Traveller's Guide: Languedoc-Roussillon

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In the second of our six-part series produced in association with Footprint Travel Guides, Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls delve into a charming and spectacular Mediterranean region of France

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Languedoc-Roussillon is the French Mediterranean in third gear, with a comfortable shabby-chic charm all its own. One of its great assets is that it scrunches

a lot of exciting geography in a small area, from the wetlands of the Petite Camargue and its white horses and black bulls to the rugged jumble of the Côte Vermeille by the Spanish border. Endless sandy beaches and flamingo-filled lagoons fill the space in between. Inland, vines, parasol pines and Mediterranean scrub dominate a dramatic hinterland, characterised by highlands of causses and garrigue, chestnut and oak forests, wild gorges and mountains – the Cévennes, Montagne Noire and the Pyrenees – all only an hour's drive from the coast.

The region thrived in Roman times, its main cities growing along the Italy-to-Spain Via Domitia: Montpellier, Nîmes, Béziers and Narbonne. By the early Middle Ages, what was known as "Languedoc" (then much of southern France) was an independent nation, home to a sophisticated, tolerant civilisation, inspired by the Moorish culture of Al-Andaluz in nearby Spain. It was the time of the troubadours, who made the local language, Occitan the first secular literary language in Europe – so much as that even Dante toyed with the idea using it for The Divine Comedy.

Disillusioned with the corruption of the medieval Church, many inhabitants of Languedoc adopted Catharism: a dualist take on Christianity, with some surprisingly modern ideas; women, for instance, had equal rights. In 1209, the Pope called a holy war known as the Albigensian Crusade against them that put an abrupt end to Languedoc's precocious brilliance – as well as its independence.

Anything left of the Cathars?

Castles mostly, starting with the one in Carcassonne. This impregnable citadel was the seat of the Viscount Raymond-Roger Trencavel, who offered the Cathars protection from the Crusaders – until Simon de Montfort, their ruthlessly efficient captain, tricked the young viscount into leaving his impregnable stronghold, then imprisoned and poisoned him to seize his title and lands.

The walls and witch-hatted towers of the Cité of Carcassonne, restored in the 19th century by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, form a majestic fairy tale tiara over the Aude valley, today besieged by over a million visitors a year. Go early in the morning or out of season if you can. Visit the Château-Comtal (00 33 4 68 11 70 70, open 9.30am-6.30pm) and take a tour of the ramparts; for a total immersion in the Middle Ages, stay and dine at the princely Hôtel de la Cité (00 33 4 68 71 98 71; hoteldelacite.com, doubles from €383 room only), in the former bishop's place.

Even after the capture and mass executions at Montségur in 1244, a few Cathars held out. South of Carcassonne, in the wilds of the Corbières, they took refuge in castles teetering on vertiginous pinnacles that have since fallen into splendid ruins. There are several to visit: the most spectacular are Quéribus (00 33 4 68 45 03 69, open 10am-5pm) and Peyrepetuse (00 33 4 68 45 40 55; chateau-peyrepertuse.com, open 9am-7pm).

Rumour has it that a few Cathars slipped away to Rennes-le-Château and hid a secret treasure, which was later uncovered by the village priest, the Abbé Saunière. It's one theory behind the mystery that captivated Holy Blood, Holy Grail fans; check it out at the Domaine de l'Abbé Saunière (00 33 4 68 74 05 84; rennes-le-chateau.fr).

City lights?

Montpellier is the fastest-growing city in France, thanks to Georges Frêche, long-time mayor (1977-2004) and recently re-elected president of the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Home to a major university and a handsome 18th-century centre, Montpellier boasts the region's best nightlife, shopping, and some great attractions. First, an excellent art collection in the Musée Fabre (00 33 4 67 14 83 00; museefabre-en.montpellier-agglo.com; open Tues, Thurs–Sun 10am-6pm Wed 1pm-9pm). Next, the wholly 21st-century Mare Nostrum Aquarium (00 33 4 67 13 05 50; aquariummarenostrum.fr; open 10am-7pm daily except Monday). Third, the flora- and fauna-filled Serre Amazonienne (00 33 4 67 54 45 23; zoo.montpellier.fr, open 10am-7pm daily except Monday). If you can afford to splash out, eat at the fabled Le Jardin des Sens (00 33 499 58 38 38; jardindessens.com), headquarters of twin master chefs Jacques and Laurent Pourcel; they also have rooms (doubles from €152, without breakfast).

Nîmes, the "Rome of France", is a gem, with a perfectly preserved Roman temple, the Maison Carrée and the Arènes (00 33 4 66 21 82 56; arenes-nimes.com, open 9am-6.30 daily) – a Roman amphitheatre in better nick than the Colosseum. The city's water was delivered by no less than a masterpiece of ancient engineering, the Pont du Gard (00 33 8 20 90 33 30; pontdugard.fr, open 9am-5.30pm daily, until 8pm in summer), 16km north-east of town.

