Head for the Med near the city of Narbonne and you’ll see why artists are drawn by its fishing villages, lagoons and sandy beaches – and why the French have kept it to themselves
The afternoon was taking on a rosy glow, and not just because of the aperitif of vin citronné (white wine with lemon) or even the crisp rosé that followed. Each time we looked up from our plates, the expanse of salt pans before us had grown pinker. A delicate blush when our starters arrived, it grew more intense with the mains and by the time dessert (salted caramel ice-cream, appropriately) arrived, 350 hectares of sodium chloride were bright salmon.
The magic wasn't diminished when we later learned that the pigment comes from salt-tolerant algae, dunaliella salina, whose colour intensifies as wind and sun concentrate the salt solution. We had enjoyed many stunning maritime views along this overlooked stretch of the Mediterranean near Narbonne, but our “coral sea” at the Salins de Gruissan complex topped them all.
This whole coast does a good line in the unexpected: it is the south of France, but not as we know it. A south of France with quiet roads and long, uncrowded sandy beaches (even in August there is plenty of room), and without braying Brits and Riviera-high prices. Tourist honeypot Carcassonne, with its tour buses and gift shops, is 40 minutes away, but few UK holidaymakers stray coastwards: 80% of all summer visitors to the Narbonnaise region are French.
Narbonne, a city of just over 50,000 people, was an important Roman seaport, but centuries of silting of the Aude river have left it snoozing 15km inland. Its focal point is the Canal de la Robine, offshoot of theCanal du Midi, and wide new promenades on both sides are perfect for evening strolling.
Other attractions include a quarter of a cathedral: begun in 1272, theCathedral of Saint Just and Saint Pasteur has a vaulted choir that soars to 41m, a cloister and, er, that’s it. City fathers realised in the early 14th century that adding the nave and transept would entail – unthinkably – knocking down the ramparts. And so the truncated monument stands; a reminder that there’s nothing new about the cock-up. There’s also a medieval bishop’s palace with museum and art gallery – don’t miss the modern north African art on the top floor – and a spooky Roman warehouse complex, the Horreum.
Over the canal, probably the city’s loveliest sight, for eyes and belly, is the 1901 wrought-iron and glass market, Les Halles. Open every day, it has all the veg, seafood, patisserie and stinky cheese you could wish for, and several bars for savouring them. Les Tapas de la Clape, half-way down the left-hand side, is probably the best of a good bunch, for an oyster, wine and charcuterie marriage made in heaven.
Gruissan, 20 minutes from Narbonne, is a fishing village on a hill between two lagoons, with narrow alleyways encircling the ruins of a 12th-century tower. A marina was added in the 20th century, with apartments, restaurants and berths for 1,300 boats.
Gruissan’s huge beach, over the Grazel lagoon, has a longer holiday history. In the mid-19th century, Narbonne families would head here in summer for a beach break before the hard work of the grape harvest, first sleeping in covered wagons, then in cabanes on stilts. The tradition was formalised in the 1920s when, in what might have been France’s first holiday park, the village bought a tract of foreshore from the state and built basic huts – still on stilts – for letting to local families. Today’s chalets are more permanent, with running water and electricity, but the atmosphere remains laid-back and friendly as families barbecue in the spaces beneath their huts, and children run in and out.
Now, non-locals can join in too: chalets for four cost from €490 a week or €50 a night. Try homelidays.com or homeaway.co.uk. (This one:homeaway.co.uk/p1093162 still has availability for August.) Gruissan beach was the setting for the iconic 1986 film Betty Blue, about a couple living in one such chalet.
Moving south, past Port-la-Nouvelle, the Med’s third-busiest commercial port, you come to low-rise La Franqui, down a dead-end road off the main D709, where French families holiday in rented houses or flats overlooking wide sands and clear water, safe for swimming. The contrast with these beaches and those of the Côte d’Azur is the lack of commercialisation: there’s no paying to get on the beach, no shelling out again for parasols and sunbeds. You pick your spot, plant your umbrella and have more euros for beer and ice-cream. Joy!
The most southerly beach of the Narbonnaise is at Leucate, 10 minutes by car, or a longer but panoramic walk or bike ride over Cap Leucate, spotting tiny sandy criques (coves, some clothing-optional) below. From here and from La Franqui you get great views to Spain and the Pyrenees, even spotting sharp-flanked 2,786m Canigou on a clear day. Leucate is bigger than La Franqui, but only by Narbonnaise standards: it has two hotels – the owners of one, the 11-room Côte Revée, recently took over historic La Voile Blanche nearby – and three smallish campsites.
Here I must add another big difference from the Côte d’Azur: the wind! It blows steadily for much of the year, making the area popular for windsurfing. There are a dozen or more windsurfing schools along the coast and lagoons, and international competitions at Gruissan. The breeze drops a little in summer, enough to make a day at these beaches more pleasant than a stifling bake at Saint-Tropez.
What to do
There are plenty of dedicated cycle routes in the Narbonnaise, such as a gentle 15km seashore stretch north of Gruissan, but there’s nothing like riding with someone on their own patch. Someone such as jovial Roland Bisman of mountain biking company Sportguida, who offers daily trips around these lagoons, islands and canals. Attracted by the motto “quality of time lived, not distance covered” (it rhymes in French), we met Roland near Port-la-Nouvelle to tour Ile de Sainte-Lucie nature reserve – riding pine-shaded paths, climbing a hill for a view of two lagoons and the canal, then slightly scaring ourselves with our speed on the rocky track back down. A three-hour tour with bike and guide cost €19.50 (with reductions for children and families).
