My visit to Languedoc Rousillon Sud, France
My trip to Languedoc Roussillon Sud. I have long held the opinion that there are only two bits of France worth visiting. These are Paris and the Cote d’Azur. Shall we just say that I have not changed my opinion? I’ve driven from one end to the other many times and it is pleasant to stop in the Champagne and Burgundy areas en route, but that is it!
The rest of the country is green agricultural land dotted with small, not very interesting working villages. Of course, there is the large carbuncle that is Lyon as you travel down through the country. I only made the mistake of stopping there once and hastily retreated!
Well, like someone repeatedly banging their head against a wall, I didn’t give up and at this very moment you will find me sipping tea next to the Canal du Midi. It is freezing cold, end of May and the weather is not being kind. Like millions of other people I enjoyed reading the Kate Mosse novel, Labyrinth, and dreamt of visiting the city of Carcassonne so beautifully and evocatively described by Ms Mosse. It is what has drawn me here now.
Places to visit in Southern Languedoc Roussillon:
Canal du Midi
Canal du Midi – mile after mile of …..not a lot!
It sounds so romantic and inviting doesn’t it? Well, it is a boring old canal in the middle of relentlessly dull countryside. I can’t quite believe it, but it is not at all as I imagined. Part of the problem is that France is HUGE and so you travel for miles and miles to get anywhere with nothing much in between.
I’m staying in a delightful house on the banks of the Canal du Midi with a terrace overlooking the water. Boats go up and down all day long, it is surprisingly busy and must be horrendous in the high season of July and August. At the moment it is school term and so the boats are full of pensioners, struggling in some cases, to control the boat. It is a source of endless amusement for me! Nighttime comes and they moor up outside, huddle in sweaters and anoraks and sit looking miserable inside peering out of the window until bedtime!
This is the problem with a canal holiday here (personally I can think of no horror that would be worse), there is absolutely nothing to do. If you want a canal holiday go to England! The canal at the bottom of our fields at home is far prettier, the countryside much nicer and you will have English pubs dotted along the route for entertainment and you are never far from something interesting to see. “What about the weather” I hear you say to which I reply ‘Pah! the weather is wet and cold here in Languedoc!’. You can only guarantee nice weather in July and August and it is nice in England during those months.
View from the Ramparts, walking up to the Cite and inside the Cite walls
Well, what can I say? Such a huge disappointment. The reason for my 5 hour drive from the Cote d’Azur and the reason I’m huddled inside trying to keep warm. The City looks magnificent from a distance and the heart soars at the sight of it. I parked at the bottom and made my way up higgledy steps and through a small gate in the castle wall.
Carcassonne City is ‘an outstanding example of a medieval fortified town with its buildings, streets and fine Gothic Cathedral’ according to Unesco ‘of exceptional importance because of the lengthy restoration campaign undertaken by Viollet le Duc’.
Inside the city walls is where things went wrong. It was packed full of tourists, tatty tourist shops and cafes. After fighting my way through hordes of people and seeing the really dreadful renovations that have taken place, I scarpered! Decided to pop into Carcassonne for a spot of lunch but changed my mind on arrival. It is one of those drab and tired french towns that one sees everywhere in La France Profonde.
The Four Lastours Castles and a Michelin Star restaurant at the bottom of the hill
Someone told me that if I was disappointed with Carcassonne to visit nearby Lastours. I’m so glad I took the advice! What a magical place. Lastours consists of the remains of four castles located 300m in altitude, soaring skywards. It is quite a climb up to the castles, takes about 20 minutes from the entrance where you pay 6 euros. Traces of settlement at Lastours trace back to the Bronze Age. It is a fascinating place, the surrounding Black Mountains have been used for mineral and iron extraction starting in 60BC. the history of the castles is fascinating and well worth investigating further.
At last I found the magical, mystical medieval castle that I was looking for – luckily it rained on the day of my visit, keeping visitors away and so I had the Castles to myself, the atmosphere was amazing, intensely mystical. Perfect! I just hope they don’t ruin it by the ongoing renovations and turn it into a Disney Castle such as Carcassonne City.
To cap it all, I actually found a restaurant that I would like to eat in! I have not eaten out at all during my stay in Languedoc, I don’t eat meat and this is a meat eaters country. Every restaurant proudly announces Cassoulet as a speciality or sausages and various other bits of pig or duck. A tentative look at the menu usually makes me realise I will not find anything non meat related! In the village of Lastours, right below the castles is a charming little restaurant with one Michelin star that has a ‘fish’ menu. Sadly, it was in the afternoon during my visit, but I will be back!
Tip: Wear sensible walking shoes and take water for the climb.
Well, this is where things pick up. The coastline of Languedoc Rousillon is wild, windy and stunning with pristine sandy beaches. There are 50km of sandy beaches which are part of the Parc Natural Regional de la Narbonnaise, part of an 800 sq km national park. The beaches are virtually empty and it is a joy to walk along picking mussels. Yes! Mussels (I hope they are edible anyway). The pictures are taken on the Plage naturel (wild beach) just along from Narbonne plage. I can hire a jet ski or Kite surfer if I wish but I’m not sure what I would do with the dogs! This is the windiest spot in France which may account for the lack of people on the beach, but I love it!
Glorious ‘Wild’ beach near Narbonne Plage
The drive on the way down was lovely too, through a National Park. Narbonne Plage is a rather odd little man made resort but the wild beaches are heavenly! I plan to explore the coastline towards the West if the weather is good, and will addendum here.
http://www.creme-de-languedoc.com Invaluable website for the best beaches
Tip: Take a wind break for the beach and a picnic. This is a dog friendly beach. All the ‘wild’ bits between towns are dog friendly but some are hard to access. This has easy access and parking, perfect!
Picture of the Parc Natural on the way down to Narbonne Plage
If you want to do a wine tasting tour, go to Bourgogne for goodness sake! However, if you are here in Southern Languedoc there are countless wineries offering free tastings. I might even try a few myself later in the week. Temptation was everywhere on the road from Carcassonne to Narbonne. I’ll let you know how I get on and add to the post later.
To recap: I loved my visit to Lastours and to the beautiful coastal area. Disappointed with Carcassonne.
There is a very good reason why the Cote d’Azur is so popular! Quite simply, it is the best place to visit in the South of France. I am surprised by climate change just a few hours drive to the West, wet and much colder even in late May. I know, I know you are saying ‘she is moaning!’ but I think you would rather I give an honest opinion!
ps. I received a message from someone in Carcassonne saying I had missed a lot and should have stayed longer. I asked them to tell me and I would go back as I’m only a few miles away. They replied “The soul”.