When it comes to holiday destinations in the south of France, Côte d'Azur has long held the limelight. But Languedoc-Roussillon, which stretches from Provence south to the Spanish border, is giving it a run for its money, and not just because the sun-baked, coastal landscape produces some of the country's best wine. Fathom contributor Shanika Hillocks walks us through another side of the region.
LANGUEDOC-ROUSSILLON, France – The coastal regions of southern France serve as a backdrop to prominent events, palatial hotels, endless beaches, and a serious amount of foot traffic. Roads less traveled exist though, especially in the famed wine region of Languedoc, and they don’t just lead to vineyards. Roughly two hours from Montpellier, quaint towns — like Narbonne, where aromas of wild rosemary waft through the air; Grussian, where natural winds inspire maritime activities; and Carcassone, a proverbial medieval time capsule — reveal another side of southern France. The area’s Roman vestiges, bounty of natural resources, and slow and simple ways of life are so unspoiled, it almost feels as if locals here have been purposely keeping it all to the themselves.
Traditionally seen as a jumping-off point for hikes through Cathar castles and explorations to the nearby Haut-Languedoc Regional Natural Park, Narbonne reveals another shining jewel every July. “If music be the food of love, play on.” It’s with this sentiment in mind that Festival Jazz à l’Hospitalet welcomes locals and travelers alike to their annual outdoor fête. Hosted at hotel and winery Château l'Hospitalet by rugby-player-turned winemaker Gérard Bertrand, the jazz festival sees close to 7,500 guests from across the globe over the course of five nights. Each night begins with aperitifs and a meal fit for a king’s court, followed by performances by big-name musicians — this year, Seal and Gregory Porter. After headliners, the night unfolds with more wine, music from local artists, and dancing underneath the winery’s night sky. Book a stay at the on-site hotel for ease of all-night enjoyment.
Gruissan, a fishing village that once served as respite for farmers before the grape harvest, lies just twenty minutes from Narbonne. Two thousand years ago, the Romans started producing salt in the area. Le Salin de Gruissan is a salt marsh created in 1910 that is now one of the region’s most popular sites. Aim to visit a few hours before sunset and be greeted by rose-dusted sky reflecting off the marsh. Take a brief tour of the grounds to learn about the salt harvest and how the water has a natural pink hue thanks to a local seaweed that produces beta carotene. Settle the evening with local fare — generous oysters, local petit gris snails, and an aioli you’ll want to put on everything – paired with a glass of Gérard Bertrand rosé at La Cambuse du Saunier.
A stop in the 12th-century hilltop town of Carcassonne, just under an hour’s drive from Narbonne, tickles the history buff’s fancy. As the largest walled city in Europe, Roman kings and emperors took advantage of its infrastructure, utilizing the fortress for hoarding in times of siege. The concentric design of two outers walls provided extra protection by allowing defenders to drop projectiles on attackers at the wall beneath. Take to the cobblestoned streets that lead to Cité de Carcassonne, a fortified medieval citadel and UNESCO World Heritage Site, for a self-guided tour of the grounds. To complete the visit, satisfy your appetite with a three-course French lunch at La Barbacane, a Michelin-starred restaurant located in the elegant Hôtel De La Cité. Opt for a meal on the outdoor terrace for prime views of the citadel.
Plan Your Trip
Take advantage of the summer and early fall to visit this southern region of France for its unspoiled natural beauty and resources — salt and wine. Fly into the Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, then catch a one-hour connecting flight to Montpellier. You’ll need a car (or a friendly host) to get to most of the cities within Languedoc. Trains via Rail Europe are also available from Narbonne to Carcassone.