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The wide expanse of sand is phenomenal. You feel at once humbled yet inspired by the vastness, the sense of space, the wide-open outlook. Espiguette beach is stunningly broad and long, extending a good 12km along the far north-eastern shores of Languedoc-Roussillon.
It is a quiet, wild place, backed only by a lighthouse and by long reaches of sand dunes topped with tangles of grasses.
Whatever the weather, whatever the season, you’ll find wonderfully empty expanses here. The crowds who descend at the height of summer dissipate the further you walk from the car park (as does their clothing – with increasingly naked sun worshippers in the far areas).
In the mild winter and spring there’s ample scope to move away from the clusters of kite-surfers, happy groups of children building sandcastles and small parties of fishermen with rods out along the edge of the shore.
There are 40 or so other beaches along the 200km coast of Languedoc-Roussillon. It is a richly varied shoreline offering ancient ports, modern resort towns, bustling fishing harbours, calm coves, bird-filled lagoons and more. To reach Espiguette beach itself you pass three very different towns. The nearest is Port Camargue, a pleasingly modern resort built in 1969 and centred around a large marina where sleek white yachts and large speedboats are moored.
It is just a few kilometres from the old fishing port of Le Grau-du-Roi, where boats bring in catches of sardines and sea bream and where a palm-planted promenade fringes a great sweep of beach and offers a host of restaurants. Best of all, though, is the town of Aigues-Mortes, a picture-book medieval walled settlement a 10-minute drive further north.
This intriguing town was purpose-built as a major port in the mid-13th century. But about 100 years after its construction, huge silt deposits changed the coastal configuration and Aigues-Mortes found itself several kilometres from the sea. Solidly and grandly devised though it was, it became something of a backwater, its insignificance allowing it to remain undeveloped. Hence it is almost perfectly preserved today. It is a fine place to amble around, its all-encompassing fortifications containing pretty streets of row houses with pastel-painted shutters.
On the sunny November day of my visit, Place Saint Louis – the main square – was filled with diners at outdoor tables from the surrounding restaurants. It exuded a charming, relaxed atmosphere.
The main tourist attraction of Aigues-Mortes is a walk high up along the ramparts, for which entrance includes access to the town’s principal fortress, Tour de Constance, that has also served variously as a prison and a lighthouse. The views are terrific, taking in the outlying Rhone-Sète Canal and mountains of salt from saltworks on the edge of Aigues-Mortes.
Stretching beyond are the salt marshes of the Petite Camargue. Part of the Rhone delta, this remote area is home to the pink flamingo (among a vast number of other birds) as well as wild bulls and the distinctive white Camargue horse. Boats moored in the canal just beyond Aigues-Mortes’s main gate, Porte Saint Antoine, offer guided tours around this nature-rich watery world.
In complete contrast to the dreamy, other-worldly quality of Aigues-Mortes, you are swept into action at Sète further south along the coast. This vibrant fishing town occupies a prime position between the sea and the Étang de Thau, one of Languedoc-Roussillon’s largest lagoons, which is famous for its oyster production.
Laid out along a series of canals, the town centre is an engaging place dominated by fishing vessels – state-of-the-art tuna fishing boats looking like gin palaces and smaller craft for more local, less demanding trips.
Head to the Vieux Port on the south-eastern edge of town to see their catches being sorted in the afternoon before they are sold at the adjacent auction house (for which guided tours are arranged through the tourist office). Then make for the top of Mont St Clair behind the town. From this high vantage point, you stretch your eyes across great panoramas: over the sea in one direction and across the oyster farms of the lagoon in another.
Yet there’s more to Sète than fishing. This is a vibrant place with its own culture. More than 40 percent of the residents are descendants of a wave of Neapolitan refugees who arrived here in the 1850s. The Italian connection is evident in local dishes such as la macaronade, pasta with pork and tomatoes. Sète is also renowned for the strange sport of water jousting in which opponents vie with each other on platforms extending from boats rowed by teams of eight.
It also offers two small museums dedicated to national heroes who were born in Sète: Paul Valery, the poet and philosopher, and Georges Brassens, the iconic songwriter. And it is a party town, hosting a number of festivals during the year. August is when Sète is particularly lively, with a major festival of world music closely followed by the town carnival, La Saint Louis.
Further south, beyond Narbonne, you reach the windiest part of the coast. Yet far from detracting from the pleasures of the seaside, the conditions around the Leucate peninsula have become a major draw. This area is now in effect the wind sport capital of France, rivalled in Europe only by Tarifa on the southern tip of Spain.
The greater part of the action takes place off the long, golden-sand stretch of La Franqui beach where at any time of the year kite-surfers, windsurfers and kite-buggies harness the wind. The most spectacular feats take place when the fierce north-west Tramontagne wind is blowing, with optimum conditions occurring in April, which is when the Mondial du Vent kite-surfing and windsurfing championships are held.
The Leucate peninsula is very much a world unto itself. From the pretty old village of Leucate itself to the modern resort of Port Leucate, several settlements fringe the Leucate lagoon, where oysters are farmed, and egrets, herons and pink flamingos can be seen, and where novice sailors and windsurfers can learn the ropes in safety before setting out in the sea beyond.
With numerous restaurants, sailmakers, surf shops, campsites and other accommodation options, there’s a distinctive, appealingly relaxed atmosphere here.
But the most dramatic part of the Languedoc-Roussillon coast is at its southern extremity.
Beyond the long, wide beach of Argelès sur Mer lies the rugged landscape of the Côte Vermeille, so-called because of its intense colours.
It is an area of geographical theatre, with craggy, vine-clad mountains reaching down into the sea. Set in a particularly picturesque cove is the ancient town of Collioure, its harbour dominated by a 12th-century fortress.
To have any hope of parking in this postcard-pretty place, get here in the morning. Then spend at least half a day enjoying Collioure’s views and artistic associations.
The town famously became a centre of the Fauve artists in the early 20th century, Derain, Matisse and Braque among them. Today you can follow a walking trail around Collioure with reproductions of the artists’ works placed at viewpoints where they were painted. The town’s modern art museum offers a small permanent collection and changing exhibitions of local artists.
For a final treat, move on to nearby Banyuls, the road snaking around the coast and presenting magnificent views over vine-sculpted hills. At this seaside town make for the Cellier des Templiers, a large co-operative of wine growers. Here you can enjoy free guided tours and tastings of the area’s wines, produced at some of the world’s most ancient – and spectacularly sited – vineyards. - The Mercury