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The Languedoc-Roussillon region in the southern tip of France wins my trump card for a holiday destination.
Undiscovered by tour buses, this gorgeous area has everything to entertain and inform the vacationer. Stretching in an arc west of the Rhone and along the Mediterranean to the Pyrenees, the countryside offers sweeping contrasts in scenic beauty. The tranquil environment ever-changes from rugged river gorges, rolling hillsides, lush vineyards, fishing ports, to white sandy beaches, and lagoons.
Centuries-old beautiful villages offer great value in elite accommodations and superb wine and cuisine. Castles, churches, canals, Roman ruins, and walled cities provide intrigue. Here the dollar stretches twice as far as at home.
What a joy to savor sophisticated refinement amid natural surroundings and leave the commercial bustle of the world behind. In a 10-day trip, each day was an enlightening, scenic, and gastronomic treat.
Getting here is easy on an Air France direct flight from San Francisco to Paris, and it is just an hour and a quarter by jet to Montpellier. This capital of the Languedoc-Roussillion region is a stunning city of 248,000 inhabitants. Stylish modern buildings juxtapose with historical districts of winding streets, open squares, and fountains. A town tour is a must to view the beauty of the 17th century mansions with inner courtyards, the Polygone shopping centre and office complex, and the striking new Antigone district designed by Catalan architect, Richado Bofill. An Olympic pool and spa grace the interior of a block-long green marble façade.
Lunch by the river at La Guingette du Pere Louis brings a tantalizing seafood plate-folle de la mer-meaning crazy salad of the sea, with mussels, prawns, and scallops and a refreshing Picpoul de Pinet, a crisp, fruity vintage bottled a few kilometers away.
The elegant contemporary Hotel Sofitel indulges the visitor with a sumptuous petit dejeuner buffet, with dining indoors in the sunny gold and blue room or on the terrace beside the 8th floor pool. The array of fruits, cheeses, fresh-squeezed juices, and marvelous crusty seed breads and rolls are so captivating, it's easy to bypass the meats and eggs.
Another delightful Montpellier hotel in a refined old-fashioned style is the Hotel Holiday Inn Metropole, located in a 19th century mansion with a pretty dining room that overlooks a terrace garden.
With daylight lasting till past 10 p.m. in summer, it is a joy to savor dinner at La Petit Jardin on the patio under huge sycamore trees. Our three course menu encompassed such local specialties as Mousseline des Morue, a salt cod patty with olive oil, herbs, and cream and a fish fillet on a silken eggplant sauce with saffron potatoes, carrot puree, and tomato-stuffed zucchini rounds. Fraises au carpaccio a 'la anis brought intensely flavored strawberries in liqueur-scented ruby juices with crushed anise and cardamom seeds.
The seaside resort of La Grande-Motte has tall, honeycomb pyramids of new apartment complexes and homes, completed in 1967 on moors and dunes alongside the Petite Camargue. The city is one of five sites the government built along the coast to attract visitors.
The Hotel Mercure is a picture-perfect setting to view the shimmering yacht harbor from the rooms and just a few steps from the four miles of sandy white beach. Water sports and game fishing are attractions.
In an open-air jeep we toured the Little Camargue, spotting white wild horses, flamingoes, and otters. With the colorful guide of "perriot le camarguais," we partook in an evening at a "manade," a stock farm where horses and bulls are raised on the grasslands. A gypsy band and a flamingo dancer entertained as visitors sipped muscat de lindel and settled in at long tables for a feast of bull's stew bourguignon.
The harbor city of Sète serves big ships and cruise lines and is the largest in the French Mediterranean. It is also famous for its oyster and mussel beds, called tables. For a closeup view of the method of raising these bivalves, ride on what is called a glass-bottomed boat; in reality it is glass-sided on its lower level. It speeds right past the 9-foot-long ropes that hold the growing seafood above the crabs that ply the bottom. The seed specimen come from Brittany and oysters take 1 year to mature and mussels require18 months. A tour of the fresh fish and produce market illustrates what enormous mussels and great variety of oysters are available.
