Touchdown in southwest France ended hours of numbing inactivity begun early that day in North America. Demeanor of the one official stamping passports suggested that his sole objective was an uncomplicated end of day. Indeed, our group cleared Toulouse airport in what could be record time.
We headed a rental car toward our travel companions’ ancient stone house in Pepieux, a village of Languedoc-Roussillon. Here in a peaceful rural area, long-time friends Jacquie and Lorne had purchased a romantic retreat. Before finding this, our pals explored for vacation property in Canada, Greece and England.
Going east from Toulouse, we followed Le Canal du Midi, a tree-lined waterway connecting the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Begun under King Louis XIV, it was a vital element of French transport for more than 300 years. Nowadays, cyclists and strollers enjoy old towpaths that present the longest flat walkways in France. Sailors with ample time and patience glide canal boats through graceful locks and languid waters.
We paused on a hill opposite Carcassonne. Fortified initially by Romans, a succession of feudal strongmen held the walled town until gradual abandonment. In 1855, here began the world’s first large-scale conservation program. La Cité de Carcassonne is arguably the finest medieval citadel in Europe: 52 pointed towers and gatehouses joined by 3 km of crenellated double ramparts. UNESCO classifies this a site of International Heritage. On a future day, posing as tourists, we shall return.
Dave Furneaux, another Canadian, introduced Jacquie and Lorne to southwest France. His bond consummated a serendipitous affair with the French countryside. Following a period of ultra-intense work, Dave awarded himself a restorative sabbatical.
Packing his cycling gear, he aimed to ride the route of Le Tour de France. Unlike the legendary 21-day race, Dave’s odyssey lasted four months. He fell in love with rural France.
Returning to Canada, he devised a plan to alter life. Dave was a successful building contractor but was hearing the muse of change. Friends believed his inner self was an artist, dreaming of his own “Studio of the South” near places that inspired Gauguin and van Gogh. He studied southwest France, its climate and people.
The region was populated first by ancient tribes then dominated in turn by classical Mediterranean empires and medieval kingdoms of Europe. The province stretches from the Pyrenees Mountains to the Rhone River.
Furneaux eventually purchased an old stone barn, off the beaten path in the central Minervois wine district. Of course, the area was already home to many artisans. Conversion of the former horse stable soon began. Despite a new studio interior, the barn kept its medieval facade.
Acquaintances, inspired by the Canadian’s zeal, followed him to Languedoc, some to visit, others seeking their own maison de village. But, inevitably, reverie yielded to reality. Artiste Dave needed to support himself so goals were amended; entrepreneurship was reborn. Furneaux began restoration of a large chateau where a dozen families enjoy a personal French retreat.
One of the Calgary friends introduced to Languedoc was culinary maven Gail Norton. She established Les Trois Eglantines Cooking Camp in Olonzac, regional town of the Minervois. Norton admits to being mildly surprised when the school’s capacity was quickly subscribed despite little marketing effort. She says, “The project culminates my years exploring French food and wine and this location in the south of France is extraordinary.” Today, Norton still helps fellow foodies appreciate southern France.
Discovered by comparatively few travelers, Languedoc-Roussillon basks in sunshine and calm Mediterranean winds. With quiet rural style, many villages would fit the landscape of a hundred, even five hundred years ago. Yet, every necessity is easily acquired and French villagers extend casual graciousness without fail.
Following arrival, our first dinner was at Chateau Marcel in nearby Cesseras. Host Derek Haldane became our regional expert, consulted frequently to identify the best of everything. A veteran innkeeper from Scotland, Derek and his partner came here after a sojourn in Africa. Taking residence in an old mansion alongside a still-active winery, he transformed the property into comfortable apartments for travelers. Derek is a witty man who provides continuing entertainment, clearly enjoying a role his wife described as “conversational provocateur.”
Asked about the French reaction to waves of expatriates settling in country towns, Derek said, “There is little resistance to outsiders buying old properties for their own vacation homes. Young locals would rather live in modern bungalows on the lotissements, away from old-fashioned towns. Foreigners, as long as they appreciate authentic rural style, actually help preserve traditional French villages.”
For the next two weeks, Pepieux was home base for memorable daytrips. We headed to places beyond the Riviera in western Provence. Arles may be south France at its best. Major Roman sites blend with the modern city. Narrow streets wind casually and old ruins surround us – the ramparts, the Baths of Constantine, Théatre Antique and the amphitheatre. Today, the arena built for first century Roman games still hosts bullfights loved by Picasso.
Driving south, we enter vast wetlands along the Rhone River delta. Much of the Camargue is part of a National Reserve though local families still work lands cultivated since pre-Roman times. Red rice and other crops intermix with orchards, market gardens and vineyards.
Flocks of birds overlay the skies and muskrats ripple the canals with busy movements back and forth. Pink flamingos, white horses and black bulls dot green fields, as they do in those National Geographic magazines at home.
