Slightly off-the-beaten-path, the region of Languedoc-Roussillon captures tourists’ hearts with its distinctive Mediterranean charm. Sunny, mild weather and beautiful seaside scenery combined with cultured cities and ancient Roman ruins make for an interesting holiday experience. The region extends along the Mediterranean coast of France between the mouth of the Rhône River and the Pyrenees Mountains. The landscape is one of the wild rocky gorges, vibrant orchard groves, and colorful market gardens. The ancient hilltop villages and ruined castles on mountain crags add an element of romance.
Must-see sights include the fairy-tale fortified city of Carcassonne and closer to the sea, the bustling city of Montpellier and the balmy town of Perpignan. The favorite seaside resorts of Cap d’Agde and Port-Camargue offer sandy beaches and fewer crowds than the French Riviera. A special festival called “Les Troubadours” celebrates the unique cultural heritage of Languedoc-Roussillon. The festival presents the music of the medieval troubadours in concerts held at splendid historic venues throughout the region.
Carcassonne surprises visitors with the real-life image of a fairy-tale scene. From far away, the rows of turreted towers and crenelated ancient defense walls create a stunning impression. This incredibly well-preserved medieval fortified city, known as the Cité, offers a fascinating tourist experience. The hilltop town stands at a height of 148 meters, a location that was advantageous during the Middle Ages. Carcassonne is elliptical in plan, surrounded by a double circuit of thick protective walls with 54 towers. The fortifications, dating in part from the Visigoth period, were strengthened by King Louis IX in 1250 and by Philip the Bold in 1280. The walls remained entirely unscathed until the French Revolution. Within the walled Carcassonne Cité is a totally enclosed world of narrow cobblestone streets that transports visitors back to the Middle Ages. All the buildings, squares, and alleyways have retained their medieval character. There are amazing historic landmarks such as the former Cathedral of Saint-Nazaire, built between the 11th and 14th centuries. The 13th- to 14th-century Gothic choir contains 22 statues, spectacular 14th- to 15th-century stained-glass windows, and a number of important tombs, including that of Simon de Montfort. For those visiting during July, keep in mind that Carcassonne is one of the best places in France to see Bastille Day fireworks.
With its elegant buildings, grand public squares, and balmy weather, Montpellier is a top tourist destination of the Languedoc-Roussillon region. This lively university town belonged to the Kings of Aragon in the 13th century, was a headquarters of the Huguenots in the 16th century, and is still a center of culture. The city boasts a wealth of art galleries and museums. The Musée Fabre (39 Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle) has an exceptional collection of paintings by Italian, Dutch, and French masters from the Renaissance era up to the 19th century.
The town itself is like an open-air museum. Tourists will delight in wandering the narrow medieval streets and discovering private mansions. From the Place de la Comédie, stroll the Rue de la Loge pedestrian area and the Rue Foch, lined with handsome 19th-century buildings. This route leads to the Promenade du Peyrou, an elevated park with an exceptional view as far as the sea. An organic food market is held nearby at the Boulevard des Arceaux on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. At the eastern edge of Montpellier’s old town is the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, a wonderful area for a leisurely walk.
About 15 kilometers away from the sea, Perpignan is a sunny Mediterranean town with characteristic red-tile roofed buildings and squares shaded by leafy trees. There is a distinct Spanish influence because of the proximity to the Pyrenees Mountains that border Spain’s Catalonia region. In the historic center is the Place de la République, the location of the Théâtre Municipal. On the north side of the old town is the Castillet, a 14th-century fortified gate tower resembling a castle, which is Perpignan’s principal landmark. The Castillet houses the Casa Pairal, a museum of Catalan folk art. From the top of the Castillet tower, visitors can take in sweeping views of the landscape.
Another must-see attraction is the 14th- to 15th-century Cathedral of Saint-Jean, with an ornately decorated interior. The most notable features are the 16th- and 17th-century reredos and white marble high altar. Outside the cathedral, the Chapelle du Dévot Christ features an expressively carved crucifix. To the south of the old town, inside the massive star-shaped citadel, the Palace of the Kings of Mallorca offers a stellar example of medieval architecture. Built-in 1276, this palace was the residence of King Jaime I, who created the Kingdom of Mallorca in 1229.
