Wake up and smell the lavender in Languedoc

The Languedoc region in southern France has a sense of history and unspoilt integrity. Summer can get hot, but there are plenty of places to sit in the shade and take in the scents, writes Roz Crowley

 

Long, straight roads lined with plane trees. Acres of vines stretching spindly arms on trellises, dense with green leaves and purple bunches. Feathery, silver shimmering olive trees. Dense blue lavender fields. Towns wrapped in stone walls. Wild white horses. Pink flamingos. Salt flats. Cafes in the shade of the bright sun. The Languedoc is still quite unspoilt.

In this region, the Hérault Valley is a perfect place to explore without clocking up gas-guzzling kilometres. Settle in a small hotel and take day trips. It can be quite an economical holiday, yet deliver plenty of fun and interest for all ages.

The municipal community of the Hérault Valley is located about 90 minutes’ drive east of Carcassonne, or 50 minutes north of Montpellier airport, and brings together the 28 cantons of Gignac and Aniane with a population of 30,000. The area is huge; there is plenty of room to breathe.

Here the Hérault and Lergue rivers meet, creating dramatic gorges lined with scrubland (garrigue) and limestone rock which also stretches across plains and foothills, dotted between parcels of vineyards and olive groves. The scents are of thyme and lavender. Mixed plantings of trees, from feathery pines to thick-trunked, wide-leaved planes, line long narrow roads. It may be a misconception that Napoleon planted these trees for shade on his marches but it is easy to picture world war soldiers marching from village to village, through this still unspoilt, but not hugely prosperous countryside.

There are no global brands here in shops or restaurants, and food is simple, local and delicious. Expect substance over style.

It took me three visits to realise it is a mistake to rush though what seem insignificant villages, missing the opportunity to discover local gems.

Busy in the mornings, with markets at least once a week, often every day, for basic fruit and vegetables, villages and towns seem to go to sleep in the afternoon, and to wake around five o’clock for shopping.

You can sit outside cafes, which even in winter have tables and chairs outside. It’s often a lot warmer here than in the rest of France, even other areas of the south, the hills protecting it from the winds. After Corsica, the region is the hottest in France, with average annual temperatures between 13.5 degrees and 15 degrees, with 300 days of sunshine a year.

It’s best to get out early to visit the sites and later rest under a tree in summer, or in a warm cafe or hotel in winter. It’s easy to have a “ grasse matte ” (lazy day) here. Or take a walk in the hills at any time of year. There are excellent trails which can be walked, cycled, canoed, explored by horse or by car, with plenty of views along the way. The area stretches south to the sea so there is plenty to do, with miles of clean beaches to enjoy year round.

Based in the small village of Aniane, west of Montpellier, a welcoming guesthouse provided an axis for day trips and long walks in the hills.

In nearby Gignac, every Saturday there is the social gathering of the week, where the occasional Irish settler meets locals, against a backdrop of cocks crowing in their cages, rabbits, guinea fowl and ducks. Hens of many exotic breeds lay their eggs as we sip café crème and contemplate charcuterie stands offering local fromage de tête (a paté) and salade de tête (a salad made from all parts of a pig’s head – tastes better than it sounds).

Bundles of garlic heads, streaked with pink abound; layers of asparagus rigid with freshness, children carrying boxes of strawberries, bunches of herbs, bags of olives, vast buckets of flowers. A wine producer selling from a tap. Clothes, bits of jewellery, baskets – all good value. Near the village are plenty of riverside spots to enjoy the simple feast.

The festival of the Donkey (to celebrate Martin, the donkey who saved the village from the Saracens) takes place annually on Ascension Thursday. Go to the 14th century tower of the chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Grace for a good view of the area. Allow a few hours at market time.

Saint-Guilhem le Désert, up the road from Gignac, lies on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela and pilgrims, heavy with backpacks, wind their way on tough climbs along the Gellone valley. The reward is a charming village with an 11th century Romanesque-style abbey, which every July hosts a superb classical music concert. Plan on spending a few hours there.

Nearby, the 11th century bridge, Pont du Diable overlooks a dramatically deep gorge. Under the bridge there is a small, safe beach, accessible via a tourist park where an information centre has useful maps.

Pézenas, both a town and a county containing 32 villages, is another charming spot. Molière, who spent some years there, is used as a marketing tool, but that shouldn’t distract from its narrow streets and architectural attractions. Saturday is market day and there are often open-air concerts at Place Gambetta.

Allow two and a half hours to do the official tour, which even in winter has a cosiness. Bordered on the east by the river Peyne, it’s a hilly town which has dubbed itself “ ville d’ art ” and this is best seen in its architecture. There are plenty of reminders of the town’s prosperous past through its distilleries, silk spinning, soap factories and tanneries. Vaulted ceilings and ironwork balconies are everywhere, as are macarons , fantastical figures, sometimes quite grotesque, over doorways.