The canal that runs through town is lined with seafood restaurants with sidewalk tables set under awnings. At La Rascasse, a plate of 6 mussels and 6 oysters and 2 prawns was a luscious fresh salty starter to a trio of rouget, topped with black olive tapenade and cushioned on a toasty baguette slice. Intense fresh pear and cassis sorbets with a jaunty rolled wafer made a sweet finale.
It is a short drive to Pézenas, notable for its 16th, 17th, and 18th century mansions with decorative iron balconies and eye-catching agrafe, the stone decors of heads and animals that project from exteriors. Dozens of high-quality craft shops feature ceramics, linens, leather goods, weaving, candles, unusual hand-made dolls (one of a nun riding a bicycle with a basket of lavender). Door knockers and doors are fascinating in this hometown of Moliere and Emil Zola. Closeby in Leignan-la-Cebe is Domaine d'Ormesson, a winery owned by one of France's most prominent writers, open to the public for tastings.
In the little wine village of Margon, the Auberge du Chateau hotel-restaurant is listed among the Logis de France and a Tables Gourmandes of Languedoc. Its rooms are modest but the fare compensates. At dinner, its fresh foie gras with white raisins marinated in Marc of Gewurztraminer is a luxurious starter to breast of pinatade and a finale of Kirsch-flambeéd summer fruits and melon sorbet.
Enroute to Béziers, just 15 miles distant, a detour to Chateau de Raissac provided a fascinating tour of the 19th century faience exhibit and boutique of the Norwegian artist Christine Viennet. Her trompe l'oeil motifs of fruit, vegetables, fish, and sweets on ceramics dazzle with their life-like look. Her showroom is open daily and housed in the former stables of her husband's family chateau. Her creations are sold in top shops throughout the world.
Arriving in Béziers in a thunder and lightning storm, we ducked into the imposing Cathedral St-Nazaire just as a wedding procession commenced. As onlookers, we took in the ceremony and the cloister with its beheaded gargoyles that served as rain spouts in this downpour.
Béziers was already a thriving city when the Romans arrived in 36 B.C. Now the metropolis is undertaking a dig of the Roman amphitheater. The city ranks as the capital of the Languedoc vineyards and the birthplace of Pierre Paul-Riquet, who designed the Canal du Midi. Today tourist barges ply this waterway.
A drive to Olargue revealed a picture postcard setting, and it does rank as one of the 142 beautiful villages of France. Its 11th century bell tower built alongside the castle chapel prompts a hike to pursue this promontory. A small museum displays prehistoric stones, tools, bells, and reproductions of life in the 19th century. This medieval village of 600 features an environmental center that is open to the public and two B & B's. With its striking natural setting, the area offers hiking, canoeing, and mountain biking..
On the outskirts of town lies the lovely Domaine de Rieumege, a three-star hotel with 14 rooms and 2 swimming pools. The property is a member of Chateau & Hotels of France. A luxurious private suite adjoins its own heated pool. Dining midday on a Sunday, the restaurant was filled with French families, one celebrating a child's birthday.as sparklers glowed on a fancy cake. Our menu showcased the local charcuterie du pays: foie gras, duck prosciutto, two kinds of sausage, onion confit, and a fig and strawberry. Veal chops arrived smothered in woodsy cepes, pleurets, and morels in a rosemary-scented mahogany wine sauce. A grape leaf lined the fromage plate holding Roquefort, chèvre, and camembert. A chocolate marquise-really a rich mousse with powdered genoise crumbs and rum, graced a pool of crème anglaise swirled with chocolate ribbons.
One of the most rugged river gorges borders the tiny Cathare village of Minerve, housing 85 inhabitants and 120,000 tourists a year. The area has been inhabited since prehistoric times and in the Middle Ages, Minerve's fortress was the site of a dramatic episode in the Albigensian Crusade.
