The Complete Guide To: Languedoc Roussillon
With its wealth of historic towns, varied natural beauty, and great food and wine, this region in south-west France is a real delight, says Mary Novakovich
What's in the name?
Languedoc literally means "language of yes" – langue d'oc – but obviously something goes missing in translation. "Oc" was how the Occitan-speaking inhabitants of this part of south-west France said " yes ", as opposed to northerners who said "oïl". Now, everyone says "oui" – apart from Catalan speakers in the southern province of Roussillon, who say "si", just to confuse things further.
But then, who would expect anything straightforward about a region that is filled with extraordinary riches and has such a complicated history? Languedoc-Roussillon has always been more down-to-earth than its eastern neighbour, and this is reflected in a landscape that ranges from rugged mountains to vine-covered hills and plains, down to its vast coast. Its turbulent history has seen religious persecution, farmers' revolts and an attempt to eradicate the Occitan language.
Yet it's also home to one of France's most dynamic cities, Montpellier, which has the world's oldest continuously operating university. The Roman cities of Nîmes and Narbonne wear their long history comfortably while retaining a typically southern, relaxed ambience. Carcassonne combines its workaday lower town with the medieval Cité, which was practically a ruin until it was restored – some say too enthusiastically – in the 19th century. Yes, it's full of tourists, but even the shops selling tat can't destroy the evocative atmosphere.
Head further south, and you reach the capital of French Catalonia: Perpignan, one of the most pleasing cities in which to amble about. And then there's the seemingly endless coastline.
Any Room for my sun-lounger?
Plenty. You won't find the St-Tropez poseurs here – nor the prices. The beaches are not as developed as their eastern counterparts. Part of this is to do with the stronger winds and the erratic coastline, which has a tendency to sprout lagoons here and there. This is its charm, and what makes a beach holiday so pleasurable.
Drive from agreeably scruffy and bustling Sète along the 12-mile spit of land that takes you to Cap d'Agde, and you won't have to fight the crowds, even at the height of the season. Carry on to the smaller resorts of Valras-Plage, Gruissan (where Betty Blue was filmed), and down to the resorts around Perpignan and you'll find families settled in for the summer along the many Blue Flag beaches.
The landscape changes once you get to the Côte Vermeille, towards the Spanish border, where swimming coves are tucked into the rocky coast, and pretty seaside villages such as Collioure, Port-Vendres and Banyuls-sur-Mer add a distinctive Catalan flavour.
For culture lovers?
Montpellier had cause to celebrate this spring when its Fabre museum finally reopened after an extensive five-year refurbishment (00 33 4 67 14 83 00; www.montpellier-agglo.com ). Its extensive collections include works by Rubens, Poussin, Courbet, Delacroix, Dufy and Maillol. Its current Impressionism exhibition runs until 9 September. It opens 10am-6pm daily, except Mondays, 1-9pm on Wednesdays, 11am-6pm Sundays, admission €6 (£4).
Rugby-mad Béziers is often overlooked as a cultural highlight, but its 14th-century St-Nazaire cathedral is a fine example of Gothic architecture. The original building was burnt during the infamous sacking of Béziers in 1209, when the Catholic Church's crusaders slaughtered thousands of people in their hunt for a handful of Cathar heretics. Make the effort to climb to the top to get magnificent views of the river Orb that winds through the city, and surrounding countryside.
Between Béziers and Montpellier is the Renaissance town of Pézenas. The town's grand private residences, the hôtels particuliers, contain inner courtyards with elaborate stone balustrades, arches and other wonderfully exotic flourishes. If you see an open gate, don't hesitate to have a quick nose round. Molière spent some time here during an itinerant period of his life, and the town plays up the assocation, invoking his spirit with festivals celebrating 17th-century life.
The gateway to Perpignan is the 14th-century Castillet, which houses a Catalan folklore museum and whose arch is worth a climb for views of Mont Canigou. At the southern end of the town is the Palais des Rois de Majorque, an imposing 13th-century reminder of when Perpignan was part of the kingdom of Mallorca.
For sheer lunacy, try to catch the water-jousting tournaments held in Sète throughout the summer in its Grand Canal. Two opposing teams of locals perch on gondola-style boats and attempt to knock each other off until there is only the winner left. It's noisy, colourful, and an unmissable part of a Setois summer.
A return to Roman times?
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 St-Thibéry, where an intact Roman bridge crosses the Hérault river. Eventually, you can make your way to Nîmes. Its splendid Roman amphitheatre is in better condition than the one in nearby Arles, and is the setting for V C bullfighting and open-air concerts. Les Arènes, as it's known (00 33 4 66 21 82 56; www.arenes-nimes.fr ), is open daily from 9am-7pm June-August, 9am-6.30pm September, until 6pm March and October and 5pm November-February; €7.70 (£5.20).
An impressive feat of Roman engineering is the Pont du Gard, the three-tiered aqueduct that spans the Gardon river in the east of the region, near Uzès. Although much of it had to be restored during the 18th and 19th centuries, there is enough of the original Roman construction for it to be a Unesco World Heritage Site, and one of France's top-five tourist attractions. It opens daily 9.30am-7pm, closed Monday mornings (www.pontdugard.fr ); €3 (£2).
You're in prime hiking territory. The Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Languedoc is at the southernmost point of the Massif Central. It includes the Montagne Noire, Mont Caroux, the Monts de Lacaune and the Monts d'Orb. 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 a walking or cycling holiday.
