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France: The accidental rebirth of Occitania

An ancient region in the South of France has risen from the ashes and put itself back on the map. Occitania is an area doused in heritage, its name long entwined with the old hamlets, towns and cities that stud its hills, and the intriguing language marking out many of its inhabitants

France: The accidental rebirth of Occitania
Carcassonne. Credit: 4corners

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There are vultures circling over the Gorges du Vis. Soundless silhouettes tracing loops above the clifftops, black wings outspread, riding the currents. First one bird, then two, then six. A few hundred metres below, the canyon floor is a wild, rumpled corridor of sun-baked limestone. “For me, being Occitan is about having a connection to the land,” says Valérie Bousquel, as she stares across the ravine. “It’s about having a passion for artistic expression and a love of liberty,” she continues. “C’est un esprit.” A spirit.

I’m in the South of France. Not the glossed world of palm trees and rock star villas that shimmers on the coast, but inland among the high plateaus and drowsy villages at the foot of the Massif Central. The landscape tumbling out in front of us has, despite its aridness, been grazed and farmed since at least the 12th century. For most of that time, the everyday language spoken by its inhabitants has been not French, but the Romance tongue of Occitan. Still spoken today, albeit on a much smaller scale, it was being used at its height by some 12 million people. Describe it as a patois at your peril.

This is a part of the country that Valérie — dressed in a heavy coat despite the 20-degree heat — has known from birth. She works for CPIE Causses Méridionaux, a local association preserving not only traditional farming methods but the countryside itself, and has brought me here to show off the remarkable Cirque de Navacelles — a rounded, cathedral-sized rock monolith standing far beneath us at the foot of a naturally eroded canyon.

It’s a beautiful but odd sight, as if a green meteorite had slammed into the soil and remained there, stubborn and immutable. “You see,” smiles Valérie. “Occitania holds surprises.” The name Occitania has been pushed to the fore in the past year. Mainland France recently underwent a wholesale change in the way its regions are divided up, parcelling together previously separate regions — reducing the overall number from 22 to 13. Some of these mergers appear to have simply lumped together areas that happen to neighbour each other — new super-regions created foremost as a means of cutting civic costs. Others, however, hold more significance. Step forward the pairing of Languedoc-Roussillon and Midi-Pyrenees, two historically Occitan regions, which since 2016 are now officially joined together under the title Occitania. A happy by-product is the return to prominence of a place-name doused in heritage, a word long entwined with the old hamlets, towns and cities that stud the hills.

To its most vocal adherents, Occitania is a territory, a homeland, a language and a way of life. For them, the true Occitania — that is, those areas where the Occitan language was once predominant — actually stretches all the way from the Bay of Biscay to the Alps, incorporating pockets of Spain and Italy and utterly dwarfing this new region. The freshly formed administrative borders do, however, encompass an area that can claim close to a thousand years of Occitan cultural history. It’s somewhere with a Mediterranean climate, a Latin spirit and a tendency to view Paris and the north with a wary gaze.   

It’s a terrific place to travel through, being exceptionally easy on the eye and predisposed to long, well-lubricated meals. It also has a stack of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a past fierce with drama and a passion for rugby and music. I’m making a road trip between its two main cities, Montpellier and Toulouse. The distance between them is just 120 miles, but with a bit of judicious zigzagging, the riches that can be enjoyed en route are essentially numberless. And in the process of getting from A to B, I want to find out what the idea of Occitania means in the 21st century. Is it these days just a name, or something more?

Monsieur BMX
In Montpellier, bicycles fly and disappear into walls. I’ve been in the city for just a few hours, and have already seen half a dozen protruding from buildings, their frames metres off the ground and their handlebars vanished from view. “It’s the work of a street artist. We call him Monsieur BMX,” explains Bruno Martinez, a local guide and photographer. “They started appearing four years ago in different parts of the city. It seems as though they’re here to stay. I like them.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Montpellier is laissez-faire about the presence of rogue wheels above its medieval alleys. The city is resolutely open to fresh ideas. Whereas most French cities have grand, stuccoed town halls, Montpellier has a maze-like block of translucent glass. Its trams were designed by A-list fashionista Christian Lacroix, students make up one fifth of its population and a whole swathe of its town centre was reshaped in the late 20th century by an architect allowed to run freestyle with neoclassical styling.

This mood of tolerance is nothing new. Bruno unlocks a door from the street and leads me down a set of steps to a dark underground chamber that served as a ritual bathhouse for the city’s Jewish community 800 years ago. He flicks on a light to reveal a small changing area and a square pool still filled with naturally gathered water. “Historically, Occitania always welcomed outsiders — Jews, Muslims, Cathars, everybody,” he explains. “This is key to understanding the history of Montpellier and Occitania.”

