The Small Pleasures of Languedoc
Written by Mary Jane Grant
I had planned to come to Languedoc for a three-week creative retreat, but once I learned about the unique beauty, history and charm of this lesser known part of France, I decided to stay longer and explore even further. In the process, I discovered the small pleasures of Languedoc and its unhurried approach to life.
Languedoc is in the south of France, extending west from the Rhone along the coast of the Mediterranean to Spain, and inland through sun-drenched plains to rugged mountains. Compared to its gentrified neighbor Provence, Languedoc seems more rustic and unselfconsciously authentic. In fact, due to its lower profile, Languedoc has been dubbed the “secret south of France.”
To say Languedoc has something for everyone is not an exaggeration. It is steeped in history with an abundance of medieval towns, castles and ancient ruins. Outdoor types can hike through the rocky, hilly terrain and walk along pebbled seashores. Foodies come for the incredible variety of local specialties, from fresh oysters in the Thau lagoon to heady cassoulet stew in the Carcassonne region. Given that Languedoc is the largest producing wine region in the world, wine enthusiasts can sample a broad range of products from both large and emerging producers.
RETREAT TO LA MUSE
I started my Languedoc adventure in a rambling stone building called La Muse, situated at the top of a steep hill in the tiny mountain town of Labastide-Esparbairenque, about forty minutes outside Carcassonne. La Muse is a retreat center for creative types, run by John and Kerry Fanning. She’s an American textile artist and he’s an Irish writer. They live with their three kids in a house adjacent to La Muse. At La Muse, John and Kerry provide an exceptional space for guests to engage in a process of creative discovery.
I shared La Muse with two painters, one musician, and two other writers. We cooked our own meals in a communal kitchen. In the evenings we sat around the table sampling wine, sharing food, talking about our work and books we love and experiences we’ve had. In the late afternoon, we ended up in pairs or clusters, hiking along trails and gravel roads and pathways through the stunning small mountains. During the day, we worked. Conversations were brief, privacy was respected, and personal creative space was preserved.
Every day, I wrote at the marble-topped desk tucked into a window nook in my room. Like everywhere at La Muse, my room had a shabby elegance that was oddly comforting. Two deep nooks encased tall windows overlooking the valley to the small mountain on the other side. In the morning, I sat at my desk and tracked the sun as it grazed the top of the mountain across the valley, then slowly descended to bathe the entire scene in light. The fireplace behind me wore a crooked mantle made from the signature grey marble of the Minervois. Flanking that was an oak wardrobe on one side and a large dresser with carved drawers and a few missing handles on the other side. The bed was sturdy and I loved sleeping in the softly worn antique French linens, under the heavy sheepskin cover.
As days rolled into weeks, I fell into a wonderful creative rhythm at La Muse. Time didn’t seem to exist, which is why I was caught by surprise when my three weeks came to an end. But I was buoyed by the fact that I had a complete first draft of my next book in my knapsack!
STAYING IN A SECRET GARDEN
After the retreat, I met up with friends and family to explore the Languedoc together. Our next stop was the town of Pezenas, known for its antiques and markets.
If Languedoc is the secret south of France then ‘Le Couvent,’ a 17th century convent converted into apartments, is a secret within a secret. We entered the property through a large metal door in a high stucco wall and found ourselves in a huge, magical garden edged by the three-storey, elegant convent building. Soft light and dappled shade played under tall trees set in a lawn of smooth gravel in the French style. Weathered teak chairs and small kettle shaped barbeques were arrayed in seating areas near raised herb gardens. A series of tall French doors spanned the front of the lovely building, each set of three denoting a single apartment. Inside, the open concept main floor had a large living and dining area with a galley kitchen and two-piece bathroom. Up the spiral staircase was the mezzanine, which was set up as a library with extra sleeping space. The top floor had two huge, elegant bedrooms each with a large en suite bathroom.
The next day we walked two blocks to the town’s famous Saturday market. Consuming the wide main street from end to end, the market features fruit and vegetable vendors at one end, a clothing bazaar in the middle and prepared food vendors at the far end. We loaded up on produce from the first harvest of asparagus, radishes and strawberries! We bought homemade tapenades – made of sun-dried tomato and herb, garlic and white bean and of course, olives both green and black. Back on the private patio in front of our apartment, we made a picnic lunch from our market wares. (In the heart of summer, this same street is host to “Estival” on Wednesday and Friday nights, with stalls featuring food, wine and other wares.)
