Bryan Johnson explores the little known French region on a self-drive holiday
With easyJet operating direct flights from Gatwick and Bristol to Montpellier, a self-drive holiday to the Occitanie region of France is more accessible than ever – and offers plenty to entice travellers away from the crowded beaches further along the Cote D’Azur coastline. Renowned for its gastronomy and wine (the historical Languedoc-Roussillon region, famed for its wine, is now part of Occitanie), the region also boasts rich history – traces of Roman rule are evident throughout the countryside – a packed calendar of region-wide summer festivals and, of course, some of France’s most glorious beaches. A roadtrip around the region promises something for everyone.
Not yet on the tourist trail, this is a small town with Roman roots that offers an authentic insight into life in the region. Visit Le Petit Troc (translation: The Little Barter) – a vintage-store-cum-restaurant that sits on the old town square in front of the Eglise de Villeneuve-lès-Maguelone – for a twice-daily changing menu of seasonal vegetables sourced from the surrounding agricultural land – true farm to table. For beaches, the less shy and fans of a quieter beach should head to Plage- lès -Maguelone, which is frequented by naturists who prefer its azure waters to the busier beaches on Palavas-les-Flots and Frontignan, which occupy spots along the same 9km stretch of coastline.
Built upon and around Mont St. Clair, Sète is a port town whose once commercial canals now give it a distinctly Mediterranean feel, blended with contemporary French chic. Situated a little further southeast than Montpellier, around 40 minutes’ drive, the town is home to a bizarre yet entertaining tradition of water jousting that needs to be seen to be believed (think gondolas and medieval lances). The sport can be enjoyed from the town’s canal-side restaurants during the summer festival season.
This is Paris without the crowds – beautiful narrow streets with postcard-perfect buildings and café terraces, set to the thrum of an evening’s socialising. Stroll to the city’s university, situated by the mesmerising Jardin des Plantes, a hillside botanical garden dating back to the 16th century. The city’s student population maintains a cosmopolitan atmosphere akin to Paris, without the bustle and high prices.
Parc National de Cévennes
One of several protected national parks in the region, Parc National de Cévennes offers breathtaking views of mountain peaks, with less challenging hikes than those of the Pyrenees further south. Dotted throughout the park are small villages and hamlets where time appears to have stood still for the best part of a century. Cezas is a great place to step back in time, sitting on the crest of two neighbouring valleys and populated by a couple of thousand inhabitants. Leave the car here and walk into the tiny hamlet, or hike 2km to neighbouring peaks for stunning vistas of the entire park.
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