The South of France has long been a fabled destination. The eastern Mediterranean coast—including Monaco, the Côte d’Azur and Provence—are synonymous with the French joie de vivre. Yet well west of Marseille, Nice and Cannes there is a Mediterranean France found in the Languedoc that has every bit the warmth and sunshine found in those more well-known places. The Languedoc is perhaps France’s least familiar coastal region that reaches from Provence to the Pyrénées and south to the Spanish border, and it is every bit as charming as Provence from its big city of Montpellier to its medieval hill towns.
Words: Clive Pursehouse
Images: Office de Tourisme Cap d’Agde Méditerranée, Yuzuru Sunada & Clive Pursehouse
The Languedoc was settled as far back as the Neolithic period but civilization was built up by the Romans to support the Via Domita, a trade route that stretched from Rome all the way to Cádiz on the far coast of Spain. The road cut straight through the Languedoc’s main modern cities of Montpellier, Narbonne and Béziers. The Romans’ imprint remains, and the olive groves and vineyards they once cultivated continue to dominate the landscape along with the signature Mediterranean garrigue, the wild aromatic vegetation comprised of lavender, rosemary, thyme, juniper and a Words: Clive Pursehouse Images: Office de Tourisme Cap d’Agde Méditerranée, Yuzuru Sunada & Clive Pursehouse handful of other scrub aromatics. While the Languedoc may not have the star status of Provence or the French Riviera, pedaling a bicycle through the hills above the town of Pézenas you won’t miss the crowds of those more popular destinations.
Stage 11 of the 2016 Tour de France that passed this way was a bit of a wild card. It opened in the Languedoc town of Carcassonne (a favorite of Johnny Depp), passed through Pézenas for an intermediate sprint and finished in Montpellier. Crosswinds and the audacity of Peter Sagan made for a memorable day. It was a stage that caught many GC contenders out when Sagan, Maciej Bodnar, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome (see right) went off the front of the peloton with 12 kilometers to go and stayed away into Montpellier.
Pézenas is a sleepy town of fewer than 9,000 people, but here among the rolling hills and tiny communes of this part of the Languedoc it’s a veritable metropolis. A stone’s throw from the Hérault River flowing from the Cévennes range to the Mediterranean, I pilot a bicycle out of Pézenas proper. I meander along the back roads outside the walls of my hotel, a former distillery, just across from the town center and what I suppose passes for the Peyne River (I could step over it). It becomes clear rather quickly that my attempts to map out a ride here from my couch in Seattle have resulted in a number of ill-advised choices. After a few dead ends, I stuff the GPS into a jersey pocket and decide to go on instinct.
Once I find an underpass that gets me to the other side of the A75 highway, the riding takes on the romance you come to expect from a sunny day in the South of France. The romantically named D32E5 takes me across a roundabout and then opens up to expanses of vineyards that flank the Hérault. The Languedoc is actually the single biggest wine-producing region in the world, responsible for one third of all the wine produced in France. Like many of the up-and-coming regions in the south, it was known for a time as a producer of lower quality “bulk wines.” That reputation is changing and the vignerons of the Languedoc are making a case for the Languedoc and its many unique sub-appellations as a reliable producer of excellent vin de terroir, or wines of place.
The left turn ahead into a grove of trees looks intriguing, and truth be told I can still hear my GPS chirping from my jersey pocket, encouraging me to take that turn and so I oblige both my curiosity and that annoying robotic voice. It’s worth noting that the word chemin in French as in Chemin de la Persévérant (this particular left turn) translates to path; in this case the “path of the persistent.” My advice to you is to take this “path” concept quite literally, as opposed to say, a route, or road. What starts off as a hard-packed gravel road that runs alongside the vine rows quickly becomes a bad idea of massive rocks and loose dirt, like a path, and I end up backtracking to the D32E5. Some of us just aren’t that persistent.
My poor choices on a few of these chemins aside, the country roads around Pézenas, like much of the French countryside, are the stuff of cyclists’ dreams: smooth blacktop, wide shoulders and no angry motorists. Just before arriving in the tiny village of Castelnau-de-Guers, I make another left, this one paved onto the Rue de l’Aventin. A punchy climb through residential streets leads me to the Route d’Aumes, a wide open, winding road with spectacular views of the hillsides, olive trees and seemingly endless vine rows.
The rolling road and the views continue onto Montagnac, whose 12th century Saint André church spire is visible at a considerable distance. It’s a sleepy Sunday afternoon and the tiny town reflects that. I pick my way toward the town center, past a few small children on bicycles, and a game of pétanque (the French version of bocce) is being played by some older men in caps and rolled shirtsleeves. Montagnac’s most famous son is probably Jean Henri Latude, a popular figure around the time of the French Revolution, mostly known for his uncanny ability to escape a prolonged imprisonment in the Bastille.
