This spectacularly beautiful medieval village surrounded by rocky cliffs beside the River Herault is a ‘must see’ for anyone taking a holiday in Herault and its popularity means it is best visited in early morning or late afternoon.
The magnificently atmospheric Romanesque abbey founded in the ninth century by St Guilhem and rebuilt in the eleventh became a stopping place for pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela.
Sadly the building’s cloister stone was sold in the nineteenth century and taken to New York where it is now in the Cloister Museum.
Nevertheless, the abbey-church makes a wonderful venue for St-Guilhem-le-Desert’s festival of Baroque Organ and Choral Music each July. A village walk will take you past arcades and warm honey-colour houses with pretty gardens and the Verdus stream cascading down to the River Herault, overlooked by a ruined castle. From place de la Liberte take a half hour walk along part of the GR74 up to the castle for great views of the village.
Herault’s capital, founded in the tenth century and built on trade, has evolved to become one of the liveliest cities in Southern France. The youthful population is attracted by the good reputations of its ancient medical school and France’s largest university - founded in the thirteenth century.
Students of architecture seek out the post-modern Antigone district designed by Spaniard Ricardo Bonfill, along with the seventeenth and eighteenth century mansions of the old town.
Stroll in the formal gardens to ‘Jardins des Plantes’, France’s oldest botanical gardens, which have plants reputedly offshoots of sixteenth century originals. Visit the Cathedral and Musee Fabre, shop in rue de la Loge and enjoy Montpellier’s regular festivals, pedestrianised streets and city squares buzzing with market and café life. There’s even a beach nearby.
Fresh and salt water mingle at the mouths of the River Herault and Canal du Midi where they meet the Mediterranean at the little fishing port of Agde with roots as a fifth century Phoenician trading port.
Nearby Sete is now more important and visitors to Agde, one of the region’s oldest towns, come to stroll the narrow lanes of black basalt houses which once earned it the name of ‘Black Pearl of the Mediterranean’. See Agde’s picturesque riverside fishing boats, attractive waterfront and visit the twelfth century black cathedral of St Etienne built from local volcanic rock from the quarries at Mont St-Loup.
7km to the south, lava from a volcanic eruption 750,000 years ago formed the spot where one of France’s top resorts, Cape d’Agde, now stands. Built around a port and large marina with shops, squares and a lively quay, there’s something for everyone in this vast resort - each district with its own style and atmosphere reflecting the colours of Languedoc Roussillon.
Cape d’Agde’s 14km of wide sandy beaches range from natural to those with amenities strung out along a coast fringed by oleander and pines. There are 11 supervised beaches and a dedicated naturist beach with its own village.
Just relax or choose from a wealth of outdoor activities including golf on an international course, tennis, walking, cycling horse riding and every kind of watersport. There are 2 aquatic fun parks for families, Agd’adventure trail and lots more. Musee de l’Ephibe displays fascinating submarine finds including canon and statues found in local waters. Open daily July and August and from Wednesday to Sunday at other times.
Enjoy extensive cuisine in Cape d’Agde’s many restaurants and there’s plenty of night life in bars and discos.
Beziers, the wine capital of Languedoc Roussillon set high above the plain of the River Herault, was originally a staging post on the Roman trading route from Rome to Cadiz in Spain. The town was reduced to ruins during crusades against the Cathars in the thirteenth century but later commerce, particularly the wine trade, brought the town riches.
Today, picturesque Beziers is a typical Midi town with esplanades of plane trees, as well known for its adoption of the Spanish bullfight or feria and for its love of the English game of rugby as for its wine.
Visit in mid August for the 4 day long feria celebrations which include bull running, street festivals, fireworks and music or enjoy a game at one of France’s top rugby clubs A.S.B.H at the Stade de la Mediterranee - tel. (00 33) 4 67 11 03 76.
Bezier makes an ideal starting point for excursions into the mountains of Haut-Languedoc or for a boating trip along the Canal du Midi which links the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Allees Paul Riquet is a lively place to shop or take refreshment at the numerous cafes and restaurants.
Look out for the statue of tax inspector Pierre-Paul Riquet born in Beziers, who engineered the canal in 1666. The grand thirteenth century castle-like Cathedrale St-Nazaire, surrounded by medieval streets, occupies one of Beziers’s best sites and there are fine views of the town on crossing the River Orb by the Pont Neuf.
This beautiful town at the heart of the Coteaux du Languedoc wine-growing area east of Beziers was home to the French seventeenth century French playwright and actor, Moliere, and the entire old town is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Set in the centre of Heraualt’s coastal plain amongst lagoons and rice fields the market town of Pezenas became the region’s capital in the fifteenth century and, in the seventeenth century, Prince Armand de Bourbon wanted to make it a ‘second Versailles’.
Any tour of the old town’s cobbled streets of beautiful fourteenth to seventeenth century mansions should include a visit to the sixteenth century palace, now the Vulliod-Saint-Germain Museum, housing Aubusson tapestries, furniture and Moliere memorabelia.
Browse Pezenas’s craft shops and large Saturday market and ask at Moliere’s barber’s shop, now the tourist office tel: (00 33) 4 67 98 36 40, for details of places where his troupe of actors played.
The Mirondella des Arts festival in June and July also includes Moliere celebrations along with costume processions, street theatre, crafts and food. In December the town celebrates a traditional Occitaine Christmas and in February, around Shrove Tuesday, the festival of Le Poulain (mock horse) has medieval origins.
Balanced between sea and shellfish beds of Bassin de Thau, the old wine port of Sete is reminiscent of Venice with its network of canals and bridges, pretty pink and blue painted buildings and wrought iron balconies.
This birthplace of novelist and poet Paul Valery is acclaimed for its seafood, and waterside restaurants will spoil you for choice. Take away a ‘tiele’ seafood pie to enjoy while watching the traditional fishermen’s sport of water jousting on the Canal Royal from April to September.
The whole town comes alive for the most important August competitions during the ‘Fetes de la Saint-Louis’. Sete even has a jousting school for children.
Nestling at the base of Mount Caroux in the Espinouse mountains, medieval Olargues clinging to a steep bank of the River Jaur is another of Herault’s ‘most beautiful villages of France’.
Transactions between townspeople and the Devil were said to take place on its thirteenth century humpbacked bridge. From the riverside gardens climb twisting cobbled streets past beautiful houses to the remains of a twelfth century chateau and Olargues’s 1000 year old hill-top belfry.
Visit the Museum of Crafts and Popular Traditions and the Multimedia Centre concerned with mountains and the environment. Set in Haut-Languedoc Regional Natural Park, the area around Olargues offers great outdoor opportunities for swimming, fishing and canoeing as well as walking and climbing.
Originally a Cathar citadel, Minerve is placed on a wonderful natural site for a fortress, perched on a rocky island between the river gorges of the Briant and Cesse where a tunnel hewn by water makes a ‘natural’ bridge.
The medieval ruins and beautiful mansions of this special place in the middle of the Minervois wine-growing country should be on any cultural itinerary and the town’s, museums, craft shops and wine cellars offering tastings ensure there is plenty for you to do and enjoy.