‘Provence’ rolls rather smoothly off the tongue, as do a host of other romantic destinations in the south of France. Yet to visit this region and its tourist towns can be nothing short of exhausting, especially in summer when it feels as if the whole of Europe has descended on them. Thank goodness for Languedoc-Roussillon (pronounced Long-doc- roo-see-yong), the lesser known south of France, where rural life continues without fuss, and some of the most beautiful villages in the country are to be found.
Situated in the south-west of France, Languedoc-Roussillon is just a stone’s throw from the beautiful and wild Camargue Regional Park, an internationally recognised bird-watchers’ paradise. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Carcassonne is also a feature of the region, and the Mediterranean is within easy reach if you feel like a dip. But it’s the little villages that offer the greatest attraction in this quiet part of the world – especially when you reach them early in the day.
Among them, Saint Guilhem le Desert rates as one of the best. Classed since 1999 as one of France’s most beautiful villages, it is situated on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, and although it attracts those-in-the-know over the summer months, arrive between 8 and 9 am and you have it to yourself (and a car park into the bargain!). Sip a coffee under the plane trees in the square while you listen to the community’s Baroque church organ tuning up, then stroll through the village to take in the sandy-coloured stone buildings with their pretty window boxes of flowers still glistening with dew.
As the day warms up, take a short drive to the quiet village of Saint Andre des Sangonis, close to the deliciously swimmable Herault River, and just 30 minutes’ drive from the vibrant Mediterranean city of Montpellier. Known as a wine-growing centre, it offers pleasant strolls through the vineyards, past tricking irrigation canals and wild fig trees. Shop for a bottle of local vino in the town centre, and park yourself on a bench to watch the gentlemen of Saint Andre fight it out on the petanque patch.
Just a 10-minute drive from Saint Andre des Sangonis (and a jaunt best taken in the cool of the evening) is the unusual ‘circulade’ village of Saint Jean-de-Fos. One of several Languedoc-Roussillon villages built in this Middle Ages style, its fortified centre can be found at the top of an elevated spot while the houses (still lived in by local farm labourers) wind their way around it and back down the hill. This is an authentic, working part of the region, so as you ply its narrow roads, be on the lookout for tractors and other farm vehicles.
Don’t leave the Herault region of Languedoc-Roussillon without a visit to the weekend market in Gignac, a sizable town where you might also choose to base yourself for a few nights while you explore. Stalls overflow with local produce including oily olives, herb-encrusted cheeses, and fresh fruit and vegetables.
Late spring to early summer, and again in autumn, are the best times to visit the region of Languedoc-Roussillon, so right now is not to soon to begin planning!