The Ten Commandments for Visiting the Languedoc, France
By: Joanna MunroEvery summer, tourists eagerly chase their way through the Languedoc on an enthusiastic pilgrimage from one cross on the guide book to the next. As I see them bowl past, noses glued to their sat navs en route for the next horrifically expensive car park, I can’t help wondering if they’ll return home having experienced the best of the region. So herewith follow my ten top tips to help you enjoy the pleasant - and avoid the unpleasant - experiences this beautiful region has to offer. If you’re hoping for tame tourist book rhetoric, please stop reading now: these are honest insider tips that Michelin probably wouldn’t like, let alone publish. However incongruous they may seem, they’re here for the taking, offered by a local expat who’s been there, seen that, and briefly got the T-shirt - before having it stolen from her beach mat along with all her other belongings.
- THOU SHALT VISIT OUT OF SEASON
Do dare to visit out of season, if you can. The best time to come is in early September, when the summer squads have gone home and the tourist traps have shut. You are left with beautiful weather, the real locals, and a fabulous playground that has been emptied of visitors toting inflatable crocodiles, wailing infants and iceboxes. Visiting places like Molière’s beautiful hometown of Pézenas is a much more rewarding experience when the tourist population has waned. Whilst there, bookworms should track down the café book shop Librairie Aparté on rue de la foire for an unforgettable hot chocolate that will knock the spots off anything you’ve ever tasted before in a heavenly background of literature and art.
- THOU SHALT GET OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
It’s easy to tick off a list of the old classics of the Languedoc. It’s true that they all have their charm: Montpellier city centre, the Roman ruins of Nîmes, the Pont du Gard (watch out for the eye-wateringly expensive entrance fees), Aigues Mortes, Carcassonne, the Canal du Midi and its impressive engineering feat of the seven locks, and the Camargue (whose horses and flamingoes make the mosquitoes and putrid lagoon smells worth putting up with). But they are not the be-all and end-all of the region, and access to many of them has been re-organised for tourism to such an extent that they have lost some of their original charm. So choose with parsimony, and visit either straight after breakfast, or in the evening before the mosquitoes hit. DON’T forget your mosquito repellant: although the region invests heavily in an anti-mosquito arsenal to zap the mozzy population of the coastal lagoons, the numerous survivors seek to avenge their dead, and will ruthlessly devour freshly-imported flesh. Be warned.
- THOU SHALT SNIFF OUT THE LOCALS
Turn your back on the star destinations and seaside resorts, and drive away from the sea to discover the beautiful vallée de l’Hérault. If you see lots of cars with the number 34 on their number plate parked up on the side of the road near the river, park…. and awaken the Columbo in you! Find out where their occupants are hiding - although this may involve climbing over walls to follow in their footsteps, you can bet your bottom dollar there’s a great spot to relax somewhere close by. (Unless it’s Sunday in late autumn, in which case you’re more likely to run into a wild boar being chased by a modern-day Asterix and his pals from the nearby village).
A quick point about the Pont du Diable: This beautiful bridge over the Hérault river is best visited out of season, when the car park is free and the beach is empty. In summer, you may be surprised to see youngsters throwing themselves off the bridge 60 foot above the water. This is not a suicide attempt, as some tourists believe when they clap eyes on a teen teetering on the brink of the parapet, but a bid to prove their virility to the suitably unimpressed, bikini-clad wonders on the rocks below. Unfortunately, some of them do come a cropper, resulting in the much more sobering sight of the local pompiers.
The accessible and popular beach here also has a roped-off area for less intrepid swimmers requiring the watchful eye of the local equivalent of Baywatch. No need to be Einstein to understand that in high season, diminishing amounts of slowly renewed water + lots of swimmers = dubious water quality. So those who prefer cleaner and quieter climes would be better advised to follow the road a few kilometers upstream of the bridge towards St Guilhem le Désert. Park and follow the locals to spots like this one. Not only is it pretty, but you can put your head under the water without being worried about what you’re swallowing (watch out for the kayaks when you come up to breathe, though).
- THOU SHALT HAVE EYES IN THE BACK OF THY HEAD
If you insist on coming here at the same time as gadzillions of other people, DON’T take anything to the beach here in high summer that you wouldn’t willingly donate to a complete stranger. Leave your belongings within spitting distance when you go swimming - if you don’t choose to take it in turns to be human pitbulls on your beach mats instead. I am speaking from experience, having pegged it half naked down the road behind the ratbags who had stolen our rucksack from my beach towel, complete with the clothing, keys, money and papers it contained and leaving us half an hour from home without transport or keys to get into our flat. The thieves had underestimated the determination of an English girl to return home without resorting to hitch-hiking in her bikini bottoms, and we did find the bag eventually, albeit relieved of ready cash and jewellery.
Likewise, don’t leave anything more tempting than a rotting apple core on the seat of your car, wherever you park. I saw a great note on a car last year: “Dear car thieves: Don’t bother smashing my window. You’ve already taken everything”. Foreign number plates attract unwanted visitors here, and a broken window is a bummer when you have a one thousand kilometre drive to get home.
- THOU SHALT CHOOSE THY MOMENT CAREFULLY
If you are what I call a pancake tourist (frying one side after the other), avoid fighting tooth and nail with battalions of tatooed, tanned locals drenched in suntan oil for a 50 cm square patch of sand by arriving after five in the afternoon when the serial tanners are starting to pack up, and the sun is less dangerous. For those of you who choose to visit the long stretch of beach between Carnon and La Grande Motte, called le grand travers and le petit travers, you will see that there are numbered signs indicating the portion of beach you are on. Wandering in the dunes close to the beach is now impossible due to natural conservation policies. I do not recommend the dunes behind the road, and particularly not those behind portion number 69 - unless you have an open mind and a strong stomach. The symbolic number has seemingly led to it being adopted for activities that could shock the innocent visitor seeking a quiet spot to relieve himself. Oh, and don’t swallow the seawater in high season, unless you fancy trying out your French medical vocabulary.
