Languedoc-Roussillon – the ‘Other’ South of France
When people speak of the South of France they are usually referring to the Côte d’Azur. However, the travelling cognoscenti know that there is another part of the so-called Midi. One which also enjoys equally beautiful blue skies, arguably even better beaches and nearby high mountains. While the cities and resorts are nowhere near as glitzy as its next-door neighbour, they are nevertheless just as fascinating and steeped in southern French and Catalan culture and history.
I refer to the sun-kissed region of Languedoc-Roussillon overlooked by the majestic Pyrénées at its western end. It stretches from the Spanish border in a beautiful beach-lined crescent along the shores of the Mediterranean to the delta of the mighty River Rhône and Provence in the east. Nowhere near as busy as the Côte d’Azur, Languedoc-Roussillon offers a quieter, more relaxed alternative which many visitors prefer.
The region has a complex and fascinating history of shifting boundaries and power struggles. This, combined with its close proximity to Spain, is reflected with a vibrant mix of languages and culinary influences represented throughout the region. The name Languedoc, originates from the term ‘Langue d’oc’, which technically translated means ‘the language of yes’, but actually refers to the traditional language of Occitan, a dialect still spoken in parts of the south.
Languedoc Roussillon is the beating heart of French Catalonia. This huge region has a vast and diverse terrain extending from the Spanish border in the south, including part of the Pyrénées, reaching west and north to the Midi-Pyrénées and east to the Rhône.
It used to be a Région in its own right but nowadays it is part of the recently created Super Région of Languedoc Roussillon Midi-Pyrénées and known as Occitanie. Comprised of five départements,or counties, starting with the Pyrénées-Orientales in the south next door to the Aude. As the coast begins to curve eastwards we come to the Hérault which borders with the Gard at the eastern extreme. The Lozére in the north completes its complement of counties.
There are several large cities in the Languedoc Roussillon each one as fascinating as it is different. In the very south is the Catalan city of Perpignan, capital, or prefecture, of Pyrénées-Orientales, with its fabulous Palace of the Kings of Majorca. A little further north is Narbonne, sub-prefecture of the Aude, an important Roman City on the Via Domitia leading to Spain.
Also in the Aude is the historic walled City of Carcassonne which happens to be the prefecture. In nearby Hérault stands Béziers whose Cathar population the Crusaders massacred in 1209. The bustling, modern university city of Montpellier, prefecture of the Hérault, invites the visitor and close by the border with Provence is the fabulous, essentially Provençal city of Nîmes, prefecture of the Gard, founded by the Romans and credited with giving the world denim jeans!
There are many great beaches and resorts to discover especially at the Roussillon end of the coast (see below). Together with the picturesque fishing villages of Collioure and Cerbère near the Spanish border they offer everything you would expect. The port of Sète hosts regular spectacular water jousting tournaments which are well worth seeing.
Languedoc is an important wine-producing region and many visitors come to tour the vineyards of the Minervois and the Corbières. The nearby reconstructed walled city of Carcassonne is unmissable especially if you have young children with you. The Cathar heritage left many castles perched high up in the mountains such as Montségur and Quéribus.
Languedoc-Roussillon has plenty to offer visitors. There are long sandy beaches, charming rural towns, countryside walks, quaint harbour villages, bustling cities and exceptional food and wine, all served in a warm and sunny climate.
Things to do in Languedoc-Roussillon
1. The beaches
The south of France attracts sun-seekers from around the world thanks to its warm climate and sandy beaches. And where better to chill out and relax after a morning shopping than by lying on one the region’s golden beaches. They really are the perfect place to go, whatever your age. Whether you want to sit and read a book or fancy some aquatic fun, the Mediterranean has it all, so don’t forget to pack your swimming costumes. Great beaches await especially at Argelés Plage, St-Cyprien Plage, Collioure, Cap d’Agde and Canet Plage. Check out the website below for the ten best.
2. The cheese caves
For cheese lovers, the Roquefort Cheese Caves are not to be missed. You can enjoy cheese production in full flow and, thanks to the availability of English guidance notes, will be able to understand how it all works, a great bonus for those whose French is a bit rusty. Tastings are available at the end of the tour. Make sure to take a sweater with you as the caves are a little chilly.
3. The scenic route
Jump aboard the wonderful Little Yellow Train and journey through the dramatic scenery of the French Pyrenees. Running from Villefranche de Conflent, 31 miles from Perpignan, to Latour de Carol, close to the Spanish town of Puigcerda, it offers the best seat in the house. The route takes the train through world heritage sites, stunning mountains and lovely low lying landscapes. It is, without a doubt, one the world’s great train journeys. Open top carriages are available for those who want to top up their tan en route.
