Languedoc Travel Guide
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In many ways, Languedoc, also referred to as Languedoc-Roussillon, 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 that boasts great wine. 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.
There’s also splendid ecclesiastical architecture in
The many other Rousillon points of interest 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
The summer months are of course the warmest in the Languedoc-Roussillon region with average temperatures in the day reaching 30 degrees in July and August. It rarely gets cold as such in Languedoc, only for a few weeks in the middle of winter, other than this, it is relatively warm all year round with little rain.
Top Image: Roman Aqueduct in Pont du Gard, Languedoc-Roussillon © Travel Light / Shutterstock
One of Languedoc's best-known culinary specialities is cassoulet, a magnificent dish with age-old origins. A product of Castelnaudary, 36km west of Carcassone, it was apparently first concocted when the town was besieged by Edward, the Black Prince, during the Hundred Years war and was deemed so sustaining that the townspeople not only survived, but put the English to rout. According to tradition it would be assembled in a deep earthenware bowl, the cassole, from which the dish takes its name, and taken to the village bread oven, where it would slowly transform to an unctuous, aromatic masterpiece. Little has changed through the ensuing centuries: the bread ovens have gone, and a few cosmopolitan ingredients have found their way into the mix, but essentially the dish is the same, and so is the method. Although Castelnaudry is universally accepted as the home of the original recipe, both Toulouse and Carcassonne have their own varieties. It’s essentially just a form of the beans and bones stew that’s found all over southern Europe; in this case the beans should be the local Tarbais, grown around Pamiers, Pau and Tarbes. Castelnaudry purists insist on duck or goose confit, Toulouse sausage and a little pork. In Toulouse they include mutton, and, crucially, a breadcrumb crust. Carcassonne eschews the confit and frequently adds a partridge or similar game bird. The locals have long been arguing over their various interpretations, but the salient fact remains, this is one of the great peasant dishes of France.
Armagnac is a mellow, 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.
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.
You can follow the canal by road, and many sections have foot or cycling 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. Useful sources of information include canalmidi.com and french-waterways.com, plus the tourist offices in Carcassonne and Toulouse.
Le Boat and Locaboat both have a number of branches in Languedoc and the Midi. Voies Navigables de France is at 2 Port St-Étienne in Toulouse; they also have English-speaking offices at the major canal ports.
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.
Top Image: Canal du Midi, France © Giancarlo Liguori / Shutterstock
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.
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).
On the border between Provence and Languedoc, Nîmes is inescapably linked to two things – denim and Rome. The latter’s influence resulted in some of the most extensive Roman remains in Europe, while the former (de Nîmes), was manufactured for the first time in this city’s textile mills and exported to the southern USA in the nineteenth century to clothe slaves. The city is well worth a visit, in part for the ruins and the narrow lanes of the compact old city, but also to experience its energy and direction, having enlisted the services of a galaxy of architects and designers – including Norman Foster, Jean Nouvel and Philippe Starck – in a bid to wrest southern supremacy from neighbouring Montpellier.
The focal point of the city is a first-century Roman arena, known as Les Arènes, at the junction of boulevards de la Libération and Victor-Hugo. One of the best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world, its arcaded two-storey facade conceals massive interior vaulting, riddled with corridors and supporting raked tiers of seats with a capacity of more than twenty thousand spectators, whose staple fare was the blood and guts of gladiatorial combat. When Rome’s sway was broken by the barbarian invasions, the arena became a fortress and eventually a slum, home to an incredible two thousand people when it was cleared in the early 1800s. Today it has recovered something of its former role, with passionate summer crowds still turning out for some blood-letting – Nîmes has the most active
Nîmes’ great passion is bullfighting, and its ferias are attended by both aficionados and fighters at the highest level. The wildest and most famous is the Feria de Pentecôte, which lasts five days over the Whitsun weekend. A couple of million people crowd into the town (hotel rooms need to be booked a year in advance), and seemingly every city native opens a bodega at the bottom of the garden for dispensing booze. There are corridas, which end with the killing of the bull, courses where cocards are snatched from the bull’s head, and semi-amateur courses libres when a small posse of bulls is run through the streets. Two other ferias take place: one at carnival time in February; the other, the Feria des Vendanges, in the third week of September at grape-harvest time. Events have been marked over the years by small but vocal protests and in 2006 several organizers of the local tauromachie world were injured by letter bombs. The tourist office can supply full details and advise about accommodation if you want to visit at feria time.
Some 20km to the northeast of Nîmes is the Pont du Gard, the greatest surviving stretch of a 50km-long Roman aqueduct and a popular tourist destination
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.
The small town of Gignac lies amid vineyards 30km west of Montpellier. It is here that the main road (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.