To the west, Béziers is the quintessential, non-twee Languedoc city. It makes a striking sight, piled under a huge Gothic cathedral that was built after the original burned in the infamous massacre of the Cathars (and everyone else) when the Papal legate allegedly ordered the Albigensian Crusaders: "Kill them all; God will know His own."

Further west, Narbonne was Languedoc's most important town into the Middle Ages; its centrepiece is the Gothic Cathedral and a fortified Episcopal Palace. The latter now houses excellent art and archaeology museums (both 00 33 4 68 90 30 54, open 10am-noon and 2-5pm daily).

Perpignan is effectively the last city in France before the Spanish border, and has influences from both countries; the railway station has a monument to local Catalan hero Salvador Dali, who described la gare as "the centre of the universe".

Something less busy?

Start with classy little Uzès, with its Pisa-style belltower, the Tour Fenestrelle, and unique ducal castle: Le Duché (00 33 4 66 22 18 96; uzes.com) in the centre of town. Sommières, once residence of Lawrence Durrell, has a Roman bridge and lazy-boules-under-the-plane trees charms, while Pézenas, once capital of Languedoc, is full of handsome 17th-century hôtels particuliers and memories of Molière, whose troupe performed here.

To the west, Sète is a fishing port laced with canals, home to the amusing Musée International des Arts Modestes (00 33 4 99 04 76 44; miam.org; open 10am-noon and 2-6pm daily except Tuesday) and to a full calendar of summer festivals. Among the most popular are the joutes nautiques (nautical jousts), a sport unique to Languedoc. These clashes, propelled by rowers instead of horses, were invented by LouisV CIX's Crusaders while killing time at Aigues Mortes, a spectacular walled port now stranded high and dry in the Petite Camargue.

And the beaches?

In the 1960s, Paris made Languedoc-Roussillon the Florida of France, to detour French holidaymakers (and their cash) from the Costa Brava. Of the new resorts, two are especially popular: the now-quaint, futuristic La Grande Motte near Montpellier; and Le Cap d'Agde, part of which is the biggest naturist resort in Europe. It lies near the old town of Agde. This community is known as Languedoc's "Black Pearl" for its basalt architecture; it also has gorgeous ancient Greek bronzes in the Musée de l'Ephèbe, dedicated to underwater archaeology (00 33 4 67 94 69 60; ville-agde.fr).

In Roussillon, the white sandy beaches (and resorts of St-Cyprien-sur-Mer and Canet Plage) meet the beautiful Côte Vermeille, where the arty anchovy port of Collioure oozes charm.

How about the rest of Roussillon?

Because Roussillon was spared the bashings during the Wars of Religion (it was part of Catalonia until 1659), this is the place to come for exquisite medieval churches – in Perpignan, the département's lively capital, and Elne, St Michel-de-Cuxa (Prades) and Serrabonne. There's modern art, too, in a museum featuring Picassos and Matisses in Céret (00 33 4 68 87 27 76; musee-ceret.com; open 10am-6pm) where the Cubists came to paint.

As a frontier, Roussillon has its share of forts, including Ferdinand and Isabella's Renaissance state-of-the-art Forteresse de Salses (00 33 4 68 38 60 13, salses.monuments-nationaux.fr; open 9.30am-7pm) and the later mountain citadels Villefranche-de-Conflent and Mont Louis, both designed by Louis XIV's fortifications wizard Vauban. The last two, and the high altitude resort of Font Romeu, are linked by the 63km Petit Train Jaune, one of the most exciting rail journeys in Europe (€20 return). Font Romeu also has a surprise, one that resembles a funhouse mirror built for Gargantua: the world's biggest solar oven (00 334 68 30 77 86; foursolaire-fontromeu.fr; open 10am-12.30pm and 2pm-6pm).

Can I work up a sweat?

Oh yes. The Mediterranean Pyrenees are a winter and summer playground, perfect for trekking, kayaking, canyoning, caving, and rock climbing: outfitters include Extérieur Nature (00 33 4 68 05 72 12, exterieur-nature.com) and Exploration Pyrénéenne (00 33 6 22 45 82 02; ex-pyr.com).

The département of the Lozère in northern Languedoc encompasses much of the beautiful Parc National des Cévennes (an excellent outfitter, Cévennes Evasion, 00 3304 66 45 18 31; cevennes-evasion.com offers 24 activities). The park encompasses the 65km Gorges du Tarn and awe-inspiring karstic marvels, sculpted in the limestone: the Gorges de la Jonte, where vultures have been re-introduced; the Grotte de Dargilan (00 33 4 66 45 60 20; grotte-dargilan.com; open 10am-5.30pm), and an abyss, the Abîme de Bramabiau (00 33 4 67 82 60 78; abime-de-bramabiau.com; open 10am-5.30pm). Or follow in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879): rent a donkey to carry your bags along the 8-day Chemin de Stevenson with Rando-Âne Gaëlle Bruchet (00 33 4 71 03 99 32; bourricot.com).

