Lose Yourself In The Languedoc
Monday, July 21, 2008
Tucked far away in the South of France, Languedoc is one of the country’s most unique and charming provinces; sometimes causing a visitor to forget that they’re in France at all.
By Ben Snook
To this day, the people of Languedoc are proud of their heritage and many still regard northerners with a certain amount of suspicion. Until the thirteenth century Languedoc, the southern province in France between the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, was fiercely independent from the king in Paris and as a result of its forceful incorporation into the French state, a stubborn streak of nationalism still remains. For example, having a Paris license plate this far south is guaranteed to get you cut off and shouted at on the road.
These days, Toulouse, the home of the European space program amongst other things, is still the industrial and financial center of the region, but the town of Carcassonne is the undoubted capital of tourism. An UNESCO world heritage site, this medieval town was saved from demolition and partially reconstructed, not altogether authentically, in the nineteenth century and much of the original medieval city remains. Surrounded by gently undulating olive groves and vineyards, the city is a magnificent sight to say the least: its soaring walls and formidable towers loom above the gentle landscape for miles around, creating one of southern Europe’s most spectacular landmarks.
For some, though, the city itself can be something of a let down. When I first visited in early summer the tourist season was just getting going and the crowds were starting to descend on the south of France in ever increasing numbers. As I walked through the magnificent, towering gatehouse to enter the old city I overheard an American boy shout to his mother, “Wow, it’s just like Disneyland!” Quietly horrified, I ignored him and pressed snobbishly on up the main street.
Twenty minutes later I could see his point. The narrow, cobbled alleys winding steeply up through the city towards the citadel very nearly felt like they had hardly changed since the thirteenth century. Hardly, that is, apart from the endless rows of medieval-themed gift shops, medieval-themed restaurants and medieval-themed bars which dominated their lower levels. Of course, there are parts around the walls — near the cathedral, in the citadel and in the main square — where you can still appreciate how the city might have felt some 800 years ago. It’s here where you’ll fine the charming, shady squares and beautiful, small bars built into the old walls which are quite unique (if you
can find them).
The defining gastronomic experience of the Languedoc is Cassoulet. Much like the area’s leading tourist attractions, this can be somewhat hit and miss. On my first visit to Carcasonne, still dazzled by the astonishing surroundings, I simply wandered into the first restaurant I could find and ordered a steaming pot of it. Based around a duck confit, cassoulet is a fatty casserole with beans, pork, sausages, chicken and whatever else the chef has lying around the kitchen. This first experience of the dish was certainly memorable. From where I sat I could watch the sun as it sank behind the rapidly silhouetted city walls while sipping excellent local red wine and listening to distant accordion music; the place could barely have been any more perfect. Then the cassoulet arrived. A steaming pot of molten grease with unidentified chunks of meat floating amongst a scattering of browned butter beans, it reminded me immediately of a sewage outlet pipe. Nevertheless, I was hungry so I dug in. Immediately I regretted it and continued to do so for the next 24 hours. Having resolved never to try this abomination again, I was finally convinced by a French friend that it really wasn’t all like that. “Every one is different,” he told me. Taking his advice (and safe in the knowledge that my travel insurance was fully comprehensive), I tried again. In a different restaurant this time, I bravely ordered up the house speciality cassoulet and set about dulling my senses with as much vin de pays as I could get down my throat before the meal arrived. I needn’t have worried: far from the pock-marked oil slick I had eaten before, this second example was rich and tasty, the meat perfectly cooked and resting on a fragrant bed of herb-scented beans. It was absolutely delicious.
There is a lot more to the Languedoc than just Carcasonne and cassoulet, though. Driving out in almost any direction takes you through endless acres of gently rolling vineyards, most of them happy for you to taste their wine (of which they are fiercely proud) if you ask. To the north of Carcasonne, the black mountains loom out of the surrounding plains. A steep climb over them takes you through dramatically changing scenery: in no time, the sun-drenched vineyards have given way to cool but humid mountain tracks and densely forested peaks. The small town of Castres is a classical French provincial town: a magnificent waterside, an imposing Baroque cathedral and a myriad of pleasant, shady squares. Beyond Castres, to the north, is Albi which boasts one of the most spectacular cathedrals in all of southern Europe. Heavily fortified, this building is an uncompromisingly brutal statement of the orthodoxy imposed on the region in the aftermath of the crusades. Less spectacular than Carcasonne, Albi also feels less like a theme park and, for that alone, is well worth a visit.
In the opposite direction, southeast of Carcasonne, is a quite different side of the Languedoc. Narbonne, which is adjacent to a series of tidal lagoons stretching seven miles inland from the coast, has a completely different feel to the interior of the region. A provincial seaside town, it’s full of brightly colored buildings and boasts a stunning market. French markets are something to behold wherever you are in the country. Invariably, they’ll be full of local vegetables, meat and fruit. Buying something is an experience in itself: if you don’t barter, they look at you as though there’s something wrong with you; if you do dare to, they look so offended that you slink off with your tail between your legs embarrassed that you even asked in the first place.
In Narbonne, fish is the speciality. Countless stalls full of every kind of seafood offered up by the Mediterranean dominate the place. The produce is so fresh that all you can smell is the salt of the sea. The vendors will tell you at great length from behind a five-foot-high mountain of assorted shellfish how fishing is dying, how there’s not as much as there used to be, and how you’re lucky you came when you did, because if you’d come tomorrow, there might not be any fish left. Somehow, though, there always is.
The Languedoc is the kind of place you can very happily get lost in and not realize. It is one of the few places in Europe that has absolutely everything: the rich, tasty food; the delicious local wine; the unspoiled beaches; the medieval, hilltop citadels. Tourism has affected the place, certainly. The coast is not without its resorts and the interior certainly not without its gift shops. Nevertheless, the French are fiercely protective of their region. The Languedoc, unlike so much of many other parts of Europe, has a real sense that French people still live in it. The culture there is genuine, not put on for the benefit of affluent tourists. For all this, when you’ve been once, I guarantee you’ll go back. I did.