Andy Duncan discovers that there is a world of possibility in Languedoc-Roussillon – the region that gave us the Language of Yes
In the Middle Ages, Languedoc was not part of France, but a collection of independent states. It had (and indeed still has) its own language, langue d’oc, from which the region has derived its name. In this language oc’ means yes’. The Language of Yes – it’s a very positive sentiment when you think about it, and entirely appropriate for a land of possibility such as Languedoc-Roussillon.
Comprising the five departments of Loz�re, Gard, H�rault, Aude and Pyr�n�es-Orientales, the region lies in the south of France. It is bordered by the glittering Mediterranean Sea to the east, the Pyr�n�es mountains and Spain to the south, and the dramatic, wild Massif Central to the north. As such it boasts an unparalleled diversity of landscapes, attractions, history and cultures that make it a truly unique world with immense appeal and spectacular surprises.
Spirit of adventure
Those who yearn for a dash of adventure in their life will love the extraordinary riches, both manmade and natural, that Languedoc-Roussillon offers.
Throughout the region, you will find networks of caves, such as the Grotte de la Clamouse and the Grotte des Demoiselles in H�rault, Aven d’Orgnac in Gard, a truly epic cave system at Aven, further caves at Dargilan in Loz�re, and two series of caves in Aude, which you will find at Limousis and Cabrespine. The Giant Cabrespine Cave, just 20 minutes from the medieval town of Carcassonne, is one of the largest in the world. The first chamber is as high as the Eiffel Tower, and, as you gaze at the huge range of glittering rock and crystal formations, you are soon spellbound by its utterly surreal, breathtaking and thoroughly vertiginous majesty.
The Montagne Noire of Aude has some stunning routes for hikers to take, as do the untamed mountains of Loz�re, especially around Margeride, where you can find granite villages set in stunning landscapes of rivers and forests. Horse-riding, cycling, potholing and climbing are also popular in Loz�re.
Nature lovers can tick off a huge roll-call of wildlife – wolves, brown bears, beavers, wild boar, otters and vultures to name but a few – at the many reserves across the region. For a wild day out, the R�serve Africaine, in Sigean in Aude, comprises 300 hectares of safari park, with 3,000 animals, such as lions, rhinos and giraffes. And birdwatchers will love the Camargue, where storks, egrets, squacco herons and flamingoes can be seen, along with species of eagles, owls and kites. The exotic and colourful rollers and bee-eaters have also been seen here occasionally.
A major plus to the diversity of landscapes that this eclectic region offers is that, as Robert Dixon, of estate agency Villas in Languedoc, says: “it has both summer and winter destinations within its boundary”. It is a region with year-round appeal. Snow lovers can enjoy the many ski slopes in the Pyr�n�es, or stunning cross-country skiing in the C�vennes, while summer lovers will adore the miles of safe, family-friendly glittering beaches along the Mediterranean coast of H�rault and Aude. Here you’ll find resorts such as La Grande Motte in H�rault, as well as, for the more daring among you, a naturist beach at Cap d’Agde. Along this sun-kissed coast are many activities, such as a host of water sports, scuba diving and the underwater trail around the coast of Cap d’Agde, where snorkelers can discover a secret world of animal and plant life.
What’s more, the adventure can be enjoyed without the hassle of a huge quest to reach it. “Fifteen years ago,” says Alan Redhouse, of Aude Consulting Immobilier, “Languedoc-Roussillon was France’s undiscovered secret. Then in 1998, Ryanair started flights from London Stansted to the tiny airport of Carcassonne and, as the secret got out, rapidly expanded services to most of the region’s airports.” Indeed, increased flight options have steadily opened up the region to the British. There are now services from London Stansted, Gatwick, Luton, Birmingham and Bristol to the airports at N�mes, Montpellier, Beziers, Carcassonne and Perpignan. And there are plenty of other travel options. By train, you can travel from London to N�mes, Montpellier, Narbonne or Perpignan (via Lille or Paris), while by road, the region is well served by the A61, A75, A9 and A54.