Walk along the street called Triperie Vieille (where tripe was once sold. There is another street named after old cheese) and peek into number 11, a charming private mansion’s open stairway and yard. It’s a relaxed town with plenty of local “ Piscenois ” going about their daily business, lots of small shops with quality crafts, good cafes and restaurants. Berlingots, the local sweets, are similar to humbugs. www.(ot-pezenas-valdherault.com.) Aigues Mortes, an impressive fortified town on the coast, is more commercialised, with lots of souvenir shops, but a walk around the ramparts of the fortification, dating back to 1272, reveals the gridded pattern of the streets and gives a sense of daily life hundreds of years ago. The Constance Tower, constructed 1242-1248, is unique and much of the history of the town can be learned there. It was a prison for Protestant women in 16th and 17th centuries.

Here, too, you can taste the delicious local red Camargue rice, asparagus grown “on the sands”, salt harvested in the salt plains, along with lots of dishes created with locally caught fish. Take the tour, have lunch in Les Arcades.

Drive along the Petite Camargue delta to see its salt marshes, wild horses and pink flamingos.

The area was once a departure point for the crusades; these days, you can now start a Midi Canal cruise there and head west (www.ot-aiguesmortes.fr). All along this coastline are great beaches with clear water, fine sand and promenade walks. We stopped at Palavas for a warm swim in July, but there are smaller more secluded spots to be discovered.

Montpellier, the main city of this corner of the Languedoc, is an elegant university hub with much to interest the historian, foodie and dedicated shopper. The grand square, Place de la Comédie, bordered by cafes, is the nucleus from which narrow winding streets radiate. There is plenty to see, from vast cultivated gardens to galleries, museums and castles.

Go there, and take it a little at a time. For a week’s break, I suggest not trying to fit in the more western region of the Languedoc, full of the drama of the heretic Cathars and less reliable weather under the black mountains – that’s another week’s work.

For an early break (from April) or a late summer break (until the end of October) there is a good chance of sunny weather away from the mountains, but it’s not needed to enjoy a decent holiday there.

Summer can get very hot, but there are plenty of trees or awnings to sit under and take in those scents of lavender, rosemary and thyme.


What to do, where to stay and eat in the Languedoc

CAVE VISIT

La Grotte de Clamouse. Located between St-Jean-de-Fos and Saint-Guilhem le Désert, this natural cave, teeming with stalactites and stalagmites, is well organised and lit and has no feeling of claustophobia. There is a playground for children, picnic area, shop and shaded terrace. Open 10am - 5pm , later in summer.
clamouse.com


BEACHES
One of the best is Espiguette, and between Palavas and Maguelone there is a long stretch of sandy beach where there is a good restaurant. The nudist beach is at Cap D’Agde. Beaches are clean and there are usually plenty of cafes open.


VINEYARDS
Superb wines in the region are becoming better recognised . One of the best is Mas de Daumas Gassac where informative tours of the vineyard with tastings are given all year, every day except Sundays and holidays

(daumas-gassac.com).

Domaine La Croix Chaptal in St André de Sangonis, run by Charles-Walter Pacaud is small. For a treat, bring home Cuvée Charles, the cheaper Rouge Domaine or the sweet Clairette du 28 Octobre. Visit the vineyard for a dose of passion and buy direct. Contact the vineyard by

email:

WHERE TO STAY

Domaine de Pélican, Gignac, tel: 00-33-467 57 68 92,

domainedepelican.fr. Open all year, five rooms, with dinner for residents only.

Les Lavandes, 340 Chemin de Pioch Courbi, Gignac,

tel: 00-33-467 58 44 57. sanchez-leslavandes@orange.fr.

Four rooms with garden full of herbs, with cherries served at breakfast. Small pool.

Le Guilhaume d’Orange,

2, Avenue Guillaume d’Orange, St Guilhem-le-Desert,

tel: 00-33 -467 57 24 53

guilhaumedorange.com.

Open all year. 10 rooms.


PLACES TO EAT

Restaurant les Arcades, 23 Boulevard Gambetta, Aigues Mortes,

tel: 00-33-466 53 81 13, les-arcades.fr. One of the best in the region, superb local dishes with great style and elegance in 16th century building.


La Table d’Aurore at Hotel Le Guilhaume d’Orange. 2, Rue Guillaume d’Orange, St Guilhem-le Désert, tel: 00-33-467 57 24 53, guilhaumedorange.com Open all year. Indoor and outdoor tables, relaxed, local food.


l’Affenage, 4 Place Mairie, Aniane, tel: 00-33-686016289, affenage.com.
Run by a Welsh couple who have settled in well, this is a charming, easy-going restaurant using good local ingredients with flair.


Guinguette La Famourette. Off the main road between Aniane and Gignac, tel: 00-33-609 22 25 38, lafamourette.com. A canopied dining area and outdoor tables on the side of the Hérault river makes this perfect on a hot day.


GETTING THERE
Dublin to Carcassonne with Ryanair three times a week. Daily flights with Aer Lingus Dublin to Paris. TGV railway Paris to Montpellier (check timetable for some journeys directly from airport). Air France fly Paris to Montpellier. Daily flights Dublin to Paris Beauvais with Ryanair.

l For dates of the area’s many festivals and events, lists of castles, art galleries, historical sites, walks, cycle routes, see

languedoc.visite.org