Story and photos by Mike Pickup
Does the South of France conjure up images of traffic-laden streets, expensive restaurants and glossy people reading glossy magazines?
Travel a few miles west along the coast and you will discover a totally different part of France. Still enjoying three hundred days a year of glorious sunshine it is home to great food and wine, atmospheric villages, history, and the stunning Pont du Gard; but more of that later.
We flew into Montpelier, a small airport on the edge of the Mediterranean, sparklingly blue in the mid-day sunshine. Sophie was there to greet us, a Parisian who had left the hustle of the big city for a more relaxed way of life, and after a short drive we arrived in the Medieval town of Uzès .
It was prosperous due to its mulberry trees which supported a thriving silk industry, but under pressure from cheap imports and diseased trees this died away and the town went into decline. However in 1965 the French government declared the town centre a protected zone, one which has been considerably extended over the years. The result is a beautifully preserved town with buildings made from the local creamy limestone, peppered with delightful labyrinths of light passageways. In the centre is the Place aux Herbes, home to a market every Wednesday and Saturday with stalls selling everything from scented soaps to fungi and oysters. Close by is the Ducal Palace. The Duke of Uzès is the primary duke of France and was first in line to the throne after the Royal Family. The current Duke still lives in Uzès.
We spent two nights in this charming and relaxing town, one night at the four star Hotel Entraigue and the other at the five star Maison d’Uzès, just a minute’s walk away. Both hotels are full of character and no two bedrooms are alike. Michelin-starred chefs produced memorable dishes and since the region’s vineyards cover three times the area of those of Bordeaux, wines are plentiful and of great quality.
Our stay in Uzès was broken by a trip to the nearby Pont du Gard. Around 50 AD the growing Roman settlement in nearby Nîmes needed a better water supply. With incredible skills for that time they calculated that a spring in Uzès, twelve miles away, was 56ft higher than the basin in Nîmes and could therefore deliver the steady flow of water they needed. Hover, the problem was how to get the water the twelve miles from Uzès to Nîmes and negotiate the rivers, valleys and hills that stood in the way. The result was an aqueduct stretching some 31 miles with drop of just 39ft, an amazing feat of Roman engineering.
The Pont du Gard carried the water over the river Gardon and consists of three layers of arches. On top of the third layer is an oblong tunnel which carried the water. Today visitors can walk through it and truly appreciate this amazing structure. The drop from one side of the bridge to the other is just one inch.
Nîmes, the destination for the water, was originally settled by the Romans around 30 BC and the Maison Carrée is one of the finest Roman temples to be found anywhere. Facing it is the modern Art Gallery designed by Sir Norman Foster. Although two thousand years separate these buildings they live next door to each other in perfect harmony. Another Roman building worth seeing is the Amphitheatre; largely still intact it was the setting for the film Gladiator.
Unbeknown to many, Nîmes is represented worldwide through clothing. The manufacture of strong cloth for sails and tarpaulin was a local major industry. In 1870 an immigrant tailor named Levi Strauss used this cloth to make durable trousers for the wild-west pioneers in America. The cloth from Nîmes “de Nîmes” became denim. The rest, as they say, is history, something that this part of France excels at.
Even on our last day the pace didn’t let up. We toured the centre of Montpelier as it woke to a sleepy, sunny Sunday morning. Born around one thousand years later than its neighbours, Montpelier combines recent history and elegance with a more youthful feel, in part due to its university. It even has its own Arc de Triomphe. It grew in prominence as a trading and intellectual centre and gave rise to the first medical school in France where Nostradamus and Rabelais studied. Montpelier is a delightful mix, old buildings in the centre, and on the edge of the city sit IBM, Dell and other major new-age industries. Lovely beaches are nearby. What more could you want?
We could have stayed longer but were due to visit the Paul Mas vineyard where we were met by head of communications, Julie Billod. After a short film about the estate we were ushered in to the restaurant for lunch. Being Sunday, Julie informed us, there were two main courses, not to mention a suitable wine for each course, selected and poured by the vineyard’s own sommelier. Just when we felt we could eat no more, a dessert of dark chocolate flan covered with raspberries and redcurrants was placed in front of us. It was so good, not a crumb was left, and in response to our admiration Julie summoned the chefs so we could thank them personally.
Then it was time to tour the vineyard, on horseback or a four-seater quad vehicle. I went with the quad. Julie drove and this was clearly her forté. As we bumped along narrow tracks and up steep hills, Julie waved enthusiastically at the vines and shouted above the noise of the engine to explain what they were and which wines they were used in. I didn’t mind that I arrived back covered in dust and had to leave for the airport – it was a great end to a great trip.
For more information on the area
Pont du Gard www.pontdugard.fr
Paul Mas www.paulmas.com