Named after the river of the same name, Hérault is located right in the south of France and part of the Languedoc-Roussillon region. After a difficult period in the early 20th century, the department experienced something of a renaissance during the second-half and is today one of the best places to visit in the country for culture and wine.
Hérault is fairly densely populated with 896,441 inhabitants according to a 1999 census across a land area of just 6,101km2. The largest city by a huge distance is the prefecture of Montpellier, holding roughly a quarter of a million denizens. Other important communes are:
One of the 83 original departments established in March 1790, Hérault was formerly a part of the Languedoc province, adjacent to the Mediterranean and inhabited at various points by the Greeks and the Romans. Eventually absorbed into the County of Toulouse after Rome's collapse, it was incorporated into the kingdom of France in 1271. However, the department's regional spirit is still evident in the continued use of the Occitan dialect.
Hérault enjoys a Mediterranean climate typical of southern France, with excellent, hot summers and mild winters. The humidity is relieved by the sea breeze from the Mediterranean. Montpellier is typical of average temperatures in the department:
Average temperature in Montpellier
|Period ||Celsius ||Fahrenheit |
|January-March ||9 ||48 |
|April-June ||17 ||63 |
|July-September ||22 ||72 |
|October-December ||12 ||53 |
Hérault encompasses the Cap d'Agde, one of the largest resorts in Europe and including some 14 kilometres of beaches. Some of the notable ones are the Plage de Rochelongue, Plage du Mole and La Plaguette. The Cap even has its own Village Naturiste nudist resort.
Alternatively, you will find the new Villeroy beach in Sète.
Many of Hérault's best sights can be found in Montpellier such as the 18th century Place de la Comédie, the main square in the city with the 'Three Graces' fountain at its centre. However, although you'll invariably be drawn to the Place, the most noticeable monument in Montpellier is the Porte du Peyrou. Completed in 1692 in Doric style, this triumphal arch was dedicated to Louis XIV and depicts scenes such as the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (which removed the rights of French Calvinists) and the digging of the Canal du Midi, a UNESCO World Heritage site which runs through the department.
Within Montpellier's old town centre, there are a series of Hôtels, the majority of which were built and lavishly decorated in the 18th century. Remarkably though, some of the mansions date as far back as the 15th century, such as the Hôtel des Trésoriers de France.
Similarly, the Montpellier Follies, as they are known, are a series of 18th century châteaux which reflect the city's prosperity during that era. Numbering 4 in total, the most famous are the Château de Flaugergues, classified a Historical Monument, and the Château de la Mogère, which houses some fine paintings by artists like Jacques-Louis David.
Such is the wealth of architecture in the city that you can go on and on, but it is worth mentioning other parts of Hérault. For example, Béziers is home to the outstanding St. Nazaire Cathedral, located on top of a hill past the Pont Vieux gates. This Gothic-style edifice was constructed over the course of the 13th century and is highlighted by beautiful stained-glass windows and the fine 'Bishop's Garden'. Continuing the religious theme is the St. Fulcran Cathedral, completed between the 13th and 14th centuries and, once again, an example of Gothic architecture.
Indeed, proving that Hérault is far more than just Montpellier, the department contains 21 castles, some of which today are merely ruins. However, the Château de Pézenas is one exception as, despite its destruction in 1632 by Cardinal Richelieu, there is a major refurbishment taking place for the benefit of future visitors. Pézenas is well worth visiting in its own right as well, with sights like the Romanesque-style Church of Saint-Jean-de-Bébian, another Historical Monument. These examples attest to the beautifully preserved and well-exhibited heritage of Hérault.
Sport fans will be satiated by Montpellier, which is home to rugby union's Montpellier Hérault RC, who play their games in the Top 14 at the Stade Sabathé, and the local football team, Montpellier HSC, who compete in Ligue 2 at the Stade de la Mosson. Fishing is also a possibility due to the approximately 3,500 acres of open water in the department; the best areas being around Sète.
There are a number of options for family excursions, such as Montpellier's Parc Zoologique de Lunaret, containing over 750 animals across an 80-hectare park. A boat ride down the Canal du Midi is also a fabulous, relaxing way to spend a day.
