PUBLISHED: 10:18 24 October 2012
Mary Novakovich heads south and finds a rich and varied landscape and culture that quickly draws her under its spell
Hérault has many faces, all of them captivating: the dynamism of the departmental capital Montpellier, the vast stretches of sandy coastline, the beauty of its historic towns and villages, the remoteness of its mountainous hinterland – not to mention the endless hectares of vineyards that produce some of Languedoc’s most celebrated wines. Some of its treasures are man-made – the Canal du Midi, Lac du Salagou, the 11th-century abbey at St-Guilhem-le-Désert – while others have been carved out of the peaks and rivers that sculpt this southernmost edge of the Massif Central.
Montpellier, also the capital of Languedoc-Roussillon, is one of France’s liveliest and most vibrant cities; its youthful air created by its vast student population. The city
is constantly on the move, busily developing new districts and expanding its public transport system so that a new tramline stops within 800m of the Mediterranean Sea.
But away from the modernity is the attractive old town, known as Ecusson, with inviting medieval alleys, café-filled squares, handsome parks and tree-lined promenades. An elegant 18th-century opera house and a statue of the Three Graces stand guard over the busiest square, Place de la Comédie, a popular spot for after-work drinks. Around the corner on the Promenade de l’Esplanade is the Musée Fabre, whose airy 19th-century interior houses one of France’s largest art collections outside of Paris. French, Flemish and Italian artists from the 15th to the 20th centuries feature extensively, with works by Poussin, Courbet and Dufy.
Near Montpellier’s imposing Cathédrale St-Pierre is the Jardins des Plantes, the oldest botanical garden in France and a relaxing place to escape the southern French heat. From here it’s a short walk to Promenade du Peyrou and Château d’Eau, a beautifully landscaped park with views of the Cévennes mountains hovering in the distance. All of this is framed by the Arc de Triomphe, with Louis XIV somewhat fancifully portrayed as Hercules.
In the evenings, join the locals in a stroll round the pedestrianised streets near St-Roch church. Cafés and restaurants fill every inch of space along the streets, including Rue des Teissiers, Plan d’Agde, Four des Flammes and Rue de la Fontaine. Sultry summer nights – and even mild evenings in spring and autumn – fly by in this congenial atmosphere. Montpellier calls itself the city where the sun never sets, and you can almost believe it – especially when the festival season gets into full swing.
The city is close enough to the Mediterranean coast (about 15km) to have easy access to several beaches, namely Maguelone, Palavas-les-Flots and Carnon-Plage. The last two are squeezed into a long, flat spit of land, separated from the coast by marshy lagoons with large populations of pink flamingos. Head east about a dozen kilometres to reach one of the more unusual beaches on the Languedoc coast, namely the 1960s futuristic resort of La Grande Motte. Its modernist architecture might not be to everyone’s taste, but it is one
of France’s greenest beach resorts. There’s an astonishing amount of woodland and public parks, and a well-planned network of cycle paths makes it easy to get around.
Just a 20-minute train journey south-west of Montpellier is Sète, the deepest port in the Mediterranean and home to some of the most delicious seafood in France. It’s hard not to eat well in this busy fishing port, where trawlers sell their catch of the day in the fish auction at the portside. Behind the town is Étang de Thau, a lagoon filled with beds of mussels, oysters and whelks, which end up on the plates of the quayside restaurants and nearby villages including Bouziques and Mèze. The pretty fishing village of Marseillan is worth a detour to sample its seafood restaurants and visit the home of the dry vermouth, Noilly-Prat.
Sète is criss-crossed with canals, which inevitably draws comparisons with Venice. But one Sétoise tradition you’re not likely to see in Venice is the summertime joutes nautiques, the water-jousting tournaments that take place on the Canal Royal. Rival groups of men in gondola-style boats take turns trying to knock their opponents off with long lances, while spectators cheer each time some unfortunate soul is thrown into the water. It’s a hugely entertaining spectacle and not a little bonkers, and best appreciated from the vantage point of one of the quayside bars.
The port is also the gateway to about 18km of beaches that stretch from Sète’s Corniche all the way to Cap d’Agde. In contrast to the Côte d’Azur, the beaches here are wide and wonderfully free of the crowds you see further east along the coast. Things get busier once you reach Cap d’Agde, as it’s one of the most popular resorts on the Languedoc coast. Although Cap d’Agde is the world’s largest naturist colony, the designated Quartier Naturiste is only one small part of the resort.
