The land of kings
Oddly enough, it’s easier to reach this part of France through Spain, via Catalonia. It takes no more than two hours to drive here from Barcelona Airport, and the journey will take you through the incredibly picturesque Iberian Peninsula. Up to 2016, Languedoc-Roussillon was considered to be a single region (it’s now become part of the new region of Occitanie), but despite this, it would be hard to find two such different areas of France. Languedoc is formal and gloomy, while Roussillon is joyful, exuberant, and has been shaped by the nomadic Roma people.
Perpignan, the capital of Roussillon, was at one point the heart of a mighty state, the Kingdom of Majorca. This delightful town is so picturesque that prominent creative figures, such as Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, and Aristide Maillol flocked here. Notably, Dali mentioned the city’s station in his diaries more than once, calling it the centre of the world, and saying that he experienced a feeling of “cosmogonic ecstasy” here. In our times, crowds of tourists saunter along small streets paved with marble, and crowds of gitans, or Roma people, also hurry about their business. There are many of them here, and they are all fantastically musical.
The ancient fortress gates and Gothic Palace of the Kings of majorca are a reminder of bygone heroic times in Perpignan. Constructed in the 13th century, it differs noticeably from other buildings of the time. The gentlemen of the era were mainly concerned with the fortification side of things, so they built reinforced citadels rather than luxurious residential quarters. But this is a palace, which was clearly constructed not so much for battle as for a happy and comfortable life. Unfortunately, one may only judge its past splendour by the original paintings on the ceilings which have, in places, been preserved, retaining their freshness over seven centuries. At the end of summer, a three-day guitar festival is held, with a strong emphasis on heart-stirring Roma melodies.
There is another palace not far from the old city centre, built in the 19th century by Baron Hippolyte Despres-Apollinaire, the cousin of poet Guillaume Apollinaire. It is now home to the Château La Tour Apollinaire hotel, with rooms that are all individually designed. The Baron was a great lover of exotic plants, so the hotel’s garden is, up to now, more like a jungle than a civilised corner of Europe. Its tropical foliage completely shuts off the noise of the city for hotel guests.
From the life of oysters
Roussillon is famous throughout France for its oysters. To find them, you need to go to the oyster farms in the charming village of Leucate. The French and the Spanish buy up molluscs there by the boxload, and tourists try them straight from the source, while hearing local raconteurs tell stories of these creatures’ risqué private lives. It turns out that there are oysters that enjoy love’s pleasures, and those that do not; the world’s restaurants tend to have those that are “unreserved”, which are far leaner than their “chaste” brothers. Perhaps it’s just a joke, but Leucate’s “ascetic” oysters are truly far more delicious.
The Roussillon seashore is known as the “violet coast”. A number of former fishing hamlets are located here, which have now become resort villages. Perhaps the most beautiful is Collioure, which lies on the coastline of the Gulf of Lion. It is also renowned from a gastronomic point of view, for its anchovies: some purists refuse to recognise an anchovy as such unless it has been caught and cooked in the area around Collioure.
The town is amazingly picturesque. From time immemorial, it has been the custom here to paint houses and fishing boats in the same colour, the brighter the better — so that even in a thick fog that conceals all colour, a fisherman’s wife can see her husband’s boat from far away, and a fisherman can correctly identify the bit of coast where his house is. In short, houses here were always painted different colours, and the sun always so dazzling, that the sky sometimes seems not blue but orange, and the sea not blue, but a rich red. This is possibly why Collioure was the birthplace of Fauvism, which favoured wild, vivid, and even strident colours.
Some time ago, and led by Henri matisse, a number of artists took a liking to the town. Since then, its narrow, curving streets have filled with galleries and Bohemian cafés, often too full to get into, and everywhere one may see signs showing the way to spots where rousing paintings were created in the fresh air. Rising above the bustle is a fort designed by the famous military engineer, marquis de Vauban.
The first canal
Languedoc is part of Occitanie, the country of the Cathars. The heretical Cathars, also known as Albigensians, a peaceful, mild, religious minority who considered that the Devil created everything in the material world, were persecuted as early as the 13th century. A terrible phrase was uttered at the walls of the town of Béziers, where about 20,000 people died in the space of one night: a phrase that, unfortunately, became a kind of byword. When the town, under siege, asked the Papal Legate how the soldiers could tell the difference between the heretics and the true Catholic believers, the Legate replied, “Kill them all, for the Lord knoweth them that are His.”
All the Cathars left us was a great quantity of castles, in which, local guides will tell you, there is hidden treasure. Though what kind of riches could they have acquired if the whole world despised them? The Cathars should not be confused with the Knights of the Temple, who, as legend has it, hid the Holy Grail not far from the hamlet of Rennes-le-Château.
