A guide to Languedoc Roussillon

Photo of Chateau Royale, Collioure Chateau Royale, Collioure by Simple Dolphin

Stretching langourously from the Rhône delta along the Mediterranean to the Spanish border, Languedoc-Roussillon enjoys the same climate and relaxed pace of life as Provence – but at a fraction of the cost. Moreover, the vast swathes of sandy beaches, and the roads to them, are much less congested than their Provençal counterparts, even in the height of summer. If you’re priced out of Provence, check out Languedoc-Roussillon.

The region offers much more than just sun, sand and sea; the Pyrénées-Orientales offers easy access to skiing, while the Aude hinterland offers the intoxicating spectacle of Corbières and the Minervois vineyards stretching as far as the eye can see. Beyond are the rugged mountain walks of the Haut Languedoc national park and the Cevennes - with majestic views over the Pyrénées, the Mediterranean and the Alps!

The locals seem to set their watches to the sleepy pace of the holiday barges as they wend their way along the Canal du Midi from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean via Toulouse and Sète. The region has a wealth of riches; from antiquity’s Roman arena at Nîmes and aquaduct at Pont du Gard, to the medieval period’s craggy Cathar castles and the perfectly restored citadel of Carcassonne. Add to the mix the extemely youthful, forward-looking city of Montpellier – the capital – and you have a region which knows how to embrace the future while respecting its past.

Languedoc Roussillon Departments

Aude, Gard, Hérault, Lozère, Pyrénées-Orientales

Major towns in Languedoc Roussillon

Montpellier, Perpignan, Nîmes, Béziers, Narbonne

What to see in Languedoc Roussillon

Carcassonne

From without, Carcassonne is a fairy-tale like vision of fortified battlements, ramparts and turrets perched on high above the river Aude. But breach these once impregnable defences and this complete medieval city comes to life before your eyes. The citadel forms a spectacular backdrop to the fireworks display on 14 Juillet and Les Spectacles Médiévaux in mid August.

For children of all ages, La Maison Hantée is guaranteed to have the hairs on your neck – and possibly your head – standing on end. As you pass from darkened room to darkened room you sense the presence of those you cannot see, you feel someone or something breathe on your neck, you’re touched by a disembodied hand or caressed by an invisible admirer. Listen to the screams of those already within before crossing the threshold. Not recommended for those of a nervous disposition. Top tip: try not to wear white, invest in some military style night-vision optical equipment and hide just as soon as you can.

La Maison Hantée, 9 place Grand-Puits Tel. 06 03 84 13 86

Lagrasse

Officially one of the most beautiful villages in France, Lagrasse is an unspoilt gem nestling in the foothills of the Corbières between Carcassonne and Narbonne. With its cobbled streets and medieval houses little seems to have changed since medieval times and its ambiance has attracted many painters, sculptors and potters who have converted dwellings into studios and exhibition spaces. The central market square plays host to farmers’ markets, craft fairs and bric-a-brac sales and there are countless opportunities for al fresco dining and watching the world go by.

Visit the old Benedictine abbey dating from the time of Charlemagne or cool off at the delightful bathing and picnic spot on the river just below the abbey.

Pont du Gard

Photo of Pont du Gard Pont du Gard by Elbisreverri

The fact that you can still walk across this 2000 year old bridge which bestrides the wide valley below, bears testimony to the ingenuity and longevity of Roman engineering. The Pont du Gard is comprised of three tiers of continuous arches - the uppermost of which was the aquaduct carrying water from the springs at Uzès to Nîmes. Truly spectacular and a wonder of the ancient world.

The Cathar castles

Aude and Ariège are dotted with defensive castles perched precariously atop rocky outcrops; they were home to the persecuted Cathars, a 13th Century non-violent, vegetarian and sexually abstinent Christian sect.

They were no match for the extremely violent, lusty, meat-eating Crusaders who were dispatched by the King of France and the Pope to topple them. The latter helpfully promised the Cathars’ lands to those who put them to the sword and offered the butchers the Lord’s forgiveness in advance of their deeds. Bless him.

20,000 Cathars were slaughtered in Beziers, 140 were burned to death at Minerve and 225 died defending their last fortress at Montségur – the castle remains and serves as a stark warning to those thinking of embracing a life of pacifism, vegetarianism and sexual abstinence. Life’s too short.

* The most spectacular of the Cathar castles is 2,000 ft high stone citadel of Peyrepertuse. Quéribus is also well worth a visit.

