Explore Hérault in Languedoc-Roussillon
PUBLISHED: 09:27 20 August 2015 | UPDATED: 15:15 04 November 2015
The irresistible draw of Hérault has captured many a heart, and there are few who fail to fall under the spell of this captivating department in Languedoc-Roussillon
Fringed by the Mediterranean Sea, surrounded by vineyards and shadowed by the Parc National des Cévennes, the department of Hérault is an irresistible mix of the wild and the sophisticated. Its endless sandy beaches are enjoyed by inhabitants and visitors alike, and there’s an agreeable sense of time standing still in the ancient villages in the tranquil mountainous interior.
The departmental – and regional – capital, Montpellier, combines the relaxed air of the sunny French south with the buzz of a thriving city that’s home to a major university and multinational corporations. Here, the medieval lanes and squares of the city’s old town hum with cafés, bars and independent shops. There’s a convivial atmosphere in Place de la Comédie, a broad square with a grand 18th-century opera house at one end and market stalls at the other. For a more intimate ambience though, take a turn down the narrow streets leading from the Église Saint-Roch, where café terraces offer people-watching opportunities aplenty.
Green spaces here include France’s oldest botanical garden, the Jardin des Plantes, while the much-loved Promenade du Peyrou walkway leads to a graceful 18th-century aqueduct, Les Arceaux, inspired by the Pont du Gard and looming over a twice-weekly food market. Wander along the Promenade de l’Esplanade, near the Place de la Comédie, and admire the façade of the Musée Fabre, home to one of France’s largest provincial art collections.
Montpellier’s modern face is expanding with the steady growth of Port Marianne, a glossy business district that is easily accessible via the efficient tram system. In fact, you can take the tram to within 3km of the sea at Carnon-Plage – just hop on a Vélomagg, Montpellier’s public bicycle-hire system, for the final part of the journey. You might even spot pink flamingos in the Étang de Pérols or the Étang de l’Or, both of which flank the route, or others including the Étang de Thau and the Étang de Vic.
Hérault’s coastline stretches for more than 100km, starting in the east at the modernist 1960s resort of La Grande Motte and continuing west past Valras-Plage until the River Aude forms a border with the eponymous neighbouring department. Along the way is France’s deepest port, Sète, an attractive town criss-crossed with canals and the host of lively water-jousting tournaments (‘les joutes nautiques’), which take place all summer long. A stroll along the quayside reveals fishing craft of all sizes, as fishermen busily keep the waterfront restaurants well stocked with their daily catches.
Just behind Sète is another important source of its food, the Étang de Thau, which is lined with oyster, mussel and whelk beds. At the westernmost edge is the laid-back village of Marseillan, which author and Londoner Laurence Phillips has made his part-time home for the past 15 years, as he explains: “I went for lunch in 2000 and haven’t quite left. I just fell for it. It was what France was meant to be. There’s a sense of stepping back in time. There are lots of places in the south of France that welcome you as holidaymakers but not so much as strangers. Its seafaring past gives it a refreshing attitude to outsiders.”
This easy-going atmosphere – not to mention the sunny weather – also drew British artist Mac Macdonald to Hérault 10 years ago, specifically the small winemaking village of Pomérols, 6km north of Marseillan. His home and studio are in the centre of the village, where he runs painting courses for French students. “From day one, I found people here very friendly and welcoming, and this helped me to integrate into the community,” he says. “In the summer, people in Pomérols live outside. I still get a kick from sitting in front of my house with friends and talking to passers-by and my neighbours. In fact, apart from washing and sleeping, their whole life is outside.”
Away from the obvious attractions of Hérault’s coast, the inland sights are just as fascinating. Follow the tree-shaded route of the Canal du Midi as it meanders through Béziers, birthplace of the canal’s engineer, Pierre-Paul Riquet. You’ll pass vineyard after vineyard that make up France’s largest wine-growing region. British Francophiles are already familiar with Pézenas, an entrancing village in the heart of wine country. In its medieval centre, which includes an evocative 14th-century Jewish ghetto, Renaissance mansions are squeezed in beside artists’ studios and craft shops. Its Molière festival in June is a highlight of Hérault’s cultural calendar. Another 30km north of Pézenas is the Lac du Salagou, Hérault’s inland water playground, where swimmers and windsurfers launch themselves off the deep red sandy shores of the man-made lake.
Three of the Plus Beaux Villages de France are in Hérault, including the striking Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. Though each are vastly different from the others, the last of these three has seen Santiago de Compostela pilgrims make their way to the village for centuries, and few secular visitors can resist the beauty of its 11th-century abbey in this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Gorges de la Cesse surround Minerve in the south-west of the department, its Cathar past enhanced by a busy wine industry, while Olargues, home to the Pont du Diable across the River Jaur, sits between the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Languedoc and the Réserve Nationale de Chasse de Caroux.
At the foot of Caroux in the picturesque village of Mons-la-Trivalle, Briton Pam Smith lives half the year in a converted sheepfold which she bought in a run-down state three years ago. “After more than a year of work, we moved into it and fell even more in love with this part of France,” she says. “I love to walk in the mountains and gorges here. The history is simply magical: castles, abbeys and capitelles [stone shepherds’ huts] all waiting to be discovered.”
With its mix of the wild and the sophisticated, not to mention the alluring coastline, there’s little wonder that discovering Hérault is a pleasure for all who frequent it.