The Albigenians or Cathares were followers of a Christian doctrine which originated in Eastern Europe and propagated in Western Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries, taking root in Languedoc around 1160. Chathare thinking and doctrine conflicted with Roman Catholic thought and was declared a heresy. The Museum Hurepal depicts the surge of the Cathares in miniature models. Another museum of prehistoric ancient finds displays fossils and bones, some dating 500 million years ago. A 10th century church has an altar from 456 inscribed with readable names, the oldest legible one in Europe.
Overnight in the prestige Gite Bastide Les Aliberts owned by Monique and Pascal Bourgogne is a high point. This charming couple have totally remodeled and decorated five houses adjoining their bastide, a grand stone mansion whose oldest stones date back to the 12th century. (It was a restaurant when they held their wedding reception there 25 years ago.) The setting offers a sweeping view of the valley and vineyards. A swimming pool is imbedded in the hillside. Available by the week, the updated homes sleep four to six and have proved a popular retreat for art classes from the States.
From here, it's a short drive to Carcassonne and a guided visit of the Medieval Cite, the largest fortified walled city in Europe. English-speaking guide Evelyne Chamond of the Office of Tourism gave an outstanding tour of the ramparts and secret passages. The chic contemporary Restaurant Comte Roger proved a choice luncheon destination. Roasted asparagus formed a haystack on eggs scrambled with cream and prosciutto. A 1999 Chateau Riviere Le Haut Jean Segura was an elegant accompaniment, and a 1997 red syrah partnered roasted guinea fowl on a spinach-topped pastry. Dessert featured an ethereal frozen honey mousse parfait on a cherry sauce.
convenient hotel for a Carcassonne stay is the Hotel Mercure, located just outside
the gates and within easy walking to the Cite for dinner at the Brasserie du Donjon.
Their specialty is cassoulet, which arrives in a huge ceramic casserole laden with white beans, duck, and sausage. Confit au canard, a preserved chunky duck breast, is another favorite. For seafood, the lotte with scallops, mussels, and prawns is impressive in a lemon-herb olive oil sauce.
A short 15 mile drive away, the small town of Limoux is enclosed by a 14th century fortified wall and offers a fine painting museum and an English-language film: a Catharama on the Cathare epic in Limoux. The Blanquette de Limoux sparkling winery in town is open daily for tasting, tours, and sales. Annually they produce 18 million bottles (6 million sparkling and the balance still). They trace their sparkling roots back to 1531, where the first brut in the world was produced at the abbey of Saint-Hilaire. Their four chardonnays are delineated by their terroirs, and among them the haute vallee is a gem and only 50 French francs. Prices for top-quality Languedoc wines are a bargain.
A scenic drive through the Corbières vineyards takes one to Lagrasse with its historical houses, bridges, ramparts, majestic abbey, and 13th century church. It is also a village of artisans discreetly clustered about the square. A top quality leather shop displays soft fur-trimmed slippers and hats, leather bags, and sandals. A glass shop of artist Beatrice Dolezalek-Lauw features salad plates, pitchers, compotes and candle holders with colorful enamel designs. Four ceramists offer whimsy in teapots and plump chicken casseroles. These shops were totally engulfed in the severe flood of fall 1999 and have made a remarkable comeback.
This rugged landscape is notable for its numerous monasteries, castle ruins, feudal fortresses, Chathare strongholds and royal garrisons. A map of the pathways to viewing the Romanesque art is available from the department of tourism of the Aude. The region is also renowned for its vineyards and wine. A fascinating Medieval village and castle from the 12th and 14th centuries awaits in Villerouge Termendes.
