Explorations in Occitanie

The French region of Occitanie sits sandwiched between two much more well-known regions. On one side, the mountainous landscape of Provence rises from the Riviera up to the Alps. On the other side, the Spanish region of Catalonia receives millions of visitors each year by way of its capital, Barcelona. While Occitanie may not have Provence’s celebrity status or Catalonia’s world-class metropolis, it still has plenty to offer.

During my time in Montpellier learning French, I had a chance to explore and learn about many places in the region. Three aspects of the cultural heritage of Occitanie stood out to me: linguistic, religious, and technological.

Linguistic Heritage

Before France took its current hexagonal form, its lands were composed of various cultural regions, each with its own language. Stretching across the southern regions and into modern-day Spain was a continuum of closely-related Latin-based dialects broadly categorized into the Occitan language in France and the Catalan and Aragonese languages in Spain. The entire Occitan-speaking area is known as Occitania, though it is split into several administrative regions within France, including Aquitaine, Occitanie, Auvergne, and Provence.

Given its position in the middle of the linguistic and geographic continuum, Occitan sounds a bit like French with a Spanish flair – or perhaps Spanish with French words. The word that is the most obviously different is “yes”. While in French you say oui, and in Spanish you say , in Occitan you say òc. Hence, Occitania. In fact, the sub-region where Montpellier is located is called Languedoc – “language of òc”.

When the influence from Paris began to spread south, Occitan and its sister dialect Provençal gradually declined in importance. Today, they are spoken by very few people and are considered endangered. Yet they remain important to the distinct regional identities within Occitania. The trams in Montpellier, for instance, make their announcements in both French and Occitan.

Flag of Occitania
The Flag of Occitania

Religious Heritage

Occitanie is home to many interesting sites of religious significance.

Notre Dame de Maguelone

Long before the city of Montpellier was founded, when the region was considered a rather remote outpost, a cathedral was built on an island in one of the large lakes near the coast. The cathedral, Notre Dame de Maguelone, served as a defensive position and a place of safe haven and hospitality for travelers, pilgrims, the poor, and even popes fleeing conflict in Rome.

After the Diocese of Montpellier was created centuries later, the island church declined in importance until it was finally abandoned and fell into disrepair. Today, it has been partially restored and returned to service. There isn’t much to see in the church itself, but the scenic walk along the long, narrow causeway out to the island makes it a worthwhile excursion. The small island is home to a few vineyards and colorful peacocks, and frequently hosts musical events and social outreach programs.

Notre Dame de Grâce de Gignac

Not far from Montpellier, a church sits perched on a rise above the village of Gignac. The fertile Hérault valley stretches out all around, ringed in the distance by mountains. The church is known as l’Église Notre-Dame-de-Grâce de Gignac. For thousands of years, this has been a place of worship – at first to the Roman gods before alternating several times between Catholic and Protestant worship.

The Christian church was destroyed and rebuilt on numerous occasions. The final version, built in the seventeenth century, represents a unique style for the region. The facade, with several rows of windows, does not look much like that of a church. It is apparently not very stable either, because a supporting column later had to be added under the entrance arch!

The most striking aspect of the church in Gignac is its Chemin de Croix, or Way of the Cross. On a dirt path leading away from the church, a series of alcoves depict the fourteen stations of the Passion of Jesus. Along the way, the slope on either side becomes ever steeper. At the final station, the path ends at a chapel on a high point with a broad view of the wine-growing Hérault valley.

L'Église Notre-Dame-de-Grâce de Gignac in Gignac, France
La Couvertoirade

In the center of a rugged plateau called the Larzac, a tiny walled UNESCO World Heritage village seems to have been left in the Middle Ages. The village, called La Couvertoirade, is so small that you can walk around the outside of the wall in a matter of minutes. Within the wall, a maze of narrow alleys connects a cluster of houses. The ruins of a small castle and a church perch atop a rocky outcropping, commanding a view of the village and the empty countryside beyond.

La Couvertoirade is one of several such villages in the region. It was originally constructed by the Knights Templar after the first crusade in order to protect the pilgrim routes leading to the Holy Land. After the Templar was ousted, La Couvertoirade fell under the control of another Catholic military order called the Hospitaliers, who constructed the wall that now rings the village.

Nowadays, La Couvertoirade is inhabited by artisans who practice their crafts in the quaint medieval setting. The artisans make a living by capitalizing on the village’s official distinction as one of the most beautiful in France to do business with the streams of visitors who come to enjoy its charm.

La Couvertoirade, France

Le Chemin de Saint-Jacques, better known by its Spanish name El Camino de Santiago, is a network of ancient pilgrimage routes throughout western Europe. All the routes lead to the city of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where the remains of the apostle James are believed to be buried.

