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The regions described here encompass a wealth of spectacular landscapes. To the north-east lie the rounded hills of the Auvergne and the rolling green pastures of the Aubrac. The cattle fairs of Laissac and Nasbinals really enliven the region. Winter snows intensify the peacefulness of the landscape, a haven for cross-country skiers seeking silence and pure air. Farther east the undulating plateaux of the Margeride are chequered with pastureland and forests, vital resources for the local economy.
To the south the countryside around the River Lot changes dramatically, with limestone plateaux, sheer cliffs and deep river gorges. These arid rocky limestone plateaux are known as the Causses . Cutting between them are spectacular river gorges or canyons carved by eons of water erosion. Although today this river may seem like an innocent trickle, during a flash flood it becomes a raging torrent.
To the east of this breathtaking landscape of causses and river gorges rise the rugged Cévennes mountains with their complex network of ridges and gullies crowned by impressive fortifications. The Cévennes was impenetrable for centuries, and today its mystery and utter remoteness gives modern travellers the thrilling sense of treading where no-one has gone before.
To the west the harsh landscape of the Grands Causses gives way to the ségalas - “rye fields”- where gentle hills shelter fertile valleys. The sun-scorched limestone hills of the garrigues form thegeographical transition between the Causses and the Cévennes, and the fertile wine-growing plains of the Bas Languedoc. The garrigues bristle with white rocks and clumps of holm-oak, broom and aromatic wild thyme and rosemary, and with the olive trees, mulberry bushes and vines cultivated here, create a truly Mediterranean landscape.
Between the garrigues and the long straight Languedoc coast glittering with lagoons, vineyards seem to stretch forever over the plains and hillsides. Summer enlivens this landscape with colourful crowds of holidaymakers, and autumn brings the cheerful bustle of the grape harvest.
Moving farther south, the Pyrenees make a formidable natural frontier between France and Spain. The steep slopes on the French side drop sharply down into France. They are scored by valleys separated by high ridges, which link the Pyrenees to the inland plains and the coast. From the Montcalm summit (3 078m/10 098ft) to the Albères massif (1 256m/4 120ft at the Neulos peak), the Pyrenean range gradually descends into the Mediterranean.
The Pyrenees’ formation began at the end of the Secondary Era and continued through the Tertiary Era, when massive folding in the earth’s crust disturbed the old Hercynian layers. Erosion leveled the mountain range, exposing primary sedimentary rock formations and along the axial crests, the granite core itself.
The Causses, the Cévennes and the Tarn Gorges
The Aubrac and the Margeride
The Aubrac mountains run north-west to south-east between the Truyère and Lot valleys. Produced by volcanic activity in the Tertiary Era, these formidable streams of solidified basalt several hundred metres thick cover a granite core. The asymmetric mountain range slopes gently down to the Truyère in the north-east, where it remains about 1 000m/3 280ft above sea level. Ravines score the steeper south-western slopes.
Above 850m/2 788ft, the Aubrac is a vast pasture with daffodils and narcissi blooming in the spring, and beech woods, moorland and lakes in the west. Crops do not thrive in this sparsely populated region of only 14 inhabitants per km2, compared to the national average of 96 per km2. Long arduous winters bury the plateau under tons of snow. The region’s inhabitants live principally by stock rearing. One or two local cheesemakers still produce fourme de Laguiole in their drystone huts. The spring and autumn livestock fairs of Laissac and Nasbinals are major events rich in local colour. The Margeride , a granite massif running parallel to the volcanic mountains of the Velay to the north, stretches between the Allier, to the east, and the high volcanic plateaux of the Aubrac, to the west. Its highest point at the Randon beacon (signal) is 1 551m/5 088ft above sea level.
The high-lying ground of the Montagne averages 1 400m/4 593ft in altitude. Vast stretches of pastureland and occasional forests of pine, fir and birch cover its undulating plateaux. North of Mende, the plateaux (Palais du Roi, La Boulaine) are littered with granite rocks eroded into fascinating columns, obelisks or rounded blocks, sometimes piled precariously on top of one another.
Below the Montagne lie rolling plains (the Plaines ) scattered with numerous rocky outcrops, where people live in large farmhouses either isolated or grouped into small hamlets. The Margeride’s local economy is based on timber, livestock and uranium.