Luncheon at the Michelin one-star Auberge de Vieux Puits (meaning the old well) in Maraussan is exceptional. Pale apricot cloths drape the round tables set with custom personalized porcelain, and lovely watercolors by the owner adorn the walls. We chose to let the chef compose the menu and seven courses arrived. The amuse bouche (or duo of welcome dishes) included a morel stuffed with crème fraiche and asparagus tips in a langoustine sabayon. For a first course, a 6-inch coral spider crab shell held crab meat in a langoustine aspic with a scoop of celery and green apple sorbet. Even more stellar was a smoked salmon and potato souffle crêpe, at sea in a ver jus (green grape) bubbly sauce. Filleted baby duck and a turnip gratin followed. Dessert brought strawberries in a caramel praline tuile with a thyme sorbet and a berry sauce splashed with pink peppercorns and vanilla bean seeds. With Chateau Les Palais St. Laurent de Cabrerisse elegant white and red wines accompanying, the menu tab was modest at 275 French francs for seven courses.
Nearby in the little village of Boutenac, the Syndicat de AOC Corbières offers tastings and sales of the prize-winning wines of the year. As the largest wine association in the Langudeoc-Roussillon region, the association encompasses 300 wine cellars. Grenache, carignan, and syrah are the major varietals and production is 90% in red wines. Bottle prices range from $5-$10. An outstanding wine was the1998 Grand Reserve Chateau Roquefort Saint Martin. The syndicate is creating a travel program around such themes as historic wines, gastronomic, and nature destinations. The web site is www.aoc-corbieres.com or for brochure, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.orgères.com.
An elegant stay awaits 2 minutes away at the three-story mansion of Francoise and Jacques Camel. Their home, understatedly classed as a B & B, provides five chamber suites with top-of-the-line baths, upscale linens, and designer décor. By reservation, the charming couple and gracious hosts serve a four-course dinner with wines. On warm evenings, the trestle table is set under a large tent in their rose-filled garden and guests mingle over aperitifs, meeting new friends from afar. Two octogenarian Belgium ladies, who along with their car had traveled from Bruges by train to Narbonne, were among the visitors for a two-week stay.
Francoise is the chef, setting forth green olive tapenade on crackers and cured sliced sausages, sugar-sweet melon wedges, a mushroom salad with home-cured duck prosciutto, eggplant and tomato gratin, barbecued fennel sausage, a huge omelet, boiled potatoes, and fresh cherry clafoutis. A bowl of just-picked luscious apricots and white peaches accompanied dessert wine. Dinner with wines is $18. The room rate of $50 to $55 a night includes a sumptuous breakfast.
Castles await closeby with the Castle of Queribus dating from 1241 and the majestic Abbaye de Fontfroide, an enormous Cistercian 11th century abbey with a showy rose garden and herb plantings in a serene setting.
The intimate, ancient 40-seat Auberge de Cucugnan in Cucugnan is a choice spot for luncheon of charcuterrie, guinea fowl in a muscat sauce, and crème caramel. The restaurant has been here for 30 years but they recently opened 6 rooms, priced at $40 to $45, with petit dejeuner in the garden.
After a quick tour of Narbonne with its pretty canal and enormous
cathedral, a return to La Grand Motte meant an easy early morning plane departure
from Montpellier. Dinner at Le Clipper overlooking the yachts at sunset was the
finale to an elite 10-day sojourn. It was just a teaser to return for more.
Tips to Planning
Visit the regional tourism web-site for Languedoc-Roussillon at www.sunfrance.com to view the countryside, towns, major sights, sports and cultural activities. Contact the office by e-mail: email@example.com. Detailed brochures will be sent free of charge for hotels and residences, holiday homes, restaurants, art and culture, golf, rivers and canals, and tourist map. Or Tel.: 04.67.22.81.00 or Fax: 04.67.58.06.10.
Or contract the French Government Tourist Office in New York: e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Chicago: e-mail: email@example.com; or Los Angeles: e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For information on a French railpass or rail 'n drive pass, call 1-800-4eurail, or log on to www.raileurope.com.
