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The secret stretch of coastal France that’s nicer than Nice



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(CNN) — Consider the south of France and postcard photos of the lavender fields of Provence and tony spots with yachts — Good, Cannes and St. Tropez — doubtless spring to thoughts.

However take a look at a map of France and hint a finger down from Paris to the Mediterranean Sea and you may land within the area of Occitanie, the place the division of Aude and the coastal metropolis of Narbonne and surrounds supply up a really totally different, extra relaxed view of the nation’s south.

Right here, alongside a coastal plain that is a part of France’s largest wine-producing and winery area with regards to floor space (Languedoc-Roussillon, which grew to become a part of the just lately created Occitanie area in 2016), the varied landscapes vary from seashores and shallow lagoons to wooded limestone plateaus pocketed with lakes.

Crumbling castles and majestic citadels crown hilltops in what was as soon as Cathar nation. This dissident and ascetic spiritual group, then thought-about heretics, gathered on this a part of Europe in the course of the twelfth century.

Guests come to the area right this moment for an ambiance steeped in lore and stuffed with surprises, the place you possibly can dine on hyperlocal seafood proper from the lagoons the place it is harvested and sip Languedoc’s various wines with a backdrop of the Pyrenees mountains stretching towards Spain. The laid-back seaside villages you will go to right here really feel worlds away — attitude-wise and geographically, too — from the extra pretentious and crowded Côte d’Azur, roughly 225 miles east.

Narbonne is a town with Roman roots in the Aude department of France's Occitanie region.

Narbonne is a city with Roman roots within the Aude division of France’s Occitanie area.

JackF/Adobe Inventory

A metropolis with a Roman coronary heart — and one in all France’s most interesting markets

Lower than an hour inland from Narbonne on the River Aude, the spectacular hilltop fortress city of Carcassonne is what initially brings most vacationers to the area. An excellent instance of a medieval fortified city, this UNESCO World Heritage has pre-Roman roots.

However historical past additionally runs deep in and across the usually ignored city of Narbonne, an historic port metropolis which dates again to 118 BCE and was the primary Roman colony established in Gaul.

Gallo-Roman antiquities from the city’s unique metropolis partitions and buildings, lots of which had been amassing mud in storage for many years, are on show within the new Narbo Via Museum, which opened in Could 2021.

The spectacular museum designed by Foster+Companions (of Norman Foster fame) has an industrial-style stacker crane that makes use of a robotic mechanism to repeatedly change a towering show of greater than 700 historic carved stone blocks inside its centerpiece “Lapidary Wall.”

The Canal du Midi — a Seventeenth-century canal linking the Mediterranean and the Atlantic — flows by means of the guts of Narbonne, transporting 1000’s of barge cruise passengers annually on journeys between Sète and Toulouse.

However few disembark to discover past the canal’s boundaries and Carcassonne. They’re lacking out.

On the canal’s edge in Narbonne is town’s well-known coated market, Les Halles, the place the morning bustle fades away at lunchtime when distributors promoting native seafood, produce and Languedoc’s well-known goat cheeses start to shutter their stalls and eating places refill with diners sipping wine with their noon meal.

“The market is a spot the place the individuals of Narbonne prefer to develop their social lives over a glass of wine,” winemaker Gerard Bertrand, whose white, purple and rose wines are a benchmark of Languedoc’s sustainable biodynamic and natural winemaking heritage, tells CNN Journey.

Languedoc-Roussillon became part of Occitanie in 2016. Vineyards cover part of the landscape.

Languedoc-Roussillon grew to become a part of Occitanie in 2016. Vineyards cowl a part of the panorama. Inventory

An evolving historical past of winemaking

Whereas vines have been rooted within the Languedoc area for 1000’s of years, Narbonne was the primary port by means of which wine was routed all through the Roman Empire. Bertrand says the area finally “misplaced its the Aristocracy, usually favoring quantity relatively than high quality.”

Areas like Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux emerged into the highlight.

However because the Nineteen Seventies, says Bordeaux-based oenologist Sera Goto, nice care has been taken to replant varietals tailored to the actual microclimates and soils of Languedoc-Roussillon’s vineyards that “preserve a fantastic respect for the pure lieu and setting.”

The area is a “multi-colored, textured, dynamic space with a dizzying range of soils, varietals and wine kinds,” she says, and one in all France’s most vital natural wine-producing areas.

“As soon as solely a supply for mass-produced wines for the tables of the traditional Greeks, Romans after which later the Gauls, the Languedoc Roussillon of right this moment is in some ways a firebrand for natural, artisanal wine,” Goto says.

That is thanks largely to the practices of visionary winemakers like Bertrand, a former skilled rugby participant who took over his father’s enterprise in 1987 and incorporates totally biodynamic farming practices into his 16 vineyards throughout the area.

Château l'Hospitalet is a coastal winery and boutique hotel situated within the vines of the La Clape appellation.

Château l’Hospitalet is a coastal vineyard and boutique resort located inside the vines of the La Clape appellation.

Gilles Deschamps

His Château l’Hospitalet Grand Vin Rouge 2017 was named the most effective purple wine on this planet in a blind tasting of 6,000 wines in the course of the Worldwide Wine Problem in 2019.

“The way forward for our area appears brilliant,” Bertrand says. “The shift has been made in the direction of new generations of winemakers who’re absolutely devoted to valuing the great nature that we’ve got right here.”

