Languedoc-Roussillon: a place to remember
One such town is Nîmes. At its heart is the famous Roman amphitheatre in which 24 000 people originally watched gladiators fight but which now hosts pop concerts and other events. Equally important is the Maison Carré, which has been somewhat over-restored but is nevertheless the only fully preserved temple of the ancient world.
Opposite and making a striking contrast, is the Carré d’Art a contemporary glass cube designed by Norman Foster which houses an arts centre. There are also towers, fountains, winding streets, chic boutiques, inviting cafes and a food market to drool over.
A mysterious and secret area with exceptional biodiversity which no visitor should miss is The Camargue in the Rhone Delta. This marshy area of paddy fields criss-crossed by canals, is home to pink flamingos, black bulls, white horses, salt farmers and its own special breed of cowboy known as gardiens.
Aigues-Mortes, a fortress town built in 1240 was the first French Mediterranean port. From here Saint Louis left for his last crusade. Now dominated by towers and ramparts it has a potent flavour of the past.
The gem of this area however is the magnificent Pont du Gard. The highest aqueduct in the world and a masterpiece of Roman engineering, it is France’s most visited ancient monument. I must confess that my heart sank when I saw tour buses lined up by the dozen but the infra-structure of this important attraction is so efficient that my qualms were soon overcome.The Pont itself is stunning and its setting in 164 hectares of garrigue dotted with 1000-year old olive trees, with the river sparkling beneath and the blue sky above is magical. I was also very pleasantly surprised by the museum which was anything but dull and effectively brought this massive Roman achievement to life.
Montpellier the capital of Languedoc Roussillon is a key cultural centre with dozens of museums, art galleries and concert halls. It has more than its fair share of tempting shops, both big names and little local designers with a number of good antique shops and no less than nine violin makers. In fact much of the centre from the Place de La Comédie right down to the Antigone district is pedestrianised and everywhere you look there are cafes. There are also plentiful cycle paths and a bike rental service. There is also a buzzing night life with something for every taste including Barlive, the biggest after-hours club in France.
I had long wanted to visit the old botanical garden, le Jardin des Plantes which dates from 1593. It still contains the old systematic beds of medical herbs but it is rather poorly maintained which is sad as Montpellier is famous for its ancient École de Médicine (still in operation for which the plants from this botanical garden would have played an essential role.
One of the most mysterious and fascinating places I visited in Montpellier was an old subterranean bath house, the Mikve. Fed by an underground water source, this place of ritual cleansing is one of the few remaining vestiges of the Medieval Jewish community which settled in Montpellier when Ferdinand and Isabella banished the Jews from Spain.
By contrast the extraordinary Antigone district designed by the Catalan architect Ricardo Boffil is worth a visit to see a completely modern take on Greco-Roman style. Built in the 1980s long stretches of monumental white stone buildings, statues and fountains all contain allusions to mythology.
The painter Gustave Courbet was attracted to the area by its special light and many of his paintings, including the famous La Rencontre ou “Bonjour M.Courbet” which is in the Musée Fabre, feature Languedoc landscapes. Art lovers can follow a ‘Courbet route’ along the A 9 which incorporates the sites which inspired this great nineteenth century artist.
Sète, 25 kilometres to the west of Montpellier is known as “The Little Venice of the Languedoc” because of its canals. Paul Valéry’s poem Le Cimetière Marin, is about the graveyard above Sète’s harbour where in fact he is buried and nearby is the Paul Valéry Museum. Sète abounds with small unpretentious quayside restaurants, in one of which I enjoyed my dinner even more for having earlier seen the trawlers come into port and then watching as the day’s catch was sold at the Live Fish Auction
Languedoc Roussilon abounds with fresh and unusual produce: from the Camargue there is bull meat and rice as well as tellines, tiny triangular shell fish, truffles, fleurs du sel (which one enterprising artisan uses in chocolate) and liquorice but it was in the restaurant of Castillon du Gard that I enjoyed the best meal of my trip.Expertly cooked and decoratively served, this began with cannelloni stuffed with tomato and brandade (salt cod prepared by a method local to the Languedoc-Roussillon region), with a seafood sauce. The main course was delicious stick-shaped pieces of roast lamb crusted with spiced semolina and artichauts barigoules, barigoules being a delicious type of local mushroom. The desert looked like a minor work of art and tasted divine: roast apricots with a parfait and nougat ice cream decorated with fresh lavender and sprinkling of nuts.
A meal – and a place – to remember.