Latude had apparently sent a box of poison to the official mistress of Louis XV, claiming that her life was in danger. His bizarre behavior and subsequent escapes landed him in various French prisons, from which he seemed to always find a way out, including the feared tower of Vincennes and the famous Bastille. He became a heroic figure during the French Revolution and was paid damages for wrongful imprisonment, dying famous and wealthy at the end of a life in Paris.
My initial plans for the afternoon had me heading out of Montagnac to the Abbaye de Valmagne, a Cistercian abbey that dates to the 12th century. My inability to create a discernable route via the GPS cuts into those plans and I head back toward Pézenas. The winemakers that make up the Pézenas wine community are pouring their wares and eager to chat at a cozy local restaurant, L’Amphitryon.
Local winemakers began seeking a label designation for the wines grown in and around Pézenas in 2006. As of now, the wines are still part of the larger Languedoc AOC. They’re labeled Pézenas-Languedoc, allowed in 2007, with a push toward recognizing Pézenas as a stand-alone appellation. This part of France is home to some of the world’s oldest vineyards. Near the city of Narbonne, in a coastal growing region known as the Montagne de la Clape, there is historical evidence that the Greeks cultivated vines here as early as the 5th century B.C.
The Languedoc has always produced wine, but its reputation has waxed and waned. As French wine consumption has slumped, the Languedoc is shifting its focus to quality over quantity. That effort is driven by the winegrowers and subregions of the Languedoc. Here in Pézenas they’ve looked to hone the region’s characteristics into generous red wines made primarily from Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache. Wines from Pézenas must be a blend of at least two. The climate is slightly different from other Languedoc AOCs as it’s somewhat inland. It’s not completely Mediterranean, and not quite continental. Pézenas occupies a sweet spot with a fairly consistently warm-to-hot growing season, and a dynamic variety of soils that makes the wines show in a way that differentiates them from other parts of the larger AOC.
The profile of the wines coming out of Pézenas is rich, gamy and loaded with the garrigue that litters the harder soils of the area. It’s bright purple and a perfect accompaniment to the local cuisine of hearty, rich dishes.
While very few will find it in their hearts to dredge up some sympathy for a guy who finds himself in windy and rainy conditions while visiting the South of France, here I am nonetheless. A strange cold front has parked itself over the Mediterranean and as I pedal north out of Pézenas, the wind feels more like Flanders than France. My hope is to get up toward the villages of Caux, Nizas and Neffiès and explore the climbing and some of the more choice vineyards around Pézenas. After a few minutes of mentally settling into these unexpected conditions that I haven’t completely dressed for, I begin to appreciate the fact that despite the inclement weather, I’m in the South of France. A slight right onto a farm road and a short little riser warms up my legs and soon I’m feeling optimistic despite the dramatic clouds on the horizon.
Passing a field of red poppies and tucking into a short descent, after a short patch of rough road, I hear an unfortunate hissing sound. A fast leak took my momentum away. Upon further inspection it’s a substantial gash in the sidewall. I change the flat, but booting the tire with a 50-euro note seems a bit ridiculous. I pedal carefully back to Pézenas and spend the rest of the morning exploring the winding alleyways of the old town and the tall stone facades of the 7th century mansions. The city has become known for a history of artisan crafts, and today you still find a vibrant community of merchants offering handmade clothing, children’s toys and scarves.
Pézenas has a few famous native sons but there are significant traditions here that they owe to visitors. The famous French comedic playwright and actor Molière spent a significant amount of time traveling through the South of France. He was invited to entertain Armand de Bourbon, the Prince of Conti, who had settled in Pézenas. Molière spent several months over a few years in the town, which has celebrated his visits with a vibrant theatre festival tradition. One of the traditional dishes of the region, le petit pâté de Pézenas, is actually credited to the culinary staff of the visiting English lord, Robert Clive, a.k.a. Clive of India.
While Pézenas has borrowed from famous guests it’s got plenty of character all its own. The food from this rustic part of France speaks for itself. Cassoulet and all manner of canard (duck), of course, but the Catalan influence and the climate mean there’s plenty of olive oil, and the nearby Mediterranean provides some of the greatest oysters I’ve ever had. There’s a rustic countryside appeal and, normally, reliable warm weather and plenty of sunshine. What Pézenas lacks in its renown it makes up for in a quieter, slower pace. There’s plenty of room along the roads for those of us looking to pedal toward the French joie de vivre—without the crowds.