There’s nothing like a holiday to make you think about where you live. I recently visited the Languedoc region of France stopping in a gite. I’ve realised that what I enjoy about France in general is the nothingness of it: the pace of life and the ‘retirement feel’. Apparently the Languedoc is the 4th most visited area of France after Paris, Provence and the Alps and yet I had no idea what to expect.
What I found was a region bounded by Perpignan to the East, Toulouse to the West, Carcassonne to the North and Spain to the South. In amongst it are two enormous tourist attractions: the phenomenal huge bastille of Carcassonne and the landscape. The countryside is magnificent: mile after mile of gorges and plateaux. There are serious hills and splendid panoramas with miles of driving like a small child on a toy car outside a supermarket – left then right then left again as you hug the contours of a hillside. In amongst it all are vineyards and small villages. There are filmset-beautiful Mediaeval towns such as Mirepoix and Lagrasse and there are just pleasant, slightly hippy riverside towns such as Esperaza and Quillan.
Certainly Carcassonne is enormous, impressive and photogenic. It was the setting of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth novel. Visited in ruins by a French medievalist in the 1800s he resolved to restore it and succeeded in doing so. You can see where old stone meets new. There is flagrant conjecture about how some parts may have really looked but the result is a huge living castle containing hotels, restaurants and shops. The French are clearly unsentimental about this approach. In England it would be lucky for a national monument to escape being ringed by a fence as a danger to life and limb. Consider too the car parking within short walking distance…lots of it at 5 euros a day.
That aside, the time is spent relaxing and pottering. A typical day begins with nipping to the local bakery for some freshly-baked breakfast to eat on the patio. The view from there is of a small paddock containing horses which belong to Jacques who taught Kevin Costner to ride. Bar the odd whinny, birdsong and the church bells there is silence. And then everyday life begins. Grass strimming can begin at 7.30 am and the church bells have a very strange medley of half-recognised tunes at strange times of the morning. This was not a resort holiday; we were surrounded by people getting on with their everyday life. We could be at home.
The area we stopped in is in the Cathar country. The Cathars objected to the excesses of the Catholic Church and this was treated as heresy. Rome launched two bloody crusades against the Cathars which resulted in sieges. Simon de Montfort led one of them and was particularly brutal in crushing inhabitants of towns he conquered. The landscape is extremely challenging though and the combination of landscape and a number of fortified strongholds dotted around the countryside ensured there was not complete success. These castles, including the one in the town of Arques where we stayed, are spectacular and made of golden sandstone which catches the sunlight beautifully. But they are presented very simply and without fuss. Some are ruins but other are inhabited chateaux.
Even the food of the region is simple. The specialities include fois gras but the signature dish is cassoulet made with two meats – typically a sausage and duck confit. The local wine is a champagne-like sparkling wine called blanquette and some over-sweet whites and rosés. Of course there is a local goats cheese, roquefort and a harder cows-milk cheese. It may be simple food but it is regularly eaten and drunk by the local population and they are very proud of it.
We visited Quillan one evening to eat. The town used to be famous for making hats until the Second World War. Now it’s biggest industry is Formica. It is no chocolate box-beautiful quaint country village. As we ate outside on the balcony of a hotel I was struck that the view we faced was a town centre road junction which could have been anywhere.
A key part of visiting new countries and regions is that the familiar is unfamiliar. In this part of the world the staple crop could be sunflowers or vines. To turn a corner and face a field full of golden flowers is breathtaking – because we are not used to it. Do French people stop and photograph a field of rape in flower? In England one of my favourite crop combinations occasionally seen is the red, yellow and blue of poppies, rape and borage. Are the same tourists stopped in their tracks by the greenness of England compared with the scorched garrigue of home? The mountain views on the single track mountain roads are fabulous but have our European neighbours seen Staffordshire moorland or oak woodland (in a region dominated by pine)?
And so visitors to the region make their own agenda. In many ways it is a similar fayre to Derbyshire or the Cotswolds. We have our Chatsworth and Blenheim Palace instead of Carcassonne but it doesn’t define where we live. I may recommend a day trip there for someone who enjoys a stately home or if they have an event but it is a diversion from a Derbyshire holiday not the main event. Somehow, in trying to appreciate where we live, a list of venues misses the point. We don’t have the massive tourist attractions that some city centres do but we do have good honest scenery, and some breathtaking views. We do embody country life that can be appreciated by the patient tourist who takes the time to explore. Holidays are about experience, energising and relaxation not just ticking off the sites. There is nowhere in the world which can offer the perfect holiday for all tourists. The important thing is to know your strengths as a tourist destination and deliver them consistently well.
You may think that a comparison of France on the edge of the Mediterranean and inland rural England is far fetched. We are closer than you think. Mirepoix market had a stall selling Bakewell tart and Lagrasse’s boulangerie sold Jésuite – imagine Bakewell pudding with a thin layer of meringue on top!