Things to see and do - Languedoc Roussillon, Tarn Gorges
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The “Langue d’Oc”
The fusion of Vulgar Latin with the old Gallic language gave rise to a group of “Romance” languages, with the “Langue d’Oïl” in the north of France and the “Langue d’Oc” in the south. The languages were distinguised by the way the word oui was pronounced in each region, and the border between the two lay north of the Massif Central. Today the term Occitan has replaced the term Langue d’Oc and comprises several major dialects spoken in Languedoc, Gascony, Limousin, Auvergne and Provence.
Language of the troubadours
The language of Oc is the language of the troubadours, wandering poets who composed plaintive songs of unrequited love and travelled around southern France, entertaining the court nobility during the 11C to 13C. Their poetry of “courtly love” replaced the earthy, vaguely erotic sensibilities of the 12C with a purely spiritual celebration of love, often embellished with references to the Virgin Mary. Famous troubadours include Bernard de Ventadour from the Limousin, who sang at the court of Raymond V of Toulouse; Peire Vidal, whose reputation stretched from Provence to the Holy Land; Jaufré Rudel and Guiraut Riquier. Political satire against Rome and the clergy held a special place in Occitan literature.
The troubadours’ influence spread to Germany and Italy, where it was said that Dante in writing his Divine Comedy , hesitated between Provençal and Tuscan.
In the destructive wake of the Albigensian Crusade, the Occitan tongue declined. A group of Toulouse poets tried to revive it in the early 14C, by initiating the Jeux Floraux medieval poetry competition. But Occitan was dealt a heavy blow with the 1539 Edict of Villers-Cotterêts, which made Parisian French the official national language, Reforms introduced for Provençal by Frédéric Mistral and the Félibrige gave renewed impetus to the revival of Occitan. The Escola Occitana was founded in 1919 and the Institut d’Études Occitanes in Toulouse in 1945, with the aim of disseminating and standardising Occitan. A 1951 law allowed Occitan to be taught in schools, and in 1969 it became a language for examination at baccalauréat level.
The Catalan language is very close to Occitan, spoken from Salses in Roussillon to Valencia in Spain, and Andorra and Capcir to the west. Catalan is the national language of Andorra.
Catalan reached its height during the 13C, through the writings of poet and philosopher Ramon Llull. Like the language of Oc, it declined in the 16C when Philip II imposed Castilian Spanish over other regional dialects. Catalan is still spoken in everyday life, and the literary renaissance begun in the 19C is enhancing Roussillon’s cultural identity.
English words derived from Catalan include ‘aubergine’ ( albergínia ) and barracks ( barraca - meaning hut).
Folklore and religious festivals
The Languedoc countryside is scattered with megalithic monuments, and their names reflect local superstitions: Planted Stone, Giant’s Tomb, Fairies’ Dwellings etc. The fantastic shapes of these rock formations have also inspired folk tales of their origins. Common are tales of animals that have been bewitched – cows which no longer give milk, dogs which lose their sense of smell. Local people have traditions to guard against malevolent spirits, like wearing clothes back to front or throwing salt on the fire. Myths like the Bête du Gévaudan abound in regions where wild beasts have preyed upon livestock and even people. Wild animals like the Pyrenean bears have had festivals dedicated to them, the Fête de l’Ours held in the Vallespir region (Arles-sur-Tech, Prats-de-Mollo and St-Laurent-de-Cerdans) in late February-early March, and again during the summer tourist season.
Carnival time in the Aude traditionally begins with the winter slaughtering of the pig. Children with masked or blackened faces go from house to house asking for food, and adults join the fun by dressing back-to-front, cross-dressing, or dressing up as babies or old people. A straw dummy is paraded round the village and made the scapegoat for all the misfortunes which have befallen the villagers. The dummy is sentenced before a mock court held in the local patois slang, before it is hanged or burnt and children dance around the fire.
At the famous carnival in Limoux (Sundays from January to March, as well as Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday) people dressed as Pierrot figures dance around place de la République, beating time with sticks decorated with ribbons. They are pursued by revellers in various disguises all acting the clown. The festivities last until nightfall, when resin torches light the square. The carnival ends with the Nuit de la Blanquette.
