The secret south of France
A visit to the south of France doesn’t have to mean hordes of tourists, packed beaches and inflated prices. Head west for an altogether different experience, to the land where the mountains meet the sea…
Though it shares many charms with the Cote d’Azur – its famously glitzy neighbour – Languedoc-Roussillion is often overlooked by holidaymakers. Yet France’s most south-westerly region has something for almost everyone – from sunbathers and hill walkers to history enthusiasts, families and nature lovers.
Stretching along France’s south-western Mediterranean coastline, between the border with Spain and the west of Provence, reaching inland to the Pyrenees in the south and the Cevennes National Park in the north, the area offers a warm, gentle climate, varied landscapes and a fascinating history.
A strategic border since Roman times, the region is dotted with ancient architecture from Roman aqueducts to hilltop castles. But these days it’s best known for its vineyards, which produce a third of all French wine, and its vast beaches, which sprawl along its coast.
The Cité de Carcassonne
This citadel in the French city of Carcassonne, is a 13th-century world of towers, turrets and cobblestones. It’s a world heritage site and the best-kept and largest example of a medieval castle in the world. It’s said the shape inspired Cinderella’s castle in Disneyland. For real impact, view it from a distance first, before you enter the heart of the fortress (either from the town of Carcassonne or from the A61 motorway). Then while away the hours wandering the ancient cobbled lanes founded by Romans and trodden over the centuries by Visigoths, Saracens and rich medieval merchants. tourism-carcassonne.co.uk
Situated on the Spanish border, this lovely town is easily the most picturesque coastal resort in the region. Pyrenean mountains tumble into the sea, there’s a glittering harbour walled by Louis X1V-era fortifications, beach-side restaurants, bijou boutiques, art trails – in the early 20th century Collioure was a magnet for artists, including Picasso and Matisse – and three beaches. It’s also among the sunniest, warmest summer spots in France. collioure.com
Le Pont du Gard
One of France’s top-five tourist attractions, this three-tiered aqueduct spanning the Gardon river near Uzès is an astonishing feat of Roman engineering. Although much of it had to be restored during the 18th and 19th centuries, there’s enough of the original construction to make it a Unesco World Heritage Site. pontdugard.fr/en
Tautavel Prehistoric Museum
For those who want to head even further back in time, a visit to this museum near Perpignan in the west of the region is a must. It’s home to some exceptional remains, most notably the fossilised skull of the Tautavel Man, found in the village in 1971. Aged 450,000 years old, he is the oldest man ever found on French soil. 450000ans.com
For beach lovers…
The beaches of this region are not as developed as those on the Riviera and also
generally larger and sandier than their pebbly equivalents, some stretching for miles. In fact, Espiguette beach in the Camargue – wild and backed by endless sand dunes – is one of Europe’s longest.
If you’re after somewhere more accessible, just along the coast lies La Grande-Motte which has several kilometres of “blue flag” sandy beaches (the central beach, and east and west beaches), which are clean, mostly offer disabled access and are supervised by lifeguards.
Other noteworthy beaches lying west along the coast are those of La Franqui and Leucate. Part of La Franqui’s beach is double-sided – with the sea on one side and the etang (inland lake) on the other, while Leucate has two beaches – one larger, reminiscent of a southern Californian beach town, and one more remote, thin strip of beach bordered by rocks.
The landscape changes once you get to the Côte Vermeille, towards the Spanish border, breaking into more craggy inlets and smaller, more secluded beaches. Head to the northern end of Argèles – arguably Languedoc’s most famous beach – for stunning views of the Pyrenees, and lush grass and pine trees just behind the beach itself.
The food of the region is as diverse as the landscape. Virtually every town or district in Languedoc has a favourite dish – often based on what’s locally available. Perhaps the best-known regional dish is cassoulet, the ingredients of which are debated endlessly by the chefs of Carcassonne, Castelnaudary and Toulouse, its three main homes – but it normally includes haricot beans, sausage and confit of duck or goose.
On the coast, the town of Sète is famous for its bourride, a fish stew with a garlic mayonnaise. Sea bass, tuna and sardines proliferate on the menus of many seafood restaurants, alongside fresh oysters and mussels, cultivated in the coastal strip’s shallow lagoons.
Apricots, peaches and cherries are just some of the region’s home-grown fruits and are used to great effect in clafoutis, a sweet pudding made of fruit and egg batter.
