Lanuguedoc's Fab Four
Famous for its coast and countryside, Languedoc-Roussillon also boasts some cool urban destinations. City-slicker Louise Hurren hits the hot spots in Montpellier, Nîmes, Carcassonne and Perpignan.
Montpellier – an utterly modern metropolis
With its love-it-or-hate-it, post-modern Antigone district, state-of-the-art public transport system (the psychedelic flower-daubed trams are real head-turners) and a student population of 70,000, Montpellier is nothing if not happening. It’s Languedoc’s fastest-growing city, and the average age of its inhabitants is the lowest in France, so it’s no surprise that Montpellier has hip culture, hot nightlife and cool shops in spades. Getting around is a doddle: practically all the places mentioned are in the heart of the old city (known as the Ecusson) and can be easily reached on foot, or to cross town, simply jump aboard the tram. Single tickets cost 1,30 € and can be bought on the platform before boarding; you can ride as far as you like (see www.montpellier-agglo.com/tam for details).
Where to be (and be seen)
On Saturday nights, the Place de la Comédie is the place to be. Nestled next to the elegant 19th century opera house, the stylish Welcomédia café is one of the latest watering holes, while the bars of Place Jean-Jaurès attract a younger, student set (upstairs at Café Joseph is where the fashionable folk gather; the first floor is for twenty-somethings, while a dressier, more mature crowd hangs out on the second). Other way-cool dives include Les Pampilles, a sophisticated lounge bar with comfy sofas, contemporary lighting and a great selection of rum-based cocktails on rue du Palais, and ETC, a contemporary art gallery-cum-bar on rue de la Valfère frequented by arty types who appreciate the selection of quality beers and Languedoc wines on hand.
Where to eat
Dining options in Montpellier are many and varied. With its two Michelin stars, Le Jardin des Sens (www.jardindessens.com) is the cream of the crop: at around 100 € per head for dinner it’s not cheap, but you can expect mind-blowing food, handsome waiters, a garden and pool, not forgetting a private suite regularly occupied by French film star Gérard Depardieu. Next door, La Compagnie des Comptoirs (www.lacompagniedescomptoirs.com) has a more laid-back vibe and a lower-priced, more informal menu, or on boulevard Louis Blanc, Le Baloard offers well-priced French fare in a funky, friendly setting. In the mood for something more exotic? Mayumi Izakaya on rue Terral offers the best value sushi and is always busy (call 04 67 63 12 25 to book) while Le Sushi Bar (20, rue Bernard Delicieux, in the Beaux Arts area) is a smarter, more expensive choice, but if you’re counting your euros, Bane Lao (4, rue Rhin et Danube) serves excellent Laotian cuisine from around 15 € per person.
What to see
Wander through the back streets of the old town centre and you’ll find La Panacée, Montpellier’s newest contemporary art space housed within the original walls of the former School of Pharmacy (14, rue de l’Ecole de Pharmacie), but the biggest news arts-wise for 2007 is the reopening of the Musée Fabre, just off the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. Closed for over two years for extensive renovation, the museum’s new look will be a real must-see for visitors and residents alike. As well as housing an extensive collection of some 800 works of art from the 19th and 20th century, the enlarged, modernised museum will feature a specially commissioned installation by renowned French artist Daniel Buren plus a restaurant and upmarket sandwich bar overseen by Montpellier’s most famous chefs, Jacques and Laurent Pourcel; culture vultures should make sure they don’t miss this, the latest jewel in Montpellier’s crown.
Shop till you drop
Urban style hunters are well catered for in Montpellier. The Ecusson’s honey coloured stone-paved pedestrian streets are thronged on a Saturday afternoon, and with shops staying open until 7pm, there’s plenty of time to find the perfect outfit. Rue de l’Argenterie, rue de l’Aiguillerie and rue de l’Ancien Courrier are home to street-, skate- and club-wear outlets, as well as smart boutiques selling French and international designer labels (a personal favourite is Lolita Lorca on rue du Four-des-Flammes, where fashion-conscious females pick out quintessentially French looks courtesy of home grown names like Claudie Pierlot and Isabelle Marant). At the far side of the Place de la Comedie, the Polygone shopping centre looks a little dated (built in the 1980s, it’s slated for a major revamp) but it houses a good selection of French high street names as well as numerous shoe shops.