The Pyrenees provide even more vigorous exercise thanks to the higher altitudes. Explore Worldwide (0870 333 4001; www.explore.co.uk ) has an eight-day guided trek through the eastern side of the vast mountain range that includes the 9,137-ft Canigou, which Catalans consider the symbol of their region. The trek ends up down in the vineyards of Banyuls-sur-Mer, and costs from £749 per person, including transport and meals.
Horse-lovers can explore the landscapes and villages of the Camargue, where the delta of the Rhône river has created an unusually open landscape in which it's hard to see where the land ends and the lagoons begin. Foxcroft Travel Riding Holidays (01834 831 841; www.foxcrofttravel.co.uk ) offers a week's riding in the Camargue from £495 per person, including all meals and gîte accommodation but excluding travel from Britain.
For less strenuous fresh air, a cruise along the Canal du Midi will make the world slow down. Pierre-Paul Riquet's tranquil waterway shows little sign of the financial grief its construction caused him back in the 17th century. Its 150 miles make for an agreeable journey, wherever you care to join it, and the towpaths are perfect for cycling.
What will I eat and drink?
The cuisine is as diverse as the geography. A jaunt along the Etang de Thau, the large lagoon between Sète and Agde, reveals mile upon mile of oyster, mussel and whelk beds, the products of which end up on plates throughout the region. A visit to Sète should include a taste of its seafood version of a Cornish pasty, the tielle, filled with octopus, squid and spices. Collioure remains a major producer of anchovies, despite the intensive nature of its processing.
Meat lovers can get their fill with the south-west's most celebrated dish, cassoulet, the ingredients of which are debated endlessly by the chefs in the three main locations – Carcassonne, Castelnaudary and Toulouse – but which normally includes haricot beans, sausage and confit of duck or goose.
Wash all of this down with wine from France's largest wine-making 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, Faugères and Pic St-Loup.
The rugged Catalan coast is 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.
How do I get there – and around?
The low-impact approach is by Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com train services from London Waterloo and Ashford. Fares to Nîmes, Montpellier, Sète, Agde, Béziers, Narbonne and Perpignan start at £109 return..
To make the most of the excellent rail services within Languedoc-Roussillon, plan in advance with a specialist like Rail Europe (08708 304 862;www.raileurope.co.uk
One journey you shouldn't miss is aboard the Petit Train Jaune, the little yellow train that climbs to the highest reaches of the eastern Pyrenees, yet which is also part of the SNCF national network.
The main airline flying to Languedoc-Roussillon is Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com , which flies to Carcassonne and Nîmes from Stansted, Nottingham and Liverpool; and to Montpellier and Perpignan from Stansted alone. GB Airways flies to Montpellier from Gatwick on behalf of British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com , though this is set to end on 1 October.
To get off the beaten track, it helps to have a car. Hertz (08708 44 88 44; www.hertz. co.uk ) offers five days' car hire leaving from Montpellier airport or the railway station from £130.
There's also Motorail, which transports you and your car from Calais to Narbonne; contact Rail Europe (08708 304 864; www.raileurope.co.uk ) for details. One-way prices start at £249 for June departures.
Where can I find out more?
The Languedoc-Roussillon regional tourist board (00 33 4 67 20 02 20; www.sun- france.com ) is based in Montpellier. Each département has its own regional tourist board: Aude (www.aude-tourisme.com ); Gard (www.tourisme gard.com ); Lozère (www.lozere-tourisme.fr ); Hérault (www.cdt-herault.fr ); and Pyré*ées-Orientales (www.cdt-66.com ).
Languedoc-Roussillon is home to one of the most vibrant cities in France. Montpellier's university helps to give that city an unusually large population of people under 25, which means that the bars, clubs and restaurants don't give up the ghost once summer ends. But once the students leave at the end of term, the annual summer festivities get into full flow.
Every August, Béziers hosts its Feria – four days of bullfighting, singing and dancing.
Slightly more sedate, but no less exciting, is Bastille Day in Carcassonne. Each 14 July, spectacular fireworks are set off behind the ramparts of La Cité, the grand finale of which is a dramatic impression of the whole citadel being ablaze.
Winter fun can be found in Limoux, where the Mardi Gras carnival is one of the liveliest in France.
The Cathars were a religious sect that flourished in the Languedoc region, particularly in what is now the Aude département, from the 11th to the 13th century. Many of their beliefs – equality for men and women, disapproval of church corruption and opulence – were at odds with the Catholic Church, which led to them being branded as heretics and ruthlessly pursued in a series of crusades.
Part of their defence was to build strategic fortresses on practically inaccessible mountaintops, and live in the villages below. These castles, or what remains of them, form the Sentier Cathare, or Cathar Way, in the Corbières hills – a fascinating route that is popular among walkers, going from Narbonne to Foix, in the Ariège.
The major Cathar castles are at Quéribus, Peyreperteuse, Puilaurens and, the most notable, Montségur. It was here, in 1244, that more than 200 Cathars were burnt at the stake after a lengthy siege.
In spite of its gruesome history, the landscape of the Sentier Cathare is breathtaking and dramatic. Inntravel (01653 617 788; www. inntravel.co.uk ) offers an eight-day hike along the Sentier Cathare from £786 per person, including rail travel and most meals.