Festive Languedoc delivers
Canal du Midi, a waterway that links the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.

It is chilly in the wine "cave". The local vigneron wears heavy overalls and thick gumboots.

More France travel:
CANAL TRIP IN THE SOUTH OF FRANCE
CRUISE EUROPE'S RIVERS
FRANCE BY BARGE
ONE NIGHT IN PARIS
WHERE TO DINE IN PARIS

A woollen beanie is pulled low over his ears, accenting a nose that is better suited to Gerard Depardieu. His lips hold a cigarette in a vice-like grip. He gestures at our two 20-litre recycled plastic water containers.

"Rouge ou blanc," he mumbles without dislodging his cigarette. "Rouge et blanc, s'il vous plait, monsieur," I reply, exhausting my entire French vocabulary.

Monsieur grasps the business end of a what looks like a petrol bowser, inserts the nozzle and fills one of our water bottles with red wine from one of the stainless-steel vats which line the walls of the cave. The cost of a container full of a very drinkable minervois grenache is less than a dollar per litre. If only cars ran on wine.

We are in Languedoc in December. It's the Christmas season. Our long summer holidays present an opportunity for Australian travellers to take advantage of the European winter.

Those of us not inclined to risk death, injury or penury on the ski slopes can head to southern Europe to enjoy reduced prices, plentiful accommodation options, a choice of restaurant tables and a complete absence of the queues that mar the summer tourist season in France.


WELCOME CHILL

The winter months in the Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south of France bring similar mild conditions to those we enjoy in Perth. It is cold but not icy. There are occasional heavy showers but consecutive days of clear skies and, for the most part, an absence of wind. This area is blessed with 300 days of sunshine a year.

Languedoc delivers mountains and the Mediterranean, canals and lagoons, woods and vineyards. The area offers ancient villages and busy cities, Roman ruins and crumbling Cathar castles.

The forests produce game in abundance which appears on restaurant menus as roasted duck, wild boar pate, roast pheasant, baked rabbit, venison and boar. The salty lagoon of the Etang de Thau ensures an endless supply of juicy mussels, succulent clams and plump oysters. The Mediterranean offers fresh mackerel, cod, monkfish, tuna, bream, sea bass and a variety of shellfish.


DINING

The glutton can test his/her capacity with the cassoulet (a thick casserole of white beans, duck and pork) or the Bourride de Baudroie (a traditional fish stew). The gourmand might prefer the langouste a la setoise (a delicate lobster dish created in the port town of Sete) or, depending on the thickness of the wallet, slices of truffle drizzled with olive oil.

Naturally, good food must be matched by fine wine. The Languedoc-Roussillon winegrowing area is the largest in the world. It spreads across 300,000ha and produces excellent reds, fruity roses and a very acceptable white vin de pays. Wine cellars, or caves as they are known, offer tastings and ridiculously cheap bottles and flagons for purchase.

This region celebrates the yuletide season with gusto. Each of the towns of Languedoc has its own appeal and unique take on Christmas. Some of the liveliest and most interesting Christmas markets are to be found in Montpellier, Beziers and Narbonne. Each of these towns is linked by train and bus. By road they are joined by the A9 and the distance from Montpellier to Narbonne passing through Beziers is only 75km.


MONTPELLIER

Montpellier is a university city and more than a third of its residents are under 25 years old.

The narrow streets of the old city are lined with cafes, cheap restaurants and bookshops catering to the student population. At the centre of the city is the Place de la Comedie, its cobbled square the stage for street theatre, circus performers, puppet shows, buskers and human statues.

In December the square hosts the Marche de Noel or Christmas Market from the first week in December until the new year. The market sells traditional wooden toys and Christmas decorations, scented candles, knitted goods, lacework, handicrafts and jewellery. Food stalls offer honey, foie gras, preserves and local cheeses such as Roquefort.

Some offer hot food in the form of crepes and alligote, a potato and cheese mixture that stretches like elastic. It may not look very appetising but it tastes delicious.

Many stalls sell vin chaud, a mulled red wine and a delightful way to warm up.

Little huts dot the square and run the length of the Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. These huts, called "cabanes de gardiens" represent the simple homes of the "cowboys of the Camargue" region, nearby.

Huge plane trees, devoid of their leaves, line the square and surrounding streets. No tacky Christmas lights here - every tree is strung with silver and blue (energy-saving) lights giving the old town the air of a very tasteful Christmas fairyland.


ICE SKATING

A short walk away from the Place de Comedie along the Esplanade will take you to the patinoire, the ice-skating rink. It is open to everyone and skates can be hired. If you are feeling even more intrepid, have a go on the mini ski piste close by. Beware of flying snowballs. If you have the kids with you, they are sure to attack the large pile of snow that is replenished each day for just such a purpose.

West of Montpellier is Beziers, the birthplace of Paul Riquet, the designer of the Canal du Midi. A statue in the Allees Paul Riquet pays tribute to his vision of a waterway that would link the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Nineteenth-century buildings line the streets and the numerous squares are bordered by ancient trees. From the top of the hills the St Nazaire Cathedral towers over the town and is a prime spot to view the Orb Valley below.

For the two weeks leading up to Christmas the Beziers Marche du Noel stretches from the pedestrian square in front of the theatre all the way down the Allees Paul Riquet. The little wooden huts sell intricately carved wooden decorations along with chestnuts in many forms. A Christmas fun fair occupies the length of the grassed stretch between the two roads which form the Boulevard.

Rides, dodgem cars, rifle shooting, coconut shies, clowns and Punch and Judy shows provide activities for all ages.

South-west of Beziers lies Narbonne, an ancient town neatly bisected by the Canal du Robine. Once a Roman provincial capital the town reflects its heritage in its monuments, archaeological museums and remains of the Roman Via Domitia.


SANTONS

The heart of Narbonne is Les Halles, the covered markets in the centre of town. Here vendors shout each other down, vying for custom with offers of tastings and samples of herbs, cheeses, olives, oysters and fish. In Narbonne I learnt the story of the Santons. The favourite French Christmas decorations are of two sorts - the gross and the delightful.

The former sums up the sad sight of a red-suited Santa hanging by his neck from the chimneys of the houses. The latter describes the Santons (a Provencal word meaning "little saints"). They are tiny clay figurines of the Nativity characters and various local occupations and crafts such as cobbler, clockmaker, scissors-sharpener, fishwife, seamstress and weaver.

As the large, gap-toothed lady in the Christmas stall explained: Santons were created during the French Revolution when the national assembly closed the churches. Unable to go to church to see the Nativity scenes, the French created tiny Nativities of their own from moulded figures.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

More from The West