Loitering around the Languedoc
By the end of January I think most of us are quite desperate to get out of a cold, wet, snowy or just generally miserable England. Chances of flying a short distance and finding the warm sun however, is slim. Unless you fork out substantial amounts and go further afield, like the Caribbean. Dream on.
While the south of France is by no means warm during the winter, a lovely invitation to the Languedoc provided the perfect excuse to get out of London and gulp some fresh French country air. And after a long weekend there, I learnt that not only was the Languedoc remarkably beautiful, but it is steeped in history and is full of charming and often over-looked villages and towns.
Many people won’t even know where the Languedoc is in France – overshadowed by its more popular neighbour – the Provence. It is in fact just west of the Provence and as the southernmost province in France it borders Spain. Admittedly signs of ‘Barcelona’ on the motorway got me a little excited.
I was staying in the tiny village of Vindrac, which is an hour drive south of Toulouse and in the northern part of the Languedoc. Apart from hours sitting by huge log fires and drinking the local wines, we actually managed to discover a lot of the area.
Quick point: to understand the Languedoc area you have to understand its Cathar history. Catherism originated in the 12th Century as a party which opposed the opulence and corruption of the Catholic church, and who were against material obsession. They were very popular amongst the locals in the Languedoc and the papacy quickly saw them as a threat. This set off a 20 year military crusade initiated by Pope Innocent III against the Cathars – who were consequentially subjected to terror and torture. The Cathar history is still very much prevalent in the Languedoc area and adds an interesting dimension to the area.
These were three of my favourite visits:
During the summer apparently a hot tourist destination, in the winter it is much quieter but still has a good vibe since it is a lively student town. The two sights I wanted to see during our afternoon and evening there were the St. Sernin Cathedral and Place du Capitol.
Basilica St. Sernin
The largest Romanesque Church in Western Europe – quite sober from the outside (apart from its wedding-cake tiered tower), but the interior is impressive and some of the detail very intricate. Definitely worth a wander.
Place du Capitol
The centre and the focal point of the city. Magical at sunset as the sun’s fading glow turns the city hall a beautiful red colour. The square reminded me a bit of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, spacious and majestic, with buskers performing tricks and bars and cafes lining the Western side. All the streets leading off the square are filled with restaurants and bars, and especially the street leading to the University has some really affordable and quite fun restaurants. Tip: Make sure you try a ‘cassoulet’ – the regional dish of sausage stew. Delicious.
Cordes sur Ciel
Right next door to Vicdrac lies – according to the Rough Guide – the number one must-visit place in the Languedoc. In the summer month this small, pretty town is overflowing tourists but when we were there it seemed quite dead. The name of the town means Cordes ‘on the sky’, due to the fog which hovers across this cliff-clinging town. Once a Cathar strong-hold, it provided the defence against Simon de Montfort who led the war of terror against the Cathar ‘heretics’. It’s a bit of a climb but once you reach the top you will find the most stunning sweeping views of the Languedoc countryside. The steep, winding cobbled roads lead you up and up, past shuttered houses, small art and antique shops and – in our case – closed restaurants. I did notice a lot of fois gras shops which are also worth a visit. It is truly charming and I can imagine it being a lovely place to spend the day and evening in the summer. In our case it was a little cold and quiet, but the plus side was having the town to ourselves.
I had completely underestimated Albi. A proper, bustling town, Albi was much bigger and certainly more alive than Cordes sur Ciel. The main attraction: the Albi Cathedral. Said to be the world’s largest building built of brick (though a friend told me that Battersea Power Station rivals it), it is hugely impressive and imposing. It reminded me a little of the castle in Sleep Beauty but perhaps without all the thorns.
Unsurprisingly the Cathedral is connected to the Cathar history of the area. It was built after the military crusade took place suppressing the Cathar movement. The Cathedral served to be a constant reminder to the locals of the relentless power and authority of the Christian faith.
Apart from the Cathedral, there is a Toulouse-Lautrec museum (Palais de la Berbie, Place Sainte-Cécile, entrance 8 euros) just behind it which is worth a visit. The famous French artist was born very close to Albi and he is certainly very celebrated in the region.
The Languedoc has plenty more towns and villages worth visiting, and every place we drove through had charm. That’s what I love about France: even the most non-descript villages which you pass through to reach a – according to the guidebook – ‘must see’, often ends up being lovely and worth stopping at and going for a wander. I’ll certainly be back. Perhaps when the sun is fully out though.