For something more sedate, but oh, so French, chic thirtysomething Isabelle Castro (+33 6 82 22 17 72, vin4heurestour.fr) gave up an office job to indulge her twin passions: vintage cars and wines. From her base in the wine-growing village of La Palme, she runs evocative drives through the Fitou and Corbieres vineyards in a venerable Citroën 2CV, with tastings and winemaker visits. Go easy on the tastings if you want to take full advantage of the USP of these tours, though: anyone who’s held a licence for more than three years can take the wheel of one of these two-horsepower dames for a spin through the vines – on mercifully deserted little roads. (My husband was much better than me at managing the dashboard-mounted gears.) It’s especially fun for groups of six or more, who can bounce along in a two- or three-car convoy, those in the back seats poking heads through the open roof to take photos and relay messages. Tours are €90 for two.
Too young for wine but too old for sandcastles? The most sullen teenager couldn’t fail to enjoy a Segway tour in Gruissan – they’d probably get the hang of the rather counter-intuitive controls faster than their parents. Families (minimum age 14) set off from the harbour-master’s office to pootle around the marina, then head along the lagoon to the old village, with its higgledy-piggledy houses, church and views from the ruined Tour de Barberousse. Parents will be reassured to know that the friendly tourist office guides will set a limiter on the Segways’ speed. No one’s ridden one into the water yet! Harbour tours are €22pp/€60 for two adults and two children,book on +33 4 68 49 09 00,gruissan-mediterranee.com.
Nerdier teens would get a lot from a tour of Gruissan’s salt pans. Our guide was an eccentric lady who refused to tell us her name but had a passion for the history, geography – and chemistry – of salt production. As well as the restaurant, there’s a museum, art gallery and shop selling local delicacies, flavoured salts and, our favourite, liquid salt (tour €7.60 adults, 13-18 years €6, lesalindegruissan.fr/en/visites).
Arty types shouldn’t miss LAC (Lieu d’Art Contemporain) in a big old wine warehouse near Sigean. It was founded by Dutch painter Piet Moget, who has lived in the Narbonnaise since 1952. At 86, he is still at the gallery, run now by his daughter Layla, most days. We gazed entranced at his extraordinary studies, in subtle shades, of land and sea, light and water – think Mark Rothko without the agony. The collection also includes works by Karel Appel, Bengt Lindström and more, and this summer’s temporary show is by prize-winning British artist Keith Coventry. Open daily (not Tues) 3pm-7pm, €5pp.
Where to stay
Artists are still drawn to the land- and seascapes of the Narbonnaise, and some have opened their doors to tourists, combining studios with B&Bs. Nicolas Galtier lives and works in a 17th-century house, La Galerie (doubles from €80), in the centre of Leucate village, where his large-format paintings – a contemporary take on Renaissance decoration, some with silver and gold leaf – share space with five individually designed guestrooms. Breakfasts are as sumptuous as the art.
In La Franqui, Patrick Chappert-Gaujal uses found objects and a passion for the sea to produce an eclectic range of sculptures, paintings and installations. His studio is in a large wooden house built into a hillside, whose top floor, with massive roof terrace, houses three B&B rooms (Les chambres de la Franqui, doubles from €100) designed by wife Nathalie. Beaches and footpaths abound, but Nathalie said guests often just linger over breakfast, mesmerised by views over seven miles of shoreline.
Or you could, of course, stay with a winemaker. North of Gruissan, 300-year-old Chateau le Bouïs(doubles from €70 B&B) belongs to the formidable Fréderique Olivié, a former estate agent who turned to winemaking in 2007 and has several Decanter gold medals under her belt. The scarlet-floored Hortense suite is also available (from €180) and has a sea-view roof terrace.
In Narbonne itself, Hotel La Residence (doubles from €88, breakfast €12) is a 19th-century building furnished with interesting modern takes on French classics. Its location is ideal: walking distance from the train station, even handier for the sights. We fitted in climbing the 13th-century keep of the archbishop’s palace (€4) between breakfast and an 11.15am train to Paris.
Where to eat
A low-key neighbourhood joint, but in a prime spot overlooking the canal in central Narbonne, En Face (27 Cours de la République, +33 4 68 75 16 17, no website) is your perfect holiday restaurant. A €17 menu brought superb lemony salmon tartare, a saffronny bourride of squid, then faisselle (strained fromage blanc) with red fruits. The smarter Le Petit Comptoir (menus from €29) further up the canal serves sophisticated fish and meat dishes in a fin-de-siècle interior dotted with original art.
In Leucate village, be sure to book for Le Jardin des Filoche (64 Avenue Jean Jaurès, +33 4 68 40 01 12, menu from €27), a family-run affair with tables in a luxuriant garden, equally gorgeous food and, unusually for France, good veggie dishes, such as artichokes with romesco sauce.
There’s a different feel down on Leucate beach. Biquet’s(+33 4 68 33 00 64, no website) really wants to be an Ibiza beach club: rebuilt each season, it sits amid sweeping sands, decorated with wacky stuff: old anglepoise lamps and bits of plastic doll, say. It is open from breakfast, and at night DJ sets have everyone dancing between the tables and outside on the sand. The food, however, is sophisticated French: oysters, mussels with ginger, John Dory with white beans and ham – served on slates. Special summer events see Michelin-starred chefs guesting in the kitchen.
And for great tapas as the sun goes down on the yachting set’s massed masts, try Le 37.2º in Gruissan port (37.2º Le Matin is the original title of director Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Betty Blue – 37.2C being the body temperature of a pregnant woman).
How to get there
Budget airlines fly to Carcassonne, which is 40 minutes from Narbonne. But if don’t want to feel you’re joining the Waitrose’n’Volvo herd, take a train to Narbonne from London St Pancras. (You can use the change in Paris to add a couple of days in the city of love on the way there or back.)