4. Historical sites
The medieval city of Carcassonne is a world heritage site that wouldn’t look out of place in a Disney movie. The castle and its ramparts are stunning and it’s the key historical site in the region. This place is a haven for history enthusiasts and is well worth a visit if you are in the south of France. The Cathar heritage of the Région mentioned earlier is well worth exploring and children will love the bloodthirsty tales emanating from the suppression of this religious sect during the Albigensian Crusade sponsored by Pope Innocent III.
The Fortresse de Salses (pictured above) just off the A9 Autoroute between Perpignan and Narbonne is well worth stopping off to see. Indeed many of the cities of the region boast fine examples of castles and ramparts.
5. The Canal du Midi
The Canal du Midi, an engineering marvel, achieved UNESCO world heritage status in 1999. Created by engineer and canal builder Pierre-Paul Riquet during the second half of the seventeenth century, it winds through the south of France linking the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and is consequently very popular for boating holidays. Check it out at Carcassonne or Beziers for example and maybe even take a short boat trip.
6. Family activities
There are a number of zoos, parks and aquariums in the region, which provide great outlets for families travelling around the area. The aquarium in Montpellier is one of the most popular and there are several water parks on the coast of the Aude and Pyréenées-Orientales.
Drop in water jump park at Argelès
Frenzy Palace at Torreilles
Parkseajump at Le Bacarès
7. Food and drink of the region
Languedoc-Roussillon sits on the border with Spain and the food reflects the eclectic nature of its cultural history. Catalan, French and Arabic influences permeate through the gastronomic delights and you will find traditional Spanish tapas served throughout the area as well as the more traditional French-styled cuisine.
Traditional Cooking Methods
The area has a rich soil, perfect for raising its wild boar, hares, rabbit and pigeon.Often served as a stew or cassoulet, you will find traditional cooking methods still used today in dishes such as confit of duck or other feathered game. You’ll also find a wonderful range of patés and salamis produced in the area. Locals often forage the expensive and rare black truffles fond in the region.
Garlic is a staple here and often mashed through potatoes as a hearty side dish or used in aioli served with fish stews. The region is renowned for its fresh asparagus, tomatoes and onions in particular. The famous Perlardon goats’ cheese – one of the oldest cheese types in Europe – is produced in the Languedoc region, as well as some quality blue cheeses such as particularly pungent Roquefort.
Its location next to the Mediterranean sea provides a wealth of fresh seafood. You will find extra-special oysters in Bouzigues, as well as the famous anchovies produced in the pretty harbour village of Collioure. Another tasty local fish dish is Morue Catalane which is cod with tomatoes and peppers.
For the sweet toothed, you must try the local Crème Catalane, which is a mouth-watering dessert of cream with lemon, vanilla and fennel seeds. Languedoc a huge wine producing region with the largest vineyard area in the world (almost 300 000 hectares). Every type and colour of wine can be found and many of the vineyards welcome visitors to enjoy a tasting.
Mention the south of France to someone and they will immediately think of sunny days relaxing on beautiful sandy beaches. There is no better place than the Mediterranean coastline if you are looking to top up that tan! Moreover, Languedoc is the second hottest region in France after Corsica, enjoying 300 days of sunshine a year. Typically during the summer temperatures soar into the eighties, over 30 degrees Celsius.
Check out the Mountains
If you need to cool off during the summer, jump in the car and drive into the spectacular mountains. The Pyrénées, Cevennes and Black Mountains provide the perfect scenic retreat. Here you can enjoy jaw-droppingly gorgeous views, in temperatures that are bit less intense than those experienced along the coast.
This region of France is huge and has a climate which is slightly more diverse than you might think. Along with endless days of coastal sunshine the foothills of the mountainous areas have hundreds of microclimates, so it is best to ask the locals what the weather is traditionally like in specific parts.
All words & images © Paul Shawcross
Occitanie Tourism Website
Aude Tourism Website
Carcassonne Tourism Website
Montpellier Tourism Website
Perpignan Tourism Website
Sète Tourism Website
10 Best Languedoc Beaches
Other articles featured in this Languedoc-Roussillon series are:
More information on the eastern part of Languedoc, i.e. the Gard and Montpellier, can be found in Paul’s App Provence’s Best the ideal travel guide to Southern France’s sun-drenched traveller’s paradise. It details key DESTINATIONS; outlines several ITINERARIES; and suggests great places to EAT and DRINK. All content (200+ points-of-interest and 400+ pics) is original & independent; no recommendations are ads.