One of the lovely things about living in Provence in the south of France is that not only is it a beautiful region but it gives easy access to so many other beautiful areas, towns and cities.
Paris is two and a half hours away by TGV (the French high-speed trains.) The Cote d’Azur is a short hop in the car. So off you go if you fancy a trip to St Tropez (not often – it’s too crowded, self-conscious and you need a helicopter to avoid the traffic jams in summer) or to Cap Ferrat (yes please) or Nice, Antibes, or Cannes (“lights-camera-action” and all that.)
If you prefer nature to the glitz and glamour of the French Riviera you can easily opt instead for the Camargue with its marshy Mediterranean shores, bright pink flamingos, white horses and black bulls.
Don’t fancy the beach? Then head north or west. Heading north, you arrive quickly among the pretty mountain range Les Dentelles and the vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
To the west, across the wide Rhone river, is the Gard, the tree-covered hills of the Cevennes, and in the south-west Languedoc-Roussillon with its medieval villages, fishing and shellfish industries, beaches and vineyards.
One small town, Frontignan, seemed fairly inauspicious to me when I first went there. It’s surrounded by the usual commercial sprawl of supermarkets and DIY stores. But the centre is small, avenues are tree-lined and many of the homes have an old colonial Spanish look to them with rather ornate ironwork balconies and tropical-looking vegetation spilling around them.
In the centre of Frontignan is a small square with an effervescent stone fountain between the mairie (town hall), the bar and a shop selling oysters from nearby Bouzigues. You buy a dozen oysters there, which the shopowner will open and put on a platter for you, you settle in a chair by the fountain at the bar and order a bottle of chilled Picpoul de Pinet and it’s a total joy. And not at all expensive either.
In September 2010 I went to stay with friends who have an old cabanon a few steps back from the sea at Frontignan beach. Jean and Joelle spend most of August there each summer. The wooden cabin has been in Jean’s family since his father came here to the Hérault departement of France from southern Italy decades ago. Surrounded by elegantly drooping oliviers de bohème, it’s a fragile-looking structure set in a small garden but has electricity, heating, a kitchen, two bedrooms, a bathroom/shower-room, wooden terrace and douche d’été or outside shower.
Although the area behind Frontignan beach features a holiday campsite, little restaurants and one or two karaoke bars, the cabin and its little garden and terrace have a strange oasis-like feel – cocooned, cut off.
I arrived via a detour to the remarkable medieval village of St-Guilhem-le-Désert. St-Guilhem, a stop en route to Saint Jacques de Compostelle (or Santiago De Compostello) is a stunning French site first settled, in a deep valley in the Hérault in 804, as a Benedictine monastery. Guilhem, a cousin of Charlemagne, retired there as a monk having led the forces that pushed the Saracen invaders out of France and back into Spain.
After wondering the well-preserved medieval streets, squares and buildings we went to the nearby (very high) bridge, the Pont du Diable, and sat in a small mountain-top cafe watching local boys jumping fearlessly into the water below.
The visit to Frontignan was lovely in late September. The sandy shore has been made into numerous little bays almost enclosed by huge boulders. The beach is fringed by quirky little houses and chalets, all entirely individual and with tiny gardens. The Mediterranean sea was still surprisingly warm. I watched a young French dad chucking his little son repeatedly about in the waves as the child shrieked “Encore, encore.” Again!
In the evenings we went to the little bar in town for aperitifs and then cooked outside at the cabin, grilling fish over an old brazier. Freshly caught mackerel was wonderful, cooked by the flame and heat provided by seasoned olive tree branches and leaves as dry as paper.
It was a joy to watch, from the dinner table, a hedgehog trundling about in the crispy, fallen leaves around the terrace. Usually we see green glow-worms too but this time they were absent.
During the day we’d relax in the garden watching tiny birds decimate the ripening figs and grapes. They seemed to feel entirely secure though they were just feet away in the branches. The sunlight fell all around on this beautiful greenery. Looking up, you saw bright light glancing off some trees and leaves and others lit more subtly from behind. The light was beautifully diffused with masses of highlights and patches and points of bright light making the leaves a brilliant green or the oleander flowers a bright red. The sky was a pure unblemished blue.
On the last night we heard and saw a firework light the sky nearby. A group of French holidaymakers on the beach were celebrating. We went to watch the display. The fireworks did pretty well against the bright lights of the town of Sète to the west. The most powerful lit up the sand, the little houses and the sea. And the elated expressions of a small band of people standing barefoot on the Mediterranean shore marvelling at the light and the dark.
For more on vacations in the Hérault see also: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/5820924/visit_europe_france_the_herault_bouzigues.html?cat=16