Southern Languedoc presents an exciting and varied landscape, its coastal flats stretching south from the mouth of the Aude towards Perpignan, interrupted by occasional low, rocky hills. Just inland sits Béziers, its imposing cathedral set high above the languid River Orb, girded in the north by the amazingly preserved Renaissance town of Pézenas and in the south by the pre-Roman settlement of the Ensérune. It’s also a gateway to the spectacular uplands of the Monts de l’Espinouse and the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut Languedoc, a haven for ramblers. Just south of Béziers, the ancient Roman capital of Narbonne guards the mouth of the Aude. Following the course of this river, which is shadowed by the historic Canal du Midi, you arrive at the quintessential medieval citadel, the famous fortress town of Carcassonne. Once a shelter for renegade Cathar heretics, this is also a fine departure point for the Cathar castles – a string of romantic ruins.
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Though no longer the rich city of its nineteenth-century heyday, Béziers has admirable panache. The town is the capital of the Languedoc wine country and a focus for the Occitan movement, as well as being the birthplace of Resistance hero Jean Moulin. Today local resistance takes the form of the CRIV, a radical clandestine group championing the area’s besieged vintners, which occasionally employs modest but violent acts of terrorism. The town is also home to two great Languedocian adopted traditions: English rugby and the Spanish corrida, both of which are followed with a passion. The best time to visit is during the mid-August feria, a raucous four-day party that can be enjoyed even if bullfighting isn’t to your taste.
The finest view of the Old Town is from the west, as you come in from Carcassonne: crossing the willow-lined River Orb by the Pont-Neuf, you can look upstream at the sturdy arches of the Pont-Vieux, above which rises a steep-banked hill crowned by the Cathédrale St-Nazaire which, with its crenellated towers, resembles a castle more than a church. The best approach to the cathedral is up the medieval lanes at the end of Pont-Vieux, rue Canterelles and passage Canterellettes. Its architecture is mainly Gothic, the original building having burned down in 1209 during the sacking of Béziers, when Armand Amaury’s crusaders massacred some seven thousand people at the church of the Madeleine for refusing to hand over about twenty Cathars. “Kill them all”, the pious abbot is said to have ordered, “God will recognize his own!”
From the top of the cathedral tower, there’s a superb view out across the vine-dominated surrounding landscape. Keep an eye on small children, however, lest they slip through the potentially perilous gaps in the wall. Next door, you can wander through the ancient cloister and out into the shady bishop’s garden overlooking the river.
Parc Naturel Régional du Haut Languedoc
Parc Naturel Régional du Haut Languedoc
Embracing Mont Caroux in the east and the Montagne Noire in the west, the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut Languedoc is the southernmost extension of the Massif Central. The west, above Castres and Mazamet, is Atlantic in feel and climate, with deciduous forests and lush valleys, while the east is dry, craggy and calcareous. Except in high summer you can have it almost to yourself. Buses serve the Orb valley – where you’ll find the small, unremarkable town of Bédarieux – and cross the centre of the park to La Salvetat and Lacaune, but you really need transport of your own to make the most of it.
Near the eastern edge of the park sits the medieval village of Olargues, scrambling up the south bank of the Jaur above its thirteenth-century single-span bridge. The steep twisting streets, presumably almost unchanged since the bridge was built, lead up to a thousand-year-old belfry crowning the top of the hill. With the river and gardens below, the ancient and earth-brown farms on the infant slopes of Mont Caroux beyond, and swifts swirling round the tower in summer, you get a powerful sense of age and history. St-Pons-de-Thomières, 18km west of Olargues, is the “capital” of the park, with the Maison du Parc housed in the local tourist office.
The uplands of the park are wild and little travelled, dominated by the towering peak of Mont Caroux and stretching west along the ridge of the Monts de l’Espinouse. This is prime hiking territory, where thick forest of stunted oak alternates with broad mountain meadows, opening up on impressive vistas. Civilization appears again to the west in the upper Agout valley, where Fraïsse and La Salvetat have become thriving bases for outdoor recreation, and to the north, at the medieval spa town of Lacaune.
