Choose your pace in this dramatic region of France
Philip Bowern escaped the British gloom for a holiday full of sunshine and excitement in southern France.
It is nice to stay in a holiday home with a story attached. And the Domain de Cantafaroune, in the stony foothills of the Cevennes, between the Mediterranean and the mountains, has stories by the wine barrel-full.
We arrived for a week's holiday in the large apartment above owners Sharon and Dom Nagel's home to the accompaniment of incessant chirping from the cicadas and unmistakable evidence that this had once been a substantial wine-producing property. The cement fermentation tanks were still there, built into the side of the main house, and the door through which the harvested grapes would have been tipped to start the de-stemming and crushing process was still in evidence.
The apartment where we were staying had been converted from a grape pickers' dormitory – all confirmation that this was, until relatively recently, a fully functioning winery. Today, however, the Domain de Cantafaroune, with swimming pool set in a large walled garden and an attractive terrace that captures the morning sun, is a holiday home that is just about perfectly placed to take in the delights of this spectacular corner of the Languedoc Roussillon region.
It is a region less trendy and less crowded than Provence and the Riviera – eastwards along the coast – but just as interesting.
The Domain, on the edge of the tiny village of Lauret, sits tucked under a ridge of hills that run up to the famous Pic St Loup mountain, a peak visible for many miles around that stands at 2,159ft (658m) above sea level. Little more than 20km away is Montpellier with its fascinating maze of medieval streets and vibrant cultural life, thanks in part to its young, multi-cultural population. A little further away, to the north-east of the Domain, lies the more traditional French city of Nimes, with its 1,000-year-old Roman amphitheatre, the Arena.
After enduring the rain and chill of early summer in Britain, arriving in the south of France, with the mercury touching the mid-30s centigrade, was something of a shock to the system. So we had a difficult choice to make having settled into our comfortable, two-bedroom holiday home. Should we immediately set about exploring an area we had never visited before or take a book and a cold drink to the pool and simply chill?
In the end, common sense dictated that, after a near eight-hour drive from our holiday home for the first week of our break, between Royan and Cognac, we should catch our breath and then get exploring. Domain de Cantafaroune proved the perfect spot to spend a day relaxing locally, followed by a day exploring further afield in the car – a pattern we pretty much stuck to during our week-long break.
The delights within just a few minutes of the Domain were significant. Valflaunes, a modest hilltop village a few kilometres away, held one of those sleepy Sunday-morning markets that only seem to be able to stay in business in France. Two fruit and veg stalls, a butcher in a big white van with a fold-down side, a fishmonger, spit-roast chicken stand and a couple of specialists in local cheese and honey set up for business, alongside a baker who was selling his wood-oven baked loaves by the kilo, sawn into massive chunks to the customers' requirements.
There were not, frankly, that many customers, but the stall-holders did brisk business with those that were there and we joined them to add to the takings. Driving later in the other direction to the village of Corconne, we stocked up on wine from the superb air-conditioned shop of the co-operative La Gravette, where you could browse, taste and buy the mostly modestly priced local wines. Pic St Loup AC wine must be red or rosé. Growers can, however, make white wines under the Coteaux de Languedoc appellation and for just 30 euros we took away a mixed half-case.
More serious red wines were purchased from Mas de L'Oncle, a rising star of the local wine industry making relatively small quantities of fabulously concentrated and long-lived reds from the Syrah and Grenache grapes that thrive in the stony soil and baking sunshine. The proprietor, in his 20s, uncorked all five bottles in his range for an impromptu tasting when we turned up, out of the blue, at his tiny winery in Lauret. The best wines, at around 18 euros a bottle, will last for a decade or more and should mature beautifully. We bought a half-dozen to take home.
After that "rest day", we headed for the seaside to cool off in the Mediterranean. It was blissful – although finding just the right spot on the long beach that runs for miles along this coast, south of Montpellier, would not have been so easy without the advice of Dom and Sharon. They suggested a relatively quiet stretch of sand on this busy coast, between the two big resorts of Carnon Plage and La Flotte, which proved ideal. The drive home, alongside the Petite Carmargue and its pink flamingos, which get their colour from the crustaceans they feed on, was almost other-wordly – like driving alongside a scorching and much larger Slapton Ley with the sea on one side and the giant lakes on the other while the famous black bulls of the Carmargue grazed in the background.
After another quiet day at the Domain, it was time for a trip into the bustling, buzzy, white-hot centre of Montpellier. The best way to reach the central plaza, the Place de la Comedie, is by tram. For 4.50 euros we parked the car on the northern edge of the city at a big tram stop and were handed four go-anywhere tickets. Stepping out into the plaza, known as L' Ouef by locals because of its vaguely egg-shape, the sun hits you between the eyes, bouncing off every pale stony surface in this beautiful limestone city. But dive into the maze of streets and you enter a cooler, shady world packed with fascinating shops, restaurants and bars. We walked to the Arc de Triomphe, a small-scale version of the one in Paris, the botanical gardens and then spent a couple of air-conditioned hours viewing the vast collection of classical and 20th-century paintings in the city's major museum, The Musée Fabre.
Our next outing to Nimes was timed to take advantage of the evening market stalls and musical entertainment that fills virtually every square in the city on summer Thursdays from 6pm. We arrived mid-afternoon and took in a tour of the Arena first, the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre in Europe that is still used for rock concerts (Bob Dylan was there a few days after we left) and bull fights, which are very popular in this corner of France.
Later, pushing through the crowds in one of the narrow lanes leading off the main square, we chanced upon an ancient bar where locals were spilling out on to the pavement and a huge flat-screen TV had been set up, beaming live bullfight coverage from across the border in Spain. After a Spanish-influenced dinner of paella in a traditional Carmargue restaurant in one of the tiny but beautiful squares, we drove home in the gathering dark, vines turning from green to black as far as the eye could see until the Pic St Loup – by now "our mountain" – loomed ahead and we knew we were home.
As we left the Domain at the end of our stay, we were caught up in another story – the Tour de France. Stage 13, Saint Paul Trois Chateaux to Le Cap d'Adge, went right past the end of the lane leading to Domain de Cantafaroune and followed our proposed route to the autoroute. As we drove across the twisty roads, the French were setting up their picnic tables and garden chairs to get the best view of the action. We zoomed by, GB plates to the fore, occasionally shouting "allez Wiggins" from the open window. We made it before the road closed ahead of us with minutes to spare, after a delightful woman gendarme urged us to go "vite, vite". It was the perfect dramatic end to a great holiday in this peaceful yet dramatic region.