Where the Pyrenees meets the sea, and where southern French style comes with a twist of Catalonian passion, you’ll find Languedoc Roussillon, hooked into a sunny corner of the western Mediterranean. This month, we’ll be taking a closer look at some of this beautiful region’s highlights – and giving you a real insider’s view on what makes Languedoc Roussillon so special.
A distinct culture – it had its own language as recently as the 19th century – a sultry climate and a sunny disposition makes this deep south corner of France hard to resist.
It’s a land of long, sandy beaches, fertile coastal plains and, as Languedoc gives way to Roussillon, forested Pyrenean foothills cloaked with vineyards, olive groves and orchards.
In the Languedoc Roussillon region you’re spoilt for terrific beaches and colourful, culture-rich villages. It’s also a favoured place for walkers, with so many routes leading out along the coast to the National Nature Reserve of Mass Larrieu, the mysterious hinterland of Roque-Haute or south to the colourful harbours of Collioure and Port Vendres.
So let’s take a closer look at a few of the region’s highlights. Just 11 (of many) reasons why we love the beautiful deep south of France…
Beziers is slightly off the usual tourist trail, and so gives a flavour of the real Languedoc. High up on a rocky spur overlooking the great Herault plain, it’s a picturesque town bordered by the River Orb and Canal du Midi. The streets are filled with the history of a tragic past. One of the town’s worst affected by the Crusades against the Cathars in the 13th century. Wander along the narrow medieval streets that lead up to the 12th-century Nazaire Cathedral, and cross the ancient bridge built in the Gallo-Roman period, around 36BC, and you get a sense of the town’s incredible struggles and survival through the ages.
The capital of Languedoc Roussillon, Montpellier is a splendid university city, with an upmarket feel, and only minutes from fine beaches. With broad boulevards lined with shady plane trees, elegant balustraded buildings surrounding a vast (traffic-free) 17th century square, designer boutiques, smart wine bars and fabulous shops – it makes a fantastic day trip.
You can do some serious shopping in Montpellier, especially in the Rue de la Loge – the town’s equivalent to Oxford Street. Wander around the smart streets and open squares and simply choose from the many open-air bistrots for that perfectly French al fresco dining experience. (Place Candolle and Place de la Chapelle Neuve offer the best choice.)
Just a short run from Vias, Marseillan Plage is the place to come for an evening al fresco meal. This quaint little fishing village boasts over 100 seafood restaurants lining the port. Naturally, it has a great vibe in the summer, as visitors stroll along looking for their perfect place to eat (Marseillan is also home to the Noilly Prat factory, where you can sample the herby aperitif).
Behind the town, you can walk through acres of centuries-old pinewoods, the forests of the Massane (also known as Les Couloumates), or visit historic villages tucked away in the Alberes Mountains surrounding Argelès. Some have won awards for being the most beautiful villages in France, so we do suggest you bring your walking shoes with you if you want to see the best of the area.
At the foot of the Alberes mountains, where the Pyrenees plunge into the sea, Argelès is at a significant point on the Languedoc Roussillon coast. This is where the long stretches of beach and dunes of the Camargue and Languedoc begin to break up into rocky inlets and quiet coves as they head south towards the Spanish border.
It really has the best of both worlds – long sandy beaches typical of the northern part of the region as well as the rugged beauty of the southern area, with hidden coves and rocky headlands sheltering lovely Catalan harbour towns such as charming Collioure.
This UNESCO-protected walled town is a miraculously preserved medieval city – and one that should be on everyone’s bucket list (see main pic above). It owes its existence to its strategic position between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and it’s this location that lead to its prosperity and role as a royal citadel, Cathar stronghold and busy trading centre. Located on the Carsac plateau and inhabited since pre-historic times, it was abandoned in the 18th century, and rebuilt by architect Eugène Viollet le Duc in 1855. He did good, restoring the venerable fortress-city back to its original glittering best. The Carcassonne Festival – also known as the Festival des 2 Cités – is the biggest arts festival in Languedoc-Roussillon, and one of the major cultural events in the South of France. With nearly 100 shows – from opera to dance, theatre to classical music – it’s held from mid June to August.
