France: Hit the coast, not the slopes

By Anthony Peregrine

Now is the time to relish the warm sea air and deserted beaches of Languedoc-Roussillon — land of pastis, seafood and rugby, says Anthony Peregrine.
Snorkelling at Le Cap de Peyrefite.
Snorkelling at Le Cap de Peyrefite.

There are several reasons to travel to the Languedoc-Roussillon coast in spring. For a start, it is a good way of not going skiing. This is a key consideration if, as I do, you disapprove of snow.

Secondly, no one else is there. No other tourists, I mean. This coast, from the Rhone river to the Spanish border, is not the Cote d'Azur. It is wilder, earthier, flatter and has no tradition of rich, off-season visitors. The brazen, newbuild resorts are mainly shuttered. Older settlements are reduced to their proper populations - fishermen, retired fellows playing cards in the cafe, ample women jamming narrow streets.

There's a sense of being backstage before the summer show. But everyone's pleased to see you. And, this being the south, it will be warm (average peak of 19C in April). Beaches the size of the Sahara will perhaps bear only your footprints. Scrub, vines and marshland will be yours to wander alone.

Carcassone, Canal Du Midi, France.
Carcassone, Canal Du Midi, France.


Warmth might easily be sufficient for lunch on the terrace. Oysters, with perhaps monkfish stew to follow. The great seawater lagoons should yield flamingos - many migrate no longer - and, just inland, early spring hints at the best of the garrigue's herbs and spiky shrubs.

More than anything, though, you get a feel for the Mediterranean in its fullness when it was a source of civilisation, of work and of menace, rather than a leisure facility. Here, running east to west, are five spots I'd like to be.

Le Grau-du-Roi

On the fringe of the Camargue, Le Grau was home to Eric Cantona when he played for nearby Nimes, before his conquest of England. Whence, doubtless, the great man's familiarity with seagulls, trawlers and sardines. The place is full of all three, giving off a real-life aromatic mix of fish and diesel, pastis, salt and sea air. Bars on the quay, and in the side streets, teem with blokes off the boats, others in from Camargue ranches, or idling locals with no volume control. Horizons are huge. All around, water and land get very confused, marshes ceding to France's broadest stretch of salt-pans.

Sticking up amid the flatness, a couple of miles inland, the magnificent medieval Aigues-Mortes - crammed in summer - may now be appreciated without some Dutchman's elbow in your ice cream. Crusaders passed this way. So, in the Constance Tower, did Protestant women prisoners. But the finest moments of all may be had just out of Le Grau where the 17km Espiguette beach constitutes a final frontier between sand, sea and sky. Return to Le Grau for platefuls of tiny tellines shellfish, and a bottle of rose-des-sables.

Sete

Here is the most vigorous small port town (pop: 43,000) on the French Med coast. Sete encircles a lone coastal hill - sea out front, Thau lagoon behind, canals joining the two and folk from all points of the Med jammed in-between. It's a swirl of a place, all year round. Trawlers barrel into the town centre along the canals. There's a commercial port beyond. Visitors slip in among the fishing, freight and festivities - which, at their height, involve waterborne jousting.

It's not all pristine. Proper ports temper grandeur with skulduggery. There are chaps you wouldn't wish to meet in anything other than broad daylight. But walk the canal network, perhaps take a boat, then park yourself at any of the fish restaurants fronting the Canal Royal (go for the tielles cuttlefish pies). You sense the energy of the unfiltered Mediterranean, the one where no one gives two hoots for Paris Hilton.

The views from the top of Mont St Clair - lagoon with mollusc beds in military formation, sea, distant slopes - are outstanding. Below are memories of poet-philosopher Paul Valery and chansonnier Georges Brassens (both local men, both significant French stars in their time). If you've never heard of them, say you have. Then wander around the headland to the 12km beach, and lose yourself in its vastness.

Agde

Agde is notorious for nudity. Well, not Agde itself but Le Cap d'Agde, the ancient town's offshoot summer resort. Le Cap is the most frolicsome of Languedoc's Sixties seaside settlements, not least because it's home to Europe's biggest naturist reserve. But off-season is no time for alfresco undressing, and Le Cap is mainly closed, anyway. Should you require sublime nakedness, head for the first-class Musee de l'Ephebe (capdagde.com). Among many other items dragged from nearby waters, the Ephebe itself is superb - a 4th-century BC bronze nude of, perhaps, the young Alexander the Great. Soft-featured, beautiful and merciless, it is a fine reminder that the Med's story didn't start with waffles and flip-flops.

Ambrussum Bridge on the Vidourle River in Languedoc Roussillon, France.
Ambrussum Bridge on the Vidourle River in Languedoc Roussillon, France.


