The Languedoc-Roussillon region of France comprises five departments, and borders the French regions of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Rhône-Alpes, Auvergne, Midi-Pyrénées on the one side, and Spain, Andorra and the Mediterranean Sea on the other.
It lies at the extreme south-eastern edge of France, with only the department of Lozère not having at least a toehold on the Mediterranean. The region covers an area of 27,376 sq km (10,570 sq miles), with a population in excess of 2.5 millions.
The region is made up of a number of historical provinces. Two-thirds of the region, i.e. the departments of Hérault, Gard, Aude, the extreme south and extreme east of Lozère, and the extreme north of Pyrénées-Orientales, was formerly part the province of Languedoc.
The remainder, located in the southernmost part of the region, is a collection of five historical Catalan ‘pays’: Roussillon, Vallespir, Conflent, Capcir, and Cerdagne, all of which are in turn included in the Pyrénées-Orientales département.
These pays were part of the Ancien Régime province of Roussillon, owning its name to the largest and most populous of the five pays, Roussillon.
Places to visit in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France
Today, Languedoc-Roussillon is dominated by extensive vineyards, and this has been an important wine-making centre for centuries, and some authorities consider that vines have grown in this region since long before the arrival of man.
This is a region filled with astonishing riches founded on a most complicated and turbulent history that has seen religious persecution, farmers’ revolts and attempts to eradicate the ancient Occitan language.
But what is not instantly evident is the marked contrast between the towns and villages that gather along the Med coastline, and the hinterland, where the landscape ranges from high mountains to vine-covered hills and what the French call garrigue.
Vibrant cities and Roman history
Languedoc-Roussillon is home to one of France’s most vibrant cities, Montpellier, which boasts the world’s oldest continuously operating university. The Roman cities of Nîmes and Narbonne manage their long history with dignity while retaining a casual and relaxed mood.
Carcassonne combines its workaday lower town with the medieval Cité. Farther south, the capital of French Catalonia, Perpignan, is one of the most pleasing cities to explore.
Along the coast (the littoral), the beaches are less developed than along the Riviera. Part of this is because of the stronger winds and the convoluted coastline.
Bustling Sète is ever-so-slightly shabby in an agreeable way, renowned for its seafood restaurants and the view from Mont St Clair.
For a touch of madness, try to catch the summertime water-jousting tournaments held in Sète on the Grand Canal, when opposing teams balance on gondola-style boats and attempt to knock each other off. It’s noisy, lively, and an unmissable part of a Sètois summer.
The fortified city of Aigues-Mortes was built in the 13th century on the order of Saint Louis to provide the kingdom of France with a port on the Mediterranean.
The complex consists of over a mile of ramparts flanked by 20 towers and one of the most splendid keeps in the architectural style of the Middle Ages, the Tower of Constance, which was used as a prison for Protestants from the Cévennes region from 1685.
The Tower of Constance was built in 1242 by Saint-Louis on the former site of the Matafère Tower which was built by Charlemagne around 790 to house the king’s garrison. The construction was completed in 1254.
Sheltering behind its sturdy ramparts amid a landscape of marshland, lakes and salt pans, few places evoke the spirit of the Middle Ages quite so vividly.
Today, tourism plays a major part in the town’s economic well-being, but the production of wine, asparagus and sea salt are also important staple products. In the surrounding countryside, bulls and the magnificent Camargue horses are bred.
Highlights: Tour de Constance and a walk along the Ramparts. If it’s beaches you’re after, take the short drive down to Le Grau-du-Roi.
Banyuls-sur-Mer is France’s southernmost seaside resort, famed for its lovely bay, its yacht harbour, vineyards and sea-water therapy centre. In the heart of the Côte Vermeille (the Vermilion Coast), Banyuls is a jewel that combines the authentic character of a town steeped in traditions and the dynamic atmosphere of a modern, vibrant town.
Originally a fishing village that turned to wine-making and developed essentially with tourism, Banyuls owes its world reputation to its exceptional wines and its spectacular vineyards that plunge down into the sea.
Nourished and raised in the purest of Catalan traditions, at the crossroads of France and Spain, the city has managed to preserve its rich historical, cultural, natural and artistic heritage.
The resort is well sheltered from the worst of the winds that whizz around this part of France. The name Banyuls indicates the presence of a pond. In fact, a pond did exist in Banyuls until the creek Vallauria was drained in 1872. The term Marenda in Catalan or ‘sur Mer’ in French merely indicates the proximity to the coast.
Banyuls wine complements the finest tables, and you can learn more about it at the Grande Cave, which runs guided tours.
Aquarium, Avenue du Fontaulé, 66650 Banyuls-sur-Mer.
