The garrigue Languedoc Roussillon: Experience the sights, scents, sound and flavours of a little known, intoxicating pocket of southern France which lies in the northern half of the department of Hérault.
You don’t just visit the garrigue. You absorb it and you feel it with every sense that you possess. You feel the Tramontane or the Mistral winds in your hair, the crunchy gravel and stones of the paths under your feet and the hot, Mediterranean sun on your face. You smell and taste the myriad of sweet and spicy flavours as you brush through the undergrowth: lemon, oak, thyme, pine, rosemary, lavender, aniseed and fennels, peppers and juniper, even wild asparagus and the tree strawberry grow here. You soak up the mesmerising views across to the Cevenne Mountains and the peaks and troughs of the silent, shimmering hills all around you. And of course you hear. You hear the rustle of the scrubby, harsh undergrowth and if you listen carefully you can just make out the faintest whisper of the stories of its people past.
The Mediterannean Influence in the Garrigue
Tucked away in the sunny, Mediterranean pocket of the south of France, the garrigue is a place where the landscape has changed enormously over the last 100 and 1,000 years. It’s gone from being predominantly oak forest spread across the hills to being cleared for charcoal, grazed by sheep, goats and rabbits and to being home to olive groves, wheat and vines. When the olives were almost wiped out in the 1950’s and never replaced, the garrigue began to develop its current flavour with a helping hand from the introduction of tractors to the region. And it’s hard to think that my grandmother who may have walked these slopes nearly 100 years ago, would not have seen them through the dreaming eyes that I do now. Garrigue here means ‘scrubland’, and there are different shades of ‘garrigue’, from plain to rolling lowland to foothill and hill; with vegetation and soil cover that varies from dry earth, to gravel, loose stone or even solid limestone pavement.
For many visiting this part of France, the garrigue is about the memories and the aromas of the many and diverse local wines. In the region of Saint-Chinian for example, which produces both Pays d’Oc wines on its lower slopes and plateaus and appellation wines on the precarious and steep terraces of the higher ground, nearly every vineyard is influenced by the scents, soils, terrain and climate of this region. The rocky schist and sandstone soils of the north of the region, along with the harsh growing conditions and different pockets of warmth and shade, seem to suit the vines well and produce grapes that are deep in colour, aromatic, and almost smokey with strong flavours of the garrigue. While in the south of the Saint-Chinian region the shallow limestone soil produces brightly coloured, fruity and elegant wines. And many a long wine eased night can be spent with the local producers, discussing the impact of this varied terrain on their beautifully crafted wines.
Explore the Garrigue
But for me, the power and drama of the garrigue makes it an area that begs to be explored as a thing of beauty in itself, either on foot or by bike. And whilst at times it might feel remote and unconquered, it’s an area that just echoes with the footsteps of all those who’ve walked or sheltered here before you and forces you to think of them. Is it the sound of Roman soldiers marching from Nîmes perhaps in search of forest hunting or charcoal that you hear, or the solitary footfall of the tired and weary pilgrim on his way to Santiago de Compostela that haunts you?
In 1209 catholic crusaders besieged the nearby city of Beziers, 20,000 Catholics and Cathars alike were slaughtered and whilst the village of Saint-Chinian itself remained largely unscathed, the violence spread to the village of Puisserguier as the crusaders made their way to Carcassonne and the fear in this region must have been palpable. Is it the whispers of frightened Cathars hiding in the hills that you hear carried on the wind? Or the distant scream of a villager in the 16th century when the village of Saint-Chinian was destroyed by a peasants’ revolt. And did they shelter here in these rocky hills and mounds as their village burnt?
It’s also easy sometimes to forget the effect of occupied France in WWII in this little southern corner but perhaps as you climb a particularly steep path and gaze ahead to the mountains far away in the distance, you might just catch a glimpse of the ethereal tailcoat of a member of the French resistance or an exhausted glance from one of the many migrants who made their escape from France by crossing through this region to the Pyrenees.
The haunting beauty of this region, its profound influence on the people and their wines that now thrive here and the secrets and pain of its people past, make the garrigue an utterly compelling place. Explore it or just quietly reflect here. It’s worthwhile taking a day or two to walk its many trails or enjoys its view and hidden pockets. You’ll come away refreshed, reflective and perhaps just ever so slightly more in love with this thorny, fragrant landscape in the south of France.
Walking and wine – explore this magnificent area: the AOC Saint-Chinian’s syndicate alone have a list of 23 different mountain biking trails of varying difficulty (graded from green, through blue, red to black) as well as three walking trails. You can visit the Maison des Vins in Saint-Chinian for maps of the region and walks that combine with vineyard visits. You’ll also find details on their App (AOC Saint-Chinian) which you can download for free from your App store. For more information visit www.saint-chinian.com