Five great days in France’s Languedoc-Roussillon

By | Category: Travel destinations

Anthony journeys to Languedoc Roussillon, the French region that’s famed for its landscape, literature, music and wine

The easiest way to describe exactly where we ‘are’ in this article is: an area 90 miles or so north of the border between France and Spain in the Med. The precise description, for those who ‘know’ France are the départments of the Aude and Pyrénées-Orientales in Languedoc-Roussillon.

As any bon vivant will know, the Languedoc-Roussillon region is the by far the biggest wine producing area in France with 20,000 growers and three times the production of Bordeaux.

Carcassonne
The magnificent fortified city of Carcassonne dominates the skyline. This UNESCO World Heritage site, whether floodlit at night or lit by the setting sun, is like a massive film set.  I personally prefer the view from the middle distance having been taken inside a few times as a lad.

However three million folk a year can’t be wrong, as they say. The size and scope, the massive double walled enclave and both the cathedrals have to be seen but be warned: there are crowd problems and the main thing is to get there early or arrive late and stay after dark when the crowds have left.

There are many events:  jousting displays, folk dancing and hawk flying throughout the summer and most of them free.

Carcassonne's mighty walls

Around 800 AD Carcassonne was impregnable against Saracens among others, but sometime between 1211 and 1247 its military significance was finished, following the Crusaders defeat of the Cathars in 1209.  There was no great battle: the Crusaders simply worked out how to cut off the water. Carcassonne later became a commercial centre with an emphasis on wool production and much later a ‘visitor attraction.’  In 1853, it was significantly restored.

Throughout the Languedoc, you’ll see references to the Cathars who were a Christian sect with different beliefs to the Catholic Church.  The Vatican, together with the French Crown, mounted a Crusade against them and won. The losing Cahars, also known as Albigensians, were exiled and many burnt as heretics.  Today there’s a Torture Museum on the tourist trail within the city.

The walled city and the lower town have many first class cafés, bars and restaurants with excellent food.  As well as classic Mediterranean seafood dishes, Carcassonne is associated with Cassoulet – but whether or not it was created there or in Castlenaudry or even Toulouse, is a matter of some debate.

Canal de La Robine

Narbonne
Until 2010 there were summer rail car-sleeper trains from Calais to Narbonne. My main recollections on awakening there was to ‘get out of town’ and head to the French coastal spots such as Collioure or Sête or straight on down to Spain. I now realise now what we had missed. One of the many features of Narbonne, is the Canal de La Robine which links to the sea and into the whole French canal system.  For some reason holiday boat hire is very popular with Canadians – particularly those with French antecedents.

Narbonne cathedral

Way before the Canal links, Narbonne was founded in 118BC as one stop on another great route: the Via Domitia which took the Legions from Italy to Spain. The Roman influence, like so many parts of Southern France, are everywhere and there are large exposed areas of the original Via Domitia.

The Les Halles de Narbonne, the covered main market standing exactly the way it was completed in 1901, is one of the best I’ve seen. Open seven days a week, there are great photo ops of food and people in the market – but be sure to ask permission and most stall holders will be happy to pose for you.

It’s easy to get around Narbonne (population 55,000) on foot and the sea is just 12 miles down the road at either Narbonne Plage or Gruissan.  Make time to see Narbonne (www.narbonne-tourism.co.uk)

Les Halles de Narbonne

Collioure
As we know the light across the whole of the south of France is superb but it is extra special in some places – lo and behold that’s where artists always seemed to congregate!  From around 1905 Matisse, Braque and Derain worked in Collioure in a style known as Fauvism. Today painters and photographers still come here to cover the lighthouse, tower and fishing nets and there are many galleries and art shops – in a very relaxed stylish place.

Collioure windo by Matisse

Matisse Window


There are more anchovies landed here than anywhere else in France and there are excellent fish bars and bistros. I recommend Le Copacabana restaurant (04 68 82 06 74), right on the beach.   This is next to a square blank metal frame which lines up more or less with the framing of the lighthouse used by Matisse and co.

Abbey de Fontfroide
If only for a cool quiet break, this incredibly well preserved 12th Century Sistercian Abbey, 15km south of Narbonne merits a visit. It’s well known for extensive rose gardens and Italian style garden terraces around the cloisters.

Abbey de Fontfroide

Dissolved during the Revolution in 1791, it subsequently housed a number of minor religious communities until private purchase in 1908 when it became a centre for arts projects. The main cost of restoration came from wealthy patrons. The main church is used for concerts and from the right spot has an echo which is sustained for nearly 10 seconds. Despite the echo, which musicians tell me is a hindrance to good reproduction, this video clip of  Gregorian Chant at Fontfroide at Easter 2012 sounds pretty good

The Estate produces AOC Corbieres wine ,there’s a restaurant with very good reports and one Michelin Star.  Fontfroide rewards a visit.

Tomorrow, Anthony looks at three wine experiences in the Aude and Pyrénées-Orientales

 

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