Carcassonne’s swashbuckling good looks are partly the result of a 19th-century restoration that added crenellations, conical towers and arrow slits — evidence that in Occitania, initial appearances can hide a deeper story. Credit: Alamy

Carcassonne’s swashbuckling good looks are partly the result of a 19th-century restoration that added crenellations, conical towers and arrow slits — evidence that in Occitania, initial appearances can hide a deeper story. Credit: Alamy

The Cathar religion, in particular, had very strong ties to the region. A hybrid faith that took the pillars of Christianity and added elements of Middle Eastern philosophy, it grew in popularity across Occitania to the point that, by the early 1200s, France’s political and religious rulers saw it as a grave threat to their authority. There followed a two-decade military campaign known as the Albigensian Crusade, which stamped out Catharism in brutal, bloody fashion. Some estimates place the death toll at close to a million.

Such things are not easily forgotten. Catharism has been closely linked to Occitania ever since. Over a bottle of Gaillac, I meet long-term local Patrick Hutchinson, a Cambridge-educated academic who composed the words — in Occitan — to a musical about the Albigensian Crusade. “Occitania has a very real dimension,” he tells me, pointing out that there has always been a spirit of resistance in the region’s character. “It represents something that the rest of France is not, so the fact that it now exists as an official entity — well, until recently no one would have dreamed of such a thing.” He explains that in early 2016 the name of the new administrative region was put to public vote, with Occitania soundly beating the four other alternatives.

But although the region’s current incarnation might be new, its chief attractions are anything but. Nowhere evokes images of fire, sword and medieval bombast quite like the fortress city of Carcassonne, and my first glimpse of this hilltop citadel, shining and Camelot-like in the afternoon sun, is powerful. Settled since the sixth century BC and progressively fortified by the Romans, the Visigoths, Saracens, Counts of Toulouse and French, the citadel is today a tourist-seducing flurry of towers, turrets and fearsome ramparts.

I cross its moat and walk through the double-walled main gateway. The old streets, lined with souvenir shops, lead me to the basilica, where rows of deranged-looking gargoyles still stare down at visitors. Carcassonne played an active role in protecting the area from anti-Cathar forces until falling to Catholic crusaders in 1209, and it remains very much of its region. These days it houses one of Southern France’s 65 calandretas (primary schools in which lessons are conducted entirely in Occitan).

Shortly before sunset, I join dozens of others by walking out onto the battlements and watching as flocks of starlings swirl and gather in the sky. Carcassonne’s swashbuckling good looks, I learn later that evening, are partly the result of a fanciful but dramatic 19th-century restoration that added crenellations, conical towers and arrow slits. It’s evidence that in Occitania, initial appearances can hide a deeper story.

The art of paratge
One of the most prominent words in the Occitan language has no direct translation. Paratge, in loose terms, means a respect for others, a courtesy towards strangers and an understanding of the difference between right and wrong. Conversely, Occitan itself has endured a torrid time over the centuries, having been marginalised — shamed as a peasant’s dialect and, until relatively recently, banned from formal education.

Despite the fact that more than 500,000 people still speak it to some degree, Occitan has an unpromising future — indeed, it’s been classified as officially endangered (UNESCO includes Occitan in its Red Book of Endangered Languages). There’s residual anger that France still refuses to recognise it as a national language. During my trip, I see a poster showing Che Guevara with the French Tricolour wrapped gag-style around his mouth. The words below the image — ‘Parlar Occitan Es Encara Un Acte Revolucionari!’ — state proudly that to speak Occitan is a revolutionary act.

This might be why, aside from the odd bilingual street sign, the language is almost undetectable as I drive around the region. There’s certainly little evidence of it at the boisterous Saturday market in Revel, where flowers, grapes and gooey cheeses are being sold from underneath broad oak eaves. Saucisson sec (cured sausage) is being chopped, pumpkins are being weighed, snails are being ladled. It’s mid-autumn, and the queue at the chestnut stall is 20-strong. Revel is one of hundreds of bastides — fortified market towns built in the Middle Ages to protect local inhabitants from marauding outside forces. The recurrent images of war and conflict in Occitania are at odds with the countryside itself, which remains an open, docile landscape. Plane tree-shaded roads unfurl beneath escarpments and forested mountains, and close to Revel, the massif of La Montagne Noire hulks quietly on the horizon.  

The pull of the great Southern outdoors was a common theme in the paintings of the region’s most famous artist, who would, by contrast, become best known for depicting the brothels and cabarets of Paris. The brilliant but famously dissolute Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec grew up in and around the laid-back cathedral city of Albi, where a museum dedicated to his works still stands.

“When he was young he was known as lo poulit. It means ‘the beautiful baby’ in Occitan,” says guide Christian Rivière, leading me through the red-brick palace that houses the collection. “Toulouse-Lautrec never stopped loving this region. He came back several times a year.”

