When I told people that I was spending ten days traveling around France, I received enthusiastic support and declarations of jealousy, but when I mentioned that we were driving around the Languedoc-Roussillon region, I got a lot of blank stares. I explained that the Languedoc was actually a huge area that extended west from Provence all the way to the Spanish border, which seemed to put it into geographical context for most but I generally got the response "Oh, sounds lovely. I've never been to that part of France."
That was exactly the response I was after as traveling in late spring in France generally means large groups of tourists, long lines at attractions and booked out hotels; the fewer the visitors, the more I would enjoy my vacation. As it turns out, there are parts of the Languedoc that are indeed very well known and popular -- in fact France's second most popular tourist attraction (after the Eiffel Tower) is located there -- The Pont du Gard (www.pontdugard.fr) -- the highly impressive marvel of Roman engineering in the form of a massive arched bridge and aqueduct that straddles the Rhone river near the town of Vers. Millions descend upon the Pont each year, but most make it a day trip from Provence and hardly spend the time to know the Gard (part of Languedoc), one of the most beautiful and bountiful provinces in the country. I would recommend braving the tourist throngs for an hour or two at the Pont (car park entry €5 per vehicle), but make sure you enjoy a more peaceful walk along the wildflower-lined river bank away from the camera clicking hoards.
Away from the Pont and perhaps the two better known cities of Nimes and Montpellier, the Languedoc is a breath of fresh air with a majestic medieval landscape, Roman relics a-plenty, endless vineyards and an abundance of breathtaking natural landscapes. We visited, explored and stayed in several small villages throughout the Languedoc -- here are a few of my personal favorites.
Our first stop was the tiny Medieval village of St Laurent des Arbres which has as its greatest advantage the fact that it is located so close (a 20 minute drive) to both the cities of Orange and Avignon and the prestigious wine growing area of ChÃ¢teauneuf-du-Pape -- all in Provence. This proximity to major tourism destinations while being a quiet and sleepy village makes it an ideal stepping off point for day trips both within the Gard district and in Provence. The walled city with its Romanesque church, towers, alleyways and ramparts is tiny, but it is home to over a dozen quality bed and breakfasts and intimate hotels plus a fine-dining gastronomic restaurant, La Louisia (tel. +33/4-6650-20600). The local tourist office (located in a historic tower) is a goldmine of information about the entire region with maps, brochures and expert guidance from their resident director, Bernard (who I found still working at 6pm on a Sunday). St Laurent is located within the Lirac and Tavel wine regions so the local drop is both sensational and surprisingly affordable and the village itself is surrounded by vineyards.
We stayed at the stunningly gorgeous Chateau Beaupre Deleuze (www.chateau-beaupre.com), an authentic 18th century guesthouse set on an estate with a pool overlooking the village, located about a ten minute walk from the center. Rates start from €120 per night including breakfast. The three-room Entre Pierre et Vigne (www.entrepierreetvigne.com) guesthouse offers double rooms with breakfast for €75 per night. A listing of further accommodation options is available through the local tourism office website (www.saint-laurent-des-arbres.com). A few minutes drive from St Laurent is another quaint Medieval town -- St Victor-la-Coste. At the top of the hill in the middle of the village lies the ruined shell of a 10th to 13th century castle, simply known as Le Castellas. The walk up the steep cobblestone streets, past red-rose covered houses, a 13th century church and bell tower will be rewarded with sensational views of the town and the surrounding countryside plus a chance to walk unencumbered among the ruins.
Further south, but still in the Gard and close to the regional border with Provence is the town of Sommières (www.ot-sommieres.fr). It makes a perfect central base for visiting the cities of Nimes, Arles, and Montpellier without having to stay in a large city. When we were there, the circus was in town and although we didn't attend (I have a slight moral problem with the use of large animals in shows), the usually quiet town certainly became more animated and people from nearby villages and outlying areas descended upon Sommières in the evenings. There is a wonderful fresh produce and flea market that takes place in the center of the town each Saturday morning. It is a great opportunity to try regional and specialty cheeses, local sausage sand cured meats, plus savor all the delights of early summer fruits and vegetables. Sommières is known for its 1st century Roman bridge built by Emperor Tiberius to connect the road from Toulouse to Nimes. As you drive over the bridge, there is little indication of its antiquity or place in history. The Medieval center of the town is pretty and inviting, with several restaurants, galleries, retail stores and gourmet food delicatessens. The Bermond Tower is all that remains of a castle that once stood here (open for visits in July and August only for €2 per person) but the main city gate houses an impressive and much photographed clock tower. The surrounding countryside is quite beautiful and you can actually rent a donkey from Asinerie des Garrigues à Sauve (tel. +33/6-1138-3628; www.asineriedesgarrigues.com) to get, dare I say, an ass' view of the region. Rentals start from €12.
Auberge du Pont Romain (www.aubergedupontromain.com) is a lovely historic hotel located within a converted 19th century wool mill, a few yards up from the Roman bridge. Its garden, outdoor pool and restaurant complement a tasteful renovation with rooms boasting exposed stonework and 20 foot high wooden beamed ceilings. Room rates are €110 per night for a double without breakfast. The best restaurant we discovered here was actually across the bridge from the center, in a gorgeous historic building at 13 Place des Aires. The family-run Villa Heloise (tel. +33/4-6653-9508) seemed to be a favorite among local residents with not a tourist or non-French speaking patron in site. It served delicious variations of local recipes and outstanding desserts with a three course dinner menu priced at €18 per person
Aigues Mortes (www.ot-aiguesmortes.fr/index.htm) is a bizarre town, almost frozen in time except for a few trinket stores, restaurants and an annoying tourist train that ferries visitors on a half-hour tour within its fortified walls. Meaning "Dead Waters," Aigues was our last stop in the Languedoc before flying out and it was a surreal morning. You can walk around the entire walled city in about half an hour -- either from a ring road within the walls itself, or through grassy paddocks along the outside. Located on the Mediterranean, it was from Aigues that Saint Louis and his ships full of gallant knights and foot soldiers set off on the crusades to the Holy Land. Built in the 13th century, architecturally it is quite stunning and surprisingly in tact, but there is little soul to the city, other than being a magnet for large tour groups. If you get there early enough in the morning though, you can avoid the crowds and take a leisurely walk through. It is surrounded on what was once the sea port side (the waters have receded over the centuries) with huge deposits of salt, which is actually the area's main industry. The drive from Aigues to Montpellier takes you past 50 foot high mounds of mined salt, a few 1960s style high rise beach towns and the swampy lakes of the Camargue region with its famed flamingoes. We did actually see a flock of the pink birds but as it was raining they kept their heads down and appeared to be snoozing.
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