The Languedoc over Provence
Hannibal’s progress through the Languedoc is based to a large extent on conjecture as there are few physical remnants relating to his passing. Even Sam, the Hannibalic expert, was somewhat vague when we were discussing our route through the south west of France and as a result we felt we had a far broader scope on our chosen route.
When Sam and his brothers passed through the Languedoc for their Hannibal documentary they chose to stay closer to the coast. From a historical perspective this would have made sense as the hinterland would have been easier to traverse than the topographically more challenging inland areas. In modern day France though the coastline is anything but easy to traverse by bike as it is densely populated and super concentrated with transport infrastructure.
With my bike guide hat on I pointed this out to Sam and suggested that we should look for a route that got us away from the traffic; my only reference being Steve Razzetti’s book Great Cycling Journeys which documents a route in the Haute Languedoc (high Languedoc) that had caught my attention. My actual experience of riding in the Languedoc though was fairly limited as I had only ventured as far as Uzes prior to researching the Hannibal tour. Once we had decided to try and find a new route though, and Sam was able to reconcile this with the historical integrity of the tour, we discovered that the region truly was one of the great cycling areas of France.
A land of startling contrasts the Languedoc proved to be a veritable treasure trove. From its flat coastal plain which is the largest wine producing area of France, the region stretches inland to the Black Mountains (Montagne Noire), and to the west until it meets the Pyrénées. In the east, the spectacular country of canyons and cliffs stretches onto the lonely plateau of the Cevennes, and from there to the River Rhône. The Mediterranean washes miles of white sandy beaches from the Rhone delta to the Spanish frontier. Between these borders sit the rugged hinterlands of the Corbières and Minervois.
It was also in the early middle ages the historic home to the Cathars, a religious sect who rejected the pomp of the Catholic church, and who were persecuted to extinction as a result. The Cathars left a legacy of fortresses in the Pyrénéen foothills and the Montagne Noire that today are some of the most romantic ruins in Europe! On stage 1 we visit a couple of the more renowned examples of these fortresses and indeed our hotel on Day 4 sits just below the stunning Cathar castle of Peyrepertuse.
I was also delighted to discover that not only was the region feted for its burgeoning wine scene, with an increasing focus on quality over quantity, but its cuisine was something to behold too. With a strong Spanish influence the region is known for a lighter style of eating (less creamy rich sauces) than in the north of France. Languedoc cuisine relies heavily on local produce: olive oil, tomato sauces, herbs from the wild garrigue landscapes of the region such as thyme, rosemary and sorrel. Locals take eating seriously with meals often taking hours and including several courses. My kind of place.
Whilst I was delighted about these gastronomic highlights, I think Sam was more taken with the Roman heritage of the region with the Pont du Gard, Maison Carrée, and Via Domitia all to be found in the region. Whilst the Via Domitia that linked Hispania (Spain) to Italy sits to the south of our chosen route we do get the chance to visit the extraordinary Pont du Gard. The Maison Carrée is found in Nimes and whilst not on the designated route Sam would be delighted to escort anyone there who might wish to see it. I will happily hold court in the restaurant whilst they do that.
In the end the route we chose was found with a great deal of trial and error as generally tends to be the case when scouting bike routes. What amazed us more than anything was the sense of having the place to ourselves. The region is apparently heaving through August when the French take their holidays but outside of then it really does feel undiscovered. And as is the case with a lot of areas in France the roads themselves were in great condition hence the holy trinity of great roads, little traffic and great food. Sam might substitute ‘great food’ for Roman heritage but he’s like that!
The route itself takes us through Cathar country on our way to the enchanting city of Carcassonne which is very deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status. From there we head up in to the rugged hills of the Parc Naturel du Haut Languedoc – the high Languedoc. Once again we find ourselves on awesome cycling roads which are inexplicably free of tourists. The last part of the day takes us on the impressive Voie Verte which is a converted railway track that takes us to our picturesque destination in Olargues – voted one of France’s most beautiful villages and site of the historic Devils Bridge.
We then leave Herault and enter into Languedoc’s most eastern department-Gard. We pass by the incredible Clamouse cave on the way and take in the Gorges de’Herault and the majestic Pic Loup cliffs. Our destination is the quaint town of Sommieres which has a rich Roman history and an impressive medieval centre. From there we head towards Avignon and on crossing the Rhone we finally leave the Languedoc and enter into the more revered tourist region of Provence.
Having travelled extensively in Provence though I have to say that on balance I think I prefer the Languedoc. Given that Provence is one of my favourite areas in Europe I can’t think of much more of a ringing endorsement of this charming area that plays host to us for a large part of stage 1.