In the southern corners of the Camargue are marshes with long lines of salt mountains drying in the sun. Extraction of sea salt began in antiquity and is still a vital activity of the region. I wonder if today’s workers know that hand-raked sea salt, with sufficiently luxurious packaging, might retail for $50 a kilogram in North America.
One time, our group argued mildly about the day’s destination. I wanted to travel north to the caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, home of the famous sheep milk blue cheese. Others preferred driving the coast toward Barcelona. We headed south but happily, in this world, there are no bad choices.
An ugly rainstorm made the trip a little daunting. Sudden encounters between mountains and the Mediterranean Sea define Costa Brava – the Wild Coast. We visit an intriguing mosaic of Catalonian villages. Stopping at a café busy with local workers, we were amused to discover that, while wine was included with lunch, water was a chargeable extra.
Untamed weather narrowed our objectives so we headed for the excavations of Empúries. Here, indigenous settlers traded with ancient Etruscans, Phoenicians and Greeks. The latter created a trading centre during the 6th Century BCE. Later, Romans took control, part of a military strategy against Carthaginian foes of the second Punic War.
In time, Empúries lost importance and most residents moved elsewhere. Archaeologists began a dig in 1908 that continues today with only a quarter of 40-hectares uncovered. Visitors need little imagination to hear footsteps of marching legionnaires.
During our stay, journeys by car alternated with peripatetic days in the countryside. Hikers can set off from anywhere in any direction and arrive at a pleasant new village within a few kilometres, each a self-sufficient community. One morning, wife Gwen and I walked to the town of Azille, seeking a winery praised highly in a French wine guide we carried.
The address was near the town square but seemed only a family residence. A middle-aged woman responded to our knock at the front door and she had as little English as we had French. Regardless, we were soon inside an antique furnished dining room and our hostess quickly produced glasses and four wine bottles.
Despite the language handicap, we learned this was home to the 8th generation of a family producing wine there for more than 250 years. After unhurried tastings, we moved to the wine making space behind the house. Not in the least contemporary, this small winery offered drink that was compelling and, to highly taxed Canadians, laughably inexpensive. Now heavily laden, the return walk seemed far longer.
As source of more than one-third of French wines, Languedoc is an important producer, cultivating more vineyard acreage than does all of North America. While Corbieres, Minervois and Fitou are names deeply rooted in wine history, regional production did not earn general approbation – until recently.
Domestic wine consumption declined and new world producers cut a swathe through French export markets. Traditional Languedoc vintners awoke, forced by necessity. Today, advanced techniques combined with ideal growing conditions produce some of the world’s best wine values.
On this trip, our property-owning companions cannot be simple tourists. Jacquie and Lorne are applying personal taste to the new old house. They exercise real care because an 800-year-old building demands thoughtful attention. However, Lorne, a conservation architect by profession, is not severely tested. Moreover, this is a vacation home so deadlines are always tractable.
We enjoyed an unforgettable succession of experiences. Fresh foods at the markets and restaurant meals were routinely superb – locals tolerate nothing else. Visitors can find comfortable lodging at reasonable prices, board a train, rent a car, boat or cycle, walk or take an extended barge cruise on the Canal du Midi. The streets are quiet, safe and friendly. Village markets are exciting places of exchange. Life is simpler if you can talk to the locals but visitors without French language get by with small effort.
No matter which route followed, travelers in Languedoc engage echoes of millennia. The megalithic tombs, Dolmen des Fados, are walking distance from our place in Pepieux. Nearby to those, we found a tiny Romanesque church deeply hidden in a forest of oak trees. We see traces of Visigoths and Saracens and Franks and Normans.
Independent, with its own language, this became a land of medieval tragedy – Cathar country. In the middle ages, Christian ascetics gained influence. In response, Pope Innocent III ordered elimination of the heretics, the “sinister race of Languedoc.” Land-hungry noblemen from the north conducted the Albigensian Crusade, a brutal campaign that continued for decades.
Minerve is a picturesque village perched above deep gorges carved by two rivers. Despite apparent impregnability, this Cathar citadel surrendered after crusaders destroyed its water supplies. Military leader Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, subjected unrepentant heretics to the first burnings of that campaign.
Unsurprisingly, the crusade degenerated into a war of territorial conquest. Part of its shocking history was the infamous slaughter of Beziers. Unwilling to divide believers from heretics, soldiers killed them all, intending that God should separate the souls. Afterward, Abbot Arnaud-Amaury, the crusade’s religious commander, wrote Pope Innocent, “Today, your holiness, 20,000 citizens were put to the sword, regardless of age or sex.”
Neither side respected chivalric values in a world divided by religious, cultural and linguistic differences. Torture and execution of blameless people seemed acceptable revenge upon anomalous enemies. Sadly, such conduct is not gone from the 21st Century.
Travel here may not for be everyone. Some may prefer fast-paced modern cities to indolent peregrinations through historical sites. However, for those seeking a compounded sense of civilization, art and history, matched with exceptional value, Languedoc-Roussillon is a treasure, easily accessible through all European gateways.