Think of the south of France and the postcard images of the lavender fields of Provence and the beautiful places with yachts – Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez – that probably come to mind.
But look at a map of France and trace a finger from Paris to the Mediterranean Sea and you’ll land in the Occitanie region, where the Aude department and the coastal town of Narbonne and its surroundings offer a very different, more relaxed experience. view of the south of the country.
Here, along a coastal plain that is part of France’s largest wine and wine region by land area (Languedoc-Roussillon, which joined the newly created Occitanie region in 2016), the varied landscapes range from beaches to shallow lagoons to wooded limestone plateaus pocketed with lakes.
Ruined castles and majestic citadels crown the peaks of what was once Cathar country. This dissident and ascetic religious group, then considered heretical, gathered in this part of Europe during the 12th century.
Visitors come to the region today for an ambiance steeped in tradition and full of surprises, where you can dine on hyper-local seafood straight from the lagoons where it is harvested and sip varied Languedoc wines against the backdrop of the Pyrenees mountains stretching towards Spain. The laid-back seaside villages you’ll visit here feel apart – attitudinally and geographically – from the more pretentious and crowded French Riviera some 225 miles to the east.
A city with a Roman heart – and one of the most beautiful markets in France
Less than an hour inland from Narbonne on the River Aude, the impressive hilltop fortified city of Carcassonne is what initially attracts most tourists to the area. An exceptional example of a fortified medieval city, this UNESCO World Heritage Site has pre-Roman roots.
But history also runs deep in and around the often overlooked city of Narbonne, an ancient port city that dates back to 118 BCE and was the first Roman settlement established in Gaul.
In the new Narbo Via Museumwhich opened in May 2021.
The spectacular museum designed by Foster+Partners (of Norman Foster fame) has an industrial-style stacker crane that uses a robot mechanism to continuously change a towering display of over 700 ancient carved stone blocks in its centerpiece “Lapidary Wall”.
The Canal du Midi – a 17th-century canal linking the Mediterranean to the Atlantic – flows through the heart of Narbonne, carrying thousands of barge cruisers on journeys between Sète and Toulouse each year.
But few come ashore to explore beyond the confines of the canal and Carcassonne. They miss.
Along the canal in Narbonne is the town’s famous indoor market, Les Halles, where the early morning bustle fades at lunchtime when vendors selling local seafood, produce and the famous cheeses of Languedoc goat are beginning to close their stalls and restaurants are filling up with diners sipping wine with their midday meal.
“The market is a place where people from Narbonne like to develop their social life around a glass of wine,” winemaker Gérard Bertrand, whose white, red and rosé wines are a benchmark of biodynamic and organic winemaking heritage, told CNN Travel. sustainable development in Languedoc. .
An evolutionary history of winemaking
While vines have been rooted in Languedoc for thousands of years, Narbonne was the first port through which wine was transported throughout the Roman Empire. Bertrand says that the region ended up “losing its nobility, often favoring volume over quality”.
Regions like Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux have emerged into the spotlight.
But since the 1970s, explains Bordeaux oenologist Sera Goto, particular care has been taken in replanting grape varieties adapted to the particular microclimates and soils of the Languedoc-Roussillon vineyard which “maintain great respect for the place and the natural environment”.
The region is a “multi-coloured, textured and dynamic area with a dizzying diversity of soils, grape varieties and wine styles”, she says, and one of the most important organic wine regions in France.
“Once only a source of mass-produced wines for the tables of the ancient Greeks, Romans and later Gauls, today’s Languedoc Roussillon is in many ways a firebrand for organic and artisanal wine,” says Goto.
This is largely thanks to the practices of visionary winemakers like Bertrand, a former professional rugby player who took over the business from his father in 1987 and incorporates fully biodynamic farming practices into his 16 vineyards across the region.
His Château l’Hospitalet Grand Vin Rouge 2017 was named the best red wine in the world in a blind tasting of 6,000 wines during the International Wine Challenge in 2019.
“The future of our region looks bright,” says Bertrand. “The shift has taken place towards new generations of winegrowers who are fully dedicated to enhancing the wonderful nature that we have here.”
As far as human nature is concerned, you can develop your own social life alongside the wines of the region with a lunch directly at the Halles de Narbonne in Chez Bebellewhere tables are set within the market itself.
