Author Justin Cartwright takes a relaxing and absorbing holiday in south-west France.
Languedoc-Roussillon: the French region that quietly rocks
I like the saying that travel broadens the behind. When I go on holiday I prefer to be active. My minimum requirement is some water - lakes, rivers and seas in preference to swimming pools - a few historical buildings to look at, and an interesting local life going on all around.
France answers all these demands. I remember talking to a taxi driver once in Paris, and asking him if he were going abroad for his holidays. The question seemed to puzzle him. Why would I want to, he said, when we have everything right here? And in a way he was right. France has the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Massif Central, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic; it also has an astonishing variety of countryside, from the misty flatlands of the north to the baking, maquis-scented south.
This year, we are heading to Languedoc-Roussillon, the relatively neglected region in the south- west corner of France, between the Pyrenees and the Black Mountains, which are the tail end of the Massif Central. It is a region of coastal lagoons, mountains, rivers, chestnut forests, vineyards and countless small, quiet and ancient villages.
We range from Albi, just to the north of the Black Mountains, right down to Collioure, a small port near the Spanish border. The middle section of this area is the department of the Aude, which contains the city of Carcassonne - the finest walled, medieval city in France. After Versailles and the Eiffel Tower it is the third most visited tourist attraction in the country and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The view of the battlements from a distance is really the stuff of dreams; the sort of vision filmmakers conjure up. Indeed, Carcassonne has often been used as a film set. The day we visit, the city is rammed, and jousting is going on - knights with fancy names are introduced in chivalric style, bored horses canter reluctantly around, and plenty of medieval hocus-pocus is on offer. The château, in the inner defensive circle of the city, is well worth visiting. It provides a wonderful sense of medieval European life.
We rent a small and charming house in the village of Caunes-Minervois. It is owned by an English writer and his partner, and is full of books. Caunes is right in the heart of what has been called Cathar Country. The Cathars were a religious group that did not share the Catholic Church's view of Christianity. For them, Christianity was a religion demanding poverty and simplicity; the elaborate rituals of the Roman church, and particularly the worship of the cross, were anathema to them. Their fate during the 12th and 13th centuries was war, forced conversion, burning at the stake and other forms of execution.
However, this terrible period has left a legacy of ruined and romantic castles and fortified villages, impossibly high in the mountains, way above the vineyards. Some are tourist attractions with roads and car parks; others require a long walk. My favourite is a small mountain village called Minerve. It has astonishing, vertiginous views down the canyons on either side of it. Only one tower of the original château is still standing and the tiny main street contains a lovely bookshop. France may be the last country in the world to treasure its small bookshops.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The streets of Caunes are very narrow and the houses are packed tight. There is a sense of huddling for safety. Vineyards roll in every direction, a sea of green around the village.
Our house, L'Escritoire, has a modern terrace three floors up, with a barbecue, chairs, a table and wisteria and roses in enormous pots. At the heart of the village is a huge abbey originally built in the ninth century; the magnificence of this and the many other churches in the area is in stark contrast to the relatively humble small towns. Our street is called the "Street of the Washerwomen" and indeed it led to the still functioning old open-air washhouse. Caunes has one grand Renaissance mansion on the north side of the main square, the Hotel D'Alibert, which was once a bishop's house. The restaurant in the hotel is run by Frederique, who is engagingly eccentric. Fredo, as we soon learn to call him, writes his menus phonetically. Initially, I'm thinking they are written in the ancient Langue D'Oc. A signed picture of the British actor and comedian John Cleese hangs on a wall and commends the establishment. This may not be everyone's idea of good PR but Fredo certainly thinks so. We have dinner in the courtyard at the back; it's magical, and only 65 euros (Dh310) for two, with non-alcoholic drinks. Fredo calls me "Justang" which is the way they speak down there, a hangover of the old French Oc. This is the sort of thing I find fascinating, even on holiday.
In my search for great places to swim, which does not include the public swimming pool in a nearby village, where I am banned for wearing "le short" - long swimming trunks - I consult a book called Wild Swimming France by Daniel Start. There are some lovely places mentioned that include a deep pool under the Roman bridge in Gard. And there are mountains and national parks with remote and not-so-remote natural lakes, and deep pools and hollows in rivers and streams. We also take a two-hour ride on the Canal du Midi, which joins the Garonne to the 240 kilometres of man-made canal at Toulouse, and on to the Mediterranean. These excursions start from Homps, and include a lock, which rises 12 metres. The 40,000 plane trees along the canal were planted close together to stabilise the canal and they cast a cool shade on the water. Many of them are dying and are being replaced with a disease-resistant species of plane tree. A trip on the canal is almost mesmerically restful as the French landscape glides by in a stately fashion.
One day we drive from Caunes to Collioure, about as far south as you can go, 80 minutes away. It is a delightful, old-fashioned and unspoilt resort with a small harbour, and was the subject of some of Matisse's greatest paintings. Here, we swim from the beach beneath the sheer walls of the castle - you are never far from a castle - and eat very heartily at a cafe near the harbour while wishing we could stay longer.
We spend another day in the truly beautiful town of Albi that sits north of the Black Mountains; a town that gave its name to the Albigensian Crusade against the Cathars. The magnificent Palais de la Berbie (Bishop's Palace) houses about 1,000 works by Toulouse-Lautrec in a new gallery devoted to the artist, and the palace is a masterpiece in its own right.
We return to Caunes that evening to a generous platter of tapas served under fig trees in a garden next to the Abbey. It's a perfect ending to an absorbing holiday.
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