On the road: retracing the steps of the legions in Languedoc

The Via Domitia takes you back in time to the conquest of Gaul

Ancient history lies at your feet near the coast in Languedoc. The Via Domitia, one of the greatest of Roman roads, runs through this region, skirting the Mediterranean shores. And what’s more, parts of it are still in use today.

Take the A9 motorway between Nîmes and Montpellier, for example, and you’ll be driving where the Romans once travelled.

Named after its founder, Cneius Domitius Ahenobarbus, the Via Domitia was opened during the conquest of southern Gaul, around 120BC. It was built between Mont-Genèvre pass in the Alps and Panissars pass in Pyrenees, and was 376 Roman miles long (556km). As with all Roman roads, it was constructed principally to establish the authority of Rome and make troop movements easier – although it was also used for trade and domestic transport.

At frequent intervals the Romans built relay stations, their versions of service stops, where wheels could be mended, animals fed or changed and travellers provided with food and drink and accommodation in inns. Amazingly, one of these Roman service stations is in evidence today.

Ambrussum lies close to the market town of Lunel. A fortified town founded in the fourth century BC, it offered a roadside service centre to travellers. The remains of Gallo-Roman houses are visible here and you can walk beside the river Vidourle to admire the surviving arch of a bridge built in the first century AD. Indeed the bridge at Ambrussum has been the subject of numerous works of art, notably one by Gustave Courbet painted in the 1850s which can be seen in the Musée Fabre in Montpellier; in Courbet’s day two of the bridge’s arches remained but a flood in 1933 destroyed one of them. Uphill from the bridge you can still see a section of paved Roman road – scored with chariot tracks.

What makes Ambrussum particularly interesting from an archeological perspective is that it was never developed or occupied after the Romans left, so this a treasure trove of artefacts from the ancient world. Since 1967 archaeologists have been gathering here every summer to make detailed explorations. This summer many of their finds will be shown in a new museum opening on the site in June. The centre will also offer interactive displays and lively explanations about the Roman road and about the ordinary life of the Gauls in this era. Around the museum a variety trails have been developed, and as you walk through this absorbing area noticeboards provide information about the history and the natural life here.

Yet Ambrussum is, of course, not the only Roman site in the area. The town of Béziers, for instance, is steeped in ancient history. It was already a thriving settlement when the Romans arrived here in the second century BC and under these new colonisers it became a significant trading centre. At the end of May a fascinating exhibition on the art of the Roman portrait takes place at the Musée du Biterrois in Béziers. The focal point will be 10 statues depicting members of the imperial family in the first century BC, ancient works of art that were found in a cellar in the town in 1910.

Musée Ambrussum opens in June (daily except Monday), and for the first six months entry will be free. It will be signposted off the Lunel exit of the A9. For further information on how to get there, along with opening times, contact the Lunel Tourist Office (00 33 4 67 71 01 37; ot-paysdelunel.fr).

Musée du Bitterois, Caserne St Jacques, Rampe du 96ème, Béziers (00 33 4 67 36 81 61; beziers-tourisme.fr) Open Tues- Sun 9am-noon and 2-6pm; adults €2.85 (a day pass for all six museums in Beziers costs €5.90).

Focus on... Festivals

Reflecting a wealth of cultural traditions and activities, there’s a rich assortment of festivals taking place throughout the year. Head to Béziers on 3-4 June and you’ll find yourself stepping back in time to the days of the troubadours: the Caritats Medieval Festival takes place around town with much pageantry, jousting and live music.

Over in the Languedoc capital, the Montpellier Dance Festival is held in June, with world-class ballets and other performances staged at a number of venues around the city. Meanwhile, Pézenas celebrates the plays of Molière with the Molière dans tous ses éclats festival, which runs from 2-13 June.

During the second week in July Lunel becomes a party town of parades and celebrations centring on Camargue bulls and bull fighting traditions, with tournaments taking place in the town’s arena. Up in the cheerful town of St-Chinian, the wine festival of the St-Chinian appellation takes place on the third Sunday of July with more than 60 local producers participating.

Continuing the wine theme, over in Frontignan the town’s annual Muscat Festival is held towards the end of July, with tastings, concerts and tours of the nearby vineyards. The Thau Lagoon area is known for the extraordinary sport of water jousting: make for Sète between late July and mid-August when the most celebrated of the jousting events takes place: Fête de la Saint-Louis commemorates the town’s patron saint and features spectacular water tournaments in the Canal Royal.

At the start of October Montpellier hosts Europe’s only international Guitar Festival. And for Christmas festivities with a twist of Occitan (the local Romance language) make for Pézenas in the second and third weeks of December.

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