We have always loved France. OH likes the Dordogne but I much prefer the south of France. Not Cannes, Nice or Saint-Tropez, all of which I like, but the small towns and villages of Languedoc-Roussillon. The whole area is distinguished by hamlets perched on precipitous hilltops, Cathar castles built in improbably high locations or medieval towns where time seems to have stood still.
Uzès is just such a gem. It dates back to Roman times and its most famous icon is the Tour Fenestrelle (“Window Tower”) the local equivalent of the leaning tower of Pisa. Wherever you look, the architecture is very old and very beautiful. The alleyways shady, as they crisscross the town past Renaissance houses and lead to squares lined with arcades and ornamental fountains. Just the place to sit for a tasty lunch or sipping coffee on a sunny day, it is also a place to wander around the quaint shops or colourful street market held on a Saturday. Apparently, this is one of the best in France, always extremely busy and free from the usual market tack. The stalls here hold treasures for the eyes, ears, and taste buds.
A couple of kilometres down the road, between Uzès and the Pont du Gard is the Haribo Museum (Musée du Bonbon) in this particular region of France this is the closest you are likely to get to ‘modern’. A must for adults and children alike you can lose yourself for several hours. In exchange for your entrance fee, you receive a bag of sweets and a handful of tokens to operate the old machines that provide the visitor with a vivid picture of the history of sweet making.
Slipping back further in time, it is worth visiting the Pont du Gard; the Roman aqueduct constructed some time during the 1st century to supply Nimes with fresh water. This pedestrian site has many hidden trails and panoramic views that lead to the three tiers of arches crossing the river. Although the site is free it is let down by the car park which is a huge rip-off but you are stuck there is no way to avoid paying up.
In ancient Nimes the arena, is one of the most intact amphitheatres to be found anywhere in the world. It has over 34 tiers and is still in use today albeit for bullfights and pop concerts. It was also the setting for the film, Gladiator.
Continuing across country, we once stopped to have a drink at a tiny cafe in the middle of nowhere, the only customer turned out to be an English man. We chatted for a while and learnt he lived down the road in Sainte Eulalie de Cernon and he was involved with the restoration work on the Templar church. The village was the most important templar commandery in the south of France and today is one of best preserved. Like other fortified places, Sainte-Eulalie de Cernon has a medieval ambiance that will seduce you as you walk through its sun-dappled lanes and dip you fingers in the fountain to cool down.
The streets of Arles are truly medieval in character, narrow and winding between ancient buildings. The old city was a Phoenician trading port before being taken by the Romans. Cars are permitted, but walking is much easier. Make your way to Place du Forum, where Paul Gaugin and Van Gogh spent time in the 1880s or peek in the art shops in Rue des Arènes which was the inspiration for many of Picasso’s paintings and drawings even today, Arles has never stopped attracting artists. While you may not have physically visited the town, if you have seen the film ‘Ronin’ you will have been cornered with Sam in the Arles Amphitheatre.
No visit to the area is complete without stopping at Carcassonne. Its history dates back to the medieval Cathar Wars. Today it is divided in two, the fortified Cité, touristy and over-restored and the larger lower town, known as ‘ville basse’.
La Cité is magnificent, the largest medieval town in Europe with its walls intact. A fairytale place of drawbridges, towers and cobbled streets that is entered through a sturdy arched gateway set in thick stone walls. Several towers within the walls add to the romantic appeal.
The castle in the heart of the town dates from the early 12th century, although parts are older. The town also contains the 11th century Cathedral of Saint Nazaire impressive, especially the stained-glass windows.
The Cité is heavily geared to tourism, so alongside the many bistros, there are tourist shops selling leather jewellery and Cathar heritage souvenirs – generally overpriced and indistinguishable from those found in many tourist towns. The real pleasure is simply to wander through the ancient cobblestone streets of yesteryear. Once you have tired of the old town stroll along the banks of the river, a wonderful place for a picnic.
The town provided the inspiration for Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” and as you meander its quaint, charming and friendly streets, you can understand why. It is quite simply a must see on any trip through this part of southern France
I am not a great admirer of the French, but this is an area I love. Filled with perfectly preserved medieval villages where locals sit on benches in the shade of ancient plane trees, or small towns whose restaurants specialise in local dishes and where the boules court is the heart of social activity. Just a little bit of heaven…