Banyuls-Cerbère Marine Nature Reserve and underwater trail.
The vineyards of Banyuls
It’s not renowned as one of the wine regions of France but the particularity of the vineyards of Banyuls will surprise you. Handcraft shaped and maintained since the fifth century BCE, you’ll find more than 6,000km of schist stone walls that support the terraces leading down to the Mediterranean.
From a distance, you can see from the green hills the drawings ‘peus de gall’ (rooster feet) – an ingenious system of dry stone channels, initiated by the Templars, to evacuate water after storms, rare but violent.
The vineyard of the Vermeille Coast covers 1,600 hectares for the production of certified wines ‘Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée’ and ‘de Pays’: AOC Collioure, AOC Banyuls Grand Cru, AOC Banyuls, IGP Côte Vermeille which come in red, rosé and white except for the ‘Banyuls Grand Cru’ which is produced only in red.
Today – despite the ‘agricultural industrial revolution’ – the vines are still handcrafted by a multitude of small winegrowers. They maintained a way of asserting a practice used in cultivation which dates from the ninth century and which has withstood all the wine crises in recent decades.
Pont du Gard Roma aqueduct
The Pont du Gard is a vast Roman aqueduct bridge that crosses the Gard River. It is part of a 50km (31 miles) long aqueduct that runs between Uzès and Nîmes and is located in Vers-Pont-du-Gard, near Remoulins, in the Gard département.
The aqueduct was constructed in the 1st century AD and is the highest of all Roman aqueduct bridges and the best preserved after the Aqueduct of Segovia. It was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1985.
The bridge has three tiers of arches, standing 48.8m (160 ft) high. The whole aqueduct descends in height by only 17m (56 ft) over its entire length, while the bridge descends by a mere 2.5cm, indicative of the great precision that Roman engineers were able to achieve using only simple technology.
The aqueduct formerly carried an estimated 200 million litres (44 million gallons) of water a day to the fountains, baths and homes of the citizens of Nîmes. It was possibly in use until as late as the 9th century, well after the fall of Rome.
The Pont du Gard’s subsidiary function as a toll bridge ensured its survival in the Middle Ages. It attracted increasing fame from the 18th century onwards and became an important tourist destination.
Over the years it has undergone a series of renovations that culminated in 2000 with the opening of a new visitor centre and the removal of traffic and buildings from the bridge and the area immediately around it. Today it is one of France’s most popular tourist attractions.
In days gone by you could walk across the very top, but that was highly dangerous, and is now forbidden. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t get an awe-inspiring vision of this colossus of ancient Rome.
The main interpretation centre (Pont d’Accueil) tells the whole story, and you need to devote at least half a day to the visit.
The multimedia exhibition plunges you back in time – The museum embraces the history of the Pont du Gard and the Roman aqueduct of Nîmes” which it covers, in three sections: the Roman civilisation: why and how the Romans built the aqueduct: the life of the Pont du Gard and how it has been represented through the centuries.-
The visitor is also invited to experience the Mémoires de Garrigue, a mosaic of cultivated plots, signposted with stones (Petit Poucet) and surveyor’s marks that tells the stories of cereals, vineyard, olive trees and married cultures, green oaks, useful plants, fauna and flora.
The city of Bezier (Béziers), built on a plateau on the east bank of the Orb, prospered both before and during the Roman occupation.
But it was reduced to ruins at the time of the murderous Albigensian crusade against the Cathars in the early 13th century, which saw more than 20,000 people put to death, Catholic and Cathar alike.
Move on 600 years, and a thriving wine industry has rekindled Bézier’s prosperity, But its also imbued it with a relaxing ambiance that is typical of the Midi.
Life among its warren of narrow, cobbled streets and plane tree-lined esplanades goes on at an unhurried pace. Which is just as well because so interwoven and confusing are the many streets that exploration is both ever-interesting and occasionally repetitive.
Here, in the shade, the biterrois (inhabitants of Béziers) play pétanque and sip pastis as the world goes by.
The distinctive cathedral of St Nazaire sits on a terrace above the Orb, symbolising the might of the bishops of Bézier who held sway for a thousand years from the mid-8th century.
At the southern end of the city, the Plateau des Poètes is a continuation of the allées Paul Riquet, a delightful, hilly park laid out by the Bühler brothers in the 19th century.
The park contains a wide variety of trees and flowers including Caucasian elm, Californian sequoia, magnolia and Cedar of Lebanon, as well as the busts of poets that line the paths and give the park its name. At the top of the park is a monument to Jean Moulin, a hero of the Resistance.
There is a strong Spanish flavour about Béziers. Outside the Café la Comédie, the patron greets his old friends in Spanish, and the lavish food and traditional festivals of Saint Aphrodise (end of April) and the Féria, the bull-fighting (around the end of August), underscore the Spanish links.