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.
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 with a collective folk memory of the thirteenth-century massacre of the Cathars and the subsequent obliteration of the brilliant langue d’Oc troubadour tradition, as well as the brutal repression of the Protestant Huguenots around 1700 and support of the revolutions of 1789 and 1848. 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.
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
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. 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 the direction of 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.
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 the condition that 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, craft 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).
Anyone with a sweet tooth should sample two local delicacies: flavoured sugar-drops called berlingots, and petits pâtés – bobbin-shaped pastries related to mince pies, reputedly introduced by the Indian cook of Clive of India, who stayed in Pézenas in 1770.
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.
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-sur-Agout and La Salvetat have become thriving bases for outdoor recreation, and to the north, at the medieval spa town of Lacaune.
Albi, 77km and an hour’s train ride northeast of Toulouse, is a small town with two unique sights: a museum containing the most comprehensive collection of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work (Albi was his birthplace); and a remarkable Gothic cathedral. Its other claim to fame comes from its association with Catharism; though not itself an important centre, it gave its name – Albigensian – to both the heresy and the crusade to suppress it.
Cathédrale Ste-Cécile, begun about 1280, dwarfs the town like some vast bulk carrier run aground, the belfry its massive superstructure. The comparison sounds unflattering, but this is not a conventionally beautiful building; it’s all about size and boldness of conception. The sheer plainness of the exterior is impressive on this scale, and it’s not without interest: arcading, buttressing, the contrast of stone against brick – every differentiation of detail becomes significant. During July and August there are free organ recitals here (Wed 5pm & Sun 4pm); the tourist office can supply information.
Next to the cathedral, a powerful red-brick castle, the thirteenth-century Palais de la Berbie, houses the superb Musée Toulouse-Lautrec. It contains paintings, drawings, lithographs and posters from the artist’s earliest work to his very last – an absolute must for anyone interested in belle époque seediness and, given the predominant Impressionism of the time, the rather offbeat painting style of its subject. But perhaps the most impressive thing about this museum is the building itself, its parapets, gardens and walkways giving stunning views over the river and its bridges.
Cordes, perched on a conical hill 24km northwest of Albi, and just a brief trip away by train and bus, is one of the region’s must-see sights. Founded in 1222 by Raymond VII, Count of Toulouse, it was a Cathar stronghold, and the ground beneath the town is riddled with tunnels for storage and refuge in time of trouble. As one of the southwest’s oldest and best-preserved bastides, complete with thirteenth- and fourteenth-century houses climbing steep cobbled lanes, Cordes is inevitably a major tourist attraction: medieval banners flutter in the streets and artisans practise their crafts.
Toulouse is one of the most vibrant provincial cities in France. Long an aviation centre – St-Exupéry and Mermoz flew out from here on their pioneering airmail flights over Africa and the Atlantic in the 1920s – Toulouse is now home to Aérospatiale, the driving force behind Concorde, Airbus and the Ariane space rocket. Moreover, the city’s 120,000 students make it third only to Paris and Lyon as a university centre.
This is not the first flush of pre-eminence for Toulouse. From the tenth to the thirteenth centuries the counts of Toulouse controlled much of southern France. They maintained a resplendent court, renowned especially for its troubadours, the poets of courtly love whose work influenced Petrarch, Dante and Chaucer and thus the whole course of European poetry. The arrival of the hungry northern French nobles of the Albigensian Crusade put an end to that; in 1271 Toulouse became crown property.
The beautiful old city – LaVille Rose – lies within a rough hexagon clamped round a bend in the wide, brown River Garonne and contained within a ring of nineteenth-century boulevards, including Strasbourg, Carnot and Jules-Guesde. The Canal du Midi, which here joins the Garonne on its way from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, forms a further ring around this core. There are three very good museums, an excellent contemporary art gallery,
On Sunday mornings the whole of place St-Sernin turns into a marvellous, teeming flea market, and there are book markets on Thursday mornings in place Arnaud-Bernard, and all day Saturday in place St-Étienne.
The star of the left bank is undoubtedly Toulouse’s contemporary art gallery, Les Abattoirs. This splendid venue is not only one of France’s best contemporary art museums, but an inspiring example of urban regeneration, constructed in a vast brick abattoir complex dating from 1828. The space is massive, with huge chambers perfectly suited to displaying even the largest canvases. The collection comprises over two thousand works (painting, sculpture, mixed- and multimedia) by artists from 44 countries; the most striking piece is undoubtedly Picasso’s massive 14m by 20m theatre backdrop, La dépouille du Minotaure en costume d’Arlequin, painted in 1936 for Romain Rolland’s Le 14 juillet, and which towers over the lower gallery.