Exploring the Gard Region of Southern France

My family comes from the Gard region of Languedoc Roussillon, a stunningly beautiful, but comparatively little known area of Southern France. While many visitors to France head over to the more famous Provence and Cote D’Azur regions (just bordering Languedoc Roussillon), they miss out on a stunning area of France filled with medieval villages, vineyards, dramatic mountains, rivers, ravines, castles, and gorgeous coastline.

I could write for hours on all of the things to do or see in the region, but for now I will focus specifically on the Gard, the eastern-most province of Languedoc Roussillon. The Gard is characterized by a landscape of rolling hills and rivers that build into the grand Massif-Central Cevennes mountain range. The area is predominantly agricultural, meaning that between the quaint villages, your drives around the Gard will be filled with gorgeous panoramas of vineyards, sunflower fields, and iconic tree lined avenues. 

The agricultural nature of the Gard also means that the area still preserves many strong food and food-making traditions. You can turn down nearly any gravel road and find yourself at an independent winery or a farm selling house-made goat cheese, pâté, honey, and more.

 To the south, the Gard does offer a small spit of coastline, but frankly, it is not as nice as many of the beaches that can be found to the east and the west. If you want to go for a swim in the Gard area, do as the locals do and head to a river. Mountain rivers score the landscape, often cutting through deep ravines and spanned by gorgeous Medieval bridges and aqueducts. Grab your swim gear and water shoes and you are sure to find a well-beaten foot path leading down to the water’s edge.

To the north, the Gard is hedged with dramatic mountain ranges, sweeping panoramas, and enough lovely mountain villages to get lost in for months at a time. There is so much to see and explore in the Cevennes mountains that you may just find yourself packing a picnic and driving up the first mountain road you find. Regardless of which one you take, you are bound to find yourself somewhere beautiful.  

The pace of life is slow in the Gard, and can best be enjoyed by allowing yourself the time to relax, enjoy long, leisurely meals, and take sunset walks. There is certainly enough to do in the Gard that you could pack your visit full of activities, but to get the most out of the local culture, I would recommend purposefully slowing down – even if that means doing less.

That being said however, let’s get to the list of things you won’t want to miss in the Gard.

A Week in Southern France

In early June Jacob and I took our first vacation in years. You may not have seen us for a while, so here is a picture of us: 

I have been putting off writing this blog post because, to be quite honest, perfect and amazing trips don't make for good stories. So if you are reading this post, it is likely because you know us, you a dreaming of the south of France, you are supremely bored, or a combination of the three. 

We were headed to the south of France to meet my parents and spend a week unwinding in the countryside. As most of you already know, my mother is French, and we still have a good deal of family in the area of Languedoc-Roussillion. My mother inherited the house that my grandfather built, a home which has been the setting of my childhood summers for the majority of my life. Jacob and I spent a month at that house three years ago during our six-month adventure around Europe, and frankly, it was a difficult time. 

As excited as I was to show Jacob the places of my childhood, we realized upon arriving that it simply wasn't the same without family. The house was too large for the two of us. We felt aimless and isolated. We were excited to leave the house behind. 

This time however, would be different. We would be joining my parents there, and Jacob was looking forward to experiencing the house and that area of France through my parent's eyes. It was a chance for France to redeem itself to Jacob. A chance for him to get a taste of the France that I know and love. 

It was also a change to unplug and take a real vacation - a very different experience than taking a whirlwind trip to Barcelona or other exotic destinations. I have found as I travel that there is a very distinctive separation between "travel" and "vacation". A vacation presupposes relaxation. Walking so far that your toes bleed is not relaxation. That's travel. 

Anyways, we landed in Nice, France after a short, uneventful flight from Vienna. Not having seen a sea or ocean in nearly a year, this sight was especially welcome: 

My parents picked us up in Nice and we went for a drive along the coast, stopping at a small cove to have a picnic and go for a swim in the gloriously warm water. I could have simply floated in that water all day. 

We arrived back to the house in the evening in time to catch the evening light setting over the mountains. With dinner I was reminded of something which, for me, set the tone of the entire week: I love French food. 

Ok, now before you go "well duh, you and the rest of the world", let me frame that statement for you a bit further. Yes, French cooking is delicious - but that isn't what I love so much. What makes French food truly magnificent is the ingredients. The cheese, the bread, the salami, the tomatoes, the peaches, the cuts of meat in the butcher shop, and even the tins of prepared foods like cassoulet and duck confit. For me, a quintessential French lunch is a hodgepodge of little bites - black olive tapenade, pate, salami, tomato salad, cheese, bread, and whatever else we choose to dig from the refrigerator. The thing that makes it so good is not our cooking method (as there is none), it is the remarkable quality of each item itself. 

The next day we went to one of the large grocery stores nearby and I felt like one of the gluttonous kids in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. I wanted to try everything. And there was so much available. Fresh oysters and fish, veal, rabbit, ten different kinds of tomatoes, fava beans, endive, etc. In the freezer section I was coming across seafood I had only ever heard of before (like razor clams), along with the ubiquitous French frog-legs and escargots, stuffed in their shells with the garlic parsley butter and ready to be thrown in the oven. (We may or may not have purchased a 48-pack of escargot for a shockingly inexpensive 7 Euros and spent the whole week eating them). 

Well before you get bored of my talking about food, I will get to the point. Being surrounded by such remarkable ingredients is inspiring - especially to someone who is marginally (hah) food obsessed as I am. I immediately asked my mother if I could take over planning dinners for the week. She agreed, bless her. She knows how to make me happy. 

Before I wax poetic over the food I made, here are some more pictures of things we did in France: 

Visited ridiculously picturesque little towns in the countryside:

Met my Uncle Olivier in the tiny village of Roquefort (where the Roquefort blue cheese comes from) for a picnic and tour of the cheese making caves. 

Went to the farmers market and purchased more beautiful food, including French salami (called Saucisson, though as a child I ate so much of it my family took to calling it "Chelseasson").

Visited the gorgeous area of Grizac, tucked high away in the mountains. Though it was my first time there (that I could remember), the area holds a special place in my family's heart: it is where my mother grew up attending summer camps, the place where she went to pray (at the cross, pictured below) and ask God if she should marry my dad, and the place where my eldest brother proposed to his wife, Tiffany. 

Smoked fresh oysters on the grill:

And finally, came back with a suitcase worth of goodies - wine, salami, cheese, homemade jams, and a treasure trove of items we had squirreled away in the house 3 years before when we traveled Europe:

And now, as promised, the food we made. The food that made me realize (again) that if I could spend my entire day around food, I would be one very happy Chelsea. Endless amounts of Escargots (but of course!), Mussels in a roquefort white wine sauce with French fries, grilled rabbit and root vegetables, Shellfish linguine, Smoked oysters on the half-shell, and my favorite of all: homemade lasagna stuffed with duck confit. I have discovered the joys of making lasagna and I am a changed woman. 

Now we are back in Vienna, enjoying the heat after a long winter and indecisive spring. Though it feels a bit truncated I am going to wrap this post up here simply for the sake of getting it out. It has been too long since the last post, I will try and make the next one more timely!