In the foothills of the Cévennes Mountains, Nîmes has the greatest wealth of ancient buildings in France. The most important monument in Nîmes is the Roman Amphitheater in the town center. One of the best preserved of all the 70 known Roman amphitheaters, this 1st-century AD monument measures 133 meters by 101 meters with a seating capacity of 21,000 spectators. The amphitheater features a richly decorated main entrance and 124 exits. The 60 arches of the exterior facade are embellished with pilasters and Doric half-columns. Cultural events are still held at the amphitheater throughout the year. Another incredible Roman monument is the Maison Carrée on the Place de la Comédie. Standing on a podium, this perfectly maintained Roman temple was erected at the time of Augustus between 20 and 12 BC. At the end of the Avenue J. Jaurès lies the tranquil Jardins de la Fontaine (Gardens of the Source). The gardens were laid out in the 18th century and include the ruins of an ancient sanctuary at a sacred spring. The Musée Archéologique has an exceptional collection of Gallo-Roman archaeological finds. Near Nîmes is the Pont du Gard, an impressive Roman aqueduct
Once an important Roman port, Narbonne is now a laid-back seaside town. The central feature of Narbonne is the Place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville, which is lined with stately buildings. The 13th- to 14th-century Palais des Archevêques (Archbishop’s Palace) houses the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire with a superb collection of 19th- and 20th-century paintings, enamels, furniture, and faïence ceramics; and the Musée Archéologique with prehistoric, classical, and medieval antiquities. The Passage de l’Ancre, a street running between the Tour Saint-Martial and the Tour de la Madeleine, links the 12th-century Vieux Palais (Old Palace) with the Palais Neuf (New Palace), although it was built in the 14th-century). The Cour de la Madeleine, in the Vieux Palais, is particularly impressive. The Cathedral of Saint-Just was built between 1272 and 1332 in a bold North French Gothic style. The cathedral has a magnificent choir and exquisite 14th-century stained glass. In the southwest of the town is the Early Gothic (12th- to 13th-century) Church of Saint-Paul-Serge. About 30 kilometers away from Narbonne in a peaceful valley is the Cistercian Abbey of Fontfroide. The abbey’s simple 13th-century Romanesque church and serene cloister blend into the tranquil natural environment.
The historic town of Uzès lies beyond the boundaries of Provence about 40 kilometers west of Avignon in a pleasant setting above the wooded Alzon valley. Visitors will appreciate the alluring ambiance of Uzès, with its narrow streets, quiet alleys, and shaded boulevards. The main square, the Place aux Herbes, is shaded by leafy plane trees, lined with arcades and outdoor café terraces, and has an old fountain at the center. On Saturday mornings, a market takes place at this atmospheric medieval square. Other attractions are the Château Ducal, which was built in various stages from the 11th to the 17th centuries, and the Musée Georges Borias, a museum of art, archaeology, and history, housed in the Ancien Evêché (former Bishop’s Palace).
Famous for its medieval fortifications, the historic town of Aigues-Mortes lies 47 kilometers west of Arles on the edge of the Camargue Nature Reserve. The massive town walls took more than 30 years to build; they form a rectangle, which is still complete and surrounds the town. The ring of walls has 15 towers and ten gates, some with towers. A broad path inside the wall enabled the defenders of the town to get quickly from one place to another to repulse invaders. The best way to discover Aigues-Mortes is by walking around the walls beginning at the Porte de la Gardette and then through the narrow streets of the old town to soak up the Old World ambiance. Aigues-Mortes dates back to the time of Saint Louis (King Louis IX) who purchased the region in 1240 from the monks of Psalmody.
Less than 10 kilometers away from Aigues-Mortes is Le-Grau-du-Roi, an old fishing village that is now a modern seaside resort. Continue four kilometers farther south to the popular holiday resort of Port Camargue, with its wide sandy beaches and pretty vacation homes. Another favorite resort town by the sea is Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer located about 30 kilometers from Aigues-Mortes within the Parc Ornithologique du Pont De Gau, a fantastic place for birdwatching.