The artistic leap from the lakes and horses of his early canvasses to the can-canning mademoiselles of his later works was considerable, but then the man himself — born into aristocracy, and in adult life standing just 4ft 11in tall — was full of surprises. Christian takes me to a restaurant set in the former family stables, where I’m taken aback to learn that Toulouse-Lautrec was also an obsessive cook, putting his own spin on traditional Occitan recipes and, according to some food historians, inventing the first chocolate mousse.

A trip to Occitania still requires a loosened belt. Like elsewhere in France, the region approaches food and drink with reverence. The native larder relies heavily on meat, herbs and dairy (the most famous of its cheeses is Roquefort) and more wine is produced here than in any other part of the country. Sitting down to table is therefore a convivial affair, and I’m informed matter-of-factly that one of the most renowned local wine producers still starts each day with a quick ‘santat!’ (cheers!) and a glass of red. Down in the sun-warmed South, some old traditions die hard. 

Montpellier. Credit: Alamy

Montpellier. Credit: Alamy

Sweet goat music
In the Occitan Cultural Centre at Cordes-sur-Ciel, Daniel Loddo is playing a folk instrument that is, to all intents and purposes, a goat. The animal’s skin, still bearing four legs, is the central component of a bagpipe-like contraption known as a craba. The sound it produces — all things considered — is surprisingly tuneful, and the notes eddy merrily around the small room in which we’re standing.

Music has always been a fundamental part of Occitan culture. In the centuries before the Albigensian Crusade, troubadours — usually funded by wealthy southern nobles — helped to accelerate the spread of the Occitan language, performing poetic songs about everything from religion to courtly love. Their modern Occitan descendants, however, are far harder to classify, covering every genre from metal and punk to folk and rap.

I sit down with Daniel and local civil servant Philippe Sour, whose job it is to ensure that Occitan culture has every chance to thrive. I ask how they feel about the formation of the new region. “Well, the borders are far too small,” says Daniel, laughing. “But yes — it’s a very important platform for the future. We have to ensure younger generations understand Occitan culture and know its stories. Culture is not dust and death, culture needs to live, and music is fundamental to that.

“The government has been against regional cultures since the French Revolution. We cannot let it die,” continues Philippe. “The language might not survive, but we have to safeguard the knowledge and the history.” As a potent illustration of how he views the situation, he recently arranged for an Occitan town to be twinned with a settlement in Tibet.

Today, there are effectively two Occitanias. One is the newly minted administrative region, the other is the historical land stretching from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. The challenge, perhaps, for its custodians is to ensure that the traditional culture — paratge and all — is as relevant to one as it is to the other.

In Toulouse, now the regional capital, the issue doesn’t seem to be furrowing too many brows. Late October sunshine is washing over the city’s cafe terraces as sightseers spill in and out of the Basilica of Saint-Sernin. I walk down to the banks of the Garonne River — source of the red mud that gives the city’s buildings their famous pink hue — and, in the distance, can pick out the shape of the Pyrenees.

Toulouse is now the fourth largest city in France by population, but it’s an easy-going place to spend time in. I make my way across to the Ostal d’Occitània, which puts on regular cultural events, and notice a spray-painted mural on a side street. Only when I’ve nearly passed it do I see that it depicts the traditional Occitan cross; its design modified to include a tongue sticking out in defiance. Maybe that’s the thing: when you travel through this handsome, hardy region, Occitan culture is often right in front of you — you just need to look for it.

Essentials

Getting there & around
EasyJet flies direct to Montpellier and Toulouse from Gatwick. British Airways, Flybe and Ryanair are among other carriers with direct flights between the UK and Toulouse.    
By using Eurostar and TGV rail services, it’s possible to reach Montpellier from London in around eight hours and Toulouse in approximately 10, including changes in Paris. 
Driving is the most logical way of taking in the places mentioned. Routes follow a mixture of country roads and tollbooth motorways.

Places mentioned
Musée Toulouse-Lautrec
Occitan Cultural Centre

More info
en.destinationsuddefrance.com
tourism-midi-pyrenees.co.uk
atout-france.fr
Grains of Gold, An Anthology of Occitan Literature (Francis Boutle Publishers). RRP: £30

How to do it
EasyJet flies from Gatwick to Montpellier from £32.49, and from Toulouse to Gatwick from £25.13. 
Accommodation options include Hotel Le Guilhem, Montpellier (rooms from £75), Hotel du Chateau, Carcassonne (from £130) and Domaine d’En Fargou, (from £96; Côte d’Enfargou, 81370 Saint-Sulpice-la-Pointe, Toulouse. T: 00 33 6 76 74 63 56).


Published in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)