When I tell people I live in the south of France, they invariably respond, “You get to live on vacation!” Then, they ask whether I live near Aix or Nice and which movie stars I’ve seen.
But, I live in the other south of France. This isn’t Provence or the Riviera, those celebrity-studded regions with lofty prices and haughty attitudes. I am in Languedoc, which starts west of Provence and stretches along the Mediterranean, down towards Spain. It’s so unglamorous, the pensioners in my village wear their plaid flannel bedroom slippers when they go out to buy their daily baguettes.
Freeze frame: (from top to bottom) A view of la Cité from the Old Bridge, over the Aude river; an old-fashioned carousel outside la Cite; the Saturday market at Place Carnot in Carcassonne. Photographs: Catherine Bolgar
As the antithesis of bling, Languedoc is redolent with authenticity. Most of its little villages give one the impression of having stepped into an old Marcel Pagnol movie. Many of them are so small that one can wander all their streets in less than an hour. And, while all the villages have certain characteristics in common — the architecture, the quietude, the town square — each shows a distinct personality.
One of my favourite villages is Caunes Minervois, on the edge of the Black Mountains. The cobbled streets are too tiny for cars to pass and, anyway, some turn into stairs on the steepest hills. The Renaissance-style houses date from the 15th century, with columns and decorations unusual to the area.
Lastours village clings to the side of a valley of the Black Mountains, with the ruins of four Cathar fortresses glowering on top, and a gastronomic restaurant next to the Orbiel river. The fortified medieval town of Minerve is a little touristy, but the number of visitors simply reflects its amazing location on a peninsula, jutting into gorges formed by the Cesse and Brian rivers.
In these and other villages, summer days begin the same way. Winegrowers putter along in their miniature, museum-piece tractors to tend the vines before the sun becomes too hot. Local women stop with their woven baskets at the open-air market or the grocery store. Late in the morning, the tempting scents of cooking waft through the shutters, closed against the sun. From noon until 2pm, everything comes to a halt for the most sacred rituals of the day — lunch and a nap.
Certain things have changed, though. Languedoc, which accounts for one-third of France’s wine production, used to be known for low-grade plonk. But, in the past two decades, local winegrowers have concentrated on quality over quantity, creating AOCs, or appellation d’origine contrôlée. To win an AOC label, a wine must be grown in certain areas and made to certain standards. Corbières is the biggest AOC in Languedoc; Limoux makes a sparkling white wine (said to have been created by Dom Pérignon before he moved north); Minervois has many small, family-run wineries making lovely reds; Fitou is hearty; Muscat de St Jean de Minervois is a sweet dessert wine.
Ever since we moved here, my husband and I have been on a mission to sample as much of the local food and wine as possible. We’ve found that wine tasting can make a good excuse for exploring a village. Laure Minervois, for example, is home to several fine winemakers, including Domaine la Tour Boisée. Owner Jean-Louis Poudou speaks with great emotion about how the land is reflected in the character of the wine.
The tiny village of Bagnoles, not far from Laure, has absolutely nothing — no shops, no cafés — but at its Château du Donjon, tastings take place in a 13th century dungeon. Pépieux and Siran, two villages in the Minervois la Livinière AOC, are surrounded by fabulous wineries, including Château Massamier la Mignarde, which dates back to the Roman times and whose Domus Maximus was selected the best wine in the world at the 2005 International Wine Challenge held in London.
The villages are lovely, but small. Even after living here for several years, I still am overwhelmed by the Carcassonne. Approaching from the centre of town over the Aude river or from the D342, you have a sweeping view of the biggest intact fortified medieval city in Europe, called la Cité. This is a citadel as Disney would have built it, with 52 towers and two rings of crenellated walls on a hilltop. La Cité draws some two million tourists a year, most of whom stay for only a couple of hours. Its walls are only about 1km long, and the enclosed city is around 500m across, at the most.
Most of the fortress you see today was built in the 12th century atop a Roman fortified town from the third and fourth century AD. That, in turn, was built on a Gallic settlement that dates back to the sixth century BC. After you cross the drawbridge, on the inner rampart to the left, you can see the layers of different stones and bricks. Its many invaders include the Romans, the Visigoths, the Moors and even other Frenchmen. At one time, some 4,000 people lived there; today, only around 40 residents, or citadins, remain.