The Parc Régional du Haut Languedoc

The Parc Régional du Haut Languedoc is the second largest national park in France. In stark contrast with the gentle coastline, it offers spectacular scenery stretching eastwards from the Montagne Noire, a mountainous region between Béziers and Castres, up into the Cévennes. St-Pons-de-Thomières is the entrance into this wilderness world of mountain and forest which is dotted with trails for walking and riding. Take the D908 from St-Pons through the park passing through the village of Olargues.

Between the Parc National des Cevennes and Nîmes you will find the Grotte des Demoiselles and the Grotte de Clamouse where you can explore the spectacular subterranean world of underground rivers and caves. Floodlit formations of stalagtites and stalagmites conjure up visions of gigantic dripping candles, organ pipes or soaring gothic columns. Let your imagination run wild! Visit www.demoiselles.com

The Little Yellow Train

The best way to explore the mountainous Cerdagne between the Pyrénées-Orientales and Spain is by taking a seat on Le Petit Train Jaune. If you’d like to ski or walk amidst mountains, lakes and forests of pine and chestnut, arrive early and climb aboard at Villefranche-de-Conflent. From here you will climb on narrow-guage tracks via gorge and viaduct to Mont Louis, the ski resort of Font-Romeu and journey’s end Latour-de-Carol.

Montpellier

If Montpellier comes across as a young, vibrant and forward-looking city, small wonder – a quarter of its population is under 25! Just take to the streets to feel the buzz of Languedoc-Roussillon’s capital.

You have not visited Montpellier until you have sat on a café terrace on the Place de la Comédie – it’s one of those places where you see more sitting still than you do walking around. Amidst the whirl of distractions don’t forget to admire the elegant 19th century opera house and Fontaine des Trois Graces.

With no Roman ruins and with the 16th century Wars of Religion destroying all the 12th century fortifications except for the Tour de la Babote and Tours des Pins, Montpellier’s destiny was always going to be to embrace the future. Fortunately for us this started with 17th century reconstruction which bequeethed the visitor so many elegant mansions with courtyards, stone staircases and balconies. Open to the public are: Hôtel de Manse on rue Embouque-d’Or, Hôtel de Mirman near place des Martyrs de la Resistance and Hôtel des Trésoriers de la Bourse. Of the same epoch, the Musée Fabre houses works by many great French painters including Courbet’s famous ‘Bonjour M. Courbet’, Berthe Morisot’s ‘L’Eté ou Jeune Femme près de la fenêtre’ and Robert Delaunay’s cubist ‘Nature Morte Portugaise’.

The spirit of regeneration has continued under the stewardship of visionary mayor Georges Frèche; see just how beautiful a social housing development can be at Antigone, or visit the postmodern celebration of form and function that is the Corum opera and conference centre.

Nîmes

An intriguing mix of ancient and modern architecture greets the visitor; from the unrivalled Roman amphitheatre (Les Arènes) which saw gladiatorial combat, chariot racing and even naval battles (it could be flooded), to an astonishing bus stop by Philippe Starck. Today the 1st century arena hosts concerts, sporting events and – remaining true to its bloodthirsty origins – bullfighting.

Similarly the Maison Carrée, the world’s best preserved Roman temple is reflected in the glass and steel of the arts complex opposite - the Carrée d’Art designed by Sir Norman Foster in 1993. Other Roman treasures include the Roman gateway, the Porte Auguste (15 BC) and the Castellum, used for storing and distributing water carried to Nîmes via Le Pont du Gard. Take care to remember your hat, Nimes lies in a natural ‘cuvette’ or basin and becomes a furnace in the heat of summer.

Sète

With pastel coloured Italianate houses adorning a network of canals and bridges, Sète is France’s very own Venice. Catch the boisterous jousting festivals on the Grand Canal in August when the Sètois families compete – man and boy – for the glory of victory and the honour of the family.

Béziers

The legacy of Béziers’ most famous son appropriately enough runs through the town of his birth in eternal tribute. The Canal du Midi, a remarkable feat of 17th century engineering by Paul Riquet, is today plied by holiday barges en route from the Atlantic through to the Mediterranean. The town’s highlights include the 14th century Cathédrale St-Nazaire and the Musée du Biterrois with its focus on local history, wine and of course, the canal.

* Visit nearby Musée de l’Oppidum d’Ensérune dedicated to the Roman site of the same name. It has a good collection of Celtic, Greek and Roman artefacts, jewellery and weapons.

Narbonne

Take to the north bank of the Canal de la Robine to explore Narbonne’s restored medieval quarter with its elegant shops and restaurants. The Horreum is not as macabre as it sounds (sorry kids) – it is a fascinating 1st century BC warren of Roman granaries.

