A few months ago I had the great opportunity to travel to France for a hotel barge trip down the Canal du Midi in the Languedoc region. Having never been to the region before, I envisioned a quaint countryside with farms and the occasional café in the more populated areas. What I found however was so much more.
The larger towns I visited offered most of what you would expect from a citya variety of shops and dining options, streets bustling with locals and tourists, and a few cultural and historical attractions. The smaller towns were breathtakingly charming, with cobblestoned streets and small cafes where locals enjoyed wine and good food. Throughout my 10 days of travel, three of the towns I visited stand out in my mind and will forever be in my memory as the fond way I think of France.
Narbonne is one of the largest towns in the Languedoc region, with a rich and interesting history reflected in its beautiful, large cathedral and the Via Domitia which are both situated on the town centre square. Darting off the square in several directions are small, narrow, cobblestone streets lined with houses with shudders of all colors and small boutique shops.
On my third day in France, I found myself with a block of several hours until I was to meet up with the barge to start our journey down the Canal du Midi. Although I didnt know what I was going to do with those hours, this time became the most memorable afternoon I spent in France. I wandered through the cathedral, taking in the centuries-old art and enjoying the sunshine in the beautiful courtyard garden. I continued on past the cathedral square, meandering the streets and popping into the little boutique shops selling everything from tourist souvenirs to high end clothing and handbags. Once the chilly wind and walking had gotten the best of me, I sat down for a leisurely lunch in a café on the square and savored every last bite of a rich, warming, and filling bowl of duck cassoulet. To top it all off, after lunch I walked along the Canal du Robine down to the market where I wandered through a massive selection of vendors selling fresh meats and seafood and watched the locals take a break from their dinner shopping to enjoy a glass of wine. I ended up falling for the charm of the town and at the end of my few hours of wandering around, I felt like I had truly experienced a little slice of France.
Another place that stands out as one of the most memorable of those I visited is the medieval village of Minerve. As my traveling companions and I made our way to the old village we were taken aback by the beautiful scenery surrounding it. The road to Minerve turns and winds along a high mountainside, and as you look off into the canyon you see the River Cesse below. Just beyond the river sits the picturesque village atop a hillside flanked with the catapults that serve as a reminder of the sad history of the village. In the early 13th century, a crusade was led against the Cathar villagers at the hands of Simon de Montfort and leaders of the Catholic Church. After a 10 week siege against Minerve, 180 villagers were burned because they would not deny their Cathar faith. Now all that stands of the castle at the village is one octagonal tower, but the village itself is still comprised of narrow winding alleyways lined with old residences which are now home to a community of local artists. Several art shops, the old church, and a modern museum filled with artifacts are among the reasons to visit, but simply walking through the narrow stone lined streets is reason enough to take the beautiful drive. Im not sure if its the striking scenery, the grim history, the modern day beauty and charm of the village or a combination of all these elements that hold Minerve in the forefront of my mind, but I highly recommend anyone traveling through the Languedoc take an afternoon to visit this scenic little village.
As we neared the Mediterranean and my travels along the Canal du Midi drew to a close, we spent one last afternoon enjoying the town of Pezenas. Like nearly every village, town, or city in France, Pezenas has a rich history which will fascinate the history buffs and novice historians alike. But if Im to be completely honest, the town stands out to me for one reasonshopping! Pezenas is structured like most towns in the South of France, with a cathedral, centre square, and small streets lined with houses, cafes, and shops, but this town stands out for its exceptional selection of local and imported goods filling the dozens of shops along each street. Whether youre looking for souvenirs, beautiful home goods, or clothing, there is something for everyone in this little town. Being the last day of the trip, I had several gifts to find for those who werent lucky enough to come along on my journey with me. I figured this may be a difficult task because I was hoping to avoid carrying home the standard half dozen wine bottle openers and magnets that said France on them. Despite having many people to shop for in a small window of time, I easily found something nice and non-touristy for everyone (and a couple small things for myself!) If youre looking for a leisurely afternoon of shopping (or have list of people to bring gifts home to), Pezenas is a great place to start!
Several attractions and villages compete for the attention of tourists every year along the South of France, and I truly cannot say that any one of the many places I visited was not worth seeing. However, I do strongly recommend trying to squeeze in the aforementioned towns if youre able to as theyre not only charming and memorable, but a small piece of what makes the Languedoc region in the South of France so unique and diversified in what it has to offer.
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