In Béziers, the famed Canal du midi begins (or ends, depending on which end you sail from). It was built in the 17th century by a native of Béziers, Pierre-Paul Riquet, a humble tax collector. In chronological terms, he was far from being the first to do this: the Briare Canal, which connects the Loire and the Seine valleys, is considered to be France’s oldest. But in terms of its other qualities — length, beauty, and most importantly, the comfortable and smooth, unhurried manner in which one can travel along it — the Canal du Midi is easily the winner countrywide. Furthermore, a cruise along the Canal du Midi is also a wonderful way to dive into France’s long history here in the south, a history which is, according to tradition, particularly lively and eventful.
Miraculously, Monsieur Riquet managed to persuade Louis XIV that a grand construction project was required, comparable with the excavations needed to build the Suez Canal. The ancient Romans dreamed of connecting the mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, but it was only the French who managed to do it. The 360-kilometre canal became not only an important waterway for Languedoc, but one of the main attractions of the country as a whole. Oval-shaped locks, aqueducts, bridges and tunnels, its green banks, and the towns and villages, all distinct from one another, that appear along the way all mean that UNESCO included this canal in its list of World Heritage Sites.
And tourists enjoy taking cruises along the canal. In order to take a trip of this kind, you may rent a small boat in Béziers. You can sail it yourself: a licence is not required for small craft like these. All you have to do is undergo a short training session. Pleasure barges also travel along the canal. The biggest and most luxurious is the Alouette, or “the Lark”. The boat is designed for six passengers, and for those six days it ferries all those who wish from Béziers to Carcassonne, with many excursions and picnics along the way, as well as substantial dinners on board, accompanied by regional wines.
History is all around. Here, on these sun-drenched hillsides, 2,000 years ago, Roman legionaries planted grapevines they brought from their native Italian land. Pilgrims travelled along this route in the Middle Ages to worship the relics of St. James. And the citadel standing not far from here was defended to the bitter end by the heretic Cathars, persecuted by advocates of the “true faith”. Towards the south from the canal, the Pyrenees stretch out, while to the north is the Montagne noire mountain range. And between the two, the turrets and spires of ancient castles thrust up to the sky, while pretty villages, suffused with serenity, are huddled around their base.
A strong character
The Cité de Carcassonne is a unique city and fortress, with no similar equivalents in the rest of the world. Here, without scenery or computer graphics, one may make films about the knights (and, of course, people actually make these kinds of films. Luc Besson brought his film The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, for example, to Carcassonne).
Viscount Raymond Roger Trencavel, the former owner of Carcassonne, was courageous and daring in his youth. He was brave enough to go against the church and give refuge to the persecuted Cathars. But he paid a price: the city was starved into surrender, the Cathars were killed, and the viscount himself died mysteriously in prison. But his famous fortress still stands.
The citadel of Carcassonne is seen as a masterpiece of military architecture of the middle Ages. It is splendid and majestic, with its fifty turrets, mighty walls, arches, and bridges. And it is perfectly habitable. One may see tourists everywhere in the small streets and squares of the citadel, stuffing themselves to the gills with traditional Languedoc cassoulet, a casserole with pork sausages, duck legs, mutton, white beans, and duck fat. Completely ordinary French people live in the houses of the Cité. It is pleasant that one may join them for a time: the best hotel in Carcassone, Hôtel de la Cité, is located right in the middle of the fortress.
This neo-Gothic hotel, built in 1909, has been renovated more than once. Today, the Hôtel de la Cité boasts luxurious rooms with antique furniture, fireplaces, stained-glass windows, mosaic floors, wonderful gardens, views of the Pyrenees from one side and the Montagne noire from the other, a combined bar and library with an impressive collection of French wines, and a gourmet restaurant, La Barbacane.
From the hotel, it’s easy to take excursions into the wider world around: to ancient Narbonne with its cathedrals and palaces; to Malay, founded before Roman times; to Loupian, with its early Christian church; or to the ancient Gellone Abbey. One may travel to the city of Nimes, where denim was invented, or to the marvellous Roman aqueduct of Pont du Gard.
But one can also go nowhere at all, and simply enjoy the comforts of the hotel and the fairytale atmosphere of Carcassonne. This may, indeed, be the very best way to round off a rich and exciting journey — by putting your feet up.
The flora and fauna of the Mediterranean are close at hand
Right next to Languedoc, in the very western part of Provence, is the Camargue nature reserve, the biggest river delta on the Mediterranean in western Europe. A third of the territory of Camargue is covered with water – lakes, marshes, and salt marshes, renowned for their outstanding biological diversity.
Castles in the sky
There are a number of Cathar castles in this region, many of which form part of a special tourist route. The most beautiful are located in the southern part of the mountainous region of Corbière, which is the natural boundary between Languedoc and Roussillon. It is as if its rocky peaks have been designed by nature itself to make secure strongholds, such as the Château de Peyrepertuse.
Text: Ivan Vasin
Published on: August 24, 2018