West of the mountain range lies the Gévaudan , a lower-lying plateau (alt 1 000-1 200m/3 280-3 937ft) in the shadow of the Aubrac.
South of the Massif Central, the vast limestone plateaux of the Causses constitute one of France’s most unusual natural regions. The Causses are bordered by the Cévennes to the east, by the Lot Valley to the north and by the plains of the Hérault and Bas Languedoc to the south. To the west they stretch as far as the Lévézou and Ségala plateaux, and beyond to the causses of Quercy which form the eastern limit of the Aquitaine basin.
The limestone rock creates a landscape rich in contrasts: the arid tablelands of the causses, the colossally deep river gorges, and the curious natural wells formed by swallow-holes. The white drystone dwellings in villages and hamlets accentuate the rugged surroundings. In 1995 the causses became part of the Parc naturel régional des Grands Causses, conserving the unique natural, architectural and cultural heritage of this region.
Contrasting with the deep green ravines, the causses seem an endless expanse of grey, rocky semi-desert. The dry ground formed of limestone rock soaks up rainwater like a sponge, yet beneath this arid surface is a hive of aquatic activity. The plateaux, some 1 000m/3 280ft above sea level, have dry scorching summers and long cold winters, with deep snows and violent sweeping gales.
To the west, at the edge of the cliffs beside new plantations of black Austrian pine, the groves of beech, oak and Scots pine show all that remain of the ancient forest destroyed by grazing flocks during the Middle Ages. To the east, thistles and tufts of lavender splash the moorland with radiant blues, and clumps of juniper grow on rocky outcrops as stunted bushes or small trees up to 10m/33ft high. Their leaves are sharp and spiny, and their small blueish-black berries enhance local game dishes.
The causses have traditionally been the preserve of sheep, which thrive easily on the sparse local vegetation. Traditionally, sheep supplied wool for the local textile industries in the towns (serge and caddis). Today sheep are reared for their ewe’s milk ( lait des brebis ) for the famous cheese matured underground in caves. The Roquefort area has about 500 000 head. Lambskin is processed in Millau, and Bleu des Causses , a blue cheese from cows’ milk, is produced nearby.
Eroded rock formations
Here and there spectral landscapes of bizarrely shaped rocks haunt the skyline. The protruding ledges and sheer sides of the huge rock strata resemble abandoned cities with streets, monumental doorways, ramparts and strongholds all falling into ruin. They are created by dolomite, composed of soluble carbonate of lime, and rather insoluble carbonate of magnesium. Water streaming down the rocks erodes them into rounded crests up to 10m/33ft high, which then morph into pillars, arcades, towers, and unworldly beasts inspiring the imagination. The eroded rock forms clay residues which nourish vegetation that enhances the scenic beauty of Montpellier-le-Vieux, Nîmes-le-Vieux, Mourèze, Les Arcs de St-Pierre, Roquesaltes and Le Rajol.
The river gorges
Known also as canyons , from the Spanish cañon , the Tarn gorges between Les Vignes and Le Rozier, and the Jonte and Dourbie gorges are magnificent examples. Here the sweeping horizons give way to a vertiginous vertical landscape of cliff faces which may drop 500m/1 640ft or more.The cliff walls are pocked with caves called baumes, from the local word “balma” in use before the Romans arrived. Many local villages and hamlets are named after baumes, including Cirque des Baumes and Les Baumes-Hautes in the Tarn gorges, Baume-Oriol on the Causse du Larzac and St-Jean-de-Balmes on the Causse Noir.
Caves and chasms
The caves (grottes) and chasms (avens) on the surface of the causses or in the hollow of a valley shelter strange watery subterranean worlds contrasting with the aridity of the plateaux. Rainwater does not flow over the limestone plateaux of the Causses here, but percolates down into fissures, dissolving the limestone to produce natural chasms called avens or igues, which gradually increase in size and widen into caves.
Underground rivers and resurgent springs
A water course that disappears into a chasm in the causses may create a network of underground rivers spanning several hundred miles. These water courses join up with larger rivers, widen their course and gush along as cascades. Slow flowing underground rivers form small lakes above natural dams known as gours . The Grotte de Dargilan contains many examples of gours. Although underground rivers are not easy to access, speleologists believe they are quite numerous. On the Causse du Larzac, the underground river Sorgues was discovered through the Aven du Mas Raynal . On the Causse du Comtal north of Rodez, the Salles-la-Source stream is accessed via the Gouffre du Tindoul de la Vayssière . The Bonheur, gushing into the open air at the Bramabiau “Alcôve,” is another underground river.