The centre of Narbonne is dominated by the 13th century Cathédrale St-Just et St-Pasteur and the 14th century Palais des Archevêques (Archbishops’ Palace) which houses the town hall and museums in some grandeur. The Archbishops’ former apartments are home to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire – itself a work of art which in turn houses works of art by the likes of Canaletto, Brueghel, Boucher and Veronese.

Perpignan

The capital of Roussillon, its pastel coloured facades and palm trees lend Perpignan a distinctly Catalan, even Spanish, feel – indeed its citizens were once loyal subjects of the kings of Majorca and Aragon.

Spend time in the vibrant quarter around the 14th Century Loge de Mer – never has a fast-food restaurant been so elegantly housed – and the labyrinthine St-Jean quarter with its fine 14th and 15th century buildings. Make time for Cathédrale St-Jean – constructed from river pebbles – and the 13th century Palais des Rois de Majorque whose sheer ramparts preserved the kings of Majorca in the opulence to which they were accustomed, and at a safe distance from the giddy multitudes without.

* Don’t miss the proud Catalans as they dance the ‘Sardana’ in the manner of their forbears during the many summer celebrations. Young and old alike, they raise their arms aloft and form concentric circles as they dance to their traditional Catalan woodwind band.

Collioure

Photo of the beach at Collioure The beach at Collioure by Jenny "poppy" Preece

Found where the Pyrénées tumble into the mediterranean, Collioure combines the authentic atmosphere of a Catalan fishing port with the style of a sophisticated but unspoilt seaside resort. It still finds favour with its traditional well-heeled French clientelle.The harbour is dominated by the impressive Château Royal which inspires many imitation sand-castles on the resort’s three sheltered family-friendly beaches. Collioure has enchanted many a visitor since its luminosity, its brightly stuccoed houses and its gaily painted boats first attracted Matisse here in 1905. The interesting Eglise-Notre-Dame-des-Anges incorporates the former lighthouse as a belltower!

Food and Drink in Languedoc Roussillon

Cassoulet (stew), Roquefort cheese, seafood, tellines (local clams), Ttoro (fish stew), charcuterie, la boeuf gardiane, Petits pâtés de Pézenas (delicious lamb pies).

Red wines include Corbières, Minervois, Faugères, Fitou, Banyuls, Coteaux du Languedoc and Vin de Pays d’Oc. Rivesaltes produces sweet white Muscats and rich, port-like reds.

Getting to Languedoc Roussillon

By Air

  • Fly to Montpellier with...
  • British Airways from Gatwick
  • GB Airways from Gatwick
  • Ryanair from Stanstead
  • bmibaby from Manchester
  • Fly to Perpignan with...
  • Ryanair from Stanstead
  • Bmibaby from Manchester
  • Flybe from Birmingham and Southampton
  • Fly to Carcassonne with...
  • Ryanairfrom Stanstead, Dublin, Nottingham, Liverpool and Shannon
  • Fly to Nîmes with...
  • Ryanairfrom East Midlands, Stanstead, Liverpool and Luton

By Road

Paris > A10 > A20 > Toulouse > A61 > Carcassonne

Paris > A10 > A71/E11 > Clermont-Ferrand > A75 > Montpellier > A9 (east to Nîmes and west to Perpignan)

COACH: Eurolines (08705 143219, www.eurolines.com) offers services to Béziers, Carcassonne, Narbonne, Nîmes and Perpignan.

By Rail

London Waterloo/Ashford > Eurostar > Paris Nord > Metro > Paris Gare de Lyon > (TGV) > Nîmes > Montpellier > Perpignan.

Eurostar Lille Europe > Perpignan

Motorail Calais > Narbonne

Contact Rail Europe (08705 848848, www.raileurope.co.uk) for details

Events and Festivals

  • Truffle fair (Uzès, January)
  • Local corridas and ferias (February, June & September)
  • Printemps du Jazz (Nîmes, March)
  • Foire à l’Ail – garlic fair (Uzès, June)
  • Festival de la Cité (Carcassonne, July)
  • Fête du Quatorze Juillet – spectacular fireworks display against the magnificent backdrop of the citadel (Carcassonne, 14th July)
  • Pablo Casals Festival (Prades, July)
  • Les Spectacles Médiévaux (Carcassonne mid-August)
  • Fête des Vendanges (Carcassonne, October)

Traditional Crafts

ewellery (garnets), pottery, stonework, basketwork, textiles, glassware and denim (from De Nîmes)

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