Sunday, we wandered aimlessly in the Old Town section of Pezenas. We found ourselves in Aparte, a crammed second-hand bookshop with coffee tables tucked into alcoves and corners. The café crème was excellent and we lingered in the book-lined space. Later, we opted for late lunch at Belle Epoque, where an amiable waiter served a delicious 3-course, prix fixe lunch of goat cheese salad, followed by beef au jus with hand cut fries and spring vegetables and ending with house-made ice cream. And local wine of course!
Pezenas sits within easy reach of the sea on a route filled with vineyards and wineries. What could be better? We decided to make an expedition to Bouzigues, a seaside town famous for the oyster beds that fill its bay.
On the way, we stopped at Mas du Novi, a small winery overlooking the stunning Abbey Valmagne. The new tasting room takes full advantage of the beautiful views in all directions, and the hosts are generous in their invitations to sample. We purchased their ‘Lou Rosat’ rose, a perfect casual wine for summer BBQs.
We carried on to Bouzigues and strolled the colourful waterfront street, lined with seafood restaurants. But they were all closed for the typically French mid-afternoon break! About to give up, we came upon a patio crammed with people enjoying late lunch. We learned that this restaurant, La Tchepe is the only establishment that stays open all day. It’s part retailer and part restaurant, which is why its surroundings are simple and its prices are reasonable. It turned out to be the perfect place to sit outside and feast on raw oysters, washed down with the perfectly astringent local white wine, Picpoul-de-Pinet.
ONWARDS AND UPWARDS
After a week at Le Couvent, we had adapted completely to the pace of life in the south of France. Mornings were spent wandering the markets, choosing from a wonderful array of fresh local foods. Middays were made for a bit of cooking before lunch on the shady patio, followed by a snooze in one of the hammocks under the tall trees in the secret garden. Late afternoons were spent reading or exploring the surrounding countryside. Early evenings we played the French ball game of ‘patanques’ on the sandy court. And evenings were made for long lazy meals, taken in local restaurants or at home…
So a tiny bit of regret mixed with our excitement as we left Pezenas for our final destination in Languedoc. The drive was beautiful and as we wound our way up a long and narrow lane, the white turrets of a chateau emerged from behind the trees. Upon entering the courtyard, we were struck by the elegant beauty of “Les Carrasses.”
Les Carrasses is an authentic 1800s French country chateau that has been renovated to the highest standards. Every building on the property is an original part of a working winery community. Now these buildings provide the suites, apartments and villas that guests of the chateau live in relaxed luxury. Each suite has a fully equipped kitchen and is furnished with everything you need to be self-sufficient. Many guests combine a degree of self-catering while enjoying the hotel’s facilities and services as well.
We were led to our apartment, which was called the “Grand Salon.” It was a huge and supremely elegant apartment, decorated in a modern yet classic French style. Massive windows overlooked the terraces and infinity pool to the vineyards beyond. Our fully equipped kitchen could be completely hidden behind over-sized pocket doors. Two massive bedroom suites were beautifully appointed and each en suite bathroom had all the features and amenities one could ever want.
We started our experience with lunch on the terrace, protected from the sun by wide white sails stretched from one end to the other. To accompany the three-course prix fixe lunch that featured asparagus, goat cheese, grilled fish and a dessert of mint-enhanced fresh local strawberries, we enjoyed a bottle of Les Carrasses’ own light and fruity rose wine.
While my son and his friends spent the afternoon lounging by the heated infinity pool, I elected to sit and read in ‘La Serre,’ the glass-walled conservatory sitting room said to be designed by Monsieur Eiffel himself!
Dinner that night was a tapas style meal comprised of generously laden platters of seafood, cheeses, olives, breads and meat later followed by dessert platter.
Life was beautiful at Les Carrasses, which made it difficult to leave even for brief excursions. One day we managed a trip to the small winery Chateau Capitoul. Built in the late nineteenth century, the Château Capitoul is nestled in a grove of tall pine trees, offering a magnificent view over a landscape of vineyards and lakes, with the Pyrenees in the background.
We tasted an array of their wines. Stand-outs among the reds include Rocaille, a warm, spicy Languedoc blend of syrah, grenache and carignan; and Maelma, a refined and polished wine with flavors of cherries and berries, balanced with spice and minerality. We also had a chance to try their late-harvest sweet wine called “Les Oubliees” which means “forgotten,” as the grapes are left long on the vines to concentrate the sugars.
As we left the “secret south of France” we were filled with happy memories of long, tranquil days offering an incredible variety of sensory experiences to soothe body, mind and spirit.