This Catalan dance is accompanied by a cobla , an orchestra with a dozen or so brass, wind and percussion instruments which evoke a range of emotions from gentle to passionate. The sight of the whirling dancers flourishing garlands at festivals and local competitions is exciting, and the sardana festival at Céret is the most famous.
The most common religious festivals are in honour of local patron saints. St Peter, patron saint of fishermen, is honoured in Gruissan on 29 June. Mass is celebrated for local fishermen at the parish church, then a procession winds to the harbour where a wreath is cast into the water to commemorate those lost at sea.
On Good Friday in Perpignan, a procession is held by the Pénitents de la Sanch, a religious brotherhood founded in the 15C and dedicated to the Holy Blood, Penitents dress in long black or red robes with pointed hoods and walk through Perpignan’s streets to the cathedral, carrying misteris – painted or sculpted images of Scenes of the Passion of Christ.
The game of rugby was born in 1823 in Rugby, England when William Webb Ellis broke the rules during a football game at Rugby College by grabbing the football with both hands. Rugby came to France in the early 20C and caught on in the South-West, where it suits the robust Occitan temperament. It is now played and followed with huge enthusiasm in every town and village throughout the Pyrenees. Despite the rough physical nature of the game, played in true Occitan “ jusqu’au bout ” spirit, teams lay rivalry aside after the game, and players share a lavish meal to round off the event. Around Carcassonne, rugby league , a variation of rugby with teams of 13 players (jeu à XIII), is played, earning itself the nicknames “heretic rugby” or “the Cathar sport.”
Competition is fierce for the French national rugby championships. Since they were first held in 1892, the Championnats de France have been won:
-16 times by Toulouse (star player Jean-Pierre Rives)
- 11 times by Béziers
- 6 times by Perpignan
- 3 times by Castres
- twice by Narbonne (star players the Spanghero brothers)
-once each by Montauban, Carmaux and Quillan
The fact that rugby is more popular in the South-West than elsewhere in France is evident in the fact that the French international rugby team (victor 10 times of the Five Nations Tournament and 4 times of the Grand Slam) is comprised almost entirely of players from South-West France. The most famous include Spanghero (Narbonne), Rives (Toulouse), Castaignède and Christian Califano (both from Toulouse).
- Toulouse: red and black strip
- Béziers: red and blue strip
- Perpignan: red and gold strip
- Narbonne: orange and black strip
The enchanting settings and traditional ways of small isolated villages in the Cévennes, Rouergue, Causses and Languedoc, have long been an attraction for crafts workers setting up workshops here. Revel has been famous for its fine furniture and marquetry ever since the cabinet-maker Alexandre Monoury arrived from Versailles in 1889. It is also home to weavers, gilders, lacquerers, wood sculptors, bronze-smiths and blacksmiths. Wool-making and its related crafts have centred around Mazamet since the mid-19C. From the late Middle Ages, Durfort specialised in beaten copper traditionally used to make pots and cauldrons. Laguiole is renowned for its elegant pocket knives with curved handles made of horn. Fine kid gloves are made in and around Millau , and since the revival of silk farming in the region, the Cévennes has evolved as a silk making centre. The wood of the nettle tree is used in making pitchforks at Sauve (Gard). The glazed vases of Anduze, which adorn many a garden, have been renowned since the 17C. Sheep bells are produced in village workshops at Castanet-le-Bas or Hérépian, in the Hérault valley. Brickworks abound on the Garonne river plain and on the Roussillon coast where red clay is plentiful.
In the Albi region are several tanning workshops and others related to shoemaking. Graulhet produces leather for lining shoes, Dyer’s woad (Isatis tinctoria) is still cultivated around Magrin and the blue dye is used to colour clothes and textiles. Stone has been cut and polished in the Ariège region since the end of the 19C and Saurat has the last sandstone quarry in operation, and the last millstone producer in France.
The Bethmale valley is a production centre for traditional wooden sabots. They are made from locally grown beech or birch and marked with a heart shape, recalling the local legend of a shepherd betrayed by his fiancée. High-quality, luxurious horn combs are made in Lavelanet , near Foix, In French Catalonia , typical crafts include whips made from nettle tree wood of Sorède in the Lower Tech valley, corks from Roussillon cork oak, espadrilles at St-Laurent-de-Cerdans, the red and yellow Catalan textiles in geometric designs, and garnets cut and set at Perpignan.