Saint-Gilles is surrounded by a lush pastoral landscape near the Haut-Vaucluse countryside in Provence, about 16 kilometers from Arles. The highlight of a visit is the 12th-century church, the Eglise Saint-Gilles, one of the most exquisite Romanesque buildings in Southern France. The church facade features a wealth of decorative figures, including the first detailed representation of the Passion in Western sculpture. In front of the church, at the Place de la République, a narrow lane leads to the town square, the Place de love. The most noteworthy building on the square is the Maison Romane (Romanesque House), which has capitals decorated with detailed figures. Inside is a museum with an early Christian sarcophagus, fine relief fragments, and a natural history collection. From the hall on the second floor, there is a sensational view across the roofs of Saint-Gilles and the surrounding countryside. Saint-Gilles is also a good starting point for trips into the nearby Camargue nature reserve, an easy day trip from Arles and only a short drive (16 kilometers) away from Saint-Gilles.
During ancient times, Béziers was a busy Roman military colony. The town enjoys a dignified position on a hillside overlooking the Canal du Midi. Béziers has two interesting historic churches: the Church of the Madeleine, originally Romanesque but later altered in Gothic and then Baroque style, and the Church of Saint-Aphrodite, which contains a 3rd-century sarcophagus. In the center of the old town is the 18th-century Hôtel de Ville (town hall). Standing on higher ground a few minutes’ walks away is the former Cathedral of Saint-Nazaire, a rare fortified church of the 12th to 14th centuries, with massive towers and a large rose window on the west front. Continuing north to the Rue du Campus is the Musée des Beaux-Arts housed in the Hôtel Fayet, a historic mansion that dates to the medieval era but was reconstructed in the 17th and 18th centuries. This superb museum of fine arts is renowned for its extensive collection of paintings spanning from the Middle Ages through the contemporary era. At the south end of town, the Church of Saint-Jacques dates in part from the 12th century. Further afield, four kilometers west of town, the Oppidum d’Ensérune archaeological site reveals the remains of an Ibero-Greek settlement of the 4th and 3rd centuries BC.
At the junction of the Cady and Têt rivers, the historic village of Villefranche-de-Conflent is listed as one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages of France). The medieval fortified town was once an important stop on the pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Above the town is a massive UNESCO-listed citadel with fortifications rebuilt by Vauban in the 17th century. Within the ramparts are atmospheric narrow lanes; elegant 15th-, 16th-, and 17th-century houses; artisan boutiques and other inviting shops. Another highlight of the village is the Eglise Saint-Jacques, built between the 12th and 13th centuries. The church features an exquisite sanctuary with noteworthy paintings of Saint Pierre and Saint Antoine.
Villefranche-de-Conflent lies 50 kilometers west of Perpignan in the Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Catalanes (Regional Natural Park of the Catalan Pyrenees Mountains). The town is a good base for visiting the high-mountain Cerdagne Valley with its varied scenery. Continue south of Villefranche-de-Conflent to discover the village of Corneille-de-Conflent at the foot of Le Canigou mountain. The tiny village has an ancient church, the Eglise Notre-Dame de Corneille, which dates back to the early 11th century and was later incorporated into a monastery. The church’s doorway features a finely carved tympanum, and the interior is richly decorated.
At the foot of Mont Saint-Clair, the atmospheric town of Sète is traversed by many canals. After Narbonne and Aigues-Mortes were cut off from the sea by the accumulation of sand, Sète became the principal port for trade with North Africa. It is now an important fishing and commercial port. The Vieux Port (Old Port) dates from the time of Louis XIV. From the Môle St-Louis, there are gorgeous views of the town and Mont Saint-Clair. Sète is also renowned for its Jazz Festival that takes place every year in July. The high-caliber festival features a varied program of performances. Musical concerts range in style from classical to contemporary jazz.
Céret is a lovely artists’ town about 32 kilometers southwest of Perpignan in a delightful countryside setting. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Catalan sculptor Manolo and the composer Déodat de Sévérac inspired many celebrated artists to come to Céret, turning the town into an artists’ colony. The Musée d’Art Moderne now possesses many works of modern art including pieces by Matisse, Chagall, Maillol, Dalí, Manolo, Picasso, and Tapiès. The museum’s war memorial was designed by Maillol.
