Drive south for sweet and heady delights
There are plenty of "wonders of the world" that when you see them, after years of imagining what they will be like, disappoint.
The Pont du Gard, the magnificent honey-coloured, three-tier stone viaduct across the river Gardon in the south of France, is not like that. If anything, it looks bigger, more impressive and more spectacular than you thought it would.
We visited on a scorchingly hot July day. The car park was packed and the collection of ticket offices and shops, sited a few hundred yards from the viaduct itself, were teeming with visitors from all over the world. Yet such is the scale of the monument that as you turn the corner on the wide path and face it square-on, the hordes of people seem to shrink away as the enormity of the structure takes over.
The facts and figures are staggering. Fifty metres high and part of a 50km-long aqueduct built by the Romans in the first century AD to carry water to the city of Nimes, the span itself across the river measures 360 metres.
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More than 21,000 cubic metres of rock, weighing 50,400 tonnes, were used in the construction. The builders worked with numbered stones, using scaffolding and hoists to haul the blocks into place.
We drank it all in, watching the swimmers and kayakers in the river Gardon below and craning our necks to admire the top tier of arches that are surely the epitome of form and function. If anyone knew how to make the beautiful useful and the useful beautiful, it was the Romans.
But fabulous architecture and history are all very well. Sometimes you need a bit of counterpoint to all that. Heading back towards Uzes, Pont du Gard's closest town, you can find the complete opposite to a magnificent Roman structure. Haribo is a name familiar to anyone who has ever organised a children's party.
They make those big bags of coloured sweets and they have an amazing Musee du Bonbons deep in the French countryside thanks, in the main, to the fact that this area used to be famous for its liquorice and liquorice was – and remains – a prime ingredient in Haribo sweets.
For a few euros you can tour the museum and factory – where today they make a mint-flavoured liqueur but no longer manufacture confectionery – and see the history and technology of the sweet-making process. At the end of your tour you are funnelled into a massive Haribo sweet shop. Adults and children alike were stocking up on discount-priced sweets in quantities that would have kept a Roman Legion on a sugar high for days.
We opted to pass on the sweets, having already been given huge handfuls as part of our tour, and headed to the lovely old town of Uzes for dinner. Les Terroirs, a restaurant that makes the most of local, often organic produce, is on a corner of the beautiful, tree-filled main square and we tucked in to some Spanish-inspired dishes made with a large dash of French flair.
Home for our week-long holiday in the Languedoc was a Brittany Ferries gite, Domaine de Cantafaroune at Lauret, a hamlet in the middle of the wine-producing Pic St Loup area. With comfortable accommodation, lovely terrace, beautiful pool and attentive and very knowledgeable hosts in Sharon and Dom Nagel, we mixed mornings by the pool with afternoon excursions. And there is much to see. We had explored the two nearest big towns, Nimes and Montpellier, on a previous visit and so with just a week to spare, chose other days out.
The medieval village of Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert is a community on the pilgrims' Chemin de St Jacques route to Santiago de Compostela. St Guilhem is a kind of inland French version of Devon's Clovelly, with a steep street lined with ancient homes and a few shops leading down to the river Herault. At the top of the village is a lovely old monastery that makes up one side of the cafe-lined square.
On another day out we headed for Sete, the biggest fishing town on the Languedoc coast and, like all fishing ports, a lively place.
Sete is famous for its water jousting, in which locals compete in the canal that bisects the town, to tip each other out of rival boats. The combat here is not only for fun, either, it seems.
As we turned into one narrow, boutique-filled street, a large man in a white outfit was clutching his head, blood pouring down his suit, as police officers swarmed towards him. It was the kind of incident that would have attracted a crowd of rubber-neckers at home. The people of Sete tried to carry on with their business – it was nearly lunchtime – looking only mildly concerned that the police cars and ambulance blocking the road might delay their journey to restaurant or dining room.
Roman Arles, in the Bouche du Rhone, was a little further afield, but well worth the journey. The potential for marital discord on longish journeys through unfamiliar country are legion. Yet despite my proposed and more direct route being metaphorically thrown out of the window, the alternative, from my wife, proved delightful, taking us through the magnificent Camargue with its white horses, black bulls, flamingos and rice fields.
Its endless horizons and shimmering standing water give the Camargue an other-wordly quality. We had no more than a brief taste of this fascinating area of Europe, well worth a holiday all on its own, but we were desperate to get a chance to explore Arles and so pressed on.
The city, almost at the mouth of the wide river Rhone, has that slightly shabby southern French appeal, but the largely pedestrianised centre is well kept and the Arena or amphitheatre – another Roman marvel – is cheek-by-jowl with cafes, shops and houses, giving it a far more intimate feel than the larger and rather better preserved Arena at nearby Nimes.
Vincent Van Gough has left his mark on this city – it is where he painted his famous sunflowers and cut off his ear – but although he is celebrated everywhere on postcards and tea towels, little of his art remains in Arles, which is a shame. We drove "home" via the more direct route, stopping for dinner at the riverside town of Sommieres. Restaurants are generally a doddle for the rather less-than-fluent French speaker since the menu is all written down and, if desperate, one can simply point! Our choice of eating place in Sommieres allowed no such luxury. "La carte?" I asked our waitress. "Je suis la carte," she replied and proceeded to describe the – mercifully short – menu to us.
I went for the canard (duck) and the rest of the family opted for the thon (tuna). It was delicious and, sitting outside in the square, the default place to eat in any southern French town in July, we were treated to the entertainment – a three-piece jazz band serenading diners.
Despite the long journey by car from Channel ports, the Languedoc is a fabulous part of France to visit; quieter and less frantic than the Riviera to the east. The far south of France used to be one of the major contributors to the Common Market wine lake – a largely undrinkable swamp of low-grade booze. Many people agreed it was less good for drinking than running the Citroen. Some was indeed turned into fuel. In recent decades that has changed.
Our gite was right in the middle of the Pic St Loup, a wine-producing area with some 50-plus wineries leading the way in raising quality standards. The name comes from the mountain or "Pic" that dominates the whole area. Just across the road from where we were staying was one of the stars of the appellation, Chateau de Lancyre. If your idea of a chateau was formed in Bordeaux, the huddle of old stone farm buildings that make up Lancyre might come as a surprise. But a half century ago this was mostly sheep farming country. Only when demand for lamb fell away because of overseas competition, did wine become really important. At Lancyre they make red and rose under the Pic St Loup name and a delicious white that, at the moment, thanks to convoluted French wine laws, they can sell only as Coteaux de Languedoc. Assisted by Sharon Nagel, our host who is also a wine writer researching a book on the area's wines, I slurped and sloshed my way through the star wines of Lancyre and left with a case for well under 100 euro. If you want an idea of what Pic St Loup wines are like, several are now available in UK supermarkets, truly a mark that they have "arrived". Best of all, however, take a trip south and bring back a case or several. The journey is a breeze and the distractions while you are down there are breathtaking.