It's spring, and sleepy Lodeve is stirring, as visitors head for this corner of Southern France. Billed as the gateway to the Mediterranean, it's quite unique, and definitely worth stopping by
Lodève's hidden secrets
Sometimes it takes a while to get to know someone. When you do, that person may become one of your most trusted friends. My home town of Lodève is a bit like that. A little shabby, almost defunct in winter, you have to delve a little to discover its treasures.
Lodève has certainly got what it takes to make a fine French town. A river, spanned by three main bridges; a 13th century cathedral with a unique bell tower; a Bishops' Palace with a multi coloured tile roof every bit as beautiful as the one at Beaune; and shady squares of beaten earth, where men play boules under magnificent plane trees. Ok, so some buildings are a bit shabby. But peep behind those great heavy doors. You will notice fine archways, stone stairways and balustrades and little hidden courtyards. Look upwards and see stone cornices with carvings of shells, enigmatic faces and flowers, and balconies of the fanciest wrought iron. You see, Lodève was once prosperous, manufacturing highly prized textiles in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Maybe it does look a little down at heel now, especially in winter, and it certainly isn't Pézenas, its smart neighbour. But it's quite unique.
Spring has arrived
...and brilliant mimosa blossoms light up the town like clusters of yellow street lamps. Fishermen line the riverbanks, casting for trout, and the local tobacconist is stocking worms and maggots alongside the "penny sweets". The first convoys of motor caravans can be seen on the horizon as visitors from northern Europe head south. They are following the A75 toll free motorway that bisects France. The road winds down from the Massif Central and Causses de Larzac, offering spectacular views over vast plains crammed with vines, all neatly pruned and bursting into leaf. Some tourists are heading for the beaches and fishing ports of the Mediterranean. Others will stay put right here, keen to enjoy the pleasures of the Lodèvois.
One of the things I especially like about Lodève is that it is a real town, and does not exist mainly as a tourist showpiece. On Saturdays throughout the year the streets and squares come to life for the weekly market. With the arrival of tourists, new stalls open up selling pottery; olive wood bowls; lavender soap; and a sunshine display of Provencal fabrics. But the basic stalls selling charcuterie and fish; multicoloured fruit and vegetables; clothing and hardware, are there all year round.
From June to September there is an additional farmers' market on Tuesday evenings. This sells local cheeses, organic veg and wines. Try the chèvre from Pegairolles. It's the best.
All summer long, Lodève is buzzing with events: music festivals; an international festival of poetry and music called "Voix de la Mediterranee"; parades and medieval tournaments. It's fun just to soak up the atmosphere while sipping a drink at a pavement café.
I am eagerly awaiting the opening of the summer art exhibition. It is housed in the elegant Musée Fleury, once home to Cardinal Fleury, a minister of Louis XV. Over the years we have seen many excellent exhibitions here, mainly of impressionists. This year's exhibition of Gaugin and his contemporaries should be no exception. Admission is 6 euros; 12 June - 11 Nov (Musée Fleury, Square Georges Auric; +33 4 67888610).
Lodeve also values its local artisans. If you want to take home a really special souvenir, go along to La Galerie Horizons Interieurs, which acts as a permanent showcase for their work. You will find the most exquisite glassware, pottery, sculpture and fabrics (45 la Grande rue; +33467442928; www.horizons-interieurs.com).
A small vestige of Lodève's textile industry still exists in the form of a national carpet workshop. Using centuries old weaving techniques, they make contemporary tapestries and traditional carpets for France's grand palaces and embassies. You can visit Tues - Thurs afternoons, but call to book. Atelier National de la Savonnerie de Lodève (Impasse des liciers; +33 4 67 96 40 40)
Where to eat in Lodève
We often eat at Le Petit Sommelier. This is a traditional French style restaurant...no frills...just reliably good food, and a wide choice of fish or meat. Menus from 16 euros (3 place de République; +33 467440539).
Slightly more upmarket is the restaurant at Hotel de la Paix. Again the food is traditionally French. Menus from 18 euros. In summer try to get a table on the pretty Moroccan style terrace (11 Boulevarde Montalangue +33 467440746)
In the inaptly named Grande Rue, a pedestrian way running through the centre of town, you will find the Bohemian style cafe Le Soleil Bleu. Lunches here always contain fresh ingredients, with one meat/ fish option and one vegetarian option every day. I love their broccoli and goats cheese tart (10 euros)
Out and about, around Lodeve
Whichever direction you take from Lodeve you will find stunning scenery.
A few km south of Lodève is Lac Salagou, set amongst red lunar like hills (les ruffes). You can swim, wind surf and hire pedalos here, or just find a quiet spot with a view.
I love to lunch at l' Auberge du Lac and gaze down the lake from my table on the terrace. Menus from 19 euros are always beautifully presented (Les Cremades, Lac du Salagou; +33 46744 4540).
Ten minutes to the north lies the fortified village of Soubes with no less than two chateaus. You can eat in the village square here under the shade of giant plane trees. This is our "local". The basic menu du jour at 10 euros changes every day, the food is basic but wholesome, and the local wine comes in a carafe. It's a convivial place to spend a sunny lunch time (Café du Terral, Place du Mairie, Soubes; 0467440148).
Steep cliffs and wooded valleys
Continue up the valley through our home village of Saint Etienne de Gourgas. You will pass beneath steep cliffs and pine forests, where tiny Romanesque chapels and stone bergeries lie hidden amongst the trees. At the top of the pass you will see a restored windmill. It is working and open to visitors at weekends. The 2 euros admission includes a small bag of milled flour. It's great fun (Le Moulin de St Pierre de la Fage; 0617927100).
Now follow the road over the limestone causses towards the Cirque de Navacelles. Stop at the Baume d'Auriole for a spectacular view over this amazing valley with ancient hamlet of Navacelles far below. Then take the road down. If you don't like steep drops sit on the left hand side of the car. Even in summer this spot remains uncrowded, and yet some say it is as spectacular as the Colorado Canyon, if not on the same scale. It is magic to picnic by the edge of the falls. There are places to eat here and a restaurant at Baume Auriole, but for my money it's better to stop off at La Vacquerie, on the way back to Lodeve, where you will get an amazing 3-course meal at Auberge des Causses, for 19 euros. The local "gigot d'agneau", served with potatoes dauphinoises is fantastic (see below).
Where to stay
You could stay on at the Auberge des Causses where you will get a basic but comfortable room for 50 euros, and charming hosts (2 Place de Ormeau, La Vacquerie St Martin de Castries).
In Lodève I like Hotel de la Paix. Double rooms from 55 euros plus breakfast at 8 euros (11 Boulevarde Montalangue).
Finally, if you like self-catering (and who wouldn’t with such abundance of local produce?), you will find a wide selection of gites and villas in the Lodevois area, many with pools. Try www.ownersdirect.co.uk. We also offer three gites near the village of St Etienne de Gourgas: www.franceazure.co.uk. However you have to prefer the call of owls to disco music. To us it's paradise, but we are off the beaten track.