If you've brought the children, don't miss clambering over the art installations at the Lozère's answer to Disneyland Paris, the Vallon du Villaret in Bagnols les Bains (00 33 4 66 47 63 76; levillaret.fr

I'd rather just drift along

Try the Canal du Midi, which links the Mediterranean to Toulouse (then the Atlantic). The canal's 240km were completed in 15 years (1666-81) by 12,000 workers, who 64 locks. The railroads made it obsolete, but thanks to British barge-hire companies such as Minervois Cruisers ( minervoiscruisers.com ), it is among the region's prime attractions. You can extend the trip along the Canal du Rhône à Sète, which meets the Rhône at Beaucaire.

And the wine?

The world's biggest wine region, Languedoc-Roussillon fills some two billion bottles a year. The rocky soil, rugged hills and dry, sunny climate provide perfect conditions for vineyards, a fact first appreciated by the ancient Greeks and Romans. It's also the home of the world's oldest bubbly, Blanquette de Limoux (invented in the 16th century) and a range of naturally sweet wines such as Banyuls and Rivesaltes.

Languedoc-Roussillon's plonk slaked the thirst of the masses during the Industrial Revolution, but in recent decades, its vignerons have made improvements in the quality. Today it's the world's most exciting wine region, not only for the 24 AOC wines but its myriad vins de pays, where laxer rules allow more experimentation. An excellent place to learn about them is the Vinécole (00 33 4 4 68 31 64 14; vinecole.com ) near Limoux, run by English Master of Wine Matthew Stubbs, who offers courses from speed tasting to classes for professionals.

Bon appétit Flavours of the region

Languedoc-Roussillon's markets overflow with excellent local ingredients: Bouzigues oysters, Collioure anchovies, olives, seafood, duck and foie gras, beef from the Camargue, truffles from Uzès, fresh fruit (Céret in Roussillon is the cherry capital of France), lamb from the Lozère, charcuterie and goat cheeses from the Cévennes and much more.

The region wasn't traditionally known for its restaurants, although a new generation of savvy chefs are working hard to change that. Some of the best work at the Ambassade (00 33 4 67 76 06 24; restaurant-lambassade.com ) and Octopus (00 33 4 67 49 90 00; restaurant-octopus.com ) both in Béziers; La Maison de la Lozère) in Montpellier (00 33 4 67 66 46 36; celliermorel.com; Gilles Goujon at Fontjoncouse (00 33 4 68 44 07 37; gilles-goujon.fr ), Le Parc Franck Putelat in Carcassonne (00 33 4 68 71 80 80; leparcfranckputelat.com ) and the Auberge Saint-Paul in Villefranche-de-Conflent (00 33 4 68 96 30 95; pagesperso-orange.fr/auberge.stpaul/sommaire.html ).

Travel essentials: Languedoc-Roussillon

When to go

July and August are high season: the beaches are packed and Languedoc-Roussillon puts on a non-stop array of festivals and ferias. April to June and September to October have cooler temperatures, fewer crowds and lower prices, and are also the best times for walking. Montpellier stays lively all year and could make a fun weekend break.

Getting there

Languedoc-Roussillon is served by five regional airports: Nîmes, Montpellier, Carcassonne, Perpignan, and Béziers, which are served by Ryanair (0871 246 000; ryanair.com) from a number of UK airports. Flybe goes to Perpignan from Southampton, and Bmibaby goes to Perpignan from Manchester. To Montpellier's Méditerranée airport, easyJet flies from Luton and Gatwick.

RailAccess from Paris Gare du Lyon is quick. Nîmes is about three hours away. The service from Paris to Montpellier's Saint-Roch station takes about three hours and 15 minutes. Béziers is accessible in just over four hours, with Narbonne and Perpignan slightly longer, Fast trains also call at Sète and Agde.

Return tickets from London St Pancras can be arranged through Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) to stations in Hérault from £109.

From 10 July to 11 September, a summer service of direct trains operates between St Pancras and Avignon-Centre, with easy connections to Languedoc- Roussillon.

By road: from the town of Orange, the A9 motorway runs from the north-east to the south-west of Languedoc-Roussillon, allowing quick access to the coast. If you're arriving from the Channel ports, however, the most scenic approach to Languedoc is along the A75 motorway that runs through the Massif Central; Dieppe and Le Havre are particularly well placed for avoiding the congestion around Paris.

Getting around

Rail services reach deep into the region, supplemented with dozens of bus routes. From the sea to the mountains, a car offers the most convenient means of exploring this varied region. Car-rental options available from airports include Hertz (08708 44 88 44; hertz.com) which has a rate of £310 for a week.

For route planning visit quelleroute.com.

Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls are the authors of Footprint's new guide to Languedoc-Roussillon, which is out now. To purchase any of the Footprint France series at a special rate of just £10 including P&P, visit www.footprinttravelguides.com and enter Inde01 in the coupon code at checkout.

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