For night life, a flavoured vodka cocktail at Le Comptoir de l’Arc (Place de la Canourgue) is a good start, but party animals will need to designate a driver or hail a taxi, as most of Montpellier’s night clubs are located in the city outskirts: in the summer, shuttle buses run regularly through the night, ferrying clubbers to and from the action. Near La Grande Motte, La Dune and Le Souleil both pull in a hip and happy crowd, while closer to town, La Villa Rouge caters for a mostly gay, mixed audience. From May to September, a handful of super-swish beach bars set up on the golden sand stretching from Carnon to La Grande Motte: only a 15 minute cab ride from the centre, they offer memorable cocktails, super-fresh seafood and some great late night vibes courtesy of international DJs such as Gilles Peterson and Jack de Marseille (the themed nights and end of season closing parties around mid-September are always worth catching). And when you’re all partied out and need to sleep off your hangover, where better than one of the luxury beach beds at La Paillotte Bambou or La Voile Bleue?
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Nîmes – where ancient meets modern
Nîmes is just the right size for exploring on foot, and the car-free centre oozes charm at every turn. Some of its treasures need a little unearthing though, and the best place to seek advice is the tourist office on rue Auguste (if you’re not in Nîmes yet, visit www.ot-nimes.fr or call +33 4 66 58 30 00).
Not just Roman ruins
The city is famous for Roman architecture; visit les Arènes where the gladiators did their thing (these days, it’s a venue for rock concerts) and the Maison Carrée, but by way of contrast, be sure to check out the Carré d’Art, Nîmes’ ultra-modern masterpiece. Designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster, this contemporary art museum is a cool construction of glass and chrome housing a bookshop, a library and a permanent collection of work from the 1960s to the present day, including pieces by Young British Artists Fiona Rae and Rachel Whiteread. Up on the seventh floor, the appropriately named Ciel de Nîmes restaurant has a terrace with jaw-dropping views and is the perfect place to unwind over a lunch or early supper of tasty, Mediterranean-themed cuisine and a glass of chilled Costières de Nîmes rosé.
Nîmes’ major claim to fame (apart from its Roman heritage) is that it was the birthplace of denim. In the early 1900s the town’s merchants exported cloth from Nîmes (“de Nîmes”) to the United States, an enterprising chap named Levi Strauss used this fabric to make trousers, and the rest is history. Today, you can find designer jeans and much more besides in the pedestrian centre (try rue de la Madeleine, rue de l’Aspic or rue des Marchands for a good selection of small, independent outlets): fans of contemporary interior design will love Domus on rue de l’Horloge, or R.B.C (www.rbcmobilier.com) on place du Salamandre, where homeware masterpieces by French style guru Philippe Starck nestle alongside names such as Alessi, Flos and Artemide.
Worth knowing about
Take a coffee and croissant break at the fabulously retro Courtois patisserie on Place du Marché (the mini meringues served with coffee are to die for), and at lunchtime, choose from the many bistrots with pavement tables (in summer, you can top up your tan while you dine). For aperitifs, the Bar Victor Hugo on the boulevard of the same name is the place to see and be seen: afterwards, splash the cash at L’Exaequo; a designer restaurant with interior courtyard and a dressy crowd. Nights in Nîmes are magical; the major monuments are beautifully lit and romance reigns supreme. The city really comes alive at feria time, when the drinking and dancing joints known as bodegas start jumping and the party goes on till late - the Feria des Vendanges is held every year in autumn and is not to be missed. Ready for bed? Lay your weary head at Les Jardins Secrets (www.jardinssecrets.net), a beautiful boutique hotel on rue Gaston Maruejols.
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Perpignan – Languedoc’s best-kept secret
Allegedly, Salvador Dalí once referred to Perpignan’s railway station as "the centre of the world" (high praise indeed), and although the city is smaller than Montpellier or Nîmes, its attractions are by no means surreal.
What to buy
The centre of Perpignan boasts some brilliant boutiques, and the cobbled streets leading from the Castillet tower are happy hunting ground for foodies and fashion lovers alike. On rue Grande des Fabriques, Maison Quinta (www.maison-quinta.com) is a treasure trove of Catalan fabrics and furnishings with oodles of style. In the market for authentic striped canvas espadrilles or funky table linen? You’ve come to the right place. The rue de l’Ange has upmarket boutiques, cafés and salons de thé (the Paradis Fouillis serves a good brew), while the rue des Trois Journées is home to Catalan-style decoration and fashion; Boutique 66 on rue Foch is one of the best addresses. For the ultimate French experience, go to Escargots du Roussillon on Place de la Republique (it’s the perfect place to buy fresh snails and other gourmet ingredients to make a tasty picnic or aperitif-time snack).
