The fishing village of Sète serves as gateway to Montpellier, in the North. Other noteworthy destinations in this area include Carcassone, Aigues Mortes, the Abbaye de Fontfroide, and Pezenas. For a look at the real fisherman's life, however, stay right where you are. Sète is the Mediterranean's biggest fishing port. Canals winding through town make it fun to stroll around, and there are a number of good walking paths leading to the beach (about 30 minutes to the west). Although it's small and unspectacular, Plage de la Corniche has calm, pristine waters that are perfect for swimming. For a panoramic view of the area, climb Mont St-Clair or Les Pierres Blanches and pick a beach to settle down on.
Montpellier. This vibrant capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region has been a center of commerce and learning since the Middle Ages, when it was a crossroads for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, and an active shipping center for trading in spices from the East. With its cargo of exotic luxuries, it also imported Renaissance learning, and its university-founded in the 14th century-has nurtured a steady influx of ideas through the centuries. Though the port silted up by the 16th century, Montpellier never became a backwater, and it keeps its focus on the future as a center of commerce and conferences.
Arc de Triomphe. Looming majestically over the peripheral highway that loops around the city center, this enormous arch is the centerpiece of the Peyrou. Designed by d'Aviler in 1689, it was finished by Giral in 1776. Together, the noble scale of these harmonious stone constructions and the sweeping perspectives they frame make for an inspiring stroll through this upscale stretch of town. At the end of the park is the historic Château d'Eau, a Corinthian temple and the terminal for les Arceaux, an 18th-century aqueduct; on a clear day the view from here is spectacular, taking in the Cévennes Mountains, the sea, and an ocean of red-tile roofs.
Cathédrale St-Pierre. After taking in the broad vistas of the Promenade de Peyrou, cross over into the Vieille Ville and wander its maze of narrow streets full of pretty shops and intimate restaurants. At the northern edge of the Vieille Ville, visit this imposing cathedral, its fantastical and unique 14th-century entry porch alone worth the detour: two cone-top towers-some five stories high-flank the main portal and support a groin-vaulted shelter. The interior, despite 18th-century reconstruction, maintains the formal simplicity of its 14th-century origins. Pl. St-Pierre.
Musée Fabre. From crowd-packed Place de la Comédie, Boulevard Sarrail leads north past the shady Esplanade Charles de Gaulle to this rich, renowned art museum. Renovated in 2006, it is a mixed bag of architectural styles (a 17th-century hôtel, a vast Victorian wing with superb natural light, and a remnant of a Baroque Jesuit college). The collection inside is surprisingly big, thanks to the museum's namesake, a Montpellier native. François-Xavier Fabre, a student of the great 18th-century French artist David, established roots in Italy and acquired a formidable collection of masterworks-which he then donated to his hometown, supervising the development of this fine museum. Among his gifts were the Mariage Mystique de Sainte Catherine, by Veronese, and Poussin's coquettish Venus et Adonis. Later contributions include a superb group of 17th-century Flemish works (Rubens, Steen), a collection of 19th-century French canvases (Géricault, Delacroix, Corot, Millet) that inspired Gauguin and Van Gogh, and a growing group of 20th-century acquisitions that buttress a legacy of paintings by early Impressionist Frédéric Bazille. 39 bd. Bonne Nouvelle. Admission charged.
Place de la Comédie. The number of bistros and brasseries increases as you leave the Vieille Ville to cross Place des Martyrs, and if you veer right down Rue de la Loge, you emerge onto the festive gathering spot known as Place de la Comédie. Anchored by the Neoclassical 19th-century Opéra-Comédie, this broad square is a beehive of leisurely activity, a cross between Barcelona's Ramblas and a Roman passeggiata (afternoon stroll, en masse). Eateries and entertainment venues draw crowds, but the real pleasure is getting here and seeing who came before, wearing what, and with whom.
Promenade du Peyrou. Montpellier's grandest avenue, the promenade was built at the end of the 17th century and dedicated to Louis XIV.
