Join the lucky few who have discovered Hérault’s rural beauty

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The Independent Travel

The majestic drama of Hérault’s northern landscape is counterbalanced by the gentle rural charm of the south. With its spectacular mountains and gorges, sparkling and rapidly moving rivers, and its pretty, rolling coastal countryside, the region is a glorious natural playground. Whether you want to hike, bike, fish, play golf or go potholing, there are a wealth of activities on offer.

One of the region’s best-kept secrets is in the south-east, around the town of Lunel. Lying between Nîmes and Montpellier, this area has yet to be discovered by the most tourists, so you may have swathes of the green and undulating landscape to yourself. And there’s much to see and do. The absorbing Roman remains of Ambrussum are a short distance from Lunel. This was effectively a Roman service station on the Via Domitia and, quite apart from the remains of Gallo-Roman houses to explore here, you can walk beside the river Vidourle to admire the surviving arch of a bridge built in the 1st century AD and then head uphill to see a section of paved Roman road scored with chariot tracks. The tourist office in Lunel has devised seven walking circuits in the region, including a hike to and through this site and a trail around the winelands of St Christol further north.

Dotted with picturesque villages, the area is also prime biking country. This summer a new network of cycle paths opens here, the well-signed routes offering four different levels of exertion. To hire a bike and take advice about the trails, make for the enterprising outfit Cyrpeo in Lunel. Part bike shop, part tour operator, it has a wide range of equipment including GPS devices that can be used on a bike. On request the company will even deliver bikes to your accommodation.

Up in the north-west, the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut Languedoc is a ruggedly beautiful area of granite peaks and river valleys. It extends over some 260,000 hectares and is criss-crossed by footpaths. Head to the eastern sector for particularly striking gorge walks: the tourist offices at Mons La Trivalle and Olargues can provide maps and advice on trails to follow. Or take to the water. Atelier Rivière Randonnée just outside Mons La Trivalle offers canoeing and kayaking on the River Orb. Trips range from 5km paddles to three-day adventures during which you stop in campsites overnight.

Water sport of a very different nature is on offer at Château de Colombières sur Orb nearby. This stylish gite complex with swimming pool and magnificent views offers a range activities, chief of which is fishing. From here, guided by expert fly fisher Sébastien Salavin, you fish for trout, perch, pike and more on the rivers Mare, Jaur and Agout. It is, says Salavin, extraordinary to see how even the most stressed executives unwind with a rod in hand, and how, through concentrating on the natural world around them, they really relax.

A few kilometres further east you can play golf at the beautiful course at Lamalou-les-Bains. The setting beneath mountains and by the river Orb is spectacular and the course, complete with elevated greens, is challenging.

FESTIVALS... Troubadours and tournaments
Reflecting a fascinating wealth of cultural traditions and activities, there’s a rich assortment of festivals taking place throughout the year in Hérault.

Head to Béziers on 14 and 15 May and you’ll find yourself stepping back in time to the days of the troubadours. For two days this lively market town hosts the Caritats Medieval Festival ( caritats-fetes-medievales.over-blog.com), an extravaganza with much pageantry, jousting and music. For watersports and more, don’t miss the Fête de Nautisme ( fetedunautisme.com) taking place across France on 5 and 6 June and with a host of activities and competitions at Cap d’Agde, Clermont L’Hérault, Sète and Mèze.

During the second week in July, Lunel (ot-pays delunel.fr) becomes a party town of parades and celebrations centring on Camargue bulls and bullfighting , with tournaments taking place in the town’s arena.

Over in Frontignan, the town’s annual Muscat Festival is held this year from 15 to 18 July, with wine tastings, concerts and tours of the nearby vineyards. To see the extraordinary sport of water jousting, make for Sète between 18 and 24 August when Fête de la Saint Louis takes place ( tourisme-sete.com), commemorating the town’s patron saint and featuring spectacular water tournaments in the Canal Royal.

At the start of October, Montpellier hosts Europe’s only international Guitar Festival ( ot-montpellier.fr). While for Christmas festivities with an Occitan twist, make for Pézenas ( pezenas-tourisme.fr) during the second and third weeks of December.

Travel essentials

What to do

Biking from Cyrpeo, 235 Ave Maréchal de Lattre de Tassigny, 34400 Lunel (00 33 4 67 71 16 09; cyrpeo.com). Bike rental from €15 per day (€8 for children).

Walking in the Lunel area. Pick up a map from the Lunel Tourist Office, 16 cours Gabriel-Péri, 34402 Lunel (00 33 4 67 71 01 37; ot-paysdelunel.fr).

Fishing from Château de Colombières sur Orb, 34390 Colombières sur Orb (00 33 4 67 95 63 62; guide-peche-truite.com) Half-day with guide, around €144 for two.

Canoeing and kayaking with Atelier Rivière Randonnée, Moulin de Tarassac, Mons-la-Trivalle (00 33 4 67 97 74; canoe-tarassac.com). Canoe hire from €35 for one and a half hours (kayaks from €22).

Golf de Lamalou-les-Bains, route de Saint Pons, 34240 Lamalou-les-Bains (00 33 4 67 95 08 47; golf-lamalou-les-bains.com).

Where to stay and eat

Le Château de Pouget, Chemin des Brus, 34400 Vérargues, Nr Lunel (00 33 4 67 86 08 82; chambres-de-pouget.com). A very elegant chambres d’hôtes with four guest rooms. Doubles from €115

Château de Colombières sur Orb (00 33 4 67 95 63 62; guide-peche-truite.com and gitesdecharme.biz). Well-equipped gites sleeping from four to six from €300 for three nights.

L’Estaminet de Mauroul, Hameau de Mauroul, 34390 St Julien d’Olargues (00 33 4 67 97 27 73; estaminetmauroul.com) A real find: tucked away in a hamlet in Haut-Languedoc is this gourmet haven that opened in December last year. Chef Philippe Aubron spent many years working in some of Japan’s best restaurants, and this is subtly reflected in his sophisticated cuisine.

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