Museums, galleries and culture
Montpellier is home to ten museums, the best of which is arguably the Musée Fabre. Predominantly an art gallery packed with incredible works by such notables as Jacques-Louis David, Nicolas Poussin, Rubens and Gustave Courbet, there are also sections on ceramics and sculpture. Moreover, with a renovation project costing over 60 million Euros due to be completed in 2007, now is the time to visit.
Other excellent museums in Montpellier include the Atger Museum (holding one of the best collections of drawing in France, with examples from the Italian, German, Dutch, Flemish and French Schools), the Musée Languedocian (archaeological findings and artefacts from the Greek, Roman and medieval periods, as well as prehistory) and the rather unique Musée Agropolis (seeking to educate about foodstuffs across the world).
Outside Montpellier, you will find plenty of impressive municipal museums such as the Musée du Biterrois in Béziers and its collection of artefacts from folklore, and the Musée de Lodève in Lodève, with collections of fine art and archaeology.
Pézenas exemplifies the arts and crafts of Hérault, with excellent examples of pottery and carpentry in its many craftworks. There is also an International Craft Trades Festival held annually in the commune. However, for high-street shopping, Montpellier is unquestionably your best bet.
Hérault has a number of decent trails such as 'La Piste Verde' (35 kilometres long and passing through many communes in the process). You can buy a guide with a list of routes from the Hérault Tourist Office in Montpellier's Avenuee des Moulins.
If you want something a little less tiring, you can saunter through the many excellent parks and gardens in Montpellier, including France's first botanical garden (dating back to 1593), the Parc Tastavin and le Jardin des Potiers.
There are seven courses in Hérault, including Golf Club Montpellier Massane in Baillargues, Golf de Béziers Saint-Thomas in Béziers and Golf de Fontcaude in Montpellier.
The region of Languedoc-Roussillon is marked by 740,300 acres of vineyards. This is the single largest production area in the world and is responsible for one-third of France's entire wine-production. The range comes from a number of grapes such as Merlot, Chardonnay, Chenin, Carignan, Syrah and Grenache. As a general rule, the reds are excellent, particularly from Béziers, but particularly good local crus include Bessan Rosé from the wineries of Pézenas and the blanc Picpoul de Pinet.
For wine tasting, you can try the Caves des Arceaux in Montpellier's rue Marioge, the Agriculture Vine and Wine Museum in Pézenas and the many chateaux across the department, especially Montpellier's Château de Flaugergues.
Food and drink
Hérault is a major producer of chestnuts, figs, trout, shellfish and excellent lamb, so expect them all to feature on restaurant menus. Speciality dishes include le petit pâté de Pézenas (a sweet or savoury pie with mutton), La Tieille (an octopus-based dish), garlic fish stew and savoury pork pancakes.
There are also plenty of delicious desserts, most notably from Pézenas, for example bessan croustade (pastry with raisins or chocolate and walnuts), the Pézenas Berlingot sweet (a stick of sugar flavoured by mint, lemon and other essences) and olives au chocolat de l'Hérault (almonds with chocolate).
Ease of access
Getting to Hérault presents no problem at all thanks to Montpellier-Méditerrannée Airport in Maugio, near the prefecture itself and connected to London-Stansted via Ryanair. Montpellier is also on the high-speed TGV line, enabling easy access to Paris and other major French cities. Hérault's public transport system in general is superb, enabling quick, reliable travel across the department.
Value for money
Due to improvements over the course of the late 20th century, Hérault's property market is booming somewhat, with housing prices for Montpellier amongst the most expensive in the region. If you're planning to visit, you can find a list of available accommodation here. The range of options in most communes, such as Montpellier and Pézenas, is excellent, with gites, hotels, apartments and campsites. That said, if you're on a budget, be warned that Montpellier is also expensive as a visitor, with the average price for a room in a 3-star hotel per night being 80-150 Euros.
Recent development has made Hérault an excellent location for visitors. With fantastic cuisine, wine and sights and a whole range of activities, it really does cater to practically every type of individual. Moreover, as prices are on the up, you'd do well to get in there before it gets a bit too hard on the wallet.