Heading south from Paris via Lyon and the Rhône valley, you can go one of two ways: east to Provence and the Côte d’Azur – which is what most people do – or west to Nîmes, Montpellier and the comparatively untouched Languedoc coast. Nîmes makes a good introduction to the area, a hectic modern town impressive for its Roman past and some scattered attractions, including the Pont du Gard nearby. Montpellier is also worth a day or two, not so much for historical attractions as for a heady vibrancy and easy access to the ancient villages, churches and fine scenery of the upper Hérault valley.
This is the heartland of Languedoc, a rural region that has resolutely resisted the power of Northern France since the Middle Ages. This resistance came in the form of medieval Catharism; early-modern Protestantism; its support of the revolutions of 1789 and 1848; the nineteenth-century revival of Occitan culture; war-time resistance against the Nazis, and finally a democratic populism that has found its voice both in the extreme Left and the extreme Right. Such resistance often provoked reprisals on the part of Paris and the north; this only helped cement a distinct Languedocian identity expressed as opposition to the status quo.Read More
Pont du Gard
Pont du Gard
Built in the middle of the first century AD to supply fresh water to the city, and with just a 17m difference in altitude between start and finish, the Roman aqueduct north of Nîmes was quite an achievement, running as it does over hill and dale, through a tunnel, along the top of a wall, into trenches and over rivers; the Pont du Gard carries it over the River Gardon. Today the bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and something of a tourist trap, but is nonetheless a supreme piece of engineering and a brilliant combination of function and aesthetics; it made the impressionable Rousseau wish he’d been born Roman.
Three tiers of arches span the river, with the covered water conduit on the top rendered with a special plaster waterproofed with a paint apparently based on fig juice. A visit here used to be a must for French journeymen masons on their traditional tour of the country, and many of them have left their names and home towns carved on the stonework. Markings made by the original builders are still visible on individual stones in the arches.
The Pont du Gard features an extensive multimedia complex, the Site Pont du Gard, which includes a state-of-the-art museum, botanical gardens and a range of regular children’s activities. With the swimmable waters of the Gardon and ample picnic possibilities available, you could easily spend a day here.
A thousand years of trade and intellectual activity have made Montpellier a teeming, energetic city. Benjamin of Tudela, the tireless twelfth-century Jewish traveller, reported its streets crowded with traders from every corner of Egypt, Greece, Gaul, Spain, Genoa and Pisa. After the king of Mallorca sold it to France in 1349 it became an important university town in the 1500s, counting the radical satirist François Rabelais among its alumni. Periodic setbacks, including almost total destruction for its Protestantism in 1622, and depression in the wine trade in the early years of the twentieth century, have done little to dent its progress. Today it vies with Toulouse for the title of the most dynamic city in the south, a quality you’ll appreciate as you explore the atmospheric pedestrianized streets of the Old Town. The reputation of its university especially, founded in the thirteenth century and most famous for its medical school, is a long-standing one: more than sixty thousand students still set the intellectual and cultural tone of the city, the average age of whose residents is said to be just 25. In many senses the best time to visit is during the academic year (Oct–May), when the city teems with students. The nearest beaches for a dip are at Palavas (tram direction “Odysseum” to Port Marianne, then bus #28), but the best are slightly to the west of the town.
Montpellier is renowned for its cultural life, and hosts a number of annual festivals, notably Montpellier Danse (late June to mid-July), and for music, Le Festival de Radio-France et de Montpellier (second half of July).
The small town of Gignac lies amid vineyards 30km west of Montpellier. It is here that the highway (and buses) turn off for the glorious abbey and village of St-Guilhem-le-Désert, which lies in a side ravine, 6km further north up the Hérault beyond the famed medieval Pont du Diable. A ruined castle spikes the ridge above, and the ancient tiled houses of the village ramble down the banks of the rushing Verdus, which is everywhere channelled into carefully tended gardens.
The grand focus of St-Guilhem-le-Désert is the tenth- to twelfth-century Abbaye de Gelone, founded at the beginning of the ninth century by St Guilhem, comrade-in-arms of Charlemagne. The church is a beautiful and atmospheric building, though architecturally impoverished by the dismantling and sale of its cloister – now in New York – in the nineteenth century. It stands on place de la Liberté, surrounded by honey-coloured houses and arcades with traces of Romanesque and Renaissance domestic styles in some of the windows. The interior of the church is plain and somewhat severe compared to the warm colours of the exterior, best seen from rue Cor-de-Nostra-Dama/Font-du-Portal, where you get the classic view of the perfect apse.