Aigues-Mortes. Like a tiny illumination in a medieval manuscript, Aigues-Mortes is a precise and perfect miniature fortress-town contained within symmetrical crenellated walls, its streets laid out in geometric grids. Now awash in a flat wasteland of sand, salt, and monotonous marsh, it was once a major port town from which no less than St-Louis himself (Louis IX) set sail in the 13th century to conquer Jerusalem. In 1248 some 35,000 zealous men launched 1,500 ships toward Cyprus, engaging the infidel on his own turf and suffering swift defeat; Louis himself was briefly taken prisoner. A second launching in 1270 led to more crushing loss, and Louis succumbed to the plague.
Louis's state-of-the-art fortress-port, Porte de la Gardette, remains astonishingly well preserved. Its stout walls now contain a small Provençal village milling with tourists, but the visit is more than justified by the impressive scale of the original structure.
Carcassonne. Set atop a hill overlooking lush green countryside and the Aude River, this spectacular medieval town looks like it's been lifted from the pages of a storybook-literally, perhaps, as its said to be the setting for Charles Perrault's classic tale Puss in Boots.
The oldest sections of the walls (northeast sector), built by the Romans in the 1st century ad, were later enlarged, in the 5th century, by the Visigoths. Legend has it that Charlemagne once set siege to the settlement in the 9th century, only to be outdone by one Dame Carcas, a clever woman who boldly fed the last of the city's wheat to a pig in full view of the conqueror; Charlemagne, thinking this indicated endless food supplies, promptly decamped, and the exuberant townsfolk named their city after her. During the 13th century, Louis IX (St. Louis) and his son Philip the Fair strengthened Carcassonne's fortifications-so much so that the town came to be considered inviolable by marauding armies and was duly nicknamed "the virgin of Languedoc."
A town that can never be taken in battle is often abandoned, however, and for centuries thereafter Carcassonne remained under a Sleeping Beauty spell. It was only awakened during the mid-19th-century craze for chivalry and the Gothic style, when, in 1835, the historic-monument inspector (and poet) Prosper Mérimée arrived. He was so appalled by the dilapidated state of the walls that he commissioned the architect, painter, and historian Viollet-le-Duc (who found his greatest fame restoring Paris's Notre-Dame) to restore the town. Today the 1844 renovation is considered almost as much a work of art as the medieval town itself. No matter if the town is more Viollet than authentic medieval, it still remains one of the most romantic sights in France.
The town is divided by the river into two parts-La Cité, the fortified upper town, and the lower, newer city (the ville basse), known simply as Carcassonne. Plan on spending at least a couple of hours exploring the walls and peering over the battlements across sun-drenched plains toward the distant Pyrénées.
Château Comtal. The 12th-century château is the last inner bastion of Carcassonne. It has a drawbridge and a museum, the Musée Lapidaire, where medieval stone sculptures unearthed in the area are on display. Carcassonne. Admission charged.
Musée des Beaux-Arts (Fine Arts Museum). The real draw in the ville basse (lower town), built between the Aude and the Canal du Midi, this museum houses a nice collection of porcelain, 17th- and 18th-century Flemish paintings, and works by local artists-including some stirring battle scenes by Jacques Gamelin (1738-1803). 1 rue de Verdun, Ville Basse, Carcassonne.
Pézenas. Located 52 km (32 mi) Southwest of Montpellier, Pézenas retains the courtly appearance and feel it acquired in the 16th century, when the Estates General of the Languedoc, the regional administrative body, governed from here. The town made its fortune with 16th- to 18th-century textile fairs, at which denim was sold. Hence you have Pézenas's architectural richness: around every picturesque corner is another hotel particulier (town-house mansion)-and because of architectural competition among the wealthy, they are all unique. Some notable streets are rue Triperie Vieille; rue de la Foire, where you'll find the Maison Carrion de Nizas and the Hôtel de Wicque; cour Jean-Jaurès, famous for its Maison Émile Mâzuc, at No. 10; place du 14 Juillet and its outstanding Hôtel des Barons de Lacoste; and rue Émile Zola, home to the Maison de Jacques Coeur. At the end of rue Émile Zola is a rounded archway leading into the rue Juiverie, also called La Carriera, which in the Occitan language denotes a Jewish ghetto.
The tourist office, which organizes a variety of tours of Pézenas, is in the Maison du Barbier Gély (1 pl. Gambetta), once home to Molière's barber and friend, Monsieur Gély.