Languedoc-Roussillon offers a wide selection of landscapes: endless sunny beaches that can go on for four miles at a stretch, immense vineyards bordered by olive groves, arid limestone hills scorched by the sun, and sparsely populated mountainous forests. Roughly half of the size of New Hampshire, the region covers a territory of 10,600 square miles and can be divided into four geographical areas.
In the north lies the arid plateau of Gévaudan bisected by the Margeride, a granite massif that tops out at 4,600 feet. There, vast stretches of pastureland littered with granite rocks alternate with thick forests of pine, fir and birch. The population lives in large farmhouses with are either isolated or grouped in hamlets and derive income from timber, livestock and uranium, although mining is now being phased out. In the 18th century, a “beast” terrorized the people of Gévaudan, devouring over 50 people––mainly young girls and children. For three years, the Bête du Gévaudan avoided all attempts to hunt it down and rumors that it was a divine scourge circulated. King Louis XV finally sent in troops and several huge wolves were captured.
Moving south, the Cévennes is a succession of plateaus with schist and granite crests, such as Mont Lozère and Mont Aigoual––a major “Résistance” headquarters in WWII. These are covered by meager pastureland only suitable for sheep raising. For the best description of an area that has seen very little modern alteration, R.L. Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes is recommended reading. Hiking enthusiasts still retrace the 120-mile route, minus “Modestine” the donkey. In the lower valleys, little villages are separated by chestnut groves (châtaigneraies). Intensive silkworm breeding once flourished and one can still see numerous silkworm farms (magnaneries) and spinning mills. Since 1970, the area is home to the largest of France’s seven national parks, Parc National des Cévennes, which is now “twinned” with Québec’s Saguenay National Park. The Park includes the Gorges du Tarn, a 30-mile long canyon dug into the limestone plateau by the Tarn River. A beautiful scenic road runs along the floor the gorge but the best way to admire the cliffs is by boat, from the river.
South of Cévennes, Languedoc is a narrow strip of land along the coast that arches from the Rhône River to the Spanish border. The area is proud of its coastal lagoons that are a haven for a wide variety of wildlife. Fishing villages such as Sète, Grau-du-Roi and Palavas and the resort beaches of La Grande-Motte, Carnon and Cap-d’Agde punctuate the coast. Fed by streams tumbling down from the Cévennes, the Hérault, Vidourle and Gard rivers crisscross the hinterland and provide irrigation for the area’s vineyards, orchards and market gardens.
Moving southwest, the geographical area of Roussillon rougly corresponds to the administrative boundaries of the Pyrénées-Orientales département. Within rowing distance of Spain, the Côte Vermeille has inspired Matisse and Picasso, who painted the beauty and light of the old harbors of Collioure, Port-Vendres and Cerbère. Roussillon beaches are also very popular and the resorts of Canet-en-Roussillon and Leucate offer a wide range of activities: sailing, windsurfing, and scuba diving. Further inland, Roussillon’s hinterland plain is divided into rocky terraces covered by vineyards (see Corbières and Minervois) and wide valleys cultivated with fruit trees (the towns of Perpignan and Elne are wholesale markets). The fiercely partisan population has a language and culture similar to Spain’s Catalonia, its southern neighbor. This cultural identity translates into religious festivals and winter carnivals, when the sardana is danced in every village. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the English game of rugby has swept the area, perhaps striking a particular chord with the Roussillon temperament and competition between the Perpignan and Narbonne teams are avidly followed.
Languedoc-Roussillon includes the following five départements:
- Montpellier. Languedoc-Roussillon’s capital and a university city (Europe’s oldest medical school), Montpellier owes much of its charm to its historical districts and superb gardens.
- Nîmes. At the southern edge of the limestone hills of Cévennes, the city is proud of its gallo-roman heritage and is marked by a Huguenot Protestant past.
- Perpignan. An outpost of the Catalan civilization at the foot of the Pyrénées, the city owes its economic growth to the export of fruit, vegetables and wine.
- Béziers. Capital of the Languedoc vineyards, this town has a historic district and cathedral perched on a terrace overlooking the Orb River.
- Narbonne. This ancient maritime center is now a lively city at the crossroads of major highways and rail lines.
- Carcassonne. The fortified part of the city is now included on the UNESCO World Heritage List and is the site of dramatic annual fireworks and illuminations.
- Alès. Located at the heart of an old mining and silkworm-farming region, the city has grown up on the banks of the Gard River.
- Mende. On the banks of the Lot River, it is Lozère’s main city.