The first Paleolithic cave explorers were probably just looking for safe places to live. During the age of flint knapping some 50 000 years ago, these peoples searched for caves for inhabitation. In the later Neolithic Age, humans used caves as burial places. Over the passing millenia, daring cave explorers braved the damp and dark to search for precious metals. By the Middle Ages, people believed that caves were inhabited by demons. Systematic cave explorations began in the 18C, but it wasn’t until 1890 that Édouard-Alfred Martel made speleology a respected science.
Édouard-Alfred Martel (1859-1938)
The father of modern speleology was an attorney at the Paris law courts of the Tribunal de Commerce. Martel took up geology and travelling as a recreational escape from his legal career. Although this intrepid mountaineer explored well- known caves and discovered new ones in Italy, Germany, Austria, the United Kingdom and Spain, he concentrated his explorations in France. In 1883 he undertook a methodical study of the Causses, about which nothing was known at the time. Martel was fascinated by the Pyrenees, the Vercors and the Dévoluy. His daring expedition along the River Verdon’s Grand Canyon enabled the public to explore one of France’s most breathtaking natural features . A scientist at heart, Martel founded a new branch of scientific study - underground geography or speleology . His numerous publications made him world-famous and his lively inspired writings were an invaluable resource for explorers who followed him. Martel’s studies of the region’s network of underground rivers lead to the creation of a safer, more hygienic public water supply. His exciting discoveries inspired a tourist boom that boosted the local economy of the Causses. Caves are home to a huge variety of invertebrates like beetles and millipedes, and the underground laboratory of Moulis in Ariège (not open to the public) studies these cave dwelling creatures.
Lying to the south-east of the Massif Central and stretching from the Tarnague to the Aigoual, the schist and granite peaks of the Cévennes appear as a succession of almost flat plateaux clad in peat bogs – the Aigoual Pelouse (or “lawn”) and the Mont Lozère Plat (“dish”). The Mediterranean side is very steep and the Atlantic side slopes more gently on either side of a watershed at the eastern end of Mont Lozère, at the Col de Jacreste (pass on N 106, east of Florac) and the Col du Minier.
The Cévennes are not very high; Mont Lozère, with its long granite ridges, has an altitude of 1 699m/5 574ft. Mont Aigoual, which offers a fine panorama, does not exceed 1 567m/5 141ft. The crests are covered by meagre pastureland and grazing sheep. Pastoral hamlets dot the landscape, with houses made from granite blocks built low to resist the wind. Lower slopes shelter small villages and holm-oaks, heather and châtaigneraies (chestnut groves).
The upper valleys
Numerous streams flow along deep, steep-sided ravines created by erosion of granite and schist relief. Some streams, surging with trout and scented by grassy slopes covered with apple trees, are reminiscent of the Alps.
The lower valleys
These all face south and mark the transition between the Cévennes and Mediterranean country. The sun is intense here, where green meadows adjoin terraced slopes cultivated with vines, olive trees and mulberry bushes. Lavender is distilled throughout the region. You can still find traces of the silkworm breeding which once flourished in the region: large three-storey buildings with narrow windows and spinning mills of old silkworm farms (magnaneries) .
The Cévennes landscape
The upper valleys of the Cévennes have dwindling populations, and crops are sparse and meagre. Alongside small streams, meadows planted with apple trees intersperse with fields. The sweet chestnut tree covers most of the slopes, leaving little room for the vines trained to grow on trees, vegetable gardens and fruit trees growing near water sources at the base of the valleys. In certain villages on the periphery of Mont Lozère and in the Margeride, sheep owners gather their sheep into a communal flock led by a single shepherd to graze by day on the mountain, and to return at night to their enclosures to fertilize the soil.
The Ségalas and the Lévézou
The Grands Causses are separated from the Quercy Causses by the Lévézou massif and a group of plateaux named the Ségalas, after the rye (seigle) cultivated here.