For a whole week, the city endures the Féria, night and day. In Spain, this would be a fair and festival of the bull, but in Béziers it is also the festival of the horse, the cinema, wine and music, and something happens every day.
Sète is one of those places you won’t ever seek out, but will delight on finding, especially if seafood is high on your culinary agenda. On the edge of the Thau lagoon, renowned for its oysters, Sète is a seafoodies’ joy; its narrow streets crammed with restaurants.
Perched on a limestone hill – Mont St Clair – once covered with oak and pine and rising to 175m (575ft) between the Mediterranean and the Étang de Thau, Sète is the largest fishing port on the French Mediterranean.
Catches of sole, sea bass, gilt-head bream, mackerel and rascasse come in daily to be auctioned off.
Nearby, the old trading port, known as La Marine, has been used for centuries, from a time when its quays were dotted with Catalan and Moorish ships, feluccas, cattle boats and schooners.
It has numerous 18th-century façades and Art Deco buildings to go with its reputation for fish soup, bourride, squid, stuffed mussels, and octopus, which find their way into La Tielle, a local delicacy, a pie made with a bread dough and filled with baby octopus in a spicy tomato sauce.
Sète was founded in the 17th century, when it was decided to build a port, making this the outlet on the Mediterranean for the Canal des Deux-Mers, linking the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
This is no place to hurry. Park by (or arrive at) the station and saunter along the quays on the east side of the Canal de Sète (the west side buildings are favoured by the morning sun).
Cross the Pont de la Savonnerie and maybe take a coffee and croissant before ambling through the town centre and down towards the lighthouse for no good reason other than you have to come back, which makes it doubly pleasurable.
Go down the rue des Marins or the rue des Pecheurs onto the quai Maximin Licciardi, and there you’ll find the quayside restaurants and ample excuse to brush up on your culinary French.
By the time you set off back the sun will be illuminating the buildings on the opposite side of the canal.
A visit to Sete
I arrive in Sète, on the so-called Italian Peninsula, just as my stomach is chiming twelve.
I instantly fall foul of the tourism blurb that waxes lyrical about the pleasures of the oysters of Bouzigues and Mèze, and sipping a glass of the local Picpoul-de-Pinet on the Quai de la Marine.
Well, there are just so many red rags this particular bull can take before the drive for new culinary experience kicks in. There are numerous quayside eateries in Sète offering a bewildering array of sea food, so many in fact that choosing somewhere to stop for lunch could take all day.
In the end I settle for the Restaurant de la Criée, and order a Poëlée d’écrevisses fraiche à la Provençale, very much a hands-on and messy experience, but huge fun.
It’s so fresh the prawns are still kicking, and imbued with so much garlic and herbs that afterwards my breath can kill at forty paces.
As I await its arrival a woman passer-by approaches and asks me if I regularly eat here. I fib a bit and say that I do, ‘It’s excellent’, I said.
She and her husband sit at the next table and enjoy lunch every bit as much as I do. As I leave, I glance over and ask, ‘Tout va bien?’. She smiles, ‘Merci, tout va très bien.’
As I saunter away, I couldn’t help noticing that a mantle of silence had descended on Sète.
Disturbed only by subdued conversation, the popping of corks and the irritating sound of young men who charge around the streets on mopeds emitting a noise that is illegally loud in proportion to some inadequacy in their lives. Apart from that, the town is at munch.
Naturists and swimmers
The landscape changes once you get to the Côte Vermeille, nearer to the Spanish border, where swimming coves are shoe-horned into the rocky coast, and seaside villages such as Collioure, Port-Vendres and Banyuls-sur-Mer exude a characteristic Catalan flavour.
Béziers, birthplace of Pierre-Paul Riquet, the man behind the building of the Canal du Midi, is often overlooked. But its 14th-century cathedral is a fine example of Gothic architecture.
The original building was destroyed during the sacking of Béziers in 1209, when the Catholic church’s crusaders slaughtered thousands of innocent people in their hunt for a handful of Cathars.
The walk up to the cathedral is well worth the effort for the magnificent views of the river Orb that winds through the city and out across the surrounding countryside.
Between Béziers and Montpellier is the Renaissance town of Pézenas. The town’s grand private residences, the hôtels particuliers, contain inner courtyards with elaborate stone balustrades, arches and other exotic flourishes.
Molière spent time here during an itinerant period of his life, and the town plays up the association, invoking his spirit with festivals celebrating 17th-century life.
The gateway to Perpignan is the 14th-century Castillet, which houses a Catalan folklore museum and whose arch is worth a climb for views of Mont Canigou.