The most popular route today is the segment leading from the French Pyrénées to Santiago, but many other routes exist. One route, the Chemin d’Arles, begins in the Occitan city of Arles and passes through Montpellier and Toulouse as it makes its way toward Spain. In Montpellier, the major port of call is the Église Saint-Roch. The way through the city is marked by plaques on the ground depicting scallop shells, the symbol of the pilgrimage.

And the Camino de Santiago is not the only pilgrimage in Occitanie. While the Camino merely passes through the region, the city of Lourdes is a pilgrimage destination in itself. Situated in the foothills of the Pyrénées, Lourdes is the site of an 1858 apparition of Mary. Today, several million pilgrims arrive each year to pray before the grotto or seek cures for their illnesses.

Marker on the Camino de Santiago in Montpellier, France

Technological Heritage

Many feats of engineering, from ancient times to the present day, can be found in Occitanie.

Roman Ruins

In the first century AD, when the Roman Empire controlled much of Europe, several modern-day Occitan cities already existed. Arles and Nîmes, for example, were two prominent cities in the region. The Romans built amphitheaters in both cities in a similar style to the Colosseum. Though not as large as Rome’s amptheater, these are better preserved and still host public events to this day.

Sophisticated engineers that they were, the Romans also built an elaborate aqueduct system to direct water from a spring into the city of Nîmes fifty kilometers away – the local water supply was not sufficient to supply their baths and fountains. The aqueduct mostly ran along the ground, following the natural downhill slope. At the Gardon River, though, the channel sweeps over the gorge atop an elegant three-tiered bridge made of stacked stone arches. It’s an impressive (even by Roman standards) and very well-preserved structure, and the river below provides a scenic place for a swim!

Le Pont du Gard near Nîmes, France
Le Canal du Midi

In the seventeenth century, the city of Toulouse in the region’s interior was flourishing, and needed access to more efficient trade routes. While the Garonne River connects the city to the Atlantic Ocean, boats trying to reach the Mediterranean Sea would have to travel all the way around Spain and through the Strait of Gibraltar – a major inconvenience and potential danger. So, a massive project was undertaken to connect Toulouse more directly to the Mediterranean Sea.

The result is a 150-mile-long canal spanning numerous aqueducts, tunnels, and locks (and even the continental divide), known as the Canal du Midi. The construction incorporated many innovations in areas such as lock design, tunneling, and water supply. The canal facilitated trade and transportation between not only Toulouse and the outside world, but also within Occitanie itself.

Eventually, the Canal du Midi became obsolete in the face of more modern modes of transportation. However, it is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its technological innovation and aesthetic value. Nowadays, it is used for tourism and recreation. You can enjoy the canal either from the parallel footpaths or by boat (but unfortunately, I did not have a chance to do either).

Le Viaduc de Millau

As you approach the city of Millau, you can see the tops of the towers and stay cables peeking up from the horizon seemingly for no purpose at all. It is only when you get closer that you see what an impressive feat of engineering this really is. At the northern end of the Larzac plateau – where La Couvertoirade is located – the river Tarn cuts a wide gorge in the landscape. At the bottom of the gorge, on the banks of the river, is Millau. To enter the city, you have to follow a series of switchbacks down the steep valley walls.

But if you aren’t interested in visiting Millau itself, there is fortunately an alternative route, which is much more famous anyway: le Viaduc de Millau. The bridge spans the entire width of the gorge, casting its shadow on the city below. It was completed in 2004 as part of an effort to improve the A75, the main north-south highway through Occitanie. Though the only water below it is a small river, it is one of the longest cable-stayed bridges in the world and broke several records upon its completion.

Le Viaduc de Millau near Millau, France
Modern Technology

Bridges and canals aren’t the only transportation achievements that Occitanie is known for. Its capital and largest city, Toulouse, is also the capital of the country’s aerospace industry. In addition to having several prominent universities and a rich history of its own, Toulouse is the home of Airbus, the second-largest manufacturer of airplanes in the world.

In addition, as one of the sunniest and windiest places in France, Occitanie naturally attracts summer beachgoers to its coast. But it also attracts renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind power. Occitanie is one of the leading French regions in both sectors and is the second largest producer of renewable energy in the country.

A Unique Region

Even after a month of taking day trips after class or on the weekends, I only saw a small portion of the region of Occitanie. This post just reflects what I consider to be the most interesting places that I visited (or wanted to visit!). There are many other places to discover in the region besides those I mentioned here – Carcassonne, Béziers, Roquefort, and the Cévennes National Park, to name a few. Nonetheless, despite the summer heat, I found Occitanie to be a great place to explore, and I would happily return to see more!

Feel free to leave a comment if you have something to add about Occitanie!

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