The seemingly sleepy Occitanie area in the South of France—stretching from the lavender-studded Provence to the Pyrenees—is wrapped in acres of vineyard, sunflower meadows, and dotted with chateaux.
It is as old as the hills and yet, resolutely modern.
In this region, the monks at Abbaye de St. Hilaire first discovered sparkling wine in 1531 and documented the methodology. (Around 150 years later, Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk, would steal this secret and take it back with him to the Champagne region to make it famous).
In the city of Uzes, northeast of Nimes, Roman-era mosaics depicting agrarian motifs of an owl, duck, and a fawn were unearthed just a few months ago underneath a construction site, showing us how much history there is in this region.
It is in Languedoc-Roussillon that notable winemaker Gérard Bertrand carried on his family’s biodynamic wine legacy by cultivating a robust roster of grape varietals in 14 estates that are both modernized for the savvy traveler yet housed in historical areas. One of his wine estates is the 38-room Chateau l’Hospitalet, which houses a star-studded Jazz Festival each summer on 1,000 hectares of vineyards filled with Syrah to Carignan grapes. A town called Narbonne (France’s hush-hush Riviera), considered to be the first Roman city in Gaul, was founded prior to the conquest of the area by Julius Caesar in 118 B.C.
American chateau proprietor Jodi Kennedy Gaffey and her husband were intrigued by the South of France for several years, and after watching an episode of House Hunters International in 2014 about a couple who bought a property in Europe and renovated it, she started her search for a property in this area.
Today, La Tour de Chateau, a sumptuously-appointed lodging built in 1641 in the town of Ventenac en Minervois, on the land once owned by Julius Caesar, welcomes guests in five bedrooms filled with every modern comfort imaginable, including a pool and rooftop. Views are of the Canal du Midi, which was a feat of civil engineering for its time in 1666, linking the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and paving the way for the Industrial Revolution.
Well-known architects too have modernized the ancient city of Nîmes, which dates back from the sixth century B.C., with its cocktail of terraces, gardens, and fountains. Apart from being the origin of denim, Nîmes is home to a Norman-Foster designed Carré d’Art museum clad in glass and steel that is a shiny contrast to nearby ancient stonework.
In Montpellier, Zaha Hadid designed the government archive building, Pierresvives, with futuristic lighting designed by Béziers-based Technilum (whose manufacturing facilities are housed in an old winery).
But this constant juxtaposition of old and new is done seamlessly.
The Medieval city of Carcassonne, which has 2,500 years of history, defined the border between France and Aragon and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. It has a modern hotel within its old walls: the Sofitel Hotel de la Cité has a historic cellar crammed with new wines from the Languedoc region. It is opposite to the Gothic-Romanesque-style Basilica of Saint-Nazaire, famous for having the most beautiful stained-glass windows in the South of France.
Despite all these treasures, there is little hint of pretension on these windswept terrains. Locals unwind at the restaurant La Cambuse du Saunier in the commune of Gruissan with its signature pink algae-colored waters bursting with salt flats, eat mussels and fillet fish cooked in salt, and sing songs through the night.
One would do well to watch the sunset over the Canal du Midi and discover some delicious local produce. There, pick anything from figs to indigenous Lucques olive oil at a classic French cooking school run by a couple in Millepetit, and admire the plane trees on the river banks planted by Napoleon as a gesture to offer his troops shade.
It is the perfect, hospitable blend of old meets new.