Tourists from all over the world eagerly chase their way through the Languedoc on an enthusiastic pilgrimage from one cross on the guide book to the next, says British expat Joanna Munro.
But they often miss the best of the region – which is neatly packaged below in the ten golden rules of the region.
If you're hoping for tame tourist book rhetoric, please stop reading now: these are honest insider tips from a local expat who's been there, seen that, and briefly got the T-shirt – before having it stolen from her beach mat along with all her other belongings.
1. Visit during the off season
Dare to visit out of season. The best time to come is in early September, but any off season time will do. Visiting places like Pézenas (Molière’s beautiful stomping ground, pictured below) is a much more rewarding experience when the tourist population has waned.
Photo: Andy Walker/Flickr
Whilst there, bookworms should track down the café book shop Librairie Aparté on rue de la foire for an unforgettable hot chocolate that will knock the spots off anything you’ve ever tasted before in a heavenly background of literature and art.
2. Be early (or late) for tourist classics
The attractions are many: The Roman ruins of Nîmes, the Pont du Gard (pictured below), Aigues Mortes, Carcassonne, the Canal du Midi, and the Camargue. But access to many of them has been re-organised for tourism to such an extent that they have lost some of their original charm. So choose with parsimony, and visit either straight after breakfast, or in late afternoon before the mosquitoes (and other tourists) hit.
Don't forget your mosquito repellant: although the region invests heavily in an anti-mosquito arsenal to zap the mozzy population of the coastal lagoons, the numerous survivors seek to avenge their dead, and will ruthlessly devour freshly-imported flesh.
3. Sniff out the locals
Turn your back on the star destinations and seaside resorts, and drive away from the sea to discover the beautiful Vallée de l’Hérault. If you see lots of cars with the number 34 on their number plate parked up on the side of the road near the river, park…. and investigate.
The town of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert in the valley. Photo: Marc Meynadier/Flickr
Find out where their occupants are hiding – although this may involve climbing over walls to follow in their footsteps, you can bet your bottom dollar there’s a great spot to relax somewhere close by.
4. Beware of the thieves
If you insist on coming here in the middle of summer, don't take anything to the beach that you wouldn’t willingly donate to a complete stranger. Leave your belongings within spitting distance when you go swimming. And I'm speaking from experience.
Photo: The Hamster Factory
Likewise, don’t leave anything more tempting than a rotting apple core on the seat of your car, wherever you park. I saw a great note on a car one summer: “Dear car thieves: Don’t bother smashing my window. You’ve already taken everything”. Foreign number plates attract unwanted visitors here, and a broken window is a bummer when you have a one thousand kilometre drive to get home.
5. Choose your beach times carefully
If you are what I call a pancake tourist (frying one side after the other), avoid fighting tooth and nail with battalions of tattooed, tanned locals drenched in suntan oil for a 50cm square patch of sand by arriving after five in the afternoon when the serial tanners are starting to pack up, and the sun is less dangerous. Oh, and don’t swallow the seawater in high season, unless you fancy trying out your French medical vocabulary.
A packed beach at the Cap d'Agde. Photo: Pepe Martin
6. Be food savvy
Pack a picnic lunch rather than stopping at overpriced snack bars disguised as restaurants. Source your food at a local market, and wash it down with a glass of rosé.
As for restaurants, ask the locals for restaurant tips. Mine: On your way to visit the seven locks in Béziers, stop off at the village square in Servian and check out Le Grand Café, my favourite brasserie. It hasn’t shifted one iota since the beginning of the 1900s – a two-hour lunch there will open your eyes to everyday life in this region.
7. Head to the Lac Du Salagou
This lake is my favourite playground. I call it Mars because of the fabulous red rock you find there. Often ignored by the holiday makers, or simply not even noticed on the map, this gorgeous lake is a real eye-opener. All year round, you can walk or cycle for miles and soak up a fabulous view. You can sail, pedal boat, swim, windsurf and even set up your camping van there.
Photo: Mathilde Audiau/Flickr
8. Taste the local wine
Go wine-tasting. It would be a crime not to. My rule of thumb: the smaller the winery, the better. My favourites are Daumas Gassac, and the wines of Montpeyroux village. Go to admire the Pic St Loup, an impressive mountain (pictured below), then taste the red wine of the same name. Combined with a good Roquefort cheese from the neighbouring Aveyron, the experience will blow your mind – and take the enamel off your teeth.
Photo: Daniel Villafruela/WikiCommons
9. Be on your best behaviour
Don’t underestimate the French police force: they are very strict, and will not concede to any eyelash fluttering or apologising once they’ve nabbed you. The only fun you will get out of the experience is hearing their charming efforts to speak English. Maybe.
10. Open your eyes and absorb it all
Last but not least, open your eyes and ears. Look upwards as well as in front of you. Listen to the beautiful local accent. Register the fabulous, fathomless blue of the sky. Crush the wild thyme underfoot, and breathe in its fragrance. Absorb all the beauty of the region… And come back again soon.
We'll leave you with some more images from Languedoc. See you soon.
The Canal du Midi. Photo: WikiCommons
The town of Aigues Mortes. Photo: Joan/Flickr
Roman arena in Nimes. Photo: Baba1948/Flickr
Beziers. Photo: Verne Becker/Flickr