The region of Languedoc-Roussillon extends along the Mediterranean coast of France between the mouth of the Rhône and the Pyrenees for a distance of some 200km/125mi, bounded on the north and west by the river Aude, on the east by the Golfe du Lion and on the south by the Pyrenees.
The landscape of Languedoc-Roussillon offers a variety of attractions - wild rocky gorges, fertile orchards and market gardens (the much sought-after primeurs, early vegetables, come from Roussillon), old hill villages, the ruined castles of the Cathars on mountain crags and interesting old towns, as well as the seaside resorts along the coast. The mild climate is a further attraction which draws holidaymakers to this region.
Originally the coast, with its fringe of marshy soil and numerous lagoons, offered little attraction to holidaymakers. In 1963, therefore, it was decided to change the whole coast of the Golfe du Lion, and under a plan developed by the government the marshland has been drained, beaches have been created, old towns like Sète, Agde and Perpignan have been expanded and a series of new holiday centers have been established, varying in style and layout and adapted with varying degrees of success to the natural setting. The first of these settlements, the Grande Motte (designed by Jean Balladur), was opened in 1974 and was followed by many others, including Port- Barcarès, Port-Leucate, Gruissan, Valras- Plage, Cap d'Agde, Carnon, Port-Camargue and Fleury d'Aude. Common to all these centers is a wide range of facilities for entertainment and sport.
The early settlement of this region led to a flowering of art. The earliest figural sculpture in the whole of western art, dating from 1020, is in the church of St-Genis-des- Fontaines, between Céret and Argelès-sur- Mer, to the south of Perpignan. And Languedoc-Roussillon has a whole series of towns with historic old buildings and works of art.
The region consists of the two provinces of Languedoc and Roussillon, which take in the five départements of Aude, Gard, Hérault, Lozère and Pyrénées-Orientales. It covers an area of 16,431 sq. km/6,344 sq. mi and has a population of around 1.3million, most of them living in the coastal areas.
The former county of Roussillon lies at the eastern end of the Pyrenees, between the Pyrenees and the Monts Corbières, and bears the imprint of Catalan culture. To the north is Languedoc, which takes its name from the langue d'oc, the old Provençal language. The province was formed after the Albigensian wars out of the territories of the Duchy of Narbonne and the County of Toulouse.
The coasts of the region were settled towards the end of the sixth century B.C. by Phoenicians, who were followed later by Greeks and Romans. From the early fifth century A.D. the Pagus Rossillionensis formed part of the Visigothic kingdom. In 720, however, the Arabs forced the Col de Perthus and overran the area. In 759 it was recovered by the Franks, who left the administration of the territory to the native counts. In 1172 the county of Roussillon passed to a collateral line of the Counts of Barcelona. Under the treaty of Corbei (1258) Louis the Pious made over Roussillon and the Spanish March to the kingdom of Aragon. This marked the beginning of a period of prosperity, particularly for Perpignan, the former residence of the Counts of Roussillon and now capital of the newly established kingdom of Majorca, which then included not only the Balearics but also territories on the mainland (Roussillon, Cerdagne and Montpellier).
In 1473 Perpignan came into conflict with the French crown, and in the following year was besieged and captured by Louis XI's forces, remaining under French rule until 1493. Later Charles VIII handed over Roussillon and Cerdagne, two areas which remained restless, to Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon and Castile, who had just completed the Reconquista with the capture of the Moorish capital of Granada. The desire for independence, however, remained very much alive. In 1640 Roussillon rebelled against the central government in Madrid and was joined by the Catalans. Together they proclaimed Louis XIII of France Count of Barcelona, and in 1642 Louis entered Perpignan. The Peace of the Pyrenees (1659), however, did not satisfy the aspiration for a unified Catalonia, since the main ridge of the Pyrenees was declared to be the frontier between France and Spain.
Saint Gilles - Vis de St Gilles
In Saint Gilles, to the left of the church facade a narrow lane leads to the ruins of the old Choir, which was destroyed in the 17th C. Here is the Vis de St-Gilles (Screw of St Gilles), a now free-standing staircase dating from the 12th C. The complicated shape of the spiral staircase in the interior of the building is an incredible masterpiece of the stonemason's art. Also to be seen here are the remains of the old apse (the bases of pillars, etc.)
Saint Gilles - Maison Romane de Saint-Gilles
Béziers (pop. 71,428), originally a Roman military colony (Biterrae Septimanorum), is finely situated on a hill at the point where the Canal du Midi crosses the river Orb, 15km/9mi from the Golfe du Lion. During the Albigensian wars the town was almost completely destroyed.
In the center of Béziers, running between the old and new towns, is the Allée Paul-Riquet. The church of the Madeleine, originally Romanesque but later altered in Gothic and then Baroque style, was the scene of one of the massacres of the Albigensians in 1209. Farther north is the church of St-Aphrodise (11th-15th C.), which contains a third C. sarcophagus.
In the center of the old town is the 18th C. Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall). The former cathedral of St-Nazaire, situated on higher ground, is a fortified church of the 12th-14th centuries with massive towers and a large rose window on the west front. The Gothic cloister now houses a Musée Lapidaire, with old tombstones and capitals. From the terrace in front of the church there are fine views.
A short distance away is the Musée des Beaux-Arts (pictures, Greek vases). To the southeast, housed in a former Dominican church, is the Musée du Vieux Biterrois et du Vin, a folk museum.
At the south end of the town is the church of St-Jacques, which dates in part from the 12th C. It has a richly decorated choir.
4km/9mi west of the town is the Oppidum d'Ensérune, with the excavations of an Ibero-Greek settlement of the fourth and third centuries B.C. There is a museum displaying finds from the site.
Cabrespine - Giant Hole of Cabrespine
Cathedral of St Just
Abbaye de Fontfroide
Aigues Mortes - Tour de Constance
The mightiest tower in Aigues Mortes town walls is known as the "Tour de Constance"; its name is said to come from that of a daughter of King Louis VI. It is also sometimes called the "Tower of Steadfastness". Forming the northern corner of the ring of walls, it is separated from them by a moat filled with water and spanned by a bridge. 54m/177ft in height and with walls 6m/20ft thick and measuring 22m/72ft in diameter, it is the epitome of a medieval defensive construction. From the earliest times it served as a State prison, for it was considered impregnable. Among those imprisoned here were, at the beginning of the 14th C., members of the Order of Templars, who had been taken prisoner by Philip IV on the pretext of heresy and immorality, from the 17th C. many Huguenots, and finally a group of Protestant women who were released in 1768 by clemency of the Governor; among these prisoners was the well-known Marie Durand, who spent 38 years in this dungeon and was renowned in France for her steadfastness. It was last used to imprison Napoleon's officers when the Royalists took Aigues-Mortes.
It is interesting to climb up to the little turret which is crowned by an iron cage and served as a lighthouse for centuries when the town was still a port. From here there is a charming panoramic view of the town and the surrounding countryside, as far as the Cevennes in the north and the concrete pyramids of La Grand-Motte in the west, salt-mines and the Camargue in the east.
Aigues Mortes - Tour Carbonnière
Le Grau-du-Roi, France
Les Corbières Castles
Gorges de Galamus
Ivy Hole Cave, Saint Ambroix, France
Musée d'Art Moderne
Courniou les Grottes - Deveze Cave
Mialet par Anduze - Trabuc Caves
This 1.2 kilometer-long cave dates back to prehistoric times, when it was inhabited by man. It is well-known for its "100,000 soldiers," which are black aragonite formations, as well as the so-called "Great Wall of China."