Where to chill
When you’ve filled your shopping bags, you can fill your boots. Wallet-friendly restaurants serve dishes with a distinctly Spanish flavour (think spicy seafood with saffron rice), and Perpignan offers excellent al fresco dining - the set menu at L'Arago brasserie is good value, and what’s more, it’s available seven days a week (many restaurants in France are closed on Sundays or Mondays). Mingle with the in-crowd at Le Habana Club on rue Grande des Fabriques, then cross the street for Catalan cuisine at Le VIP. After dinner, Les Trois Soeurs on Place Gambetta and the Republic Café are both lively, and in summer, free street concerts are the order of the day (see www.perpignantourisme.com or call +33 4 68 66 30 30 for full details of events happening in the city) .
Worth knowing about
For sightseeing, put the Castillet tower, the Palais des Rois de Majorque (formerly a king’s residence, now an imposing citadel with great views), the Cathédrale Saint-Jean and the surrounding network of narrow streets on your list. One of the best ways to visit Perpignan’s sites of historic interest is to time your visit around the first two weeks of September and coincide it with the Festival International du Photojournalisme, also known as Le Visa pour l’Image (www.visapourlimage.com), a world-famous celebration of photojournalism that stages free exhibitions of work around the city – so not only can you admire the snaps but the settings as well, and all for nought. Other top times to be in town are Good Friday, for the somewhat spooky Procession de la Sanch, and the midsummer Fête de la Saint Jean (June 23) when the night sky is lit up with bonfires and firework displays. Wandering through Perpignan’s historic heart, you may stumble across Croque La Lune; housed in a former convent on rue François Boher, it’s one of the best value B&Bs in town, and a great place to lay your head at the end of a busy day’s sightseeing.
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Carcassonne – how to be king of the castle
Compared to the other Languedoc cities reviewed here, Carcassonne is certainly petite (it has a population of around 48,000, compared to Montpellier’s 211,000) but perfectly formed.
No trip to Carcassonne is complete without calling in at la Cité, the incredibly well-preserved architectural wonder perched on a hill outside the city itself. Admire the 19th century folly which inspired Walt Disney when he was designing Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and marvel at the cobbled streets, crenellated walls, turrets and towers making up the medieval fantasy that draws more than 200,000 visitors every summer - a number set to soar, thanks to the success of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and the film of the same name. For everything you ever wanted to know about la Cité, including opening hours and a virtual visit, view our Guide to Carcassonne Citadel.
If the thought of thousands of tourists gives you the shudders, you can always beat a retreat in grand style: treat yourself at the four star, ivy-covered Hotel de la Cité (www.hoteldelacite.com), where there are not one but two restaurants – the Michelin-starred La Barbacane, a veritable temple of gastronomy, and Chez Saskia, where dining is a little more relaxed. Just remember to dress up a little and book ahead. Rooms start at €250, so travellers on a budget might want to try the youth hostel (www.fuaj.org); it ain’t fancy but at least it’s clean, cheap, and has a stunning location within the walls of the medieval city.
Apart from la Cité there are few major landmarks in Carcassonne; relax, and head down into the lower town, known as the Bastide Saint Louis, where you can wander through the maze of picturesque streets. The gloriously old-fashioned Place du Château sells regional delicacies like grés de la cite (a delicious almond and vanilla confection), and the Bar à Vins on rue Plô is perfect for drinking in the vibes (and a glass or two of local vin rouge) and nibbling tapas. Linger a little longer on Place Carnot, then sample the cassoulet (a local dish made of beans, duck and sausage) at Bistro Florian. For people watching, the shade of the plane trees at Bar Felix is hard to beat, and on Saturday mornings you’ll witness the weekly market and its trestle tables heaving with local produce. Pick up some provisions and picnic on the banks of the Aude, by the pretty Pont Vieux. Carcassonne won’t suit disco bunnies – if you want wild nightlife, you’re in the wrong place – but for some, unwinding in the authentic atmosphere is just what the doctor ordered. If you need a little more guidance to help you get the most out of your stay, contact the Carcassonne tourist office on +33 (0)4 68 10 24 30 or visit:
View our Guide to Carcassonne Citadel >
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