Eleven quilters from England, two from Norway, two from Canada, one husband, Karin Hellaby from Quilters Haven and Jackie Coggan, our Tour Manager from Arena Travel, set out one April Saturday for an adventure into France. We were greeted at Gatwick by Jackie, our Tour Manager, identified by our pink luggage labels. Due to unforeseen circumstances, we did not arrive at our destination until 1.30am. Our first glimpse of Carcassonne was through the coach windows – out of the darkness an illuminated fairy tale castle, La Cité, appeared. The coach parked below and we gazed up at the surreal spectacle. We then made our way over a drawbridge, through a huge stone arch and up through the eerily quiet narrow cobbled medieval streets to Hotel le Donjon les Remparts, situated within the Cité walls. It was an unforgettable arrival.

The intrepid quilters

Our luggage arrived by minibus shortly after, as coaches are not allowed in the Cité. We went to our comfortable rooms and fell into bed as soon as we could, tired, but very excited by our unusual surroundings and the prospect of a quilting holiday.

The next day, after a delicious French breakfast, we were shown the workroom. It was large and airy and looked out onto a lovely walled garden with patio, chairs and tables. We each had two tables and a brand new Bernina 240 or 440 sewing machine. These are the machines most of us could only dream of, but there they were, waiting for us to use, kindly supplied by Bernina. Anne, one of the Canadian quilters, and Karin gave us demonstrations of the 440’s unique feature for freehand machine quilting. It was great to see it in action.

Town Walls

Jackie, our Tour Manager, proved to be a tremendous asset and told us she was there to be of service, answer questions and sort out any problems – nothing was too much trouble. I think the most serious thing was a missing bathplug. She made daily sorties into La Cité and town to get local information and find restaurants. In the evenings we mainly ate together – no one was left to eat alone. Our evening meals were riotous occasions, full of fun and laughter, probably helped by a little local wine.

A photo opportunity in the garden

The whole group really gelled – this was a great bonus. The majority chose to work from Karin’s Sew a Row book, but some worked on their own projects. We had demonstrations morning and afternoon with help and suggestions whenever needed. Everyone showed interest in their classmates’ creations and offers of tools, fabrics etc. were constantly heard, as well as squeals of delight as our “rows” were finished.

Ki with her sew a row quilt top

Expertise varied, but we all achieved very satisfying results. The main emphasis was relaxing and enjoying ourselves. We were free to work as much or as little as we wanted and could pop off for coffee, lunch, shopping or sightseeing as we pleased. The time just flew by and a few of us had to be dragged away from our sewing machines as we were enjoying ourselves so much. Our gentleman companion went off and did his own thing each day and joined us for the evening meal. Gary said he felt very warmly welcomed by the group and was able to relax and have as much enjoyment and fun as the rest of us. He was quite a card!

On the Wednesday, Jackie took us to Lavelanet to visit a Textile Museum and outlet factory. The coach tour gave us a wonderful opportunity to travel through the beautiful French countryside. We saw lots of quaint houses, vineyards, trees in blossom and spring flowers in the towns and villages. We stopped for lunch in Mirepoix, a little town famous for its ancient overhanging wooden buildings that housed restaurants and shops. On the way back, we were dropped off in Carcassonne town and walked back through the square and streets to La Cité. We found a sewing shop and more interestingly an interiors shop that sold Provencal style fabrics at very reasonable prices and gorgeous French household knick knacks. The assistants were amazed at the amount of fabric they sold in one afternoon. We had a great photo opportunity from the Roman bridge to capture a brilliant view of La Cité. That evening we agreed that it felt good to leave the 21st century behind as we were once again cocooned within our fortress and felt 'très confortable'.

Traditional braid loom

Sadly, the time came for us to pack up our machines and get ready to go home. We all took photographs of everyones’ work. Marit and Inger-Marie, our two companions from Norway, presented Karin and Jackie with beautiful framed collages of Carcassonne. These they had created late at night from scraps discarded in the waste bins – apparently we were very mean with our wastage. We were very touched by their thoughtful and imaginative gifts and all signed our names on the back of the frames. Jackie had shown more than a passing interest in patchwork and quilting and was delighted to be given a copy of Karin's Sew a Row book and a rotary cutter and mat – yet another convert – perhaps in her retirement!

Sewing in the garden

We all wanted to know if there would be a trip next year. Karin said she would very happy to host another holiday and Jackie told us she had thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would even come out of retirement to take us again. She mentioned that she knew somewhere in Tuscany that would be ideal. I know we will fondly remember our quilting experience in Carcassonne with a smile, the new friends, perfect weather, wonderful setting, superb tuition and lots of laughter. When we parted company at the airport, there were promises to keep in touch by email, hugs and a tear or two, but the burning question is When can we do it again?