Tucked away in the south of France, the magical landscape and rich history of southern Languedoc-Roussillon captivate Emma Rawle
If you want to know more about one of France’s best-kept secrets, cast your eye towards the far reaches of Languedoc-Roussillon. Tucked into the southern corner of mainland France, this corner of the region – one of the sunniest in the country – is a firm favourite with French holidaymakers, yet remains largely undiscovered by Brits who tend to head for Aquitaine in the west and the glamorous beaches of the Côte d’Azur to the east.
Here the departments of Aude and Pyrénées-Orientales offer quiet, unspoilt countryside, a beautiful stretch of coastline and small, authentic villages, punctuated with bustling cosmopolitan cities and a handful of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Little wonder, then, that those who have discovered this corner of France want to keep it to themselves!
However, visitors to the area expecting to find the ‘real’ France might be surprised. Travelling through Pyrénées-Orientales, the red and yellow Catalan flag flies proudly and Catalan is spoken, while in Aude the Occitan flag is a common sight. Although both departments lie within the administrative region of Languedoc-Roussillon, they are distinctly different from each other and the rest of France, largely thanks to their turbulent history and strong cultural identities.
Pyrénées-Orientales, known to locals as either Roussillon or French Catalonia, has a distinctly Spanish flavour. Not altogether surprising when you learn that this area, along with Barcelona, the Balearic Islands and Montpellier, was part of the kingdom of Majorca before it was handed over to the Counts of Aragon, rulers of Catalonia. The area only became part of France in 1659 with the Treaty of the Pyrenees, and the influence of its history is clear to see, particularly in the cosmopolitan capital of Perpignan.
Formerly the capital of the kingdom of Majorca, the town’s significance is evidenced in the Palais des Rois de Majorque, a fortified palace standing tall at the southern end of the city and offering a panoramic view of the red rooftops below. A stroll around the town reveals tree-lined boulevards, trendy boutiques and bustling squares with reminders of the Catalan influence everywhere, be it in the road signs written in French and Catalan, the pink houses that wouldn’t be out of place in Spain, the olive trees lining the streets or the red and yellow Catalan Dragons stickers – the local, passionately supported, rugby team. In the words of a Roussillon local, “this is not exactly France”.
Mark and Louise Sayers moved to Perpignan from London in search of the sun nearly 10 years ago. They set up Med and Mountain Properties to help others to move to this corner of France, and are now merging with leading agent Artaxa Immo. “Perpignan is a small city, which makes it a great place to live,” says Mark. “Everything is within walking distance and we can be at the beach in 10 minutes or on the ski slopes in 90 minutes. There is a big Catalan influence on the town in terms of language, food and culture, and we love the laid-back Mediterranean lifestyle. In general, the area is a less-developed and more affordable alternative to the Côte d’Azur, for those looking for a laid-back lifestyle in the sunny south of France.”
Perpignan is only 13 kilometres from the sea, a blessing in summer when temperatures in the city can reach 30ºC. Unlike the French Riviera further along the coast, the beaches are free from hordes of tourists and celebrity visitors, yet still offer the sparkling Mediterranean Sea and more than 300 days of sunshine. Named the Côte Vermeille, the stretch of coast from Cerbère on the Spanish border to Argelès-sur-Mer was discovered by Fauvist artists Matisse and Derain in the 19th century, and provided inspiration for their revolutionary use of colour.
Collioure is the busiest of the beaches, popularised by the paintings of Matisse and Derain, which can be discovered on the Chemin du Fauvisme trail around the town. It is also known for its wine and anchovies. If you’re looking for slightly quieter beaches, you’ll be better off at the picturesque port of Banyuls-sur-Mer, or the wide sandy beach of Argelès-sur-Mer further along the coast.
As you might expect with such a long coastline, much of the local fare served in southern Languedoc-Roussillon is seafood, whether it is anchovies from Collioure or oysters from Leucate. Other regional specialities include figs, olives and charcuterie. Nowhere is the huge variety of southern Languedoc-Roussillon cuisine more apparent than in the 100-year-old market hall in Narbonne, Les Halles. The cavernous space on the banks of the Canal de Robine is full of stalls selling freshly picked produce, recently caught fish, delicious meats and not forgetting, of course, the wines of the region.
A prolific wine-producing area, Aude and Pyrénées-Orientales have a number of appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) wines and you can expect to be served up a local vintage where ever you choose to stop, be it a fruity red from Corbières, a sweet white from Rivesaltes or the sparkling Crémant de Limoux. Somewhat overshadowed by the sparkling wines from the Champagne region, Limoux in Aude is credited with making the first bubbly, the secret of which was accidently discovered by a wine-making monk in 1531 and, according to legend, smuggled back to Champagne by Dom Pérignon a century later.