This large rugged massif of crystalline rock between Millau and Rodez rises to 1 155m/3 789ft at the Puech del Pal, its peak. The uplands around Vezins, with clumps of undergrowth and moorland populated by sheep, are bleak compared to the lowlands, with their woodlands, meadows and large lakes. The Lévézou has stimulated its economic activity by developing its rivers for hydroelectric power, and its lakes of Pont-de-Salars, Bage, Pareloup and Villefranche-de-Panat for tourism. During the 19C the Ségalas began to prosper by producing lime from the Carmaux coal basin and the Aquitaine’s limestone rocks.
The Carmaux-Rodez, Capdenac-Rodez railway lines facilitated the transport of this precious soil conditioner, which enabled moorland and rye fields to grow clover, wheat, maize and barley. Stock rearing also developed: cattle and pigs in the west, and sheep in the east and south-east, particularly around Roquefort. Today the gently undulating landscape of the Ségalas is covered with green pastures, copses and meadows hedged with hawthorn, topped by chapels on the hilltops (puechs) .
The rich red soil colored by iron oxide sediments, particularly in the Camarès or Marcillac regions. This extremely fertile soil is ideal for growing fruit. Rodez is the principle town in the Ségalas, followed by Villefranche-de-Rouergue on the boundary of the Ségalas and the Quercy Causses.
The Causses and the Cévennes once boasted thick forests roaming with wild beasts. In the 18C, the “ Bête du Gévaudan ” terrorised the region for three years, devouring over 50 people, mostly young girls and children. Superstitions abounded that the “beast” was some kind of Divine scourge.
After a huntsman shot what was probably a wolf, the “beast” was adopted by folklore as a means of subduing unruly children.
The dangers of deforestation
The consequences of deforestation have been particularly severe in the Cévennes, a region prone to violent storms. In September 1900, 98cm/38in of rain fell in Valleraugue in 48 hours--about 40cm/15in more than the average rainfall in Paris in a whole year.
The sparse plant cover cannot contain the rain, so it gushes downhill into the valleys, becoming 18-20m/59-65ft high flood waves which destroy everything in their path.
Sheep: an enemy of the forest
Sheep diminish the forest by grazing on young leaves and shoots, on the ridges and plateaux, and along the drailles used to move them to and from mountain pastures. Towards the mid-19C, when only tiny vestiges of the immense forests of antiquity remained, Georges Fabre, the forest’s benefactor, undertook to reafforest the massif with pine, firs and spruce.
About 14 000ha/34 594 acres have been reafforested by Fabre and his successors, an achievement for which the French National Forestry Commission is justly proud. Yet much remains to be done: other denuded areas must be replanted, and forests consisting largely of pine trees must be replanted with hardier fire-resistant species better suited to the local environment.
Although chestnuts are no longer part of the staple diet of the Cévennes inhabitants, chestnut trees still adorn the region, growing at altitudes of 600m/1 968ft, to 950m/3 116ft on well-exposed slopes. Nevertheless, chestnuts are a threatened species, threatened by grazing animals and Cryptogamic diseases.
The Languedoc region stretches from the Rhône to the Garonne. Toulouse is the capital of Haut Languedoc and Montpellier is the capital of Bas (Mediterranean) Languedoc. Bas Languedoc covers a 40km/25mi wide strip along the Mediterranean coast. South of the Cévennes, the Garrigues rise 200-400m/600-1 400ft above sea level. Below the Garrigues stretches a sandy plain covered with vineyards, and a necklace of lagoons which ornament the coast. The flat of the plain is broken by limestone outcrops like La Gardiole mountain at Montpellier, Mont St-Clair at Sète, La Clape mountain at Narbonne, and the mountains of Agde (Pic St-Loup). Bas Languedoc lies between mountains of the Massif Central, from the Cévennes, the Espinouse, Minervois and Lacaune mountain ranges, as far as the Montagne Noire, and the first limestone foothills of the Pyrenees, the Corbières.
The name Garrigues derives from the Occitan garric: kermes oak. This region of mountain and limestone plateaux is watered by the Hérault, the Vidourle and the Gard rivers. The mountains of St-Loup and Hortus loom over the flat landscape. Like the causses, the Garrigues were formed by marine deposits from the Secondary Era. Pastures scorched by the sun, and stunted vegetation like dwarf kermes oaks, rockroses and tufts of thyme and lavender cover the region. In spring this arid countryside is a carpet of brilliant wildflowers.