Wash all of this down with wine from France’s largest winemaking region. For many years, Languedoc-Roussillon wine-makers concentrated more on quantity than quality, but improvements now produce high-class wine with appellations including Corbières, Minervois and Pic St-Loup. The rugged Catalan coast is also known for its vin doux, the sweet wine from Banyuls, and Limoux in the Aude region produces its own sparkling wine, Blanquette de Limoux, said to have been made a good 100 years before Dom Pérignon made his.
For culture vultures…
You can’t miss the mark the Romans made on the region. Just follow the remnants of the Via Domitia, the road built in 118BC to connect Spain with Italy. You can see part of it in Narbonne, a major port in Roman Gaul, before the town’s harbour silted up in the 14th century.
Pick up the trail further east in the village of Saint-Thibéry, where an intact Roman bridge crosses the Hérault River. Eventually, you can make your way to Nîmes, which boasts the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world. It still regularly hosts rock concerts and events including re-enactments of gladiator battles. La Maison Carrée is one of the best-preserved temples of the imperial cult (when Roman citizens worshipped the Emperor as a God) and Le Tour Magne one of the tallest lookout towers.
The area has a fantastic diversity of places to visit with children. Future paleontologists will love Meze Dinosaur Museum, where along with life-size dinosaur models, it has a sandpit where you can pretend to be an archaeologist and unearth bones. It even has water sprays if you get too hot while wandering around in the height of summer.
A journey the whole family will love is on the ‘Petit Train Jaune’, a charming single-gauge train that weaves up Languedoc’s Pyrenees mountains from Villefranche to Latour-de-Carol. The scenery is stunning, and in summer, there are open-air carriages.
Thrill seekers should head to one of the three Aqualands; huge waterparks with great slides and wave pools that will be a big hit with slightly older children. On a smaller scale, La Bouscarasse Water Park in Serviers-et-Labaume is a big favourite of families with smaller children.
For active types
With the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Languedoc at the southernmost point of the Massif Central, the region is home to some prime hiking territory. The whole area covers more than 1,000 square miles of mountains, rivers, lakes and forests, with pleasant towns such as Bédarieux, Olargues and St-Pons-de-Thomières to use as a base for an activity holiday.
While mountain bikers can get off the beaten track and into trails through the vineyards, garrigue (Mediterranean scrubland) or mountains, eager road cyclists can follow in the tyre tracks of the Languedoc sections of the Tour de France. Families might prefer the 240km path alongside the Canal du Midi – the most famous cycleway in the region.
For ocean-lovers, strong steady sea breezes mean there are plenty of yachting, sailing and windsurfing centres along the coast. Visit languedoc-france.info to find your preferred sport.
Where to stay
What better way to experience such a stunningly beautiful region than by staying amidst nature at one of the region’s numerous campsites? Castel Les Criques de Porteils lies between Argeles-sur-Mer and Collioure in the most stunning of locations – between the lush green Roussillon mountains, the foothills of the Pyrenees and the seemingly infinite Mediterranean Sea. With its own private coves, swimming pools with slides, children’s playground, a mini vineyard, restaurant and shop, you needn’t actually leave the campsite – although with so much to do and see nearby, it would be a shame not to! And camping doesn’t have to mean ‘roughing it’ – alongside the classic camping pitches; the site also has its own Bengali, bungalow-style tents for hire, as well as immaculately kept and well-equipped two or three bedroom mobile homes.
Open March-October. Rates start at €179 for a week in a Bengali tent, €210 for a classic camping pitch, and €299 for a mobile home with two bedrooms. Visit camping-castels.co.uk to book.
Time Difference: GMT +1
Climate: After Corsica, the region is the warmest in France, with average annual temperatures between 13.5 and 15 C. The coastline is warmer than the interior, though Autumn and Spring may see heavy rain and winds.
Visas: Not needed
The main airline servicing Languedoc-Roussillon is Stansted, Birmingham and Liverpool; and to Montpellier and Perpignan from Stansted.
You could also travel by Eurostar to Avignon, then take a regional train on to your destination. And there’s Motorail, which transports you and your car from Paris to Narbonne. Plan rail journeys in advance with a specialist like Rail Europe.
When to go:
High summer can be very hot, and January to March rainy. May and June are temperate and lovely, while October is still warm but less crowded. November and December are cooler, but offer plenty of sunshine and blue skies.