Tuesday 23 January 2018

Forget the Cote d'Azur - France has a secret riviera for your sun holiday

Short breaks in France

River canal of Robine in Narbonne
River canal of Robine in Narbonne
Carcassonne, France
La Voile Blanche, a chic retro seaside shack at Les Aygades
Narbonne plage

Frank Coughlan

The Narbonne coast may not be chic, but it is both beautiful and historic says Frank Coughlan. Try it as an alternative to the Côte d’Azur

Set the Mood

The South of France conjures up images of skinny Vogue models and their pretty sculpted BFs promenading among the yachts and posh villas of Cannes and Nice. But if you dip your toe in the Med further west, you will actually find Frenchmen with farmer tans and women who look like nature originally designed.

That is how it is on the silver-sanded coast along and beyond Narbonne Plage, where families from Languedoc weekend and holiday without too much fuss or conspicuous displays of, well, Frenchness. But there is more to this secret Riviera than endless beach and blue skies that deliver what they promise. This region has a storybook history too, marinated in medieval tales of heresy witch-hunts and bloody crusades. The imposing castles are still there to prove it.

Guilty Pleasure

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La Voile Blanche, a chic retro seaside shack at Les Aygades
 

We had a very nice but pricey lunch with friends in Dun Laoghaire on the day before departure and we found it hard to find anything as expensive when eating out in France.

We weren't looking for Michelin stars over the door, but we didn't eat in creperies or pizzerias either. We did bow out, however, with a wonderful meal in La Voile Blanche, a chic retro seaside shack at Les Aygades which was a gentle cycle from where we were staying.

The seafood BBQ was truly mouthwatering and it was accompanied by a glorious local vin blanc with the unfortunate name of La Clape. If they did doggy bags for memories, I'd have asked for one.

Cheap Kick

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Carcassonne, France

We spent four nights in Carcassonne, a charming, if surprisingly, sleepy town which is dominated by Le Cite, the old fortress sitting imperiously above the River Aude (above).

The second most visited tourist attraction in France after the Eiffel Tower, this UNESCO World Heritage site is Mont Saint-Michel with attitude. Spellbinding.

On the fifth day, we boarded a SNCF for a 30 minute journey to Narbonne and then bused on the 11km to the coastal resort of Gruissan. We had taken the calculated risk of renting an Airbnb in both and our faith was rewarded with two charming homes averaging €65 per night.

Top Tip

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Narbonne plage

We hired two bicycles at €50 each for a week. Our ambitions were modest but we cycled as far as the iconic chalets where that raunchy classic Betty Blue was shot in 1986, on the far side of the old fishing port, to the thriving prom resort of St Pierre sur Mer beyond Narbonne Plage on the other.

This involved lazily peddling down dusty country lanes, skirting vineyards and freewheeling along seaside cycle paths. Bliss.

Glitches

The mercury soared to an unseasonal mid-30s Celsius in Gruissan (we had expected high 20s), and while our little seaside home with its shaded patio and quirky art collection was everything the photos suggested it would be, it did not have air-con.

The nights were sticky and the buzzards more than inquisitive. But we were a short stroll from a beautiful swimmers' beach, so we lived with it. You learn, though. Once bitten…

Get me there

We flew with Ryanair (ryanair.com) from Dublin and return flights for both of us totalled €297. Our train tickets from Carcassonne to Narbonne were €13.20 each (single) and the 11km bus ride out to the coast was a whopping €1.40 each. Sacre bleu!

For more tourist info, see narbonne-tourism.co.uk.

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