Languedoc’s Mediterranean coast is lined with lagoons separated from the sea by sand bars created by waves and currents. These salt water lagoons teem with eels, grey mullet, sea perch, sea bream and clams. The Aude and the Orb did not form such lagoons, nor did they create deltas, because coastal currents constantly swept away their alluvial deposits.
The invasive sand left the old ports of Maguelone and Agde stranded inland. The Thau lagoon, virtually an inland sea, is the only navigable lagoon. The Thau is noted for its oyster and mussel farms, and the small fishing ports of Marseillan and Mèze which have developed marinas. Sète, built in the 17C,is now the second largest French port on the Mediterranean.
The Garonne corridor
The Garonne river and its tributaries cut a vast aquatic corridor linking Aquitaine and Languedoc. At the edges of this corridor, the relief becomes undulating: to the south, tiny beaches at the foot of the Pyrenees are shored up by gravel; to the north, the ancient plateau merges with the sedimentary hills of the Tarn region.
Haut Languedoc, between the Aude and the Garonne
Modern pressures are forcing small farms to expand their production beyond the traditional mixed cultivation of wheat, maize and vines.
The prospering agricultural Toulouse and Lauragais regions are the “granary” of the south of France. The alluvial plains of the Garonne and the Tarn brim with strawberry beds, and apple, pear and peach orchards. Market gardening and poultry farming are big here. Vineyards grow around Carcassonne and Limoux and also on the Gaillac slopes to the west.
The designs of rural houses change according to the landscapes. In the Lauragais and Toulouse regions, you’ll see low brick houses with living quarters, stable, barn and cart shed covered by the same gently sloping roof. Dwellings in Bas Languedoc are taller. The stable and cellar (cave) are on the ground floor, the living quarters, originally a single room, occupy the first floor, with the hay loft above.
Toulouse’s aerospace industries have spawned chemical, electrometallurgical, textile, leather, farm-produce and granite industries all contributing to the area’s economic growth. In the Carmausin, coal-mining at the Découverte Ste-Marie pit is open-cast only. The Canal du Midi is a popular tourist attraction. The Toulouse conurbation, with some 600 000 inhabitants, is the hub of the Midi-Pyrénées region. Its considerable research resources, state-of-the-art industries and public facilities extend its influence far and wide.
The Pyrenees and Roussillon
The Central Pyrenees
The Pyrenean mountain range is characterised by massive longitudinal geological formations.
Eons ago, Jurassic folding movements shaped a landscape marked by rows of limestone ridges intersected by transverse valleys: the “Petites Pyrénées” and the Plantaurel ridge. Rivers flow to the plain through the ravines of Boussens on the Garonne and of Labarre on the Ariège.
During the Secondary Era (Cretaceous or Jurassic), the Pyrenean foothills were formed by strata which folded more violently. Around Foix, the deeply grooved limestone or sandstone ridges give way to crystalline massifs of dark rock such as the St-Barthélemy massif.
The axial zone
This zone is the very backbone of the Pyrenees. From the primary sediments rise towering crags of granite whose jagged crests were carved by glacial erosion. These granite massifs have the greatest number of mountain lakes in the Pyrenees.
Peaks and valleys
The Pyrenees mountain chain has no lateral valley to connect its transverse valleys, and so communication and transportation within the chain has always difficult, especially when mountain passes are impassable in winter.
This enforced isolation has preserved local traditions and ways of life, making each valley a tiny kingdom of its own. The fortress-like mountains of Andorra and the upper Ariège valley guard a bleak and rugged landscape of rocks and scree. These isolated regions link the Central and Mediterranean Pyrenees.
The Mediterranean Pyrenees, more open to the outside world, connect with the Corbières massif to the north. This stretches as far as the Montagne Noire, the furthest southern outpost of the Massif Central, and separates the Aquitaine basin from the plains of Mediterranean Languedoc.
The limestone foothills between the Corbières and the axial ridge of the Pyrenees differ from the northern sedimentary surface of the Central Pyrenees. The Plateau de Sault gives way to rows of jagged crests towering over the Fenouillèdes’ deep furrow . The River Aude cuts through this crust in a burst of breathtaking gorges. The eastern Pyrenees were first peaks to emerge from the earth’s crust, pushed upwards to staggering heights by the earth’s ancient folding movements. Over the geologic eons, they have been worn down to a lower altitude than the Central Pyrenees. The valleys of the Cerdagne and the Capcir (1 200m/3 937ft and 1 600m/5 249ft above sea level) shelter villages and cultivated land. These valleys were formed by erosion in the flanks of the Pyrenees, and filled up with clay, marl and gravel accumulated towards the end of the Tertiary Era. East of Canigou (alt 2 784m/9 133ft), the Pyrenean range drops into the trench occupied by the Mediterranean. The Albères , the chain’s final set of peaks cut between the Roussillon, to the north, and the Ampurdan, to the south (in Spain).
