A man dives into a river beneath a giant Roman aqueduct in Provence, France.

France //

Languedoc

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.