At the southern end of the town is the Palais des Rois de Majorque, an imposing 13th-century reminder of when Perpignan was part of the kingdom of Mallorca.
The Romans in Languedoc-Roussillon
You can’t miss the mark the Romans made on the region. There are remnants of the Via Domitia, the road built in 118 BCE to connect Spain with Italy in the centre of Narbonne, which was a major port in Roman Gaul before the town’s harbour silted up in the 14th century.
Farther east in St-Thibéry, an intact Roman bridge crosses the Hérault river. Or make your way to Nîmes: its magnificent Roman amphitheatre – Les Arènes – is in better condition than the one in Arles, and is the setting for bullfighting and open-air concerts (Tel: 04 66 21 82 56; www.arenes-nimes.fr).
Another impressive feat of Roman engineering is the Pont du Gard, the three-tiered aqueduct that spans the Gardon river in the east of the region, near Uzès.
Walking and hiking in Languedoc-Roussillon
Languedoc is prime walking territory. The Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Languedoc is at the southernmost point of the Massif Central, and includes the Montagne Noire, Mont Caroux, the Monts de Lacaune and the Monts d’Orb.
Read more: Tourist Guide to Provence Alpes Cote D’Azur
The whole area covers more than 1,000 square miles of mountains, rivers, lakes and forests, with pleasant towns such as Bédarieux, Olargues and St-Pons-de-Thomières to use as a base for a walking or cycling holiday.
The Pyrenees provide even more vigorous exercise thanks to the higher altitudes. Horse-lovers can explore the landscapes and villages of the Camargue, where the delta of the Rhône river has created an unusually open landscape, but one that is best avoided at certain times of year by those who suffer from insect bites.
Eat and drink?
Do you like oysters? A visit to the Etang de Thau, the large lagoon between Sète and Agde, reveals mile upon mile of oyster, mussel and whelk beds, the products of which end up on plates throughout the region, but are at their best freshly hoiked from the sea.
A visit to Sète should include a taste of its seafood version of a Cornish pasty, the tielle, filled with octopus, squid and spices.
Meat lovers can get their fill with the south-west’s most celebrated dish, cassoulet, the ingredients of which are debated endlessly by the chefs in the three main locations – Carcassonne, Castelnaudary and Toulouse.
Wash all of this down with wine from France’s largest wine-making region. For many years, Languedoc-Roussillon wine-makers concentrated more on quantity than quality, but a major rethink means that they now produce high-class wine with appellations including Corbières, Minervois, Faugères and Pic St-Loup.
Visit Lozere Department
Lozère is something of an odd-ball, differing from neighbouring departments in many ways: it has no Mediterranean coast and no major cities. It is rugged and mountainous, and not at all suited to wine-production.
Often described as the Scotland of France, though it lies just 100km north of the Mediterranean, Lozère is a place of rolling landscapes and a very special quality of light. This is the South of France without the crowds, deeply rural and ideal for country holidays, for relaxing and unwinding.
If you love rural France you will love Lozère. It is a gateway that links of the mountains of the Massif Central and the coastal plains of the Languedoc. Lozère is the least populated area of France, a place where nature is sublime, untamed, awesome at times and, well, empty. In fact, it is the space that instantly impresses.
Indeed, Lozère is famous for its cheeses – it even had quite a reputation for cheese-making 2,000 years ago. Today, Roquefort, Bleu des Causses, and Tomme de Lozère are produced, the latter used in the regional dish, aligot – a delicious mix of mashed potato and cheese.
Lozère’s villages are composed of blue-tinted shale, limestone and granite houses, giving them a northern feel. And the wildlife of Lozère is astounding, too: wolves prowl the Gévaudan area, and European bison roam the high plains. Vultures, mainly griffon, can often be found circling above the Jonte gorges.
The geography of Lozère is complicated, covering four mountain ranges. In the north-west, the basalt plateau of Aubrac rises between 1,000 and 1,450m, with a cold humid climate influenced by the Atlantic.
The north and north-east of the department contains the Margeride mountains, which are formed of granite, and have peaks between 1,000 and 1,550m. The climate here is also cold, but dryer than Aubrac, with less snow.
The Causses are a series of very dry calcium plateaus in the south-west, and the south-east contains the Cévennes, which include the highest point in the department, the granite Mont Lozère at 1,702m.
Economically, Lozère is agricultural, producing those superb cheeses and other dairy products. Tourism is developing, however, and the area is fast becoming a favourite with walkers, bird-watchers, campers and rock climbers.
The Lozère is much less popular than its Mediterranean neighbours; not really a place for sun-seekers or city-slickers. But the region is extravagantly beautiful, with the tang of wild places; perfect for anyone looking to get away from it all.