In terms of human nature, you possibly can develop your personal social life alongside the area’s wines with lunch proper in Les Halles in Narbonne at Chez Bebelle, the place tables are arrange inside the market itself.

It is usually standing room solely as locals, toting procuring baggage laden with recent produce, chin-chin glasses and order specialties like steak tartare and duck breast to debrief over the most recent rugby match and different vital city goings-on.

Vineyards and lagoons the place you possibly can keep, sip and slurp

For a keep among the many biodynamic vines close to Narbonne, Bertrand’s Château l’Hospitalet is a quiet retreat inside the vines of the La Clape appellation.
Housed in a former Eleventh-century hospital, the coastal vineyard and boutique resort has a brand new gastronomic restaurant, L’Art de Vivre, that options seasonal and natural produce in addition to Aubrac beef and eel from close by Étang de l’Ayrolle in Gruissan.

Along with rooms within the chateau, Villa Soleilla has 11 suites and a brand new spa in its assortment of up to date styled buildings refurbished from the unique partitions of an historic vineyard. Rooms with personal patios and terraces open to views of the encompassing vineyards and dazzling Mediterranean Sea past.

In the course of the hotter months, the resort’s seasonal seaside membership and seaside restaurant, a couple of minutes drive away in close by Gruissan, conjure one thing of the Côte d’Azur’s belle vie sun-and-sea vibe — with none of its ostentatious bling.

A beach club and seaside restaurant in nearby Gruissan are part of Château l'Hospitalet's summer offering.

A seaside membership and seaside restaurant in close by Gruissan are a part of Château l’Hospitalet’s summer time providing.

EO CREATIVE @FlorianVidot

Yr spherical within the area, you possibly can stroll alongside the uncrowded sands of Gruissan, stroll by means of vines to vistas overlooking a shoreline billowing with extra sails than tremendous yachts and hike to sudden views on the Gouffre de l’Oeil Doux, an emerald-colored pool within the karst massif that appears remarkably like a Mexican cenote.

At Salin de Gruissan close to the fishing village of Gruissan, lagoons the place sea salt is cultivated tackle a pinkish hue because of the presence of an algae that reacts to the daylight. Flamingos stalk the shallow swimming pools closest to the ocean and fleur de sel is gathered by hand and offered in a small boutique on-site.

On the lagoon’s edge, massages and salt soak therapies are supplied inside a humble roulotte — a small picket stagecoach-like cart that appears like a conveyable sauna and overlooks the salt manufacturing basins. A set-up with a no-frills, what-more-do-you-really-need wellness vibe.

Additionally bordering the lagoon, at La Cambuse du Saunier, platters of oysters, whelks, shrimp and couteaux — razor clams spooned with a thick garlic and parsley sauce — are dished up at rustic driftwood tables at a restaurant with zero pretension and what’s absolutely a few of France’s freshest seafood.

La Cambuse du Saunier, near Gruissan, dishes up fresh seafood at rustic driftwood tables next to the water.

La Cambuse du Saunier, close to Gruissan, dishes up recent seafood at rustic driftwood tables subsequent to the water.

Terry Ward

Close by, within the medieval village of Bages on the Étang de Bages, kitesurfers skip throughout the uneven floor of a windy lagoon well-known for harvesting silver eels. They are often sampled in varied preparations on the former fisherman’s abode-turned-restaurant, Le Portanel.

Followers of oysters make the pilgrimage northeast of Narbonne alongside the coast to the neighboring division of Hérault and the seaside village of Marseillan.

Particular Tarbouriech (or “pink oysters”) are cultivated there on ropes lifted out and in of the water of France’s largest lagoon, the Étang de Thau. The method permits growers to regulate the oysters’ salinity stage in an space with salty waters and virtually no tidal variation.

A platter of the bivalves served alfresco alongside a crisp glass of rosé, overlooking the lagoon at Tarbouriech Le St. Barth distills the area’s mouthfeel to its essence.

And the most effective half? That “no pretension” factor.

You’ll be able to come as you’re to any of those spots, wearing no matter you placed on that morning for a day of sightseeing.

The town of Gruissan is located along the Mediterranean coast about nine miles southeast of Narbonne.

The city of Gruissan is positioned alongside the Mediterranean coast about 9 miles southeast of Narbonne.

Boris Stroujko/Adobe Inventory

A area of discovery — that is being found

“You simply must push open one door on this area, and after that there is one other one,” says Gilles Sansa, whose personal chauffeur firm, Quadriges, guides vacationers, Hollywood crews (scenes from “The Final Duel” had been just lately filmed on the Eleventh-century Abbaye de Fontfroid) and anybody else eager to get to know the realm’s again roads and secrets and techniques.

“When Individuals come right here, they’ve a function, a goal,” Sansa says. “They know there’s good wine and meals, firstly. However after that they actually uncover the essence of the place and one thing totally different.”

For a lot of Europeans, the area’s attract is much less of a secret — and each overseas and French curiosity in actual property has boomed in the course of the pandemic, says Nathalie Van Veenendaal, regional supervisor for French actual property company, Choice Habitat-Hamilton.

She described the housing market as having a “return-to-the-countryside vibe” that is drawing extra curiosity from the French and residents of different components of Europe to an space that is historically attracted a whole lot of Brits.

“It is this mixture of sea, mountains and countryside along with the standard of life that pulls individuals right here,” Van Veenendaal says.

“It is much less about exhibiting off your massive property right here than within the Côte d’Azur and extra about these different issues.”