France

Around the region

Languedoc-Roussillon forged its unique identity in the early Middle Ages, when it was the core of an independent, sophisticated Occitan-speaking civilization of courtly love, poetry, chivalry, troubadours and, fatally, a large band of religious dissidents known as Cathars. It all ended with the Albigensian Crusade and Languedoc’s annexation to France in the early 13th century. But the memory of that lost world is the glue that binds the region together. Not surprisingly, medieval re-enactments are the rage.

Montpellier has been the capital of Languedoc-Roussillon since the 18th century, and is the place to go to see the future: in the past two decades it’s been the fastest-growing city in France, notably as a university city and a centre for agricultural and IT research. The region’s other main cities – Nîmes, Narbonne, Béziers, Carcassonne and Perpignan – don’t have the same go-getting drive (the region would probably overheat and blow a fuse if they did) but they’re rich in history and character, with plenty to see and do, especially in summer when they gear up for the lively festival season.

The rest of the region is happy to putter along in the slow lane, except perhaps the beach resorts in July and August when things can get rather intense. Only an hour or so away by autoroute, however, you can escape into another world altogether, one of pristine nature – the rugged garrigue, the Cévennes, the Corbières or the Pyrenees – where rivers and lakes offer idyllic alternatives to the crowded sands.

Languedoc-Roussillon is divided into five départements of such distinct personality that it makes sense to divide the book accordingly, from east to west.

The Gard

The Gard shares the Rhône and its delta, the Camargue, and its colour-drenched mix of black bulls, white horses and pink flamingos with Provence, but otherwise its soul is pure Languedoc. The capital, Nîmes, is a vivacious little city that loves its ferias, tapas and flamenco, and glows with its immaculately preserved monuments from the early days of the Roman Empire; its water supply, after all, arrived via the Pont du Gard. Down in the Camargue the high walls of Aigues-Mortes, built by St Louis, still bristle, waiting to welcome medieval Crusaders, while just north the Romanesque pilgrimage church of St-Gilles-du-Gard boasts a stupendous sculpted façade.

The towns of the Gard are exceptionally varied: there’s arty, laid-back Sommières with its bridge built by Tiberius, or Villeneuve-lès-Avignon, papal Avignon’s bedroom suburb for cardinals. Beaucaire, once host to one of the biggest markets in Europe, is now the capital of bloodless bullfights, the Courses Camarguaises; and Uzès, seat of the oldest duchy in France, is just lovely. In the north, the vineyards and olive groves that characterize much of the Gard give way to the Cévennes, the lush green mountains where Protestants hid out during the Wars of Religion, and home to the once-important silk industry. The walking here is excellent, and you can even ride an antique steam train.

The Lozère

Further north, and sharing the Cévennes National Park with the Gard, the Lozère is savage and sublime, replete with fresh air and wide-open spaces. It’s the ideal place for anyone suffering from mal de civilization – as Robert Louis Stevenson found out when he invented the long-distance walking tour here in 1879. Its little capital Mende has a medieval core and a giant Gothic cathedral, and you’ll find some ruggedly handsome old stone villages and farms scattered over the département. For the most part though, Nature in all her magnificent and occasionally quirky glory steals the show here. The stupendous Gorges du Tarn and neighbouring Gorges de la Jonte get the lion’s share of attention and tourists, but they’re only the beginning. In the Cévennes, Mont Lozère and Mont Aigoual, the sources of many of Languedoc’s rivers, offer splendid viewpoints over much of southern France. Vultures, wolves and mouflons (wild sheep) have recently been re-introduced, and caves, abysses and swallow holes offer underworldly splendours. The département’s very emptiness has attracted some interesting characters since the 1970s, who have contributed to a precocious interest in sustainable tourism. One of their legacies is a pair of remarkable adventure playgrounds; Le Vallon du Villaret and Utopix. Although it’s just outside the Lozère, this chapter also includes one of the newest wonders of France, Sir Norman Foster’s sublime Viaduc de Millau.

The Hérault

At the heart of Languedoc, the Hérault is home to the region’s feverish capital and its biggest university. Montpellier’s beautifully restored historic centre, L’Ecusson, bursts at the seams with elegant hôtels particuliers, boutiques, trendy hotels and restaurants, and the region’s top art collection is displayed here in the Musée Fabre. Nearby Pézenas, the elegant former capital, takes pride in its association with Molière. There’s a long swathe of coast, with the vibrant port of Sète and great shellfish nursery of the Bassin de Thau in the middle, and two hugely popular beach resorts on either end – the bodacious, Jetsons-friendly La Grande Motte and the fashionable Le Cap d’Agde, built near an ancient Greek colony and with museums containing stunning ancient bronzes found in nearby shipwrecks. The Hérault’s amiable second city, Béziers, is piled under its enormous cathedral, near the hilltop Oppidum d’Ensérune, the most impressive of the pre-Greek and Roman cities of Languedoc. The most fascinating stretch of the Canal du Midi begins near here as well, before passing through a series of delightful canal ports. The hilly limestone garrigue that dominates the northern Hérault is endowed with wild gorges, Minervois vineyards and beautiful villages, such as St-Guilhem-le-Désert, Minerve, Roquebrun and Orlagues.

The Aude

The Aude, as its slogan proclaims, is ‘the land of the Cathars’ and interest in the area, piqued by bestsellers, has made it quite popular in recent years. Its capital Carcassonne, a glorious fairytale vision, can get so busy that you’ll need to carefully time your visit to avoid the crowds. On the other hand, you’ll need your walking shoes for the Cathar castles – the ruined, outrageously picturesque last refuges of Languedoc’s medieval heretics. Most of these are in the rugged Corbières south of Carcassonne, an area synonymous with red wine. Lovers of bubbly, however, shouldn’t miss Limoux. The curious flock to the vortex of French mysteries, Rennes-le-Château; the adventurous go whitewater rafting down the Aude; and the palaeontology buffs visit Dinosauria in Espéraza. The Canal du Midi passes through the area (although for convenience’s sake we’ve included it all in the Hérault chapter), and one of its branches, the Canal de la Robine, transverses Narbonne. This was the Roman capital of Languedoc and once the seat of a powerful bishop, with a stunning cathedral complex to prove it and a museum worthy of the Cardinal’s palaces in Rome. One of the greatest religious houses of Languedoc, the Abbaye de Fontfroide, is nearby, whilst just over the coastal mountain of La Clape await a string of beaches and the excellent safari park at Sigean.

Roussillon

Framed by the Pyrenees and the sea, Roussillon (the Pyrénées-Orientales) was part of Catalonia until 1669, and still has strong cultural links with the dynamic Spanish region south of the border. Most of Roussillon’s monuments date from its pre-French days, beginning with the cathedral and royal palace in the sunny capital Perpignan; the Renaissance Fortress at Salses; and a bevy of stunning Romanesque churches, including Elne, St-Michel-de-Cuxa and Serrabonne. As elsewhere, wide sandy beaches and salt lagoons rule the coast, only here the Côte Vermeille kicks up a fine stretch of cliff and coves to the south, with delectable Collioure, the town of anchovies and Fauves, as the main allure. The Conflent, the main valley into the Pyrenees, is guarded by Louis XIV’s fortified town of Villefranche-de-Conflent. Near here you can climb the iconic Pic du Canigou, go canyoning or caving, or take one of the most exciting train journeys in Europe to the magnificent sun-drenched plateau of the Cerdagne, home to the region’s top ski resorts and the world’s biggest solar furnace. Alternatively, visit Tautavel and see relics of some of the earliest Europeans, or charming Céret, once a favourite resort of the Cubists, with a museum to prove it.

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