Hérault occupies a truly privileged position between the Camargue to the east and the Cathar country to the south-west, which inscribes tenuous routes into the Pyrenean foothills. It’s all part of the much larger region – Languedoc-Roussillon – and offers a wide diversity of landscapes.
What is especially inviting about the region, apart from the many hours of sunshine, a vast quantity of highly palatable wine and excellent seafood, is the plethora of small towns and villages among which those in search of solitude and away-from-it-all-ness will find ample resort.
But the essence of Hérault rests not only on this contrast between its three distinct geographical elements, but on its terroir, that ubiquitous French concept that defies adequate translation, but which embodies the fundamental nature of everything from the air we breathe to the very earthiness of the ground. And to those in the know, this terroir changes subtly the further you are from the coast, enough anyway for the wine and olive producers to convince you of its uniqueness.
The coastal region – the littoral – is renowned as much for its beach and marina attractions as for the magnificent wealth of sea produce, especially the coquillages, oysters, mussels, clams, winkles; this is, after all, the kingdom of the conchiliculteurs, or shellfish farmers. Watching the sun go down across the Etang de Thau from a seafront restaurant in Bouziques must rank among the most agreeable ends to a day. The hinterland, headily aromatic with wild herby scents, does a roaring trade in wine and olive oil production, and the priority attached to these activities is manifest in the number of ‘Stop’ signs at junctions with minor estate roads, where the priorité à droite – an ancient and bizarre rule of the road – favours kamikaze farm vehicles, and in a generous assortment of passages surélevées that take unwary motorists and their car exhausts by surprise.
As you move away from the sea, the landscape rises through a rash of undulations, carpeted in sweet-smelling garrigue, winding roads and sleepy settlements where the metronome of life is set to andante and the village clocks have an easy-going, pic’n’mix approach to time keeping. And then, to stop you wandering too far, the southern fringes of the Cévennes form a northern barrier, crusty green-grey hills that sprawl across the horizon…you can see why Robert Louis Stevenson would want to explore there, but the donkey defies explanation!
Five départements comprise Languedoc-Roussillon, but more than 40% of the tourists visiting the greater region find their way to Hérault, and with good reason. More than 100km of coastline, almost 300 days of sunshine each year, and an acreage of vineyards that rank this as the largest wine-producing area in the world, make Hérault a sparkling and hugely popular location.
Roughly central to the département is the eponymous river
Hérault, which on its way to the sea passes the marvellous village of
Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, its narrow streets and courtyards built around an old
abbey, close by the confluence of the Verdus and the Hérault.
In the extreme south-west, the village of Minerve, sieged into submission by Simon de Montfort in 1210, fits snugly into a massive ravine formed by the Cesse and the Brian, its status, like that of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert, as one of the ‘Most Beautiful Villages in France’ drawing tourists and aiding its simple economy based on commemorating for posterity the atrocities of the crusade against the Cathars.
Lodève, close to the border with Aveyron, was established in the 4th century, and served as an important étape for Santiago pilgrims passing between the limestone Larzac plateau and the Mediterranean. Later, the town became one of the most flourishing textile towns in Languedoc. With around 7,500 residents, Lodève, has the atmosphere of a village, but with the facilities of a larger town. In the town centre you'll find cafés, bars and restaurants, and plenty of shops selling ceramics, handmade leather, jewellery, art and sculpture.
Like Lodève, Pézenas, forms part of a string of towns and villages ranged along the A75 – Les Perles Vertes – linked in an endeavour to stop people otherwise bent on racing madly to the coast to stop off and embrace the landscapes and villages en route. A once-prosperous town with many stately homes, Pézenas is today something of an artists’ enclave with so much of the charming centre given over to shops and ateliers wherein painters, carpenters and woodworkers, jewellers, mosaïsts, masons, cabinet-makers and potters all beaver away diligently.
On the culinary front, Pézenas is renowned for two things: berlingots, a hard-boiled sweet in multi-colours and flavours first introduced to the town by an African pedlar; and petit pâtés, a small pie, for which we have to thank Clive of India who came to Pézenas in 1768 and led a fairly healthy social life in spite of poor health. During his stay he ordered his Indian cooks to create some new delicacy, and so they produced these small, bobbin-shaped pies with a golden crust. ‘Clive’s Pies’ were a success, and his cooks passed the recipe on to the bakers of the town. Stuffed with lamb mince, suet, brown sugar, lemon peel and spices the pies are generally served hot at the start of a meal, but also work a treat eaten cold.
Lézignan-la-Cèbe, a modest village between Pézenas and Paulhan has a lovely listed chateau built in the 17th century, but is really renowned as ‘The Capital of the Mild Onion’ (the cèbe) – it actually says oignons doux on the signs. Nizas, a small village in the heart of the garrigue, is surrounded by oak woods and is characteristic of Languedoc villages where time, if it bothers to do anything, simply stands still in the shade of the plane trees by the old church.
Between the garrigue and the Thau lagoon, completely surrounded by vineyards, is Pinet, the place from which comes the fruity dry white AOC Picpoul de Pinet about which everyone raves, and with excellent reason. This is the only one of all the Languedoc-Roussillon AOC wines that is 100% from one grape; all the rest are blends.
Along the north shore of the Thau lagoon are the two main centres for the production of oysters, Mèze and Bouzigues, the latter being the smallest town on the shores of the Etang de Thau, but commonly regarded, along with Mèze, as the historic cradle of shellfish production.
Oyster cultivation along the Thau lagoon, however, was not introduced until the mid 1800s, when just one man was producing them. Today, as you gaze across the lagoon’s 18,525 acres, you see hundreds of wooden frames in neat rows, each supporting a thousand ropes with hundreds of shellfish clinging to each. There are around 800 farms here, producing between 10,000 and 15,000 tonnes of oysters annually. That’s 10% of the national production in France, and makes oyster farming second only in the regional economy to wine producing.
The main centre here, however, is Montpellier, a remarkable, bustling and enterprising town, annually over-flowing with students. Many people seek to come to live in Montpellier, and succeed in doing so; but just as many fail. It’s a question of careful pre-planning and discovering if Montpellier is for you, or whether one of the inland towns and villages holds greater prospect.
Hard-pressed against the Med and the Thau lagoon, and perched on a limestone hill – Mont St Clair, which featured in the 2012 Tour de France – Sète is the largest fishing port on the French Mediterranean, and catches of sole, sea bass, gilt-head bream, mackerel and rascasse come in daily. Sète was founded in the 17th century, when it was decided to build a port, making this the outlet on the Mediterranean for the Canal des Deux-Mers, linking the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.
Nearby, the old trading port, known as La Marine, has been used for centuries, from a time when its quays were dotted with feluccas, cattle boats and schooners. It has numerous 18th-century façades and Art Deco buildings as a backdrop against which to appreciate its culinary reputation based on fish soup, bourride, squid, stuffed mussels, and octopus, which find their way into La Tielle, a local delicacy, a pie filled with baby octopus in a spicy tomato sauce.
Contrast Sète and Minerve, Montpellier and Pézenas, St-Guilhem-le-Désert and Lodève and you see instantly how diverse this department is.
Montpellier Tourist office
30, allée Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, 34000 Montpellier
Tel: 04 67 60 60 60
Hérault Départemental Tourism
Agence de Développement Touristique, Maison du Tourisme, Avenue des Moulins, 34184 Montpellier
Tel: 04 67 67 71 71
Languedoc-Roussillon Regional Tourism
Comité Régional du Tourisme Languedoc-Roussillon, l’Acropole, 954, avenue Jean Mermoz, CS79507, 34960 Montpellier
Tel: 04 67 200 220
Hérault forms a semi-circle bordering the Mediterranean, between the Massif Central and the Camargue. The main town of Montpellier lies 465 miles south of Paris.
By car: Two autoroutes enable you to reach the region: the A6/A7 via Lyon, and the A75/A750 (free of tolls, except the Millau viaduct).
By rail: Montpellier is linked with Paris (3h30) by up to 15 services per day (www.voyages-sncf.com).
By air: Air France fly daily from Paris (Orly and Charles de Gaulle) to Montpellier-Méditerranée; Ryanair fly from London and Bristol to Béziers-Cap d’Agde.