the valley below. Given the history of Carcassonne and given the way that all good fairy tales endure, I feel sure this hotel will withstand the siege of the recession and survive.

Getting there

Comparison website www.carrentals.co.uk offers seven days' car hire in Carcassonne from £163.
Return train fares from London to Carcassonne start at £151 for a standard-class return. To book, call Rail Europe on 0844 848 4070 or visit www.raileurope.co.uk.
A double room at the Hotel de la CitÈ starts at 262 euros (£234) per room per night, including breakfast and tax. To book, call 0845 077 2222 or visit www.hoteldelacite.com.