Regular readers (Regular? You haven’t written a newsletter in 10 months! – Ed) will know that last year we launched a new tour in the Languedoc region of France.
I was lucky enough to go on two of our Languedoc trips, and I must say I love the tour.
This piece isn’t really about the Languedoc tour, it’s to introduce an album of photographs to you.
These photos were taken by Patrick Hudgell, a wonderful photographer. His wife tells me off for saying nice things about him. So I’ll just say ‘thank you Patrick’ and you can judge for yourself.
I’ve put an album of 65 photos on our Flickr photostream.
The photos in the album are in ‘taken’ order, so it’s almost a day-by-day guide to our Languedoc tour.
To introduce the album to you, I’ve chosen 5 photos. It was difficult to limit myself to 5, but these are the 5 that most reminded me of the Languedoc. Not necessarily the highlights, nor the best, whatever that means, but the 5 that most made me think of the Languedoc.
If you click on any image, you can enlarge it. You can see the whole album here.
OK, here goes.1. The first photo is just two people cycling on an empty road. The cycling in Languedoc is lovely – we spend a lot of time on dedicated bike paths, away from traffic. This photo just reminds me why I like cycling – hello to Priscila. I’ve got the other photos that go with this one. She’s not leading the group, she’s just not quite at the back.
This was one of the most exciting things about the Camargue for me. The Camargue is a vast area of wetlands formed by the Rhone delta. The variety of wildlife is amazing – there’s a regular noise and rustle of small animals as we cycle along. Famously there are the bulls and the wild white horses, but we saw lots of Great Egrets, Storks, Herons, we even saw a turtle (the European Pond Turtle, Finn, not the bike-riding turtle).
The most exciting for me were the famingos. In the area south of Aigues-Mortes, there were dozens and dozens of them. In flight they’re amazing – reminded me of a cello bow in flight.
And this photo reminds me of them.
3. Vineyards and wines.
Languedoc-Rousillon is a huge wine-producing region. The weather is perfect for growing grapes, and the Languedoc, until recently, had a reputation for producing vast lakes of ‘OK’ French plonk, under a series of Vins de Pays labels such as Herault, Rousillon, Corbieres L’Aude.
Recently the story has become much more interesting.As ever, there are historical reasons that lie behind where we are today. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Languedoc produced quality wines of some reknown. But, when the phylloxera epidemic destroyed European vines at the end of the 19th century, the resistant American vines didn’t take well to the poor soil. The varieties that thrived in Languedoc produced large yields of thin, poor quality wine. This was often blended with rich wines from the French colonoy of Algeria, so when Algeria was lost to them after the Second World War, that’s when we saw the development of Languedoc wines as cheap, poor quality wines, produced in vast quantities.
European readers in particular will be familiar with the European Union ‘Wine Lake’ of the 70s and 80s – Languedoc was the largest contributor to the lake. Chapeau guys! For all the wrong reasons.
So here’s where it got interesting. Because most Languedoc wines were only classified as ‘Vin de Pays’ rather than ‘Appellation d’Origine Controllée’, the rules were much looser. Combined with generous EU subsidies to reduce the acreage of these low-quality vines, Languedoc producers had more freedom than their counterparts in the Rhone Valley, or Bordeaux, or Burgundy, just as the technology of wine-making was enabling them to experiment with new varieties, different blends, even different ways pruning their vines. So we come to today, where there are many, many fine producers of high-quality wine in Languedoc, and we certainly do our best to support them!
On our tour, we visit vineyards in Costiere de Nimes, and in the Duché d’Uzes, one of the newest appellations in France. There is no snobbery around Languedoc wines. Because they don’t have centuries-old appellations attached to them, with suffocating rules, producers sell their wines based on personal reputation and quality. In many ways it’s more exciting than exploring the wines of Bordeaux, because there are more surprises, pleasant ones.
I chose this photo because it embodies the more relaxed attitude of wine-making in Languedoc. This is Marina and Ricardo from Brazil. It was the last week of August, and in Languedoc by this time of year the grapes are ready to burst, deliciously sweet. Admittedly we were stealing them, but I still like the photo.
4. There are so many Roman sites in Languedoc. Most famously of all there is the incomparable aquaduct of Pont du Gard near Uzes, but also the old Roman port of Narbonne, and Nimes, boasting the beautiful Maison Carrée and the stunning arena.On our Languedoc tour we actually spend a night on the wrong side of the river Rhone, in Arles – technically in Provence. But it also boasts both an arena and a theatre.
This photo is of the Arena in Nimes, but I chose it because I’m reminded of all the Roman remains on this tour.
In the UK, we have plenty of Roman sites – not least my home town of Exeter. But you have to look quite hard for them, and they’ve often been revealed by archeologists – i.e. they had to dig down to find them. In Languedoc and Provence you can see these vast and beautiful edifices, still the central focus of towns like Arles, Orange and Nimes. We stay right next to this arena, and we eat about 50 metres from it. It is so ordinary to anybody from Nimes, and so extraordinary to us.
On our Thursday morning we have a bit of a Roman day – we visit the Arena, we see the amazing Castellum Aquae, where the water from the Pont du Gard arrived in Nimes and was distributed around the town; we stop at the old Roman market, the spectacular Maison Carrée, and visit the Roman Fontaine de Nimes, which the Pond du Gard was designed to augment.
This photo gives the best idea of the scale of the arena, but there are lots of great photos in the gallery.
5. Gill’s Birthday.
We always try to lay on champagne and a birthday cake if we can. It doesn’t always work out brilliantly – the combination of trying to keep it secret while co-ordinating the efforts of hotels and restaurants and somehow skating over the lack of choice for dessert. I blame the restaurant owners – they’re all French.
But this worked very well, and I think it captures perfectly the spirit we hope to have together by the end of the week. Joyce looks nearly as pleased as Gill, and that’s exactly how it should be.
So, if you fancy a closer look at our Languedoc tour, click here to enjoy a fabulous collection of photographs.