Carcassonne sat on the trade route between Bordeaux and Rome, making it a key takeover target. The most repeated tale is of the Saracen princess Dame Carcas, who resisted a siege by Charlemagne. Her people starving in the citadel, she ordered all the remaining food to be rounded up — a pig and some beans. She had the pig stuffed with the beans, and tossed over the wall at Charlemagne, who decided this dame was so crazy he should get away while he could. As the French retreated, the fortress bells rang, hence, Carcassonne (sonne translates roughly into ‘knell’).
Unfortunately for the story, Charlemagne never attacked Carcassonne; it was his father, Pepin the Short, and he didn’t withdraw — he won the battle, sending the Saracens back to Spain. For those who prefer the fairy tale, Dame Carcas is also credited with inventing cassoulet, the signature dish of French country cooking, whose ingredients include white beans, pork, duck and sausage.
What is amazing about la Cité is how — despite the crush of visitors — the little streets are often empty. Le Saint-Jean café-restaurant at the back of the Château Comtal (the count’s castle within the fort, now a must-see museum) has a fantastic view, and, I’ve never seen more than one or two other tables occupied. Other treasures are hidden in plain sight, such as the 14th century Tree of Jesse stained-glass window in the Saint Nazaire basilica which shows the family tree of Jesus.
Or, the rope marks on the lips of la Cité’s two wells — everybody climbs up to look over the side…at nothing; the wells are closed. I like to run my fingers over the grooves made by centuries of ropes and think how the former residents pulled up their water by bucket. Like so much in this region, the modern world tries to invade but, in the end, Languedoc resists change, and wins.
How to get there:
Languedoc doesn’t have big airports among the eight that serve it: Avignon, Béziers, Carcassonne, Montpellier, Nîmes, Perpignan, Rodez and Toulouse. You will have to change planes in a bigger city, such as Paris. Return economy fares from Rs33,000 (Aeroflot) ex-New Delhi, from Rs38,000 (SwissAir) ex-Mumbai, and Rs45,000 (Air India) ex-Bangalore. From Paris, Air France flies to Montpellier (round trip fares: euro 311, or around Rs21,000) and Nîmes (euro 340) and Airlinair flies to Béziers (euro 438). The high-speed TGV train also runs from Paris to Montpellier in a bit over 3 hours, with fares starting around €120 round trip (‘www.sncf.com’).
Car rentals are available at the airports. Languedoc covers some 42,000 sq. km, so you need a car. At wine tastings, consider using the spittoon because French police conduct random checks for drunk drivers even on what seem like remote country roads.
Where to stay:
Top of the line is Hôtel de la Cité (‘www.hoteldelacite.orient-express.com’; Tel.: 0033-468719871), in Carcassonne. Occupying the former home of the bishop of the former cathedral next door, it mixes vaulted ceilings with traditional décor and James Bond-style electronics (the television rises out of its hiding place in a coffee table). Room rates run from €400-1,350.
Gites (‘www.gites-de-france. com/gites/uk/’) are another form of accommodation, with comfort levels running from sumptuous to simple. You can opt to rent an entire house (‘www.gites-de-france.com/ gites/uk/rural_gites’) or just a room in a bed and breakfast arrangement.
Carcassonne’s tourist office also gives a list of holiday homes for rent (‘www.carcassonne.org’).
What to do:
The beaches in Languedoc tend to be sandy, versus the pebbles of the Riviera, and there’s something for everybody. Palavas les Flots near Montpellier is chic; Narbonne is huge and family-oriented; La Franqui draws windsurfers; Cap d’Agde is known for divers and nudists. The beach towns tend towards not-so-lovely modern concrete buildings, with a few exceptions, such as Gruissan.
On weekends, village festivals celebrate every imaginable source of local pride, from cassoulet in Castelnaudary (28-31 August), to a Spanish feria, complete with bullfights, in Béziers (14-17 August) or the music and medieval festivals (think jousting) in Carcassonne throughout July and August, culminating with the last week of August devoted to Spanish food, music and culture. To visit wineries, call ahead.
Where to eat:
Michelin has given its stars to several regional restaurants: La Barbacane in Hôtel de la Cité, Le Park at the foot of la Cité, les Puits du Trésor in Lastours, Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier (with three stars), Octopus in Béziers. When I want to really escape, I head to le Clos des Framboisiers, an oasis on a dead-end street next to train tracks in a residential neighbourhood of Carcassonne. Its high ochre walls hide big palm trees around a swimming pool; there is a mix of antiques with exotic touches. The food has the same melange of tradition with a twist.
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