- THOU SHALT BE FOOD-SAVVY
DO pack a picnic lunch rather than stopping at overpriced snack bars disguised as restaurants. Boycott flavourless fodder and discover something new! Food tastes wonderful outdoors, and a picnic doesn’t cost you a fortune. So go to the market to pick up a crunchy organic baguette, a few slices of smoked ham or traditional pâté, some oily, garlicky local olives, freshly-picked local tomatoes, some delicately flavoured goat’s cheese, fresh peaches and figs as you enjoy the sights, smells, sounds and smiles of the market environment. Then wash it all down with a glass of rosé at your chosen picnic spot. This meal is guaranteed to knock the spots off the reheated industrial junk served in many of the cheaper “restaurants” that open up for the tourist season.
If you want to go to a restaurant, DO go into a local bar or shop and ask locals where they eat. They will hopefully reward your bravery with an address where you can find good, home-made and affordable food like La Tomate, a small, traditional family restaurant in the rue du four aux flammes in the old centre of Montpellier. On your way to visit the seven locks in Béziers, stop off at the village square in Servian and check out my favourite brasserie. It is run by a terminally cheerful chef who serves just two dishes per day and a homemade dessert at affordable prices. The brasserie hasn’t shifted one iota since the beginning of the 1900’s, and the locals prop themselves up at the long bar, drinking their coffee or their apéro, reading the Midi Libre, or loudly contesting the football results. A two-hour lunch there will open your eyes to everyday life in this region.
- THOU SHALT DISCOVER WATER ON MARS
Oops, I mean the Lac Du Salgou, my favourite playground. I call it Mars because of the fabulous red rock you find there.
Often snobbed by the holiday makers, or simply not even noticed on the map, this gorgeous lake is a real eye-opener. All year round, you can walk or cycle for miles and soak up a fabulous view. Red rocks and greenery are set against a vivid blue sky - if you are lucky. You can sail, pedal boat, swim, windsurf and even set up your camping van there. Park at one of the numerous access points and walk around the lake, choose yourself a creek or an inlet, and listen to the cicadas sing as your kids discover that crayfish are difficult to catch. Check out the abandoned village. During cooler weather in the same area visit the Cirque de Mourèze, a fabulous natural site where children can climb rock formations and play at hide and seek. Meander around the site, and you’ll soon be taking yourself for John Wayne or Calamity Jane.
- THOU SHALT IMBIBE
DO go wine-tasting. It would be a crime not to! My rule of thumb: the smaller the winery, the better. My favourites are Daumas Gassac, and the wines of Montpeyroux village. Go to admire the Pic St Loup, an impressive mountain, then taste the red wine of the same name. Combined with a good Roquefort cheese from the neighbouring Aveyron, the experience will blow your mind – and take the enamel off your teeth.
- THOU SHALT BEHAVE
Don’t underestimate the French police force: they are very strict, and will not concede to any eyebrow fluttering or apologising once they’ve nabbed you. The only fun you will get out of the experience is hearing their charming efforts to speak English. Maybe.
- THOU SHALT OPEN THINE EYES
Last but not least, open your eyes and ears. Look upwards as well as in front of you. Listen to the beautiful local accent. Register the fabulous, fathomless blue of the sky. Crush the wild thyme underfoot, and breathe in its fragrance. Absorb all the beauty of the region… And come back again soon.
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Contest Comments » There are 8 comments
Love your post Joanna. Very thorough with a nice twist of humor. Thanks
Hi Joanna, I'm an American living in Montpellier and I learned some things from your post. #69, for example. Will keep an eye out next time although we always go to the dog friendly spots, which it looks like you do too. Clementine, our golden, would love to meet yours someday. I'll have to teach her to be a watch dog, although that doesn't seem very likely. Good luck in the contest. Of course the French posts are my favorite! Best, Aidan
Great list of how to visit Languedoc-Roussillon with tons of good advice about protecting yourself from the sun, thieves, mozzies, eating well and drinking well. I would add an 11th commandment: Get Thee to Joanna's Blog for regular delightful observations of all sorts, lots of humour and a wonderful way with words.
great, all tourist guide books should follow this format from a knowledgeable local with insider dealings... Joanna's blog is most fun to read for her peculiarly charming British humour and cunning plans and suggestions. Should be read by all wanting to make a new life in France
I'm another who considers Joanna's blog something not to be missed because there you find the same mixture of keen observation, great writing and laugh-out-loud humour as in her competition entry above. There is nothing like the insights of an intelligent outsider (rapidly becoming an insider) to open your eyes to the beauties and vagaries of an area and help you get the most from it.
I wish I could write half as well. I always love the way Joanna puts her stories together. The vocabulary makes for great reading and the truth about her spunky self is a hoot! Good luck!! I think you should win!
So funny and so true(even if I am french)
My wife & I (retirees) just returned from 6 weeks in the south of France - 3 near Nice and 3 in Herault near Bedarieux...hiking, engaging locals, eating local food and drinking local wine, struggling with halting French, exploring ancient villages, painting and absorbing the Languedoc paysage. Such a rich region! Joanna's commandments would be a helpful and fun read for anyone headed there.