In the South of France’s Hérault Department, Lunel is an understated town by the fabled Camargue marshes. The location is superb but Lunel isn’t quite on the tourist map. That could change soon as a selection of great museums and attractions have just been opened or updated.
There’s a thrilling Roman site, a museum with volumes of rare books and manuscripts, and a medieval prison tower with historic graffiti scrawled on its walls. The Mediterranean and the wonderful Plage de l’Espiguette are in range, and wine aficionados can sample the local muscat at caves and vineyards. And the Camargue, a fascinating land of white horses and fighting bulls, is almost in Lunel’s backyard.
Lets explore the best things to do in Lunel:
The Via Domitia was a Roman road begun in the 2nd Century BC and spanning several hundred kilometres from what is now Spain to Rome.
Ambrussum on the outskirts of Lunel was a kind of stopover between the settlements in Montpellier and Nîmes.
There’s an oppidum, a sort of fortified village with ramparts that have been excavated.
You can also see evidence of a staging post with foundations of taverns, the remains of a Roman bridge and a small museum with finds from the site.
On the flagstones are marks left by ancient chariot wheels.
The decaying bridge is very picturesque, with one remaining arch that was painted by Gustave Courbet in the 19th century.
2. Musée Médard
The Lunel native Louis Médard was a wealthy bibliophile whose fortune came from his family’s wine-trading business in the 18th century.
Later he owned a successful factory producing Indienne silk textiles and funnelled his wealth into an astonishing book collection.
By the time he died in 1841he had amassed 5,000 rare and precious books and manuscripts, all of which he bequeathed to Lunel.
They’re beautifully bound and presented in fine wooden cabinets at the Neoclassical Hôtel Paulet, home to the museum since 2014.
3. Le Musée de la Tour des Prisons
In Lunel’s historic quarter there’s no missing the 16-metre defensive tower, which was built in the 1000s to control the Notre-Dame gate.
Later, during the French Wars of Religion it was turned into a prison, a role it kept until 1917. In 2014 the secrets of its dungeons were revealed to the public: There are more than 300 pieces of historic graffiti here, scratched into plaster, mortar and from the limestone using metal instruments.
Some prisoners just wrote their names, but there are longer messages and detailed drawings (some pornographic!). There’s also an absorbing collection of finds from the old latrines, including coins, dice, scissors, shows, marbles and glass bottles.
4. Sights around Old Lunel
You can lose all track of time idling along the streets of the medieval centre, which have been bustling since the early middle ages.
The Pays de Lunel tourist office is a good starting point and is housed in the 18th-century arcaded Halle aux Poissons (fish market). Be sure to see the Hôtel Philippe le Bel, a 14th-century Gothic mansion with ogival windows and complex carved iconography believed to represent royal power.
A newer but no less compelling mansion is the Hôtel de Bernis from 1704, with a secret courtyard garden and fragments of an earlier medieval house within its walls.
Another curiosity is the replica of Bartholdi Statue of Liberty, erected in the 1889 to commemorate the Revolution’s centenary.
5. Notre-Dame du