Enjoy the best of the idyllic south of France without the crowds of Nice or the aggression of Marseille. Travel editor Winsor Dobbin enjoys the gourmet treats and laid-back charm of the Languedoc.
We are sitting on the terrace of a beautifully restored old water mill on the banks of the sleepy River Herault. With some rooms dating back to 1313, the Moulin de Pezenas is a quite extraordinary place to stay.
Newly refurbished in exquisite style, the five-bedroom, five-bathroom mill is impossibly stylish, set in remote countryside and surrounded by vineyards. It directly overlooks the river and a gentle waterfall.
The terrace of this recognised historic monument is just delightful; sunny and tranquil – the ideal spot to wind down with a glass of local wine, some cheese, charcuterie and a fresh baguette.
Fully equipped, totally private and with all provisions able to be provided ahead of your arrival, the Moulin de Pezenas is the perfect Languedoc base for several couples or a large family group.
Our group is on a first-floor deck at family-owned Le Mas de Jeanne outside Marseillan, overlooking the Etang du Thau and the Mediterranean. The Etang du Thai is the biggest and deepest salt water lagoon in Languedoc and is famous for its oysters and mussels.
After a tour during which the methods of farming seafood are explained in broken English by enthusiastic owners Annie and Henri Rouquette, we are matching the farm’s produce with a range of local wines. The ultimate gourmet chill-out.
The only interruption is locals popping in to buy their fresh shellfish in bulk.
Dozens of wines to sample, two restaurants to choose from; Cotes Mas (also known as Domaine Nicole) is heaven on a stick for wine lovers.
Innovative cuisine from Kévin Breugnot and his team is matched with wines from the Mas family estates (they own a dozen different estates in the Langedoc) in this impressive new first-floor eatery that overlooks the vines at Montagnac.
Two luxury suites surrounded by vines and just a short stroll from the cellar door and restaurant offer an authentic wine country experience in a working winery. There is also a casual wine bar serving charcuterie and other local delights.
Sit back and take in the sheer Frenchness of it all.
Languedoc Rousillon is the south of France without the hustle and bustle – and the region around the delightful market town of Pezenas is an ideal base from which to explore the history of Carcassonne, the wines of Corbieres and a wide range of châteaux, cathedrals and abbeys.
There is a street market with mouth-watering gourmet goodies, including local petits pâtés de Pézenas, small sweet/savoury pockets that were the original mince tarts.
Several local vignerons have stands at the market to tempt visitors. While Bordeaux, Burgundy and the Rhone produce some of the finest wines in the world it is actually Languedoc, in the deep south of the country, that is France’s most productive wine district.
There are three times as many vineyards here as there are in Bordeaux and nine times as many vines as in Burgundy. One in every 10 bottles of wine sold worldwide comes from here – and around 30% of all French wine – and quality is rising fast.
Within an hour or two drive from Pezenas are the drawcard cities of Carcassonne, Narbonne, Montpellier and Beziers.
Among the most familiar wine regions are Corbieres, Minervois, Banyuls, Fitoux, Limoux and St Chinian, although many wines are just labelled Vin de Pays d’Oc or Languedoc AC.
You’ll find vines across the region from the Mediterranean to the Canal du Midi, passing through hilly, wildly-varied countryside.
The Mediterranean climate and long, warm summers make the region popular with holidaymakers, particularly seaside resorts like Sete and the lively university town of Montpellier.
Try to time your visit to Sete to coincide with one of the regular nautical jousting competitions (a huge tourist drawcard) on the Grand Canal. Rowing boats charge at each other, the jouster trying to knock his opponent into the canal with a lance.
For those seeking a more peaceful rustic retreat, the lovely, peaceful hilltop town of Uzes, in the Gard department, is dotted with cute cafés and boutiques and is home to a terrific wine shop at which you can stock up on some still undiscovered local gems to bring home.
Winemaker Jean-Claude Mas, known as the Arrogant Frog, is a huge promoter of the Languedoc region.
“I came back here after travelling because I honestly believe it is one of the most beautiful regions in the world,” he says.
“From oysters and apples to asparagus and veal, the quality of the food here is as impressive as the wine,” he says. “It is a region that has still to be fully discovered by tourists – and that adds to its charm.”
The four seasons here mean that Languedoc is a gastronomes paradise, with most dishes prepared with local produce. Their names are often in the Occitan language, formerly spoken throughout Languedoc.
Think strawberries, cherries and wild asparagus, melons, onions, tuna and sardines, mushrooms, chestnuts, olives, saffron, truffles, and, of course, those Bouzigues oysters.
The finest restaurant in the region, with the maximum three Michelin stars, is Auberge du Vieux Puits, run by celebrated French chef Gilles Goujon in the tiny mountain village of Fontjoncouse.
More easily accessed is the superb two-star Le Parc, the domain of chef Franck Putelat in the centre of Carcassonne, one of the highlights of my trip late last year.
But it is hard to eat poorly here; even a simple ham and cheese baguette somehow manages to taste magical.
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The Moulin de Pezenas starts from €2,200 per week to €4,500 in peak season. Contact mill manager Babette at www.hoteldevigniamont.com (an excellent bed and breakfast in Pezenas) or visit the website www.pierresdhistoire.com.