A neighbouring town of Marseille, Septèmes-les-Vallons is mostly famous as the place where Zinedine Zidane, living legend of French football, started playing in the local club, SO Septèmes, under coach Robert Centenero, until he was spotted by local scouts and entered the Cannes training centre.
This village is just what its name purports it to be. Fare (or “lighthouse”) points to the time when its role was to forewarn of barbaric or Saracen invasions from atop the “castellas”.
As for Oliviers (or “olive trees”), it was indeed olives that brought the town its wealth and became its main industry. On the second weekend in October the town holds the wine and olive festival, where you are always sure to see one of La Fare’s most famous citizens, the actor Philippe Caubère, who has had one of the vintages of the very good little AOC produced in the village named after him.
“Water, water everywhere” could have been the motto of the Marquis de Sade, who belonged to a branch of the town’s most famous family. Eyguières, which means “springs”’, has more springs and fountains than anywhere else in Provence. Dozens can still be admired to this day, such as the Shell fountain, recalling that Eyguières once was a famous stop on the road to Compostella, the Chicken Fountain, probably named after the Gallic rooster perched atop it, and the Gilouse Fountain, named after a fairy devoted to protecting lovers.
The village, nestling around one of the most beautiful 12th-century castellas, is also the site of the 498-metre-high Tour des Opies.
This is the heart of olive country. With some 80,000 olive trees, Mouriès is the leading olive-producing town in southern France. The cooperative mill, which dates back to 1626 and is open to the public, won three gold medals in 2006.
For botanical enthusiasts, an olive tree can yield from 5 to 30 kg of olives a year. But production is biennial, trees carrying an abundant crop only every two years. Contained in tiny pouches within the olive’s cells, the oil is extracted in three steps: grinding, kneading and decanting. Olive oil facilitates digestion and fights cholesterol, making it highly recommended for some of those following the Tour de France!
Like its neighbour Mouriès, Maussane-les-Alpilles is a major olive-producing centre, with 37,000 olive trees and two presses. Two mills, Mas des Barres and Moulin Jean-Marie Cornille produce 390,000 litres of olive oil a year, tops in France. Maussane is France’s leading producer of AOC olive oil. Crushed olives and honey are other specialities of choice in this Alpilles village located on the ancient Via Aurelia.
The year 2007 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of René Char, one of Provence’s greatest 20th-century poets. His poem Seigneurs de Maussane was published in the Les Matinaux collection in 1950.
The Alpilles mountain range is a subsidiary of that of the Alps and Luberon. Its chalky plateaus lie between Arles, Avignon and Salon de Provence. It stretches over some 40 km between the Rhône and Durance rivers, overlooking Crau plateau and the Rhone delta valleys. A fragile area, the range is home to 960 species of flora, 90 species of birds, 19 species of bats, several hundred species of insects.
In this village can be found the world’s most famous windmill, that where Alphonse Daudet wrote his Letters from my Windmill. The windmill has been turned into a museum devoted to the writer, as well as the starting point for several thematic walks.
Fontvieille was also the refuge of Yvan Audouard, a writer of fantasy novels and a caustic journalist at the Canard Enchaîné, who loved cycling and left behind many friends when he died in 2004. His most famous sentence about our event is, “During the Tour, if the muscles get tired, the tongue tries something new.” Another line is as topical today as when he wrote it 50 years ago: “After a particularly dull stage, a journalist who did not have much of a gift for writing wired his paper, “Nothing to report.” He barely held on to his job, because it is precisely when nothing happens that journalists should pull out all the stops and let loose with the metaphors.”
Arles, France’s biggest city in surface area and one of the most important ones in Provence, boasts an illustrious political, religious and cultural past as well as a thriving cultural present. Famous people born here include the Roman emperor Constantine II, photographer Lucien Clergue, designer Christian Lacroix and the world’s oldest person, Jeanne Calment. For good measure, let’s add Frédéric Mistral, who was born in nearby Maillane, and Vincent Van Gogh, who painted some of his most famous works in Arles.
Constantine II and, later, his son Constantine III, who made Arles his capital, embody the city’s Roman past. Unlike Marseille, Arles still has many vestiges of its Roman glory, such as the ancient theatre, arena and baths of Constantine.
Although Mistral studied humanities at Avignon and, later, Aix, and spent the end of his life in his village, Maillane, Arles is where he founded the Arlaten Museum, a museum of Provence’s culture that he funded with money from the Nobel prize for literature, which he received in 1904. Actes Sud, one of France’s most innovative publishers and among the first to succeed outside Paris, has been carrying on the town’s literary tradition for the past 20 years.
Another local success story is that of couturier Christian Lacroix, paying tribute to Arles’ love of fashion, colourful clothes and Provence cloths, all of which have contributed to the region’s appeal.
Colours and light which also greatly inspired the painter Van Gogh during his stay in Arles in the famous “yellow house”, from February 1888 to May 1889.
Lacroix was born under the sign of Taurus, which is no coincidence in this bullfighting stronghold, where some of that art’s greatest names have come from.
Football fans would protest should we fail to mention Djibril Cissé and Gaël Givet, both born in Arles.
Languedoc-Roussillon is one of France’s most geographically diverse regions. It is lapped by the Mediterranean and dotted by large ponds in the south, hemmed in by mountains in the north and rural in between. In contrast, the region has the same climate all over. Mediterranean sunshine made it a fertile farming area for centuries, but today that same fine weather draws tourists and newcomers, who have fuelled a population boom in the past 50 years. Montpellier and Hérault are the fastest-growing areas, but the population of the whole region, except Lozère, is rising faster than that of any other in France. Languedoc-Roussillon could have up to 3,100,000 inhabitants by 2030, 34% more than in 2000.
