Travelogue – Languedoc-Roussillon, France
A little while back I took my first ever excursion to the south of France, a part of the world I have never previously discovered, but many Brits have and do, and I got to find out why. I was only there for a few days with some friends who had access to a house in the tiny village of Causses-et-Veyran. Wine tasting was the main motive for the trip, but we did also get to travel around the Languedoc area as well, known not only for its young whites, fruity roses and robust reds, but also for it’s beaches, nude ones at that, medieval monuments and beautiful hilly countryside.
The Languedoc-Roussillon region spreads itself along the Mediterranean coast between the border of France and Spain and bookended by Provence, the Pyrenees and the National Park at Cevennes. The French political landscape of borders, prefectures and department is very confusing for a layman. Occitanie is the name of this region, which appears to change on a regular basis but whilst the cosmopolitan Montpellier is the largest city in the region, Beziers is one of the largest communities, in itself is a big town complete with a main train station and an airport able to ferry people to many reaches of Europe, including Stansted.
Beziers is also known for its rugby union team AS Beziers, although the 11 times French champions are not the force they once were and now play in the Pro Division 2. As for football Montpellier are the big pull in the area. Further west from Beziers are Toulouse, who also play in Ligue 1.
As for Causses-et-Veyran, where we stayed, the village was typically quaint with slim cobbled streets and tall, stone built narrow houses lurching across the road at each other, almost as if they were whispering into one and another’s ear.
The village is home for only 600 people, although I overheard a lot of English accents, especially in the village pub. That was just about the only place to meet other people though, well that and the ornate graveyard, but there was little else except for the parish church which dates back to the late 10th century.
Wine tasting was so much less commercial here, than what I have experienced in Napa and even little North Fork. I’m not sure if that only applies to this region of France and places such as Bordeaux are different but at each of the three places we went, we had to pretty much ring the bell to get in, and were then met with quizzical stares at two of the three of them, when we asked if we could try some of their wine.
The one place we didn’t was Chateau Fonsalade, where we had a reservation, but Julien, who owned the 61 acres of rolling vineyards with his sister, was a bit flustered upon our arrival, mostly due to it being harvest season, and he was very busy, yet he was by far the most welcoming and we took to his warm smile, superior broken English and his obvious passion of wine. He was a big lad, an ex-rugby player, and his big hands poured bloody big tastes of wine.
The tasting room was in a cave, and it’s simplicity was glorious. We asked him if he ever did parties in the cave. He looked at us oddly and said he was too busy for that. Our favourite wine at Fonsalade was a cheeky little white number by the name of Petit Bonheur, meaning ‘a little happiness’ and very happy we were when we left too.
You enter Roquebrun by a stunning arched bridge that sits over the River Orb. It’s narrow streets branching from its main riverside thoroughfare. A castle once stood poised over the town, but all that remained now was a solitary tower, although that retained a lordly presence over the village, it’s colourful vineyards and the shimmering and obviously popular with locals River Orb.
Sadly the very recommended Le Petit Nice was shut because, I don’t know, we were in France and places shut for lunch! Instead we had lunch in an outside restaurant called Cave Saint Martin, which served up a super tasty mackerel and lentil dish, and of course good local wine.
We walked our lunch off a bit and then went into the co-operative Cave Roquebrun, which trebled as a store, deli and tasting room. We supped on a variety of wines and the two that stuck out were a white called Col de Lairole and a very nice rose called Ta Fiole de Rose.
Our last wine tasting was at Clos Bagatelle, where big reds were the final order of the day. Clos Bagatelle is in the bustling and ancient village of Saint-Chinian. Once known for it’s monastery, that was founded in 825, it is now more celebrated for the wine growing on sides of hills facing the sea at an altitude of as much as 200m. There is also a thriving market here on a Sunday and a Thursday morning, which we missed unfortunately because it is supposed to be wonderful.
It was at Clos Bagatelle that we had to track down a lady to open up the tasting room, not that we were desperate or anything! The small dark tasting room gave us a break from the heat and we tried ten different wines, and we all agreed that the best two were the reds that were saved to last. One was called Le Terre De Mon Pere and the other Je me Souviens. Both of each made it in the suitcase home.
There are some charming villages out here. Some I never even saw signs for, but ones I remember that we drove through were Cessenon sur Orb which was adjacent to the dramatic River Orb, replete with kayaks meandering along it. Murviel-les-Beziers was also very pretty, with more amenities.
The south of France is also renowned for it’s beaches. For me I’m lucky that I’m rarely far from a beach, but you don’t get any vineyards in Bermuda, so I know for many the sandy beaches of the region are the major attraction. Languedoc’s most famous beaches are Argèles and D’Agde, the latter is one of France’s most renowned (and open minded) nudist beach. I didn’t get to either but via a drive by the beaches looked both sandy, wide and, er picturesque..
One day we drove the 76km across country to the the iconic medieval city of Carcassonne, which was well worth spending a day at. This fantastic medieval castle and town is nestled in the middle of rolling acres of grape vines and had a magical and mesmerizing ‘Game of Thrones’ feel to it.
The town itself was well worth a stroll but it is for the ancient ramparts that most visitors of the city seek. Carcassonne has been inhabited since ancient times, with signs of settlement in this region dating to about 3500 BC and it was protected against the late Roman Empire by a Gallo-Roman wall, but despite these hardy fortifications the Visigoths, Saracens and the Franks all took their turn of occupying it.
Around the 11th century Carcassonne became the property of the powerful French family of the Trencavel’s. Later the city became the focal point of the Cathar Crusade, a 20-year military campaign initiated by Pope Innocent III to eliminate Catharism in Languedoc. In 1240, Trencavel’s son tried to reconquer his old domain, but it was in vain. The city eventually submitted to the rule of the kingdom of France and despite many attempts of annexation the fortress remained impregnable.
In 1659, the Treaty of the Pyrenees transferred the border province of Roussillon to France and Carcassonne’s military significance was then severely reduced and fortifications were abandoned and the city became mainly an economic centre that concentrated on the woollen textile industry and was restored beautifully over the next couple of centuries to look like it is today.
Within the walls I was surprised to see how touristy it was with shops and restaurants lining century old pathways, but it didn’t seem in anyway tasteless and we stopped at one of the many very nice looking restaurants and cafes for a snack and a glass of vino, or two. Carcassonne was a joy to see, with it’s beautifully tapered streets and elegant squares. With the medieval cité looming gloriously above it, Carcassonne had a fairy tale feel.
The summer’s are warm down here and for many decades this region of southern France has been a popular place to both visit and live for Brits. Will Brexit affect that? I don’t have any idea, but I liked it very much and the graceful rolling hillside’s of vines and the alluring villages have belatedly gained a new fan.