by Sarah Juggins,
Come to Roujan to experience a French way of life that is miles removed from the bright lights of Paris or the jet-set lifestyle of Cannes. Roujan is a village in the Languedoc region of Southern France, about 40 minutes by car from Montpelier airport, an hour and a half from the fortressed city of Carcassonne and a 400-mile drive from the ferry at Cherbourg.
It is off the beaten track and, as yet, not a fashionable destination for holiday makers, so what is the attraction to those souls who, once they have been to Roujan, keep going back?
The first thing would be the accommodation. A perfect example is Le Couvent, an old convent that has been lovingly converted into a six-bedroom bed and breakfast. The heart of the building, and indeed the heartbeat of the bed and breakfast, is the kitchen. This is an oblong room with a table large enough to seat 16-20 people. And importantly, that is what it does. Breakfast is taken in the traditional French way – everyone sits together, gets to know each other and shares the copious plates of croissants, pastries, cheeses and fruits.
The rooms are all individually decorated and provide a cool and private shade for guests. A welcoming bottle of locally-grown wine is left as a greeting to visitors on their arrival.
Wines of the Languedoc
Which is a neat segue to the next vital ingredient to Roujan’s charm – the vineyards. Not the pristine rows of vines spaced with military precision, as found in the regions of Northern France – such as Burgundy or Bordeaux – but a more rustic system, where visitors can walk along the edge of the fields, where weeds are encouraged to grow because they add to the ‘terroir’, and where much of the wine snobbery is forgotten as growers work together to produce grapes of a drinkable quality.
The local wine caves welcome visitors to taste the produce and, given half a chance, will talk for hours on the whole wine-making process. And one secret that is fast being leaked to the wider public is the rising quality of the Languedoc wine. Once reviled as a drink ‘merely fit for the laborers working on the fields’, now the wines have character, taste and are selling in major retail outlets across the UK.
Local food is the third factor in the success of this little corner of France. Within the village of Roujan itself there is a café – no great pretension but good quality local produce. Locally sourced beef and lamb, seasonal vegetables and salads, and daily baked bread mean that it is difficult to have a bad meal.
The next village, Neffies, is host to Les Goutailles. This is a more upmarket restaurant, but it is still small, family-run and with a menu determined by the ingredients that are available at that time. Beef cheeks, rack of lamb and pork belly are all examples of dishes that are cooked with simplicity, but to perfection.
An artistic heaven
Nine miles from Roujan is the market town of Pezenas, an artist’s heaven, and an architect’s dream. Little windows with colorful shutters look over narrow alleyways that provide a cool shade from the southern French sun. The buildings in the town center date from medieval times and the cobbled streets, turrets and towers give a unique ambiance to Pezenas. In tiny little shops, artists, craftspeople and ateliers make their carved wooden statues, their intricate jewellery and work on their paintings. It is not too hard to wander among these streets and imagine yourself back in the time of Renoir, Degas and Monet. In fact, in his early days Moliere was a resident in the town.
Every Saturday is market day and this is when the town comes vibrantly to life. The main street houses hundreds of stalls, selling anything from shoes and clothes to strawberries, cheeses, breads, olives and vegetables. This is where the locals gather to shop, gossip and drink coffee and is a highlight for anyone whose main pleasure is people watching.
Hedgehogs and harmony
A traveler visiting Roujan should be prepared to be immersed in village life. Arrive in July and the village festival will be underway. Roujan’s village symbol is a hedgehog, so it is not improbable that a giant hedgehog manned by eight of the village men may be marching down the street.
La Maison Verte is a large venue that both takes guests and hosts artistic, musical and creative writing courses. These events attract a mix of locals and visitors, and to witness a group of Danish, Dutch, English and French people singing in harmony, while conducted by a internationally renowned conductor is a sight to behold.
The lure of the Languedoc will not be apparent to everyone. The sophisticated, wealthy jet-set who favor Nice, Cannes and Marseille will probably not see the charm of a rural village. Those seeking the bright lights of the French cities will also be disappointed. But for people who enjoy witnessing real French life – and that includes dog turds on the pavement, graffiti on the walls and unemployed young men drinking pastis in the morning – then getting off the well-worn tourist route will pay dividends.