These wines taste best when sampled in their natural home, and a visit to one of the many vineyards of the region, such as Château l’Hospitalet in the vineyards of La Clape, is a great way to find out more. The château has a knowledgeable guide who is on hand to give visitors informative tours of the domaine and wine tastings.
Expat Wendy Gedney recognised the great variety of wines in Languedoc-Roussillon and decided to set up a business running tours of the vineyards, Vin en Vacances. Recently, she settled in the town of Villeneuve-Minervois, in the heart of the Minervois vineyards just 15 minutes from Carcassonne.
“I fell in love with Carcassonne more than 20 years ago when I visited on holiday with my family. It’s just such a magical place. I love it in the evenings when the coachloads of tourists have gone. It looks almost mystical. It really is quite a rural area and, apart from Carcassonne itself, it is quiet and peaceful. It’s like the region France forgot. Although it is still quite hidden, Languedoc-Roussillon is starting to become more well-known. The wine press are saying this is the next big place on the wine tourism map, and people are starting to realise the wine is really top class.”
While Roussillon was thriving as part of Majorca and Catalonia, just across the Corbières mountains, the residents of Aude were suffering persecution at the hands of Simon de Montfort, who led the Albigensian Crusade. Thanks to recent popular fiction, the story of the Cathars is now more widely known, and Aude, as the birthplace of this religious sect in the Middle Ages, is proud of its history, styling itself ‘le Pays Cathare’. The hilltop castles where the Cathars sought refuge, such as the stronghold of Quéribus, have been left as ruins, but are still worth a visit, if only for the spectacular views of the surrounding countryside. Stretching as far as the eye can see with not a town in sight, this is one of the many charms of the landscape in southern Languedoc.
One castle that is certainly not a ruin is one of France’s most visited attractions, the medieval Cité de Carcassonne. Saved by an early surrender to de Montfort and then restored by architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century, the cité was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Reputedly the inspiration behind Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, it certainly looks like something out of a fairy tale, largely thanks to Viollet-le-Duc’s glorious vision of a medieval castle which usurped any considerations of historical accuracy. But no matter what your opinion on its restoration, the result is breathtaking and the thousands of tourists swarming the narrow streets each day don’t seem to mind. While a visit to this iconic site is a must for anyone visiting the area, the best advice is to visit early or late in the day, or ideally out of season.
With only a handful of full-time residents, the medieval citadel is mainly frequented by tourists and shop and restaurant owners, so to get a feel for real life in Carcassonne, it’s best to step out of the fairy-tale castle and venture into the ville basse across the river. A grid of narrow streets, the town square offers a handful of restaurants and boutiques, and is a stopping off point for another major attraction, the Canal du Midi, which passes to the north of the town.
A leisurely cruise along this waterway, which has also been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a great way to see Aude; drifting past Castelnaudary, credited with inventing the Languedoc food speciality cassoulet, around Carcassonne and through the Minervois, an area known for its quality wines. At Sallèles-d’Aude, the Canal du Midi is joined by the Canal de la Robine which heads south through the heart of the town of Narbonne and on towards the sea.
Carcassonne may be the major draw of Aude today, but back in Roman times, the most important town in the area was Narbonne, and although it has somewhat dropped off the radar since then, it is still a delightful town with a rich history. Once a prosperous port and standing at the crossroads between Italy, Spain and Aquitaine, Narbonne was chosen as the capital of the Roman province of Gaul. Traces of Roman history can be seen around the town, with the recently uncovered Via Domitia, the road linking Italy and Spain, and the Horreum, a maze of subterranean galleries that might once have been a public warehouse.
Another reminder of Narbonne’s prosperous past is the Cathédrale de Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur, built in the 13th century by the archbishops of Narbonne and modelled on the gothic cathedrals of northern France. Never finished, because it would have involved knocking down the old defensive wall, the cathedral’s soaring ceiling can still claim to be the highest in southern France.
Narbonne’s other claim to fame is as the birthplace of legendary French singer Charles Trenet, best-known for his classic song La Mer. His home has been preserved and is open to visitors, and the singer is celebrated every August with a music festival bearing his name.
With such charming attributes, it’s easy to see why the landscape and history of Languedoc-Roussillon’s southern reaches have remained a well-kept secret among those in the know; once discovered, though, this little slice of perfection is a treat just waiting to be shared.