In many ways, Languedoc is more an idea than a geographical entity. The modern région covers only a fraction of the lands where Occitan or the langue d’oc – the language of oc, the southern Gallo-Latin word for oui – once dominated, which stretched south from Bordeaux and Lyon into Spain and northwest Italy. The heartland today is the Bas Languedoc – the coastal plain and dry, stony vine-growing hills between Carcassonne and Nîmes. It’s here that the Occitan movement has its power base, demanding recognition of its linguistic and cultural distinctiveness.
Languedoc’s long-contested history has left it with a tremendous variety of sights for the visitor. Nîmes has extensive Roman remains, while the medieval towns at Cordes and Carcassonne are must-sees, with the latter providing access to the romantic Cathar castles to the south. There’s also splendid ecclesiastical architecture in Albi and St-Guilhem-le-Désert. Montpellier’s university ensures it has a buzz that outstrips the city’s modest size, while Toulouse, the cultural capital of medieval and modern Languedoc, though officially outside the administrative région, is a high point of any itinerary.
The many other attractions include great swathes of beach where – away from the major resorts – you can still find a kilometre or two to yourself, along with wonderful dramatic landscapes and river gorges, from the Cévennes foothills in the east to the Montagne Noire and Corbières hills in the west.Read More
A good part of the political character of Languedoc derives from resentment of domination by remote and alien Paris, aggravated by the area’s traditional poverty. In recent times this has been focused on Parisian determination to drag the province into the modern world, with massive tourist development on the coast and the drastic transformation of the cheap wine industry. It is also mixed up in a vague collective folk memory with the brutal repression of the Protestant Huguenots around 1700, the thirteenth-century massacres of the Cathars and the subsequent obliteration of the brilliant langue d’oc troubadour tradition. The resulting antipathy towards central authority has made an essentially rural and conservative population vote traditionally for the Left – except during the first decade of this century, which saw wide support for Le Pen’s resurgent Front National. Although a sense of Occitan identity remains strong in the region, it has very little currency as a spoken or literary language, despite the popularity of university-level language courses and the foundation of Occitan-speaking elementary schools.
Water-jousting is a venerable Languedoc tradition that pits boat-borne jousting teams against each other in an effort to unseat their opponents. Two sleek boats, each manned by eight oarsmen and bearing a lance-carrying jouster, charge at each other on a near head-on course. As the boats approach, the jousters attempt to strike their adversary from his mount. There are about a dozen sociétés des joutes in Sète itself, and you can see them in action all through the summer.
Canal du Midi
Canal du Midi
The Canal du Midi runs for 240km from the River Garonne at Toulouse via Carcassonne to the Mediterranean at Agde. It was the brainchild of Pierre-Paul Riquet, a minor noble and tax collector, who succeeded in convincing Louis XIV (and more importantly, his first minister, Colbert) of the merits of linking the Atlantic and the Mediterranean via the Garonne.
The work, begun in 1667, took fourteen years to complete, using tens of thousands of workers. The crux of the problem from the engineering point of view was how to feed the canal with water when its high point at Naurouze, west of Carcassonne, was 190m above sea level and 58m above the Garonne at Toulouse. Riquet responded by building a system of reservoirs in the Montagne Noire, channelling run-off from the heights down to Naurouze. He spent the whole of his fortune on the canal and, sadly, died just six months before its inauguration in 1681.
The canal was a success and sparked a wave of prosperity along its course, with traffic increasing steadily until 1857, when the Sète–Bordeaux railway was opened, reducing trade on the canal to all but nothing. Today, the canal remains a marvel of engineering and beauty, incorporating no fewer than 99 locks (écluses) and 130 bridges, almost all of which date back to the first era of construction. The canal has, since its construction, been known for its lovely place trees lining the riverbank. Sadly, a wilt infection was discovered in 2006 and since then the trees have systematically been cut down. They will be replaced however, the view will not be the same for many of the years to come. You can follow it by road, and many sections have foot or bicycle paths, but the best way to see it is, of course, by boat. Outfits in all the major ports rent houseboats and barges, and there are many cruise options to choose from as well.
Le Boat (leboat.co.uk) or Locaboat (locaboat.com), both have a number of branches in Languedoc and the Midi. For a green option, try the solar-powered 14-berth barges (accessible for passengers with mobility issues) available from Naviratous (naviratous2.com).
Voies Navigables de France, 2 Port St-Étienne in Toulouse (vnf.fr); they also have English-speaking offices at the major canal ports.
Armagnac is a dry, golden brandy distilled in the district extending into the Landes and Lot and Garonne départements, divided into three distinct areas: Haut-Armagnac (around Auch), Ténarèze (Condom) and Bas-Armagnac (Éauze), in ascending order of output and quality. Growers of the grape like to compare brandy with whisky, equating malts with the individualistic, earthy Armagnac distilled by small producers, and blended whiskies with the more consistent, standardized output of the large-scale houses. Armagnac grapes are grown on sandy soils and, importantly, the wine is distilled only once, giving the spirit a lower alcohol content but more flavour. Aged in local black oak, Armagnac matures quickly, so young Armagnacs are relatively smoother than corresponding Cognacs.
Distilled originally for medicinal reasons, Armagnac has many claims heaped upon it. Perhaps the most optimistic are those of the priest of Éauze de St-Mont, who held that the eau de vie cured gout and hepatitis. More reasonably, he also wrote that it “stimulates the spirit if taken in moderation, recalls the past, gives many joys, above all else, conserves youth. If one retains it in the mouth, it unties the tongue and gives courage to the timid.”
Many of the producers welcome visitors and offer tastings, whether you go to one of the bigger chais (storehouse) of Condom or Éauze, or follow a faded sign at the bottom of a farm track. For more information, contact the Bureau National Interprofessionnel de l’Armagnac (wcognacnet.com/armagnac).