Exploring France…Languedoc-Rousillon

The fortified city of CarcassonneThe Languedoc-Rousillon is a land of ancient cities and a generous sea; less frenetic than the Côte d’Azur, its coastline curves towards the Pyrénées as an almost continuous strip of sand.

This stretch of coastline was the first place in Gaul to be settled by the Romans, their enduring legacy evident in the great amphitheatre at Nîmes and the magnificent engineering of the Pont du Gard.

Ancient Roussillon, a small region of Languedoc, was a Spanish possession until 1659 and, even today, is inspired more by Barcelona than by Paris. This is, effectively, French Catalonia and the pretty town of Collioure certainly feels more Catalan than French.

Hemmed in by golden bays and with its 17th century pepperpot church at the entrance to the small harbour and a tangle of lanes snuggling around a picture-book castle, its charm remains essentially unchanged from the early years of the 20th century. Its brilliant light, gaily painted fishing boats and colourful stuccoed houses inspired Matisse and other artists to experiment with the violent pure colours that earned them the soubriquet Les Fauves, (literally, ‘wild beasts’).

‘No sky,’ Matisse enthused, ‘is bluer than Collioure’s’ ~ giving the town a now much-used slogan that, on most days, few people will dispute. The town specialises in catching and salting gourmet anchovies (craved by royal palates, the expensive salted fish were so prestigious that the town was exempted from France’s hated 18th century salt tax) and tending their vines to produce an excellent sweet Banyuls wine.

During their patron saint’s fiesta, the inhabitants celebrate their Catalan culture with bullfights and sardanas on the quaysides, to the sound of cobla bands. Making wine and salting anchovies, Collioure remains at heart the seaport it was before the painters came ~ the red and blue Catalan flag always flying from the turrets of the Château Royal, built by the Knights Templar in the 13th century.

Worth seeing…

Jardin des plantes de Montpellier
The oldest botanical garden in France, with alleys of exotic trees, is home to the Institute de Botanique, established in 1890 to research herbal medicine.

Canal du Midi Carcassonne, Aude
240km canal opened in 1682 to connect the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Most of the original 99 locks and 130 bridges survive intact. Wonderful walking, cycling or boating.

Chartreuse Pontificale Villeneuve-lès-Avignon
A Carthusian monastery founded by the Avignon Popes in the 14th century.
With all the treasures sold after the Revolution, it now reverts to the austerity of the original.