Agde itself supplies further evidence. There's not much left from its Greek trading days 2500 years ago, but the 12th-century black-stone cathedral is one of the finest fortified Romanesque churches. Pressing in around it, the medieval warren is lived in by normal people - with washing, pushchairs and a need for "All at euros 5!" stores - as it has been for a millennium. The mouth of the River Herault provides space for the fishing boats and, across the way, among La Tamarissiere's collection of pine woods, dunes and lost beach, you may wander wild, wondering whether the writ of the republic ever reaches this far.

Gruissan

To the south of Narbonne, the Languedoc coast suddenly sprouts the rocky rises of La Clape Massif. This is unexpectedly exciting, like finding crags on the Fylde coast. At its feet nestles Gruissan. From what's left of a castle on an outcrop, the old village spirals out like a tight-wound catherine wheel. Within its coils are necessary shops, the lovely Notre-Dame de l'Assomption church and ladies in housecoats attending to their front steps.

Beyond, the village expands in a tangle of lagoons, sea, modern pleasure facilities, marshland, channels and the beach chalets-on-stilts that enlivened the 1986 movie Betty Blue. Once you've explored it - take your time - the ridges, smoky pines and vineyards of La Clape await. The walking is wonderful. Should you end up among the wines of the Domaine de la Ramade (domainedelaramade.com) or the Chateau l'Hospitalet (chateau-lhospitalet.com), I doubt you'll account your time wasted.

Banyuls

Banyuls is best known for its fortified wine. Though okay with foie gras, some cheeses and puds, the stuff is nowhere near as interesting as the land from which it comes. We have moved around the corner to Roussillon, or French Catalonia - fierce of sun (even in winter), colour and temperament, given to rugby and the eating of anchovies. The flat coast has petered out. Here, the Pyrenees drop direct to the sea, creating cliffs, creeks and slopes rising sharp behind where vines cling on terraces.

Collioure is the star spot also noticeably proud of its charms. I prefer the more modest Banyuls. The bay has a storybook curve, perfect for strolling or sitting by, with an aperitif and talk of the Six Nations Championship. The little streets behind have the vivacity and shops you need. Here and there are statues by local maestro Aristide Maillol. Maillol's old home, just out of town in the Roume Valley, is now a museum to his memory (musee-maillol.com).

Also just out of town (and here's the real kicker) are any number of splendid walks and rambles, either relatively easy along the coast or stiffer into the mountains. Determined hikers might follow the up-and-over route taken by Jewish-German philosopher Walter Benjamin during the war. It's a lot more glorious when you're not fleeing persecution.

 Le Grau-du-Roi. Photo / Jean-Louis Zimmermann, Creative Commons
Le Grau-du-Roi. Photo / Jean-Louis Zimmermann, Creative Commons

The magic of Carcassonne

Perched above the Canal Du Midi, the stunning walled city of Carcassonne provides the perfect gateway to the Languedoc's romantic vineyards and Cathar castles. Dating back to the Roman Empire, Carcassonne offers beautiful landscapes and history among cobbled streets lined with boutique restaurants and shops.

The city has numerous historic sites including the grand 12th Century Chateau Comtal, the Basilica of St Nazaire and the Hotel de la Cite, frequented by the likes of Johnny Depp. For the fearless, the unique Museum of Torture is a must-visit.

Wine and dine in restaurants including Brasserie le Donjon and Restaurant La Marquiere; those looking to splurge can't go past La Barbacane.

The popular Carcassonne festival brings dance, theatre, circus, music and art to the heart of the city every summer. It's been running for more than 100 years and attracts more than 200,000 visitors - no surprise considering headliners include Elton John, Lana Del Rey, Status Quo, David Guetta and the Beach Boys.

Experience Carcassonne on a Le Boat holiday, and drive your own modern house boat on the Canal Du Midi without previous experience or qualification. Hop on and off to enjoy Minervois or Corbieres wines, freshly baked pastries and gourmet cheeses.

Le Boat has bases in Castelnaudary, Trebes, Homps, Narbonne and Port Cassafieres, supporting travellers to discover hidden gems, book bikes to explore ashore, and customise your European escape.

More information: leboat.com.au

TIPS

With all the fish you're going to be eating, try Languedoc's own picpoul de pinet white wine. It's minerally, astringent and notably good with shellfish. And, when you are fed up of fish, go for a daube beef stew from the Camargue or, in Sete, a macaronade - macaroni with beef, imported by the Italian immigrants shipped in to do the port's hard work. A St Chinian or Faugeres red will do the business.

Checklist

GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand offers daily flights to London from Auckland via Los Angeles with onward connections to Paris on partner airlines. One-way Economy Class fares start from $1539. Regional carriers and rail services continue south. airnewzealand.co.nz
The Languedoc coast is easily accessible from the airports of (running east-west) Nimes, Montpellier, Beziers and Perpignan, all served by low-cost airlines from around Europe.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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