Since 1969, restaurant, hotel, travel & other witty reviews by a handpicked, worldwide team of discerning professionals—and your views, too.


Languedoc-Roussillon & Midi-Pyrénées

In the footsteps of troubadours

Languedoc, langue d'Oc: one word designates this land and its language. The roots of Languedoc's culture plunge deep into a landscape of plains and limestone hills that stretches out beside the Mediterranean, cupped by the Massif Central to the north and the Pyrenees to the east. Langue d'Oc blended Latin with the language spoken by the Gauls (“oc,” from the Latin hoc, means “yes”; could it be the ancestor of today's universal “O.K.”?). In Paris, by contrast, “yes” was oïl, hence the name of the rival tongue, langue d'Oïl. These two distinctive forms of French were spoken in two halves of the country, divided by a line that roughly corresponds to the limit beyond which olive trees no longer thrive. To the north of that invisible border, no one said Oc, and no one cooked with olive oil. Not until the late twentieth century did dieticians confirm the virtues of olive oil: now, of course, cooks the world over are swearing allegiance to Provençal--and more broadly, to Mediterranean--cuisine. What we eat, incidentally, is by no means an accident. Food reflects the evolution of a culture as much as migrations, conquests, and language do. The Romans brought grapevines and olive trees with them into Gaul, and grafted them onto the conquered territory.

The mark of the Romans

Maison Carré in Nîmes
Maison Carré in Nîmes
It may well be here, in this rugged, vivid region between the Rhône and the Pyrenees that the Romans' influence in France left its most enduring mark. For the Romans who arrived in the wake of Ligurians, Greeks, and Celts, this land was the most attractive of the transalpine provinces. They called it Gallia Narbonensis, and developed it with a will. They built roads: the Via Domitia to link the Iberian peninsula with Rome, and the Via Agrippa to travel north. They equipped the province with structures that we can still admire 2,000 years after the fact: the triple-tiered aqueduct at Pont-du-Gard, for example, and the arena and temple at Nîmes, not to mention the bridges, theaters, and other Roman monuments of Vaison-la-Romaine, Orange, and Arles, cities which today are part of Provence, on the other side of the Rhône.

With Rome's decline, other would-be conquerors came to stake their claim in Languedoc, the Vandals, Visigoths, Saracens, and Spaniards among them. After a long spell as a fief of the powerful counts of Toulouse, Languedoc became French in the thirteenth century. Roussillon was not definitively annexed to France until the reign of Louis XIV. Languedoc lies open to the most diverse influences. Not only opposing armies, but also conflicting ideas clashed here, sometimes violently. The universities of Toulouse and of Montpellier, founded in the thirteenth century, were (and remain) brilliant intellectual centers. Montpellier's medical school, in particular, has been renowned since well before Rabelais studied there in the Renaissance. Here the troubadours sang of courtly love in langue d'Oc. Today visitors can get a feel for Montpellier's rich history by exploring the old town, where medieval vestiges stand side by side with Baroque buildings and splendid eighteenth-century town houses. Place de la Comédie is the premier scene of Montpellier's vibrant social life. Just a few steps away, on Boulevard Sarail, is the Musée Fabre, one of the finest art museums in France.

he massacre of the “perfect ones”

The spiritual movement known as Catharism swept through the south of France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Cathars' doctrine of absolute purity was a violent rejection of the opulence and worldliness of the Church. Accusing him of heresy, Pope Innocent III excommunicated the Count of Toulouse and in 1208 preached the Albigensian crusade against the Catharist sect, centred in the city of Albi. It took more than twenty years to defeat the Cathars, the “perfect ones,” as they were known, though the city of Béziers was burned and its population massacred (even the unfortunates who sought refuge in the Romanesque church of the Madeleine, which still stands today). Carcassonne fell too, despite its awesome fortifications. The town's ramparts survived, however, and we can see them now much as they appeared to Simon de Montfort, the ferocious commander of the papal army (he is buried within the ramparts, in the splendid church of Saint-Nazaire). Abetted by terror, torture, and burnings at the stake, the Inquisition finally brought down the Albigensians. Albi's Southern Gothic cathedral of Sainte-Cécile was built to glorify the triumph of the established Church. Although the Cathars were exterminated, Languedoc's passionate idealism never abated.

Cathar fortress, Montségur
Cathar fortress, Montségur
That idealism may explain the region's ardent response to Protestantism, especially in the Cévennes mountains around Anduze (a charming old town with many fine seventeenth-century houses). With countless converts, the reformed religion became a major force of dissent in southern France. Ill-inspired and--especially--ill-informed about the Protestants' true strength, Louis XIV sought to stamp them out. The merciless repression led by the King's Dragoons sparked bitter resistance: peasants in shirtsleeves called camisards (from camisa, a chemise or shirt), armed with pitchforks and scythes, battled the royal troops led by the Maréchal de Villars. The memory of that struggle still endures in the Cévennes. Anduze is home to the largest Reformed church in France, and Protestants are still numerous in Nîmes, Uzès, and the old mining town of Alès.

Languedoc's flat, marshy, and increasingly built-up coast (lots of camp grounds and crowded beach resorts), is less alluring than the Cévennes, the rugged Causses, and the vine-clad Corbières hills crowned with feudal fortresses (like the château de Peyrepertuse). Red and ocher villages punctuate grandiose natural sites: the vividly tinted Gorges du Tarn, the Corniche des Cévennes with its hairpin turns, the Cirque de Mourèze in the gorgeous Hérault Valley...

A wine lake for Europe

The vineyards that once carpeted the coastal plain--and contributed copiously to Europe's “wine lake”--are yielding ground to vegetable fields and fruit orchards. Wine growers on higher ground, where better grapes grow, are determined to improve quality. Nowadays they plant Syrah and Cabernet vines and severely limit yields. Travelers should make a point of sampling some of the newer appellations contrôlées from the Coteaux du Languedoc and Corbières.

Rich dessert wines--Rivesaltes, Banyuls, Maury--are a specialty of the Roussillon region, west of Languedoc. Here, too, a mild climate and brilliant sunshine produce spectacular fruits and vegetables: Roussillon's juice-gorged apricots and peaches are the epitome of lusciousness!

The fishing village of Collioure
Fishing village of Collioure

Côte Vermeille runs from Perpignan to Spain; this is Catalan country. Attracted by the coast's intense and beautiful light, Picasso, Matisse, and Derain all came to paint in the improbably scenic fishing village of Collioure, which also has the distinction of being the anchovy capital of France. By a curious coincidence, local fishermen use lamparos--intense (and beautiful?) lights--to draw the anchovies to their boats... Here, as in Barcelona, the natives speak Catalan (a close cousin to langue d'Oc), and they dance the sardane. Sheep and goats graze on the herb-rich scrub that covers Roussillon's hill country, producing fragrant chèvres and ewes'-milk cheeses. Hams and all manner of rustic air-dried sausages are also prepared according to ancestral methods.

The region's visceral attachment to its past--and the past, here, goes back at least 450,000 years, date of the human remains unearthed at Tautavel in the Corbières hills--does not exclude a commitment to the future. Toulouse, the famous Ville Rose at began life as a Roman camp, and which boasts a wealth of medieval, Renaissance, and eighteenth-century monuments, is also the capital of France's cutting-edge aerospace industry.

All the images on this page come from the official
Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrénées tourism websites.

(Updated: 01/07/13 CT)

Plan a voyage to a tropical paradise aboard one of GAYOT's Best Caribbean Cruises.
Get the 411 on the City of Angels. Find the city's top hotels, restaurants, attractions and more with GAYOT's guide.