Even away from the coast you’re not far from water, thanks to the Canal du Midi that glides through Béziers, birthplace of the canal’s creator, Pierre-Paul Riquet. This splendid feat of engineering was his life’s work, but sadly Riquet died just a few months before the canal’s official opening in 1681. Béziers pays homage to its most famous son with the Allées Paul Riquet, a long tree-lined esplanade that hosts the busy Friday morning market. At its furthest end is the Plateau des Poètes, a beautifully landscaped 19th-century garden inspired by the best in English Romantic garden design.
Béziers’ pleasant old town is full of winding medieval lanes that meet at the plateau overlooking the Orb valley. Towering over the valley is the 13th-century Cathédrale St-Nazaire, whose impressive yet stark interior contrasts with the lushness of the 14th-century bishops’ garden, Jardin des Evêques, just behind.
About 25km north-east of Béziers is Pézenas, one of the most appealing towns in Hérault. Its medieval centre is a maze of streets filled with artisans’ workshops, cafés and shops, with grand Renaissance mansions wedged into unexpected places as well as an atmospheric 14th-century Jewish ghetto. Pézenas is especially proud of its connection with Molière, whose brief residence there in the 17th century is excuse enough to celebrate France’s greatest playwright with an annual festival.
The town’s rich history isn’t confined to the narrow streets of the medieval quarter; the supposed newer part of town still dates from the 17th to the 19th centuries. It’s in these wider streets that you will find most of the restaurants as well as wine caves offering tastings of the Pézenas contribution to the Côteaux du Languedoc appellation. Look out for the enormous Saturday market, which runs all day and includes a substantial number of food stalls. Find a bakery selling petits pâtés, the Pézenas version of a mince pie created by Britain’s Clive of India in the 18th century.
The landscape changes once you head north of Pézenas. Veer north-west and you reach the beautiful mountains, lakes and rivers of the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Languedoc. Its popularity as centre for outdoor activities has been increasing steadily since the park was created in 1973, with growing numbers exploring the mountain trails on foot or on a donkey and taking to the water in canoes and kayaks. That said there is still a sense of remoteness and, tranquillity in these highlands, making you forget that you’re only an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean coast.
The villages in and surrounding the park make a wonderful base from which to explore the area. Olargues is one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France; its beauty immediately evident once you see its medieval ‘devil’s bridge’ arching over the River Jaur. On the southern reaches of the park is the village of Roquebrun, where the River Orb is the place to enjoy gentle canoe rides. Despite the mountainous terrain, there’s a strangely mild microclimate here that allows the village to produce highly prized AOC St-Chinian wine as well as exotic plants in the Jardin Méditerranéen.
Further south-west, beyond the park’s boundaries, is another member of the Plus Beaux Villages de France, Minerve, which is also part of the Minervois wine appellation. This former Cathar stronghold is in a breathtaking location enveloped by the Gorges de la Cesse. The River Cessière tunnels its way through the rock alongside the village, which turns into an unusual underground walking trail when the river dries up.
Head east towards Montpellier and the landscape changes again. The Orb valley extends to the historic town of Lodève, which has a fine example of a Gothic cathedral as well as one of the most poignant war memorials you’re likely to see. The town is also a useful base for nearby Lac du Salagou, one of the largest lakes in Hérault. Vivid red soil surrounds this man-made lake that is the centre for watersports.
The River Hérault plays a major role in shaping the scenery as it slices southwards from the Cévennes before it reaches the coast near Cap d’Agde. It flows past some fascinating natural phenomena such as the Grotte des Demoiselles, a cave that’s actually an old swallow-hole reached by a funicular train. The interior is quite spectacular, with chambers adorned with exquisitely formed stalagmites and stalacites.
Follow the Hérault further to arrive in another of France’s Plus Beaux Villages, St-Guilhem-le-Désert. This UNESCO World Heritage Site gets very busy in the summer but it’s easy to see why it draws the crowds. It’s an enchanting village surrounded by a wooded ravine, where stone cottages tumble down cobbled streets towards the Hérault. Here and there you’ll spot the distinctive scallop shell of St James, as the village is one of the stops on the Route de Santiago de Compostela. An enormous plane tree shades the main square, Place de la Liberté, but it vies for attention with the 11th-century abbey that sits on the site of a ninth-century monastery. A stroll through its calm cloisters is a fitting end to a visit to the abbey.
The village is only a 45-minute drive from Montpellier, but, like the rest of Hérault, it shows just how diverse this department is. You’re never far from the sea nor the mountains, and some of the most entrancing villages and towns in France are within easy reach of the buzz of Montpellier. Add to that a warm, dry climate and an exciting wine scene and it’s little wonder that many visitors come to Hérault and never leave. LF
© Image: Adam Batterbee