Food and wine
The region also provides gastronauts with a culinary adventure. Languedoc-Roussillon’s cooking tradition is a compelling blend of fragrant Proven�al cookery with the robust flavours of Spanish.
Fresh, aromatic herbs, such as rosemary, bay leaves and thyme, picked in the garrigue (French scrubland) are used extensively in dishes such as the fish-based ancho�ade and bourride. There’s also the N�mes-born salt cod recipe, brandade de morue, which comes with a punchy a�oli sauce and, originating from Castelnaudry, one of the most famous of Gallic dishes – cassoulet, a mouthwatering and hearty casserole of haricot beans cooked with an often bewildering but always sumptuous array of meats.
In recent times, Languedoc-Roussillon has also been establishing a reputation for wine, with appellations such as Corbi�res, C�teaux du Languedoc, C�tes du Roussillon, Fitou, Minervois, St Chinian and Costi�res de N�mes.
The region is rich in art and culture, unsurprising for a place that produced the poetry of the troubadours and Occitan literature. The language after which Languedoc is named is still spoken today by many people in southern France. It has also contributed around 500 words to modern French.
Meanwhile, the Spanish influence extends beyond the region’s cuisine. Easter in N�mes is a typically vibrant Spanish-flavoured celebration, with bullfights and concerts, and there are spectacles such as the annual f�te votive, where young bulls run through the streets of villages and towns, like C�ret.
Speaking of C�ret, this is also where Pablo Picasso lived, and you can see many of his works in the Mus�e d’Art Moderne in the town, which also features works by the likes of Chagall, Matisse and Soutin. The Grand Caf� was a meeting place for many of the great artists who visited the town, and it is still open today.
Near B�ziers, the town of P�zenas is dedicated to the French playwright and actor, Moli�re, and it is a wonderful place to watch one of the many productions of his work, either in the street or at the open-air theatre, while Montpellier, the region’s capital, boasts a wealth of museums and art, such as the Museum of Languedoc.
You don’t have to be Simon Schama to be utterly seduced by the rich history of the region. In La Cham des Bondons, Loz�re, stand prehistoric megaliths – Loz�re is second only to Carnac in France for the wealth of its prehistoric sites. There are dinosaur eggs and bones at Esperaza, and many fine examples of Greek and Roman architecture in the region, with spectacular Roman ruins at N�mes.
Aude is referred to as Cathar country, due to its strong connection with the Cathars – a religious group that occupied the region in the 12th and 13th centuries. There are many castles, known as Cathar castles. While many of these were actually built after the Cathars were wiped out, they are still fascinating monuments to visit. The spectacular fortified medieval town of Carcassonne is also well worth seeing – it is one of the region’s four UNESCO World Heritage sites, as is the Roman Pont du Gard aqueduct.
Another UNESCO World Heritage site is the Canal du Midi – an epic testament to human endeavour and ingenuity that runs for 240km, linking the Atlantic with the Mediterranean. A barge holiday along this waterway is a breathtaking and perfect way to take in the sights and beauty of the region.
Montpellier is also blessed with historical architecture that is balanced by a vibrant modernity, with a lively caf� culture and the Radio France festival in the summer.
Fittingly enough for such an eclectic region, there is a diversity of houses in Languedoc-Roussillon, with a range of styles having developed in the many different landscapes. Traditional Loz�re houses tend to be south-facing, built from granite, basalt or schist, with roofs tiled by lauze, a slate from the rivers, or occasionally thatched. Traditional Causses houses (named after the water-scarce limestone plateaux in the Massif Central) are thick-walled buildings made entirely from stone as a way of preventing the spread of fire, while the houses of the mountainous C�vennes are attractive buildings made from limestone, schist or granite, often with wooden roofs. The Languedoc-Roussillon mas (or magnanerie) are traditional farmhouses that are usually rectangular with sloping roofs. They are built from local stone and wood, as are the often L- or U-shaped Languedoc-Roussillon farmhouses, which often boast stunning views over the region’s landscape highlights, such as the Pyr�n�es or the Mediterranean. In Montpellier, you can also find Haussmann buildings (named after Baron Georges Haussmann, the famous architect who created many buildings in Paris). These distinctive buildings boast beautiful balconies and other ornate fa�ade features.
