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My very first housesitting assignment with TrustedHousesitters was in picturesque Southern France. Winter travel in Southern France is a popular option from the UK and elsewhere in Northern Europe. The region boasts over 300 days of sunshine each year…including during the otherwise dark and cold dreary days we experience farther north.
[quote color=”#000000″ bgcolor=”#d1d1d1″]Want to enjoy staying like a local while you travel? Check out house and pet sitting with TrustedHousesitters.[/quote]
I visited Southern France once, but I would love to return to explore more of this stunning country. From vineyards to intriguing history, beaches to rolling hills…this region is a beauty through and through.
Winter Travel in Southern France
Be careful as you drive through the vineyards of Southern France – row after row of neatly designed and obsessively preened vines will mesmerize you. In wintertime, the vines rest quietly after another season of growth.
Some vines are thick, black, and gnarled like the hands of a cartoon character witch. Neighboring rows wave their crispy, yellowed leaves as a passing greeting in the famed breezes of this region of Occitanie.
It’s only as of 2016 that Occitanie is the new official name for the regions of Southern France formerly called Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrenees.
The name Languedoc comes from langue d’oc, the language of Occitan. Rebranding and rewriting all tourism materials won’t be easy, but the region has dealt with far worse.
History of Southern France
I learn my first history lesson on that theme in the village of Minerve, built precariously atop a cliff overlooking the confluence of two regional rivers. Its story offers a glimpse into life in this region 800 years ago during the Crusades.
In 1208, a Crusade began as an effort to destroy the Cathars, a sect of Christians popular in Southern France but loathed by the Vatican. It is estimated that half a million people in the region were killed as a result.
After an attack on the French coastal city of Beziers, a group of Cathars fled to the fortified and friendly village of Minerve. The village took them in and hunkered down behind their thick walls surrounded by a deep gorge. The Crusaders approached, armed with three large wooden catapults. A replica of the largest catapult stands across the gorge today, continuing to face Minerve with malice.
When that catapult destroyed the village’s main water well, there was no choice but to surrender. With nowhere else to run, the estimated 180 Cathars who had sought refuge declined to abdicate their religious beliefs. Instead, they opted for death by fire.
Visiting Southern France in December
Today, Minerve is called one of les plus beaux villages de France, the most beautiful villages of France. While her history is dark and gruesome, Minerve stands proudly atop that gorge and continues to pay tribute to the memory of those victims.
After a mesmerizing drive in my rental car through those quiet winter vineyards along “main” roads that hardly squeeze two cars, I arrive in Minerve to find an entirely empty visitor parking lot and not a single soul on the village streets. A visit to this historic village came highly recommended, so I’m beginning to doubt the accuracy of my GPS.
A radio plays inside a small bookshop, eerily echoing into the empty cobblestone street. But nobody is inside when I poke my head through the open door. Iconic colorful wooden shutters irregularly slam shut in the wind coming through the gorge.
Finally, women’s voices float up through an alley. I follow them to find two elderly ladies casually chatting away on a doorstep, both pausing to wave in my direction. This seemingly normal activity is jarring in my otherwise post-apocalyptic setting.
I’m reminded that people actually do still live in this beautiful cliff-top village – that I’m not on an abandoned movie set after all.
This is the magic of visiting a touristy area during the off-season. Come summertime, this village will be electrified with activity from residents and tourists.
But to visit Southern France in winter grants a glimpse into local life and the quiet repose of a truly rural setting. If you’re considering expat life, this is the best time of year to visit a potential new home to see what life is really like for a local.[one_half][/one_half] [one_half_last][/one_half_last]
Off-Season Travel Perks
This region of Occitanie is incredibly popular with expats for its laidback lifestyle and average 300 days of sunshine. Even in December, the sun is brilliant and the air is crisp, but not even remotely akin to the December blasts of wind in my hometown of Boston.
Minerve is just one of several fortified villages and historic sites I’m visiting during my trip to Occitanie. Driving through the sleepy vineyards, I can wander and detour myself without a care in the world. Time moves slowly along the Mediterranean coast – slower still come wintertime when tourists are mostly absent.
Of course, not all tourists are absent. Others know the same secret I do and are taking advantage of lowered prices and diminished crowds.
In contrast to the completely empty village of Minerve, the castle at Carcassonne is bustling with activity. Shopkeepers stand by their doors and tourists stop suddenly to take photos every few feet as they amble along the cobblestone streets.
Wooden shutters are pushed open overhead while a million scents waft through the air. Pungent French cheese…freshly brewed coffee…sweet melted fondue chocolate.
I may as well change my name to Belle and star in a Disney film as I wander these streets saying “Bonjour!” to everyone I pass.
While much of Carcassonne is now designed to impress tourists (try to avoid the kitschy plastic suits of armor) it ironically feels as though we’ve stepped back in time to what the city actually felt like as a vibrant market and residential village.
A tour of the castle itself is best done with an audio guide to delve deep into the history and better appreciate the architectural marvel that it is today.
And walking down to the newer part of Carcassonne not only offers incredible views of the castle from below but also boasts a very popular Saturday market.
(“New” is relative. My American senses are baffled to learn that the “newer” city was built in the Middle Ages!)
Winter in Europe
In December, the usual city market in Carcassonne is transformed into one of Europe’s popular Christmas markets. It’s complete with an ice skating rink, mugs of hot mulled wine, and all the crepes you could ever want.
[quote color=”#000000″ bgcolor=”#d1d1d1″]These Christmas markets offer some of the magic of visiting European cities in winter.[/quote]
Many fortified villages like Minerve and Carcassonne fill the landscape of Occitanie, gracing each strategic hilltop with remnants of history. But those fortifications aren’t the only glimpse into times gone by.
As you drive through those mesmerizing vineyards, keep your eyes up to the hillsides in search of moulins à vent, windmills. They are straight out of Don Quixote’s world, waving in the wind but begging you to take a closer look.
The stone bases and wooden arms of these many moulins à vent still randomly dot the hillsides. In contrast, their sleek, modern wind turbine cousins line up, standing at attention along ridges to dutifully catch those famous Southern France winds.
It’s a transition in time and design, but not in purpose.
Bordered by the Pyrenees Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, the valleys and slopes of Occitanie dip and sway, with their endless rows of vines following suit. The golden winter light of late afternoon strikes the hillsides and bathes the vineyards, dancing into furrows and highlighting craggy facades of fortifications.
Inside both historic and modern villages, that golden light barely fits through the traditionally tight lanes separating blocks of attached homes. But red-tiled rooftops gleam with pride and neighbors happily consume the wine made from those local grapes just beyond each village wall.
Southern France attracts so many expats for good reason: the vineyards, the history, the laidback lifestyle, and – of course – the endless sunshine.
Maybe it isn’t just the rows of vines that are mesmerizing, but the entire experience of being in Occitanie.