Hot on the heels of Asterix

24th September 1999 at 01:00
Two thousand years ago Gaul was the largest province in the Roman empire. Gillian Thomas discovers its legacy in Languedoc.

When town councillors in the French town of Narbonne decided to pedestrianise its central square, shopkeepers were up in arms. Then excavations revealed the remains of a Roman road under the tarmac and visitors have flocked to see what was once part of the Via Domitia, which crossed all of Gaul.

Two thousand years ago Gaul was the Roman empire's largest province. It is known to us as the Languedoc, an exceptionally di-verse region historically, geographically and culturally. It stretches from sea-water lagoons to mountainous limestone plateaux.

Its Roman roots can be picked up in many places, starting with the famous Pont du Gard aqueduct on the eastern edge. Nearby, Nimes is a classic Roman city with its amphitheatre still almost intact and a fully-restored temple.

To the west just beyond the Cevennes mountains, Millau on the River Tarn was one of the Roman empire's main pottery-making centres. More than 500 potters worked there, producing shiny bright red crockery and cooking pots which were exported throughout Europe and the Middle East. Recent excavations of the riverside pottery, the Fouilles de la Graufesenque, revealed a large number of intact objects portraying vivid aspects of Roman life.

Another Roman speciality was the amphora - a six-gallon storage pot for transporting wine. At Sall les d'Aude near Narbonne, a striking modern "roof" has been built over another former pottery to create the Amphoralis Museum. They certainly needed the containers as the vines which they introduced to the Languedoc soon flourished on its sunny slopes. Today its vineyards account for around two-thirds of France's wine production.

In Narbonne itself the most remarkable Roman legacy is l'Horreum, a well-preserved underground storehouse of vaulted stone cellars with rows of pantries and grain chutes. Sculpted stone from various Roman buildings is gathered in a wing of the opulent palace where the town's powerful archbishops lived in the 12th to 14th centuries.

The ruined castles of Montsegur, Peyrepertuse and Queribus, all perched at the top of high crags, are reminders of less peaceful times. Religious and political skirmishes frequently raged across the area, especially during the 11th and 12th centuries. The village of Minerve, for instance, was beseiged for five weeks in 1210, when the villagers tried to establish an alternative form of Christianity. They held out for five weeks until their water ran out. Those who refused to recant were then burned alive.

Carcassone is billed as "the best -preserved fortified medieval town in Europe". Its hilltop citadel, La Cite, is certainly formidable with outer walls containing battlements, castle, basilica, quaint stone houses and narrow cobbled streets.

More religious confrontations took place in the Cevennes, where Camisards - local Protestant activists - battled throughout the 17th and 18th centuries for the right to worship as they chose. The house in Mialet where one of their leaders lived is now the Musee du Desert (tel: 04 66 85 02 72). It shows how they fought a guerrilla war by using their knowledge of the rugged countryside.

The Cevennes mountains rise as a series of rugged ridges above wooded valleys. To the east, in complete contrast, are four high limestone plateaux under which are extensive cave systems like the Grotte de Dargilan and Aven Armand (tel: 04 66 45 61 31), both of which can be visited .

The limestone hills around Tarascon are also seamed with caves. They include Niaux which has pre-historic paintings and the largest - Grotte de Lombrives is open to the public. Niaux is restricted to pre-booked groups only (tel: 05 61 05 88 37).

The oldest human bones in Europe - 450,000 years old - were found in 1971 in a cave near Tautavel village on the edge of the Corbi res hills. The Centre of European Prehistory which has been established there has an extensive education programme and also stages exhibitions and special events at its Musee de Tautavel. As well as visiting the museum, school groups can arrange to go into the cave itself (tel: 04 68 29 07 76).

Fouilles de la Graufesenque tel: 05 65 60 11 37; Amphoralis museum: 04 68 46 89 48; l'Horreum 04 68 90 30 54); Languedoc-Roussillon Tourist Board: tel: 00 33 04 67 22 81 00;

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