Right on the main Toulouse–Montpellier train link, Carcassonne couldn’t be easier to reach. For anyone travelling through this region it is a must – one of the most dramatic, if also most-visited, towns in the whole of Languedoc. Carcassonne owes its division into two separate “towns” to the wars against the Cathars. Following Simon de Montfort’s capture of the town in 1209, its people tried in 1240 to restore their traditional ruling family, the Trencavels. In reprisal, King Louis IX expelled them from the Cité, only permitting their return on condition they built on the low ground by the River Aude – what would become the ville basse.
The attractions of the well-preserved and lively ville basse notwithstanding, everybody comes to Carcassonne to see the Cité, the double-walled and turreted fortress that crowns the hill above the River Aude. From a distance it’s the epitome of the fairy-tale medieval town. Viollet-le-Duc rescued it from ruin in 1844, and his “too-perfect” restoration has been furiously debated ever since. It is, as you would expect, a real tourist trap. Yet, in spite of the chintzy cafés, crafty shops and the crowds, you’d have to be a very stiff-necked purist not to be moved at all.
There is no charge for admission to the streets or the grassy lices – “lists” – between the walls, though cars are banned from 10am to 6pm. However, to see the inner fortress of the Château Comtal and walk the walls, you’ll have to join a guided tour. These assume some knowledge of French history, and point out the various phases in the construction of the fortifications, from Roman and Visigothic to Romanesque and the post-Cathar adaptations of the French kings.
Don’t miss the beautiful church of St-Nazaire, towards the southern corner of the Cité at the end of rue St-Louis. It’s a serene combination of nave with carved capitals in the Romanesque style and a Gothic choir and transepts, along with some of the loveliest stained glass in Languedoc. In the south transept is a tombstone believed to belong to Simon de Montfort. You can also climb the tower for spectacular views over the Cité.
A major summertime event worth catching is the Festival de Carcassonne from late June to mid-August, featuring world-class dance, theatre and music. The high point is the mammoth fireworks display on Bastille Day (July 14).
The Montagne Noire
The Montagne Noire
The Montagne Noire forms the western extremity of the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut Languedoc, and while there’s no public transport between the villages within, offer immense and spectacular scenery.
Montolieu, semi-fortified and built on the edge of a ravine, has set itself the target of becoming France’s secondhand book capital, with its shops overflowing with dog-eared and antiquarian tomes. Drop in to the Librairie Booth, by the bridge over the ravine, for English-language titles. Saissac, 8km beyond Montolieu, is an upland village surrounded by conifers and beechwood, interspersed with patches of rough pasture, with gardens terraced down its steep slopes. Remains of towers and fortifications poke out among the ancient houses, and on a spur below the village stand the romantic ruins of its castle and the church of St-Michel.
Some 14km west of Saissac on the D103, the ancient village of St-Papoul, with its walls and Benedictine abbey, makes for a gentle side trip. The abbey is best known for the sculpted corbels on the exterior of the nave, executed by the “Master of Cabestany”. These can be viewed free at any time, although the interior of the church and its pretty fourteenth-century cloister are also worth a peek. The “main” D629 road winds down through the forest past the Bassin de St-Férréol, which was constructed by Riquet to supply water to the Canal du Midi, and on to Revel. Revel is a bastide dating from 1342, featuring an attractive arcaded central square with a superb wooden-pillared medieval halle in the middle. Now a prosperous market town (Saturday is market day), it makes an agreeably provincial stopover.
The most memorable site in the Montagne Noire is the Châteaux de Lastours, the most northerly of the Cathar castles. There are, in fact, four castles here – their ruined keeps jutting superbly from a sharp ridge of scrub and cypress that plunges to rivers on both sides. The two oldest, Cabaret (mid-eleventh century) and Surdespine (1153), fell into de Montfort’s hands in 1211, after their lords had given shelter to the Cathars. The other two, Tour Régine and Quertinheux, were added after 1240, when the site became royal property, and a garrison was maintained here as late as the Revolution. A path winds up from the roadside, bright in early summer with iris, cistus, broom and numerous other plants.