Unsurprisingly, H�rault, which hogs most of the region’s glorious Mediterranean coast, is the most expensive of the region’s five departments, with average resale house prices of €254,000, while landlocked Loz�re is the cheapest, with an average resale house price of €131,600.
As well as the traditional houses, new-build business is thriving in the region. Robert Dixon says: “The great advantage of new-builds is that you can have the house designed to your exact requirements in the place that you want. New-build houses in the region tend to use traditional materials, and have a very Mediterranean feel. A three-bedroom property on a plot of land of 700m2 within 20 minutes of the beach will cost from €195,000. If you were to buy the same property in the C�te d’Azur, you would need to spend nearly double.”
Indeed, Languedoc-Roussillon’s house prices compare very favourably with those of its glamorous neighbour. While still offering glorious sunshine, huge stretches of sandy Mediterranean beaches and skiing, the average price of a resale house in Languedoc-Roussillon is €217,700, compared with €385,600 in Provence-Alpes-C�te d’Azur.
Martine van Havenbergh, of Hauts de Cleive Immo, notes that the region has become increasingly popular with British buyers over the past eight to nine years. Such is the high demand for holiday rentals in the region there is ample opportunity for owners to create an income from their property. Alan Redhouse says: “The demand for holiday rentals is always high here, much more so than for hotel or chambres d’h�tes accommodation. This has particularly been the case over the last couple of years as belts have tightened and families have come to realise what good value holiday villa/g�te rental is. In our local area, we have several large family houses with pools that rent for around €2,400 per week.” Of the region’s popularity as a holiday destination, Martine van Havenbergh says: “The region offers great holidays for everyone, with the mountains, water sports, scenery, ski resorts, walking and cycling.”Anne Mizrachi, of Latitudes, concurs that the area is very attractive to holidaymakers, adding “lovely markets, good food, nice wine, spa towns and festivals” to Martine’s list of attractions.
Eve Maltese, of Beautiful South, which is based in Pyr�n�es-Orientales, believes that such factors might explain why property prices remained pretty static in the Roussillon area of the region: “[House prices] did not go down a lot here. This could be explained because of the location and the advantages it provides.”
Anne Mizrachi says that, although today house prices are quite stable, “vendors are open to offers. It is a buyers’ market.”
And, Freddy Rueda, of Freddy Rueda SARL, says that now is the time to take action. He notes that, like regions right across France, the market in Languedoc-Roussillon seems to be improving, saying: “Prices have gone down over the last two years, because of the subprime crisis, but things are now picking up. Prices are still much more affordable than they have been and still much lower than Provence.”
Martine goes on to say that Brits are predominantly looking for stone houses with a garden, either already in good condition or as a renovation project. While Eve Maltese believes the big draws for British buyers are: “Village houses or farmhouses with character – stone-built with exposed beams. Why is this? We believe that this is the way for them to really appreciate the Mediterranean way of living and to have a house here that is totally different from the one they could have in Britain.”
Martine says that Brits are mainly buying property to be used as holiday homes, although many are looking to move to the region full-time. Freddy Rueda has noticed a similar trend, saying: “Brits tend to buy a property as a holiday home initially, with a view to making the complete move at a later date.”
Eve Maltese has observed a similar trend but has also noticed that some come to live and set up a small business, such as B&Bs and g�tes. “As far as we can see,” says Eve, “more and more Brits are trying to take the opportunity of setting up a business in France. Maybe they find it easier to work in southern France, with less stress, while enjoying a new lifestyle.”