Excursions and attractions in LANGUEDOC-ROUSSILLON close to ARLES Avignon Vers-Pont-du-Gard: 'PALAIS DES PAPES' 'PONT DU GARD'
With its long, sandy beaches, rugged mountain peaks and medieval hilltop villages, the Languedoc-Roussillon boasts one of France's most diverse landscapes. Officially the sunniest region in the country, it is also France's wine growing capital and the largest wine-growing area in the world. Bordered by the Spanish Pyrénées, the lavender fields of Provence and the rocky Massif Central to the north, the area is noted for its relaxed pace of life and is a popular hideaway for those seeking peace and ranquillity. Miles of fine sandy beaches, a hinterland rising up the foothills of the Massif Central and the Pyrenees. Languedoc-Roussillon is a land full of character, stretched out under almost permanent sunshine. Profoundly influenced by the Mediterranean, Languedoc-Roussillon shares a border with Spain as far as the Rhone delta. Its long beaches alternate with wild lagoons - a paradise for flamingos. Its annual 300 days of sunshine draw large numbers of holidaymakers, who take away unforget memories of the beautiful natural surroundings, monuments, characterful villages and towns such as Montpellier, Nimes, Carcassonne, Uzès and the Pont du Gard (four sites included on the Unesco World Heritage list) - to say nothing of the cultural circuits with prehistoric, Roman or Cathar themes. In the hinterland, charm and authenticity have been extensively preserved. The Haut Languedoc and Cévennes nature reserves and the wooded slopes of Cerdagne are always popular with hikers. This fabulous country also produces fine wines which each year earn the respect of a greater number of wine lovers. Few French regions are more steeped in history than the Languedoc, home of the heretical Cathars. The walled city of Carcassonne, the largest fortress in Europe, and the towering ramparts of Aigues Mortes, recall the area's crusading past. The region has its own ancient language, Occitan (from which Languedoc gets its name - literally 'Langue d'Oc', language of Occitan) and Catalan is spoken in many towns close to the Spanish border. The city of Nimes, with its perfectly preserved Roman arena, is the finest example of a Roman town outside Italy. A few kilometres away, the Pont du Gard the spectacular Roman aqueduct spans the river Gardon and is popular with bathers and canoeists. Further west, the university town of Montpellier is one of France's most thriving and dynamic cities. Its huge pedestrian centre is filled with cafes and is an ideal place to sit and watch the world go by. A labyrinth of winding back streets, filled with boutiques and restaurants, form the city's historic centre. A few miles east lies the peculiar beauty of the Camargues - a vast, low-lying area of 37 salt-water lakes. On these marshy lagoons, flocks of pink flamingos are a common sight, as are the white horses and black bulls which used to roam wild on this flat, watery landscape. Just north of the Camargues is the town of Arles, famous for itsociation with the artist Van Gogh, who is reputed to have cut off his ear during a row with fellow painter Gaugin while living here. For beach lovers, the stretch of coastline between the Camargues and the Spanish border offers some of the best bathing in the country. Over 175km of virtually uninterrupted sandy beaches and secluded coves hug the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean a mecca for water sports enthusiasts. Several purpose-built resorts bustle with summer visitors, including the futuristic-looking La Grande Motte and Cap d'Agde, Europe's largest naturist area. If it's local charm you are after rather than sun, sea and sand, there is no shortage of picturesque fishing villages in this laid-back corner of France. For delicious seafood fresh from the nets, the ports of Collioure, Palavas and Sète provide some of the region's finest cuisine. Try the regional speciality, 'bouillebaisse' (fish soup). If, on the other hand, you've come to fill your wine trolley, the area is full of pleasant surprises. The vast tracts of vineyards a few miles inland from the coast produce an abundance of excellent, if under-rated wines, such as Corbières, Minervois and Cotes du Roussillon. A self-conducted tour of the area's wineries ('caves') is an enjoyable way to see the area and, with bottles priced as low as 95p a litre, could almost pay for your trip in savings alone! The highlight of village life here is the August 'fete votive' a five-day festival dominated by the black bull of the Camargue. The striking sight of a score of white horses their riders wearing the traditional brightly-coloured shirts and flat black hats chasing a charging bull through the streets, remains in the memory along with the hypnotic song of the ever-present cicadas. For nature lovers, the dense, green peaks of the Cévennes national park is a hill-walker's dream.