The Languedoc-Roussillon region is served by five international airports, five TGV train stations, and three motorways, so there are many options to reaching the area from Paris. Air France has direct flights from several American cities to Paris, and then it is a short hop south to Montpellier. Or take a TGV train from Paris to Narbonne and rent a car.
Accommodations encompass hotels, country
inns, manor house hotels, family-owned hotels, called Logis de France; privately
owned weekly rentals called Gites de France; and an association of bed and breakfasts,
called Fleurs de Soleil. To obtain telephone, fax, and e-mail addresses, ask for
the French brochure: "The Insider's Good Value Guide to France."
If You Go
Accommodations and Dining
Room rate prices in June 2000 (expect higher in high season, July and August); also luncheon or dinner with wine for one person:
Hotel Sofitel Antigone,1 rue des Pertuisanes, 34000 Montpellier, Tel: 04.67.99.72. Fax: 04.67.65.17.50. Room rate: $125. Breakfast, $13.
Guinguette du Pere Louis, on the banks of the Lez, Montpellier, Tel: 04.67.64.07.07, Fax: 04.67.92.62.46. Luncheon with wine $15.
Hotel Holiday Inn Metropole, 3 rue Clos-Rene, 34000 Montpellier, Tel: 04.67.12.32.32, Fax: 04.67.92.13.02. Room rate, $85, breakfast $12.
La Petit Jardin, 20 Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Montpellier, Tel: 04.67.60.78, Fax: 04.67.66.16.19. Three course dinner with wine: $25.
Hotel Mercure, 140 rue du Port, 34280 La Grand Motte, Tel. 04.67.56.90.81, Fax. 04.67.56.92.29. Room rate: $70, $80 month of August
La Rascasse, 27 quai General Durand, Sète, $20 for three courses, wine extra.
Auberge du Chateau, 1 Chemin de Serres, 34320 Margon, Tel: 04.67.24.85.65, Fax: 04.67.24.75.99. Room rate: $32. Dinner with wine, $25.
Les Aliberts, 34210 Minerve, Tel: 04.68.91.81.72, Fax: 04.68.91.22.95. E mail: email@example.com. Home prices by weekly rental preferred and vary with high season and holiday season from approximately $450 to $900. If available 1 chamber, 1 bedroom, 1 night $65; Weekend (2 nights) 2 bedroom home, $140.
Domaine de Rieumege, Route de Saint-Pons, 34390 Olargues, Tel: 04.67.97.73.99. Fax: 04.67.97.78.52. 14 chambers, $58-$110. 2 suites, $110-$200. Menu 4 courses: $25, wine extra.
Hotel Mercure, 18, rue Camille-St-Saens, 11000 Carcassonne, Tel: 04.68.11.92.82. Fax: 04.68.71.11.45. Room rate: $75, $80 high season.
Brasserie du Donjon, 2 rue du Comte-Roger, Cite Medievale, 11000 Carcassonne, Tel: 04.68.25.95.72. Fax: 04.68.25.06.60. Dinner $25.
Restaurant Comte Roger, 14 rue St. Louis, La Cite11000 Carcassonne. Tel: 04.68.11.93.40, Fax: 04.68.11.93.41. Menu: gourmand: 4 courses, $26, wine extra.
Le Vieux Puits, 207 Avenue de Cazouls, 34370
Maraussan. Tel: 04.68.44.07.37.
Menus: $22-$40 for 4 courses with wine.
Bastide des Corbières, Francoise and Jacques Camel, 17 rue de la Revolution.
11200 Boutenac. Tel: 04.68.27.20.61. Fax: 04.68.27.62.71. Rooms $50-$55 including petit dejeuner. Dinner by reservation $18.
French Government Tourist Office,444 Madison Avenue, 16th Floor, New York. NY 10022-6903. Tel: 212-745.0952. Fax: 212-838.7855.
Lou Seibert Pappas is a former food editor of the Palo Alto Times Tribune and a home economist with Sunset Magazine. She currently writes food, home, and travel-related articles for national magazines and newspapers and is the author of more than 30 books.