Picture the south of France and chances are the first images to come to mind are glamorous casinos, star-studded yachts—and throngs of tourists jostling for just a few inches of sun bed on the beach. Then there are the restaurants that double as tourist traps, the ever-present celebrity gossip, and the overwhelming traffic congestion. While famous destinations in the south of France such as Provence and the Côte d’Azur are certainly popular for a reason, there are heaps of swoon-worthy hidden gems that are as magical as could be—and far more representative of what life in the South of France is actually like. What’s even better, many of these destinations are just a stone’s throw away from the well-trodden tourist trail, making them easily accessible for your next adventure in the region.
Ready to discover the secrets of the South of France? Here are four fabulous places to get you started on your next visit.
Albi is a small maze of a town quaintly located off the Thane River in southwest France. What most visitors first notice about Albi is the handmade red brick that abounds throughout the old city. In fact, there is so much of it that Albi has earned itself the nickname “La Ville Rouge,” or “The Red Village.”
Start your visit to Albi with a wander through the historic Episcopal City, leaving plenty of time to marvel at the 13th-century Cathedral of Saint Cecilia—once the largest brick structure in the world. Wine lovers will also be thrilled by the excellent selection of local Gaillac wines; the Tarn region surrounding Albi is one of the oldest wine producing regions in France and still delights with its full-bodied characteristics. Finally, do not miss the recently renovated Toulouse-Lautrec museum. Toulouse-Lautrec came to fame while living in Paris, and his iconic Moulin Rouge poster imagery remains popular to this day. The museum in Albi, where the artist was born, pays tribute to his life and work.
There isn’t much to “do” in Minerve, but that’s part of the town’s intrinsic charm. Minerve is recognized as a Plus Beaux Villages de France, meaning it has been designated one of the most beautiful villages in the country. And it doesn’t take long during any visit to see why.
A fortified medieval village nestled alongside a dramatic gorge, Minerve boasts plenty of picture-perfect snapshots. Whether it’s wandering along the cobbled pedestrian roads, sipping coffee at a cafe overlooking the surrounding rolling foothills, or hopping into any of the local wine shops to sample Minervois wine, you’re bound to be taken aback by the pure loveliness of it all. One distinguishing factor about Minerve is that it served as an old Cathar bastion in the year 1210. Today, a carved monument with a dove (a symbol of the Cathars) stands to watch over the spot where 140 heretics were burned during the Cathar Crusades.
Once the crown jewel of the Languedoc region, today Narbonne is a small city that offers an authentic glimpse into everyday life in the South of France. Start your visit to the town with a stop at Las Halles Market. An institution in the city since 1901, the market still offers an ideal place to stock up on local cheese, produce and other picnic supplies.
Once you have your goods, make your way to the promenades of the Canal de la Robine (an offshoot of the famed Canal du Midi) to enjoy them. Alternatively, if you are more in the mood for sand and sea, then there are plenty of quiet beaches to choose from just 20 minutes away. Gruissan Beach is an excellent choice.
Châteaux de Lastours
Many tourists visit the medieval citadel of Carcassonne. In fact, it is is one of the most visited attractions in all of France, second only to the Eiffel Tower itself. However, what many tourists do not realize is that the four marvelous Châteaux de Lastours are an easily accessible day trip from Carcassonne, and a far more off the beaten track adventure at that.
The Châteaux de Lastours are four crumbling Cathar castles, perched upon steep hills that offer commanding views of the surrounding southern valley. The hike up to the first castle is noticeably steep, so plan to bring walking shoes and water. However, the entire experience only takes from one to two hours, depending on personal fitness and how long you stop to marvel at the scenery. An on-site museum is a nice touch and provides all the necessary information about the castles’ rich history.
The South of France is overflowing with sleepy villages, vast vineyards, outstanding outdoor adventures and delectable local cuisine. All it takes is a bit of curiosity and the urge to explore, and a whole plethora of once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunities await. These four hidden gems will get you started, but don’t be afraid to abandon the travel itinerary and set out to see what unique opportunities await!
Have you explored the South of France off-the-beaten path? Share your experience.