Languedoc – A Stunningly Beautiful Region Of France
The only problem with holidaying in Languedoc is that it is such a stunningly beautiful region of France with a beautiful climate that it entices holidaymakers from all over the world. So if you are planning a summer visit to Languedoc here is essential news about some hidden places slightly off the beaten track. These may not be deserted in August, but in each of them you will be able to find some hidden secrets; little alleyways, impressive old churches, wide-open spaces and shady river banks where you may be able to enjoy this unique part of France nearly on your own!
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Sauve In Gard
Sauve in Gard is an ancient medieval town nestling on the banks of the river Vidourle in the foothills of the Cevennes. It does feel like somewhere that time has passed by with its little twisting alleys, vaulted passageways and old houses with gothic facades. As you climb up through the myriad of small lanes to the top of the town you will be charmed by the old houses, few of them ‘tarted up’ and many still lived in by local people. Arriving at the top of the town there is a lovely square from which you get a good view back down to the river and across to the surrounding hills. From the top of the town, there is a beautiful walk which takes you on the route of the Marquis (the Resistance workers in WW2). This cobbled path leads high into the Cevennes hills passing unusual rocky outcrops. Here you are almost sure to find a peaceful spot to sit and relax away from other holidaymakers. Coming back down into the small town you will be pleased to find a few little cafés for a refreshing drink and some little craft shops in the small squares.
The Canal du Midi
Away from the coast, you are always certain to get away from too many tourists and this 240km canal, which joins the Atlantic to the Mediterranean offers a quiet haven along most of its length. The canal was initially constructed to take the military and wine but is now used mainly by holidaymakers. I have two favourite destinations on the canal in Aude. Firstly Poilhes which is a charming village with lovely houses, pretty restaurants and many vineyards close by. It is also close to the Malpas Tunnel which was the first-ever navigable tunnel built in the world. My second choice is Le Somail which has the most amazing floating book shop which you really need to visit. It is also possible to take boat trips from here to see more of the canal and when you need food and drink, there are several small restaurants and cafes all along the canal banks.
This is known as the largest, quietest and wildest beach along the Mediterranean and is situated south of the Petit Camargue. With 18kms of beach and sand dunes, you are guaranteed not to be closer than 100m from your nearest neighbour once you venture down to this massive area of golden sand. You need to be prepared for a longish walk to the sea which is usually about 800m from the dunes. But the wildness of this beach has to be seen to be believed. Behind the sand dunes, which can reach 10m high, there are lagoons and salty scrubland and at the very end of the beach is a lighthouse. Otherwise, the only sign of everyday life is a couple of little shacks serving pizzas and drinks. Always best to take your own supplies if you visit Espiguette. However, for naturists, you don’t need to take any clothes as there is a small section of this long beach which is saved for total body immersion in the sun. I love this beach in summer or winter, the never-ending horizon coupled with the never-ending beach make you feel as though you have reached the ends of the earth….and yet there you are on the Mediterranean coast at peak holiday time!
Grotte de demoiselles
This amazing cave system is situated in Herault close to the town of Ganges, 45kms from Montpellier. It truly is a secret gem and thought by many people to be the most magnificent cave system in Europe. The caves are accessed via a funicular railway and once you disembark you find yourself amidst the most majestic and breathtaking scenery. The tours take about 75 minutes, and are often only conducted in French but just seeing, even without understanding, is wonderful. There are some steep climbs with small stairways and occasionally huge drops with only a handrail to save you plunging 100 feet into the depths of the cave but for those who are fit and steady on their feet a truly awesome experience awaits you in these caves.
The steam train in Cevennes
The delightful ride on this steam train starts from the small town of Anduze which itself is well worth visiting. It is a medieval town with its roots in the Gallo-Roman age and its narrow little streets, hidden squares and ancient fountains are full of charm. It is the start point, not only of the steam train but also for those hiking in the Cevennes. It has no airs and graces but offers a good basic start point for a day out. The steam train runs as far as St-Jean-du-Gard, which is not particularly interesting although a good refreshment spot. The train ride is more about the journey than the arrival. However, en route, there is a stop at Generargues where you can get out to enjoy the pleasures of the Bambouseraie. This 15-hectare garden was originally planted 150 years ago and has now been cared for by the same family for more than 100 years. There are all types of bamboo planted here and also a wonderful avenue of Redwoods. There is a beautiful Japanese garden, a small bamboo village with houses and shops all constructed from bamboo and, of course, a maze. All of this makes a wonderful day out in the hot summer weather. It may be busy at times in the garden but most of the tourists will be French rather than English and there are many quiet corners to enjoy relaxing in the shade with the sound of the breeze blowing through the bamboo. I advise getting the first steam train out in August and getting off at the babouseraie early in the morning and then continuing the rest of the journey later in the day.
Goudargues in Gard
This is known as the Venice of Gard with its pretty canal running down the centre of the main street. The canal banks are lined with mature trees giving shade to the numerous little cafés and restaurants and it’s a lovely place to sit and watch the world go by. The village itself dates from the construction of an abbey which was built around 815 on a nearby lake. There is not much to see in Goudargue, the reason to visit it to enjoy the relaxation of sitting at a café by the canal and a gentle riverside walk. Leaving the canal behind you go past the old lavorie, which is a splendid building, then passing some of the best-kept allotments imaginable you arrive at the river Cèze where you can watch the occasional canoeist who inevitably turns over in the rapids close to the bridge. If you are in Goudargues in August you may also be able to enjoy the festival of ‘Painters at the Waters Edge’ and in any month Wednesday is a good day to visit to enjoy the weekly market.
If you want to escape the crowds of tourists who flock to Carcasonne then head to some of the more remote Cathar castles. These castles date from the 12th century and all of them are ruined now but most have substantial remains so you can wander through them using your imagination to conjure up life as it was lived in these Romantic castles. Two of my favourites are Lastours and Peyreportuse. Both are perched high on rocky outcrops with views of soaring mountains and deep valleys and little else as far as the eye can see. Both necessitate a walk from the parking place and the walk will involve a certain amount of climbing. But to be able to enjoy the remoteness, the scenery and the beauty of these castles I think that the physical exercise repays tenfold.
Etang du Thau
This is the 7500-hectare seawater lagoon in Herault where the canal du Midi finally joins the Mediterranean. Two of my favourite places on the Etang are Mèze and Marseillan. Both are famous for their oysters which is now the main source of income other than tourism. Marseillan has many restaurants and cafés and lots of oysters and 3kms from the centre of the small town is a dedicated beach known as Marseillan page. Mèze too has a beach, a small marina and a harbour. It is smaller than Marseillan but both are well worth a visit. Sitting by the side of the lake, eating freshly caught oysters with a glass of white wine in these unspoilt little towns you certainly won’t feel as though you are crowded out with tourists. As with everywhere in France though, such places are so much better enjoyed any time of the year other than August!