Just 26km from the Spanish border, Collioure is a colourful Catalan harbour town, with not one, but two bays, presided over by a Royal Castle. Part of the Pyrenees Orientales region, the town enjoys a rich mix of Spanish and French culture, though it is largely Catalan in flavour. A number of fortified buildings are dotted around the town and surrounding hills, bearing testament to the town’s history and former strategic importance as a trading port. Known as the ‘City of Painters’, you’ll find around 30 art galleries around Collioure. Artists such as Henri Matisse, Andre Derain, Raoul Dufy, and Pablo Picasso were drawn to Collioure’s perpetually blue skies, clear sea and vibrant colours, and it’s not hard to see why.
A rocky promontory jutting into the Mediterranean, Cap d’Agde enjoys no fewer than nine different beaches to choose from. The town itself is a modern harbour resort, offering plenty of waterside restaurants and bars. The surrounding beaches range from small, secluded coves to long stretches of sand. La Plagette and the volcanic Plage de la Conque fall into the small cove category. Richelieu and Plage de Rochelongue are larger beaches, with plenty of room to stretch out. Richelieu is the livelier, with its sunbeds, bars and Jungle Beach Club.
A sophisticated little town – the seat of the Languedoc Parliament in the mid-1600s, Pézenas Pezenas stands out for its beautiful architecture with a wealth of stone-carved facades and pretty vaults and courtyards. It was visited frequently by the playwright Molièeres with his theatre troupe back in the 17th century, and still retains an arty, almost poetic atmosphere. Wander among the little craft shops and galleries, take your pick of nice restaurants, cafes and hotels, or picnic on the local Petits pâatés de Péezenaes – savoury mutton mince pies, said to be inspired by the servants of Clive of India, who stayed here in 1766.
Canal du Midi
This extraordinary man-made feature, which comes closest to the Mediterranean at Vias, is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Originally built as an extension to the Canal du Garonne further north (providing a shortcut between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic coasts), the canal plies its now peaceful way through the countryside, cutting through the picturesque towns of Beziers and Carcassonne en route to Séete. These days, the canal creates a very convenient route for walking or cycling and acts as a glorious backdrop for your journey through the dappled shadows of the plane trees that line its banks.
One of the loveliest villages in France, Saint-Guilhem-le-Déesert is one of 28 villages in the ‘Valley of Legends’. A medieval village set in greenery along the meandering Verdus stream, its ancient alleyways, sunbaked rooftiles and Romanesque Abbey of Gellone (a UNESCO World Heritage Sight) will make you feel you’ve stepped right back in time. And you can stop and savour it all from any of the delightful bistros that line its winding main street, mercifully shaded from the heat of the sun.
Perpignan is the last major town in Languedoc before the Spanish border. It enjoys a very lively mix of cultures. Half Catalan, half French, you’ll see the street names written in both languages. It’s a lovely, sunny, multicultural city with palm-lined squares, stately mansions, palaces and narrow medieval streets; a great place to visit for a taste of regional life.
The former capital of the Kings of Majorca and Counts of Roussillon, the Palais des Rois de Majorque, high up on its strong ramparts, is a major landmark of the town. The Cathedral Saint-Jeans, with its solid stone-and-brick walls is another impressive sight.
Elsewhere in the town, there are more tranquil gardens at the Jardin Sant-Vicens (Rue Sant-Vicens). Take a restful stroll among the exotic orange trees and scented oleanders. Ceramic pots and local textiles are on sale here, too, so it’s a relaxing spot to do a bit of souvenir hunting.
Suitably inspired? Take a look at our terrific range of Languedoc-Roussillon parcs – we’ve 23 to chose from, from small and secluded to the full-on thrills of our family-friendly fun parcs.
Montpellier pic: Fritz Geller-Grimm
Saint Guilhem pic: Fagairolles 34
Perpignan pic: Jorge Franganillo