Wedged between Bouches-du-Rhône and Hérault, Gard is a Mediterranean department even though its 23-km coastline is much shorter than those of its neighbours. But it is enough to make Port-Camargue Europe’s biggest marina. Nîmes, the capital, has many Roman landmarks and remains a bullfighting stronghold in France, of which one of its rings is a temple. Tourism, with historic sites such as the Pont du Gard, and the pretty town of Uzès, is a major draw in this department, which combines successful agriculture – wine, fruits, and olives – with modern, diversified industry.
District capitals: Alès, Le Vigan.
St Gilles, which owes its name to the famous abbot buried in its 11th-century abbey church (a Unesco World Heritage site), long was a major Christian pilgrimage. Of the church, built in the 11th-century and partly destroyed by the Protestants during the wars of religion, there only remains the crypt and the facade adorned with sculptures, which lend the edifice its very special appeal.
Here’s a tip for racers who drop out of the Tour: Nîmes Airport is located in St Gilles.
Hérault has always made a living from the sea. The department boasts seaside resorts at Palavas-les-Flots, Grande-Motte, Carnon and Cap d’Agde, but also a long fishing tradition at Thau and Mauguio Ponds. Further north, Lakes Salagou and Raviège offer many water sports. Overlooking the vast plains where the population is concentrated in the towns of Montpellier, Béziers and Sète, Mount Aigoual (1,547 m), Mount Saint-Clair, and Pic Saint-Loup herald the Cévennes. Agriculture – especially muscats and Pic Saint-Loup, Saint-Chinian, Faugères, Côteaux du Languedoc and Minervois wines – and tourism harmoniously exist side by side with cutting-edge technology, which has made Montpellier one of France’s fastest-growing towns.
District capitals: Béziers, Lodève.
Legend has it that Lunel’s inhabitants were long dubbed the “moon fishers” because they liked to catch eels in the marshes on dark nights, giving travellers the impression they were capturing the moon in their fish-traps.
Lunel was the birthplace of movie director Louis Feuillade, painter Jean Hugo and philanthropist Louis Médard, who left the town some 5,000 rare books.
While whizzing through Mauguio, Spanish riders will feel a little at home as this town is home to a strong Spanish community. Spanish workers started coming here in the 19th century to take up jobs in the vineyards, making this an Iberian enclave in Languedoc.
The hillock overlooking this suburb of Montpellier can be seen as a historical landmark. Before Montpellier was created, Mauguio was the local capital and stronghold of the counts of Melgueil. This powerful family, heirs to the counts of Maguelone, ruled the region by striking currency and gave Guilhem the land on which Montpellier was to rise.
Sun, beaches, spacious areas and a great university tradition: everything has contributed to making Montpellier a most attractive place. Its population soared from 100,000 in 1944 to 244,000 in 2005.
Algerians of European descent forced to leave Algeria after its independence, Spanish and North-African immigrants, French citizens moving South, students (between 60,000 and 70,000 students come each year to Europe’s oldest university town), all have brought about major changes to the capital of Languedoc-Roussillon.
Ideally situated between Spain and Italy, next to the sea and the via Domitia, the town quickly developed in the Middle Ages. Its church, Notre Dame des Tables, was a required stop for pilgrims on their way to Compostella. Hospitals and charitable institutions caring for pilgrims set up in the town, giving birth to its medical tradition.
With epidemics killing half the population in the 14th century, the inhabitants grew despaired and made a 12,750 ft long (the perimeter of the city ramparts) candle. It was laid out in front of Notre Dame church and as it burned the situation got better.
A stronghold of Protestantism, Montpellier greatly suffered during the wars of religion, as all places of worship were destroyed, with the exception of St Pierre cathedral, which was nonetheless damaged. Following a long siege in 1622, Louis XIII brought the city back into catholic ranks. In the 17th century were carried out major works, notably construction of the Place de la Comédie, which remains Montpellier’s liveliest square.
Not surprisingly for a university town, Montpellier has always put great emphasis on culture. Montpellier is the hometown of writers like philosopher Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology, popular novelist Leo Mallet, precursor of the French roman noir, and poet Francis Ponge. As well as Rabelais, Nostradamus studied medicine in Montpellier.
Paul Valéry was born in neighbouring Sète and lived in Montpellier for a long time, as did André Gide and the Occitan writer Max Rouquette, who was born in nearby Argelliers.
Montpellier is also where comic book illustrator Lewis Trondheim lives.
An uncommon feat, Montpellier has had top-flight teams in football, rugby, handball, volleyball, women’s basketball and ice hockey. The imposing figure of Louis Nicollin, colourful president of the rugby and football clubs, looms over the city.
The city has hosted the Tour de France 27 times. With its flat landscape, it has been kind to sprinters, with winners such as Charles Pélissier, André Leducq, Georges Speicher, André Darrigade and, more recently, Barry Hoban, Olaf Ludwig or Robbie McEwen, last winner in 2005.
Naturally, Montpellier long staged the Grand Prix du Midi Libre, which folded in 2003. Greatest riders won the race like Eddy Merckx, Luis Ocana, Miguel Indurain and Laurent Jalabert. Jean-René Bernaudeau holds the record for victories, having won the event from 1980 to 1983.
Finally, it wouldn’t do to talk about Montpellier and cycling without paying tribute to Claude Sudre, rider and team manager, who left a lasting impact as press liaison for the Tour de France.