The parallel valleys of the Têt and the Tech allow Mediterranean influences to penetrate to the heart of the mountain range. Renowned for their brilliant sunlight, dry climate, orange trees and pink oleander, these valleys have very attractive resorts.
The Roussillon plain, stretching for 40km/24mi, was originally a gulf which was filled in with debris from the mountain range at the end of the Tertiary/beginning of the Quaternary Era. Arid rocky terraces ( Les Aspres ) are cultivated with fruit trees and vines. An offshore sand bar separates the sea from the salanques marshes, where alluvial deposits from the Têt and the Agly are several hundred metres deep.
Tradition and Modernity
Straddling two regions (Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon), the Pyrénées-Roussillon-Albigeois area is a palette of contrasts blending old traditions with modern ways.
Traditional rural life
Mountain countryside consists of three zones: the lower slopes with villages and cultivated fields; an intermediate zone of forests alternating with hay meadows; and high mountain pastures. Wheat, rye and maize still grow in Haut Vallespir, Cerdagne and Conflent, but the vines and olive trees which once festooned the Mediterranean valleys have all but disappeared. Outside villages, a scrubland of broom or garrigues replaces the groves of holm-oak, Scots pine and beech diminished by felling. In remote valleys and villages, depopulation leads to a fading of old ways and traditions, and cultivated land becomes fallow or reverts to heathland.
The Pyrenees’ industrial potential depends on exploiting its energy sources. Hydroelectric schemes introduced in the mountains in 1901 are still evolving. Other industrial ventures which boost the local economy include chalk mines at Luzenac, cement works, textile manufacturing, aluminium works, various metallurgy and timber concerns. Busy roads crisscross the region’s liveliest valleys, where densely populated, well developed towns cater to tourism with spas, winter sports resorts and new accomodations. As local inhabitants move off the land, newcomers from other parts of France or abroad settle here, creating a new population mix.
The Roussillon coast
The garden of Roussillon
Orchards, market gardens and vineyards make the Roussillon plain a true cornucopia. Produce includes tomatoes, new potatoes, winter lettuce and endive, and peaches, nectarines and apricots, also cultivated on the mountain slopes.
Vineyards cover the banks of the Agly, the rocky terrace of Les Aspres and the sweep of land along the Côte Vermeille, the most typical of Roussillon coastal regions. These vineyards produce a vast range of vins de coteaux, including young white wines, rosés and robust, and heady reds. The Côtes du Roussillon covers the southern slope of the Corbières, and the arid terraces of Les Aspres to the Albères range. Most local wine is the vin doux naturel (dessert wine), such as Rivesaltes, Banyuls and Maury. Roussillon is focusing more on quality vintage wines and new sidelines like apéritifs (Thuir), vermouth (Noilly Prat at Marseillan) and liqueurs.
Fishing fleets in the harbours along the Côte Vermeille and coast of the Aude delta have diversified into four types of fishing. Lamparo or lamplight fishing, mainly for sardines or anchovies, requires an accompanying vessel installed with powerful lamps. Red tunny fishing requires powerful deep-sea fishing vessels equipped with huge mechanically-wound nets. Trawling, mainly from Port-Vendres, Port-la-Nouvelle and St-Cyprien, uses huge pocket-shaped nets dragged along the sea bed. Small-scale fishing with mesh nets, trammel nets or floating lines is used at sea and in coastal lagoons. Oyster-farming on the Leucate lagoon, and sea mussel-farming near Gruissan and Fleury-d’Aude are on the increase.
The Golfe du Lion coast offers enticing contrasts: on the sandy Languedoc-Roussillon coast, modern resorts beckon the holidaymaker, whereas on the rocky coast shadowed by rocky cliffs of the Côte Vermeille near the Spanish border, narrow bays shelter old fishing ports which harbour the traditions of these tiny cities.