13 Amélie Les Bains
Nestled in the idyllic Tech Valley (12 kilometers from Ceret), the spa town of Amélie Les Bains was named after Louis-Philippe’s wife. The mineral waters from the natural springs have been praised for their health value since Roman times. The remains of ancient Roman baths can be seen in the modern spa establishment. The town also has a historic church that dates back to the 10th century. A big tourist draw of Amélie-Les-Bains is the lively International Folk Festival. This annual week-long festival in August showcases folkloric dance and music from around the world. Amélie Les Bains is also a good base for a trip into the Monday Valley, about eight kilometers southeast, which has a hiking route at Roc de France near Montalba at 1,450 meters. This advanced climb takes about three hours and offers rewarding views.
With the Puig de l’Estelle mountain peak providing a picturesque backdrop, the little town of Arles-sur-Tech is blessed with a lovely natural setting (three kilometers southwest of Amélie-Les-Bains). The town grew up around a Carolingian abbey, the Abbaye Sainte-Marie, that was founded in the 8th century. The abbey’s church is well preserved and contains ancient sarcophagi, one of which dates from the 4th century. The church’s 13th-century Early Gothic cloister is magnificent. (To find the cloister, enter from the north aisle of the church.) Near the abbey is the town’s parish church, the Eglise Saint-Sauveur, with a majestic tower and an ornate interior decor.
For those with time to explore beyond Arles-sur-Tech, one of the most interesting things to do is visit the Gorges de la Fou. This dramatic canyon is nestled within steep rock walls that tower 200 meters in height at the deepest point of the ravine. The Gorges de la Fou is a unique tourist attraction (an entrance fee is required) with a 1,500-meter-long walkway that traverses the canyon, allowing visitors to admire the remarkable scenery.
15 Saint Martin-du-Canigou
Soaring to 2,785 meters, Le Canigou is one of the highest peaks in the Eastern Pyrénées, commanding extensive views over the landscape. This mountain is seen in the background of Saint Martin-du-Canigou, a small village eight kilometers from Villefranche-de-Conflent. Visitors will be delighted by the town’s stunning scenery and its historic church. The 11th-century Romanesque abbey of Saint-Martin-du-Canigou has an exquisite cloister that provides a quiet space for contemplation. Nearby is the little village of Casteil, on a crag at an altitude of 1,094 meters.
16 Cap d’Agde
This popular beach resort, less than 30 kilometers away from Béziers, is well designed to welcome visitors during the vacation season. There are many modern seaside hotels, and sandy beaches have excellent public facilities. The old town of Vieux Agde lies four kilometers away from the beach scene. The quaint town has narrow cobblestone streets and three churches, including the 12th-century Cathedral of Saint-Etienne, a fortified church with thick walls of black volcanic stone. The Musée Agathois Jules Baudou has an excellent collection of paintings, including folk art and religious art, and also displays items recovered by underwater archaeology.
The picturesque village of Prades stands at the foot of Le Canigou mountain in the Têt Valley. About 44 kilometers from Perpignan, Prades is part of the Parc Naturel Régional des Pyrénées Catalanes (Regional Natural Park of the Catalan Pyrenees Mountains) and is culturally tied with the neighboring Catalonia region of Spain. The town boasts an interesting Gothic church, the Eglise Saint-Pierre, with a Romanesque tower and fine 17th-century paintings by Catalan artist Léo Polge.
The famous cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973) lived in exile in Prades. As a tribute to Casals, the town hosts an annual chamber music festival, the Festival Pablo Casals Prades. Held in July and August, the festival presents more than 30 concerts of classical chamber music and some contemporary pieces. Most of the concerts are held in the nearby community of Codalet (eight kilometers away from Prades) at the Abbaye Saint Michel de Cuxà, a beautiful Romanesque church with exceptional acoustics.
This laid-back seaside village lies near France’s border with Spain. Cerbère is only six kilometers away from the Catalan town of Portbou and shares some of the traditions of Catalonia. The main tourist attraction of Cerbère is its small protected beach. Vacationers will also enjoy the pleasant town square and a scenic waterfront lined with cafés and restaurants. To take in the beauty of the landscape, travel southwest of town to the Cap Cerbère, a rugged promontory with exceptional views of the Spanish coastline. Cerbère is easily accessible by train, and it’s also possible to take a train from Cerbère to Barcelona in Spain, which takes less than three hours