This article was published in the Daily Mail, Wednesday, July 13, 2005 by Rupert Wright
Rupert Wright is an author and has written books and articles on the Languedoc.
Long for Languedoc
Provence is packed in summer, so why not try its quieter neighbour?
Rupert Wright lives there with his family – and knows the best places.
Getting to the Languedoc is easy.
All you have to do is drive down the Rhone Valley until you reach the Mediterranean coast and then turn right. But the mystery is that for generations most people have been turning left, in the direction of Italy, to Provence. Even when travellers did turn right they would drive straight through into Spain.
Yet there is so much to enjoy in the Lanugedoc; castles and history, vineyards and scented hillsides, canals and oyster beds, flamingos and sandy beaches.
Best of all are the people; noisy, nosey, friendly to strangers and fiercely proud of their customs and countryside.
Five years ago I moved here with my young family. Since then I’ve come to know the best places with a 50 mile radius of Pezenas – a Renaissance town between the sea and the mountains, 45 minutes from Montpellier.
Unlike in Provence, here you can drive to the coast without encountering a three-hour traffic jam. And if you head to the mountains, you’ll find miles of empty roads and stunning scenery.
First things first
The region runs from the right bank of the Rhone and carries on down until you reach Spain. Lord Foster’s magnificent bridge at Millau, the highest in Europe, is the last leg in a new motorway, the A75, that goes all the way from Paris to Pezenas, and is toll-free except for the bridge.
In addition, Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) has opened up the Languedoc to air passengers. You can now fly to Montpellier, Carcassonne, Nîmes and Perpignan.
Pezenas is at the heart of the region. Molière had many of his plays performed here, and today there are delightful shops and a bustling Saturday market.
My six-year-old daughter, Olivia, and I have been going there most weekends.
Her ritual is this; scam a slice of cheese from the cheese lady, followed by a handful of olives from the best epicerie in the South of France, run my Monsieur Clerc, on the main square opposite the oyster cabins.
Finally, we stop at the Cardamone Café near the post office, where I have a coffee and she has a glass of grenadine.
There are several places to stay around Pezenas. A short stroll from the town centre is l’Orée des Vignes (Tel: 00 33 (0) 4 67 26 57 76); www.chezpezenas.com) where a double room with breakfast costs £30 per night.
The couple who run the Cardamone Café have turned a former convent, the Couvent des Ursulines (www.pezenas-ursulines.com), into a series of guest apartments.
Seasonal prices vary, but start from £610 per week for two-bedroom apartment.
Languedoc days out
Pezenas is a 20-minute drive from the Etang de Thau, a large lagoon full of oyster beds and flamingos, which is ideal for water sports such as sailing.
Head to Marseillan Ville, a pleasant town full of good restaurants.
If it rains, go to Montpellier. The Jardins des Plantes is one of the oldest botanical gardens in Europe.
Or you can make for the Comedie, the heart of Montpellier, where there is a large egg-shaped square with fountains, tree-lined avenues and open-air cafes.
There’s even an English restaurant here called Auntie Lou’s (9, rue de la Fontaine) and a crèche opposite.
While you’re in the Languedoc it would be foolish to miss two of the most popular tourist attractions in France, the Pont du Gard and Carcassonne.
The Pont du Gard was built to carry water to Nîmes. An excellent museum near the Roman aqueduct tells of its construction and the importance of water in Roman life.
The medieval walled city of Carcassonne was restored by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th centry, perhaps a little too imaginatively. But you should suspend your scepticism and endure the plastic swards sales-men because the buildings and location are magnificent.
Finally it would be a shame to miss the Parc de Sigean – a nature reserve between Carcassonne and Pezenas. As well as flamingos you can show your children buffalos, hippopotamus and lions.
Head for the hills
For some invigorating mountain air, Roquebrun is a small town on the banks of the River Orb, just 40 minutes from Pezenas by car.
The drive alone is stunning; you pass through a number of medieval villages, separated by miles of vineyards and olive trees. When you reach Roquebrun, you can wander the town taste the delicious wines and stop at a restaurant. But the highlight of any trip is a canoe journey along the Orb. Grandeur Nature (046789 5290; www.orbfendera) drives you to the riverbank in the morning, puts you into a canoe and lets you wander down the 20-kilometre journey slowly with the current.
Eat and be merry
Finding a decent restaurant is not always easy. But there are good places if you look. The golden rule is to ignore anywhere with plastic chairs.
The Calamar in La Tamarissiere offers a good mix of fish and meat with excellent wine list. Along the coast near La Grand Motte is a series of beach restaurants.
The most luxurious of these is Compagnie de Comptoires Plage, run by the Pourcel twins who also have a Michelin starred restaurant in Montpellier. In Marseillan Ville, the pick are Chateau de Port (9, Quai de La Resistance) and Chez Philippe (20, rue de Suffen).
Most children will delight in the wide, sandy beaches all along the coastline. The French rarely venture to the beach until midday, so the best bet is to go early and then find a decent spot for a picnic, or head to a restaurant once the sun gets too hot.n