There are often only locals standing, shopping bags full of fresh produce, chin glasses and specialties like steak tartare and duck breast to debrief the last rugby match and other important events in the city.
Vineyards and lagoons where you can stay, sip and sip
For a stay in the middle of biodynamic vineyards near Narbonne, Bertrand’s Chateau l’Hospitalet is a quiet retreat in the vineyards of the La Clape appellation.
Housed in a former 11th century hospital, the coastal wine estate and boutique hotel has a new gourmet restaurant, The art of livingwhich offers seasonal and organic products as well as Aubrac beef and eel from the Étang de l’Ayrolle in Gruissan.
In addition to the castle rooms, Villa Soleilla has 11 suites and a new spa in its collection of contemporary-style buildings renovated from the original walls of a former wine estate. Rooms with private patios and terraces open out to surrounding vineyards and the dazzling Mediterranean Sea beyond.
During warmer months, the hotel’s seasonal beach club and seaside restaurant, a short drive away in nearby Gruissan, evokes something of the sun and sea vibe of la belle vie. from the French Riviera – without any ostentatious bling.
Year-round in the region, you can stroll along the uncrowded sands of Gruissan, stroll through vineyards to vistas overlooking a coastline swollen with more sails than super yachts, and hike to unexpected vistas. at the Gouffre de l’Oeil Doux, an emerald-colored pool in the karst massif that looks remarkably like a Mexican cenote.
At the Salin de Gruissan, near the fishing village of Gruissan, the lagoons where sea salt is grown take on a pinkish tint due to the presence of an algae which reacts to the sun. Flamingos frequent the shallow pools closest to the sea, and fleur de sel is hand-picked and sold in a small shop on site.
At the edge of the lagoon, massages and salt soaking treatments are offered in a humble Caravan — a small stagecoach-like wooden cart that looks like a portable sauna and overlooks the salt production pools. A setup with a no-frills feel-good vibe, what more do you really need.
Also bordering the lagoon, at La Cambuse du Saunier, platters of oysters, whelks, prawns and knives – razor clams smothered in a thick garlic and parsley sauce – are served on rustic driftwood tables in an unpretentious restaurant that certainly boasts some of the freshest seafood in France.
Nearby, in the medieval village of Bages on the Etang de Bages, kitesurfers jump across the choppy surface of a windy lagoon famous for harvesting silver eels. They can be tasted in various preparations in the former fisherman’s house which has become a restaurant, The Portanel.
Oyster lovers make the pilgrimage northeast of Narbonne along the coast to the neighboring department of Hérault and the seaside village of Marseillan.
Special Tarbouriech (or “pink oysters”) are grown here on ropes hauled in and out of the water of France’s largest lagoon, the Etang de Thau. The process allows producers to adjust the salinity level of oysters in an area with salty water and almost no tidal variation.
A platter of bivalves served al fresco alongside a crisp glass of rosé, overlooking the lagoon at Tarbouriech Le St Barth distils the mouthfeel of the region down to its essence.
And the best part? This “unpretentious” thing.
You can come as you are to any of these places, dressed in what you are wearing that morning for a day of sightseeing.
A region of discovery – which is being discovered
“You just have to push a door in this region, and then there’s another one”, explains Gilles Sansa, whose private driver company, Quadriges, guides tourists, Hollywood teams (scenes from “The Last Duel” were recently filmed at the 11th century Abbey of Fontfroid) and all those who wish to discover the back roads and secrets of the region.
“When Americans come here, they have a goal, a target,” Sansa says. “They know there is good wine and good food, first. But then they really discover the essence of the place and something different.”
For many Europeans, the region’s appeal is less of a secret – and foreign and French interest in property has skyrocketed during the pandemic, says Nathalie Van Veenendaal, regional director of French property agency Selection Habitat. -Hamilton.
She described the housing market as having a “back to the countryside vibe” that is driving more interest from the French and residents of other parts of Europe in an area that traditionally attracts a lot of Britons.
“It is this combination of sea, mountain and countryside as well as the quality of life that attracts people here,” says Van Veenendaal.
“It’s less about showing off his big property here than on the French Riviera and more of that other stuff.”
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