Languedoc-Roussillon comprises five departments, and borders the French regions of Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, Rhône-Alpes, Auvergne, Midi-Pyrénées on the one side, and Spain, Andorra and the Mediterranean Sea on the other. It lies at the extreme south-eastern edge of France, with only the department of Lozère not having at least a toehold on the Mediterranean. The region covers an area of 27,376 sq km (10,570 sq miles), with a population in excess of 2.5 millions.
The region is made up of a number of historical provinces. Two-thirds of the region, i.e. the departments of Hérault, Gard, Aude, the extreme south and extreme east of Lozère, and the extreme north of Pyrénées-Orientales, was formerly part the province of Languedoc, which also extends over the Midi-Pyrénées region, including the old capital of Languedoc, Toulouse. About 18% was formerly the province of Gévaudan in the Lozère department. The remainder, located in the southernmost part of the region, is a collection of five historical Catalan 'pays': Roussillon, Vallespir, Conflent, Capcir, and Cerdagne, all of which are in turn included in the Pyrénées-Orientales département. These pays were part of the Ancien Régime province of Roussillon, owning its name to the largest and most populous of the five pays, Roussillon.
Today, Languedoc-Roussillon is dominated by extensive
vineyards, and this has been an important wine-making centre for centuries, and
some authorities consider that vines have grown in this region since long
before the arrival of Man (homo sapiens).
This is a region filled with astonishing riches founded on a most complicated and turbulent history that has seen religious persecution, farmers' revolts and attempts to eradicate the ancient Occitan language. But what is not instantly evident is the marked contrast between the towns and villages that gather along the Med coastline, and the hinterland, where the landscape ranges from high mountains to vine-covered hills and what the French call garrigue.
The region is home to one of France's most vibrant cities, Montpellier, which boasts the world's oldest continuously operating university. The Roman cities of Nîmes and Narbonne manage their long history with dignity while retaining a casual and relaxed mood. Carcassonne combines its workaday lower town with the medieval Cité. Farther south, the capital of French Catalonia, Perpignan, is one of the most pleasing cities to explore.
Along the coast (the littoral), the beaches are less developed than along the Riviera. Part of this is because of the stronger winds and the convoluted coastline.
Bustling Sète is ever-so-slightly shabby in an agreeable way, renowned for its seafood restaurants and the view from Mont St Clair. For a touch of madness, try to catch the summertime water-jousting tournaments held in Sète on the Grand Canal, when opposing teams balance on gondola-style boats and attempt to knock each other off. It's noisy, lively, and an unmissable part of a Sètois summer.
Beyond Sète lies a huge spit of sandy shore that runs to Cap d'Agde, where you'll find one of the finest naturist beaches in France. The landscape changes once you get to the Côte Vermeille, nearer to the Spanish border, where swimming coves are shoe-horned into the rocky coast, and seaside villages such as Collioure, Port-Vendres and Banyuls-sur-Mer exude a characteristic Catalan flavour.
Béziers, birthplace of Pierre-Paul Riquet, the man behind the building of the Canal du Midi, is often overlooked. But its 14th-century cathedral is a fine example of Gothic architecture. The original building was destroyed during the sacking of Béziers in 1209, when the Catholic church's crusaders slaughtered thousands of innocent people in their hunt for a handful of Cathars. The walk up to the cathedral is well worth the effort for the magnificent views of the river Orb that winds through the city and out across the surrounding countryside.
Between Béziers and Montpellier is the Renaissance town of Pézenas. The town's grand private residences, the hôtels particuliers, contain inner courtyards with elaborate stone balustrades, arches and other exotic flourishes. Molière spent time here during an itinerant period of his life, and the town plays up the association, invoking his spirit with festivals celebrating 17th-century life.
The gateway to Perpignan is the 14th-century Castillet, which houses a Catalan folklore museum and whose arch is worth a climb for views of Mont Canigou. At the southern end of the town is the Palais des Rois de Majorque, an imposing 13th-century reminder of when Perpignan was part of the kingdom of Mallorca.
You can't miss the mark the Romans made on the region. There
are remnants of the Via Domitia, the road built in 118 BCE to connect Spain with
Italy in the centre of Narbonne, which was a major port in Roman Gaul before
the town's harbour silted up in the 14th century.
Farther east in St-Thibéry, an intact Roman bridge crosses the Hérault river. Or make your way to Nîmes: its magnificent Roman amphitheatre – Les Arènes – is in better condition than the one in Arles, and is the setting for bullfighting and open-air concerts (Tel: 04 66 21 82 56; www.arenes-nimes.fr).
Another impressive feat of Roman engineering is the Pont du Gard, the three-tiered aqueduct that spans the Gardon river in the east of the region, near Uzès.
Moreover this is prime walking territory. The Parc Naturel
Régional du Haut-Languedoc is at the southernmost point of the Massif Central,
and includes the Montagne Noire, Mont Caroux, the Monts de Lacaune and the
Monts d'Orb. The whole area covers more than 1,000 square miles of mountains,
rivers, lakes and forests, with pleasant towns such as Bédarieux, Olargues and
St-Pons-de-Thomières to use as a base for a walking or cycling holiday.
The Pyrenees provide even more vigorous exercise thanks to the higher altitudes. Horse-lovers can explore the landscapes and villages of the Camargue, where the delta of the Rhône river has created an unusually open landscape, but one that is best avoided at certain times of year by those who suffer from insect bites.
The low-cost approach is by Eurostar from London St Pancras, and then by TGV. To make life easier, tickets should be booked through Rail Europe.
Once in the region, one rail journey not to be missed is the Petit Train Jaune, the little yellow train that climbs to the highest reaches of the eastern Pyrenees, yet which is also part of the SNCF national network. I call it the Canigou-goo-choo-choo!
The main airline flying to Languedoc-Roussillon is Ryanair, which flies from Liverpool to Carcassonne and Nîmes; from East Midlands to Carcassonne; from London Stansted to Carcassonne and Perpignan; from Manchester to Beziers.
The A6 from Paris to Lyon, A7 to Orange and A9 to Nimes is one way; but if you can access the A71 to Clermont-Ferrand, and then the toll-free A75, this will get you almost to Béziers via the Millau viaduct (toll).