Village life in a less-travelled part of southern France is enchanting, writes Jude Dobson.
Off to France? I bet when you dream the dream of lolling about in a villa for a couple of weeks, you'll be googling gites in Provence or the Riviera. Fair enough - those places look drop-dead gorgeous. But France is a big country.
On a recent trip, I had a bit of a checklist to find my happy place. Region: southern for warmth; Location: sizeable town within 30 minutes and some big cities further on to explore/fly in or out from; Urban v rural: in a village to discover locals, coffee and croissants; House: an inviting swimming pool, decent kitchen, modern bathrooms and enough bedrooms for a party of seven and Koru, the dog. Plus, said fur-child's mummies, the couple we were holidaying with, who would drive down from London with Koru, also had to approve of the abode.
What ticked all the boxes? Montlaur estate, the former property of Edouard Niermans, the society architect from the Belle Epoque, (now owned by his grand-daughter). The region?
The Languedoc. Never heard of it? Well, let me fill you in on a rather delightful part of France.
Languedoc, sometimes referred to as the real south of France is within the modern day Occitanie region, and sits between the Rhone River on Provence side and the Garonne River on the Gascony side. If you need some city references, think Toulouse, Perpignan and Montpellier.
It's a region that has it all - bustling cities, seaside towns and beaches, traditional wine-making villages, rolling hills filled with vineyards, the good wine that comes with the last two points, canals, and as much history as you'd like to explore, with Roman and Cathar monuments aplenty. The medieval town of Carcassonne is apparently the second-most-visited attraction in France, and on the day we visited I'd believe that.
Carcassonne, however, is more than the ancient city. The modern city has lovely parks and squares, produce markets and great little shopping streets filled with all sorts - gorgeous homewares, clothing, and even a classic old joke shop. I bought a most fabulous Donald Trump mask and an associated trick I perform with ketchup, for greeting my trick or treaters at Halloween. Granted, that's probably not the usual memento from Carcassonne.
You can either fly or drive into the Languedoc. For us, this was a road trip holiday from Paris to Belgium and back again, then to the Loire, the Languedoc and Spain. On the drive to the Languedoc region we stopped at the charming, hil-top village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, which is well worth adding to your GPS routing. Postcard stuff. If you're flying in or out, Toulouse is likely to be your airport. We dropped our eldest kids here to fly home earlier than we did, so had a look around. Great city. Now I sound like Trump.
Beside the airport is Airbus. Get yourself on a tour because it's a truly fascinating look at how these aircraft are built. We saw the final assembly line for the new A350, brought to life by our immaculately dressed female guide. It's certainly not an activity reserved for plane spotters (but no doubt they would love it) as it's just plain fascinating to see how these aeronautical feats come together. The city itself has some fabulous squares with all manner of shopping and eating establishments. Our choice was the oldest bar in Toulouse - the tiny Au Pere Louis.
But for me, Languedoc was about the little villages, the food and the wine. Our own wee village of Montlaur had a visiting market weekly, which also did the rounds of the others nearby like Lagrasse. It was a decent trek over the hills to Lagrasse if you felt like enjoying the countryside with river swims at the other end to cool off. Husband, son and dog did; we girls drove the car. However, we did do horse trekking in the hills another day to be active, so not completely slothful.
A local market is good for the soul, I feel. There's something quite 1950s housewife about taking your basket and walking out the gate for a five-minute stroll to buy what you need for dinner. The entire village turns out to peruse the fresh fruit and veges, local cheeses, breads and meats on offer. Dogs wander, children play, old men sit and natter, old women gather and chat. It struck me as a stereotypical sort of film scene, but it was real.
By the second week of the market, some of the older women even nodded back at me. I'd broken the ice with these ladies a few days previously at their regular late-afternoon gathering a few doors up. I'd stopped and tried to converse in my hopeless schoolgirl French, which was terrible, but to them a sign I was trying.
The older guys sitting outside the Mairie (town hall) were from the petanque match I'd watched a few evenings before. I'd wandered down to this regular social gathering venue, glass of wine in hand to see them in action. Very good they were too.
And yes, the wine. Oh, the lovely wine. Where does one start? You can book wine-tasting tours, but we wanted to explore by ourselves.
Cellier des Troubadours was less than a five-minute drive out of Montlaur. They have weekly tastings gathered around the vats up a dusty old farm road. I tried a very nice glass of rose straight out of the tap on the vat, closely followed by the locals filling up their flagons from the same tap. We bought some wine for dinner in a bottle (no flagon handy) and a dozen glasses to remember the place by.
Across the canyon in Camplong d'Aude (driving through which is a combo of spooky and beautiful in the dark) is another weekly tasting. This one had lots more people spilling out on to the little street. It was a veritable village party, coloured lights across the courtyard and all. With a constant stream of local food to accompany the wines, I could see why it's a popular weekly local gathering.
Another day, another vineyard. This time the fine wine-making work of a determined woman who went from journalism in Paris to life as a winemaker at the 16th-century family chateau on the outskirts of Carcassonne. She talked us through the wines in a partially buried cellar under Le Chateau de Serres.
But perhaps my favourite vineyard visit was to a boutique organic vineyard in the Castelnau - d'Aude commune. Terres Georges was run by hard working wine-making couple Roland and Anne Marie, who took over Anne Marie's father's farm in 2001. The vineyards so lovingly attended by George over his lifetime that provided grapes to the collective were now under their love and care to make their own wine - with the vineyard named after George. They work the 12ha themselves, seeing the process from vine to bottle. Their passion and expertise showed in beautiful red wines.
Then there's the food. People much better qualified than I am write tomes on French food so I'm not going to start, suffice to say I like eating it. I really do. Even the Italian food tastes good. I say that because we had a restaurant in the middle of nowhere recommended to us that was magnifique. Bourdasso is a stylish environment with amazing food created by a talented Italian family swapping Rome for the French countryside.
And if you're thinking seaside, the outdoor restaurant La Cambuse du Saunier in Gruissan on the Mediterranean coast is an experience not only for the seafood, but for the unusual view. The tables are long benches, you unwrap the utensils from the tea towel pack you're given, and the menu is simple but utterly delish. The whole fish baked in salt from the salt lakes you are sitting beside is wonderful.
The view is of the evaporation ponds that produce la fleur de sel (sea salt) and whose micro-organisms turn the water a stunning pink. Plus, you can whip next door to the shop and buy as many flavours of sea salt (and chocolate even) as you could imagine.
My French suitcase on return was filled with some new clothes yes, but mostly with lots of sea salt, chocolate and wine for a dinner party or two. J'aime la France! Go languish in Languedoc; you won't regret it.
flies from Auckland via Dubai to three points in France: Paris, Nice and Lyon. Economy class return fares are from $1619 for Lyon, from $1759 for Paris, and from $2459 for Nice; all inclusive of taxes.
Peugeot EuroLease rent cars for French vacations, including the new Peugeot 5008 SUV.
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