An October 2004 trip
to Languedoc Roussillon by nrf
Quote: This journal describes the quiet pleasures of villages in southwest France.
We look for comfortable lodgings as our home base to explore a region. Whether for 2 days or more than a week, we want to feel attached to a community and live a bit like a locals.
We don’t need sumptuous treatment, but the accommodation must be safe, clean, and comfortable. It must also be interesting and not a clone of anyplace from anywhere. And, it must offer value, because we’d rather spend less each day and travel more often.
For an extended stay in the Languedoc, we found Chateau Marcel. It is in the village of Cesseras in the Minervois wine district of southwest France. Here, the Haldane family renovated an old building to create a number of modern, fully equipped apartments.
The Wisteria suite, two bedrooms with a kitchen, large sitting room, and full laundry, could have slept six, so it was very comfortable for two. We even hosted a small dinner party after visiting a few tiny wineries and some wonderful food markets in nearby villages. This amateur chef had some problem with the kitchen’s smoke alarm, but the meal was generally a success.
Chateau Marcel’s lobby presents an interesting library of books and videos, and of course, the omnipresent Internet connection. If you are travelling during hot weather, you will appreciate the large outdoor pool and barbecue deck.
This is a perfect spot for self-sufficient travellers who like to move by their own schedule. Rental cars can be good value if you look for the best deals, and driving in rural France presents no problems. Just be aware that every young French adult is auditioning for the F1 circuit. Be patient and they will soon be gone.
Look at the property and make arrangements directly:
Derek Haldane, Chateau Marcel
Rue Marcel Malafosse
34210 Cesseras, France
For general information about the region, visit http://www.le-minervois.com.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on March 14, 2005
Attraction | "Dolmen des Fados"
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on June 28, 2006
Dolmen des Fados (Hill of the Fairies)
Languedoc Roussillon, France
Landing in southwest France, we headed a rental car toward Pepieux, a village of Languedoc-Roussillon. Here, in a peaceful rural area, Canadian friends had purchased an ancient stone house. 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 narrow tree-lined waterway connecting the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. 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. Wishful 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, with 52 pointed towers and gatehouses joined by 3km of crenellated double ramparts. UNESCO classifies this as a site of International Heritage. On a future day, posing as tourists, we shall return.
Another Canadian introduced our friends to southwest France. His bond consummated a serendipitous affair with the French countryside. Following a period of ultra-intense work, Dave chose to relax by riding the 3,300km route of Le Tour de France. Unlike the legendary 21-day race, his odyssey lasted 4 months. He fell in love with rural France.
Dave studied the land, its climate, and its people. Southwest France was populated first by ancient tribes, and then dominated in turn by classical Mediterranean empires and medieval European kingdoms. Each civilization left its own imprint.
Dave eventually purchased an old stone barn off the beaten path in the central Minervois wine district. Today, he is restoring a large chateau where a dozen Canadian families will each establish their own French retreat.
Discovered by comparatively few travellers, the countryside of Languedoc-Roussillon basks in sunshine and calm Mediterranean winds. With a quiet, rural style, many villages would fit the landscape of 100, even 500, years ago. Yet, every necessity is easily acquired, and French villagers extend casual graciousness without fail. This is not Paris.
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 wife Vera 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 travellers.
For the next 2 weeks, Pepieux was home base for memorable daytrips. We headed to places beyond the Riviera in western Provence. Arles may be the South of 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 1st-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, just 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 mould-laden 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 BC. 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 to be only a family residence. A middle-aged woman responded to our knock at the front door. She spoke as little English as we did French. Invited inside, we entered an antique-filled dining room, and our host quickly produced four wine bottles.
Despite language deficits, we learned that this was home to the eighth generation of a family producing wine on this spot for over 250 years. After unhurried tastings, we moved to the wine-making space behind the house. Not in the least contemporary, its product was compelling and, to highly taxed Canadians, laughably inexpensive. Now, heavily laden, we wished we had driven the car.
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.
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 get by with small effort.
No matter which route followed, travellers 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 to the Languedoc is not for everyone. Some will prefer sun-laced beaches or fast-paced cities to indolent peregrinations through classical sites. However, for those seeking a compound of civilization, art and history, matched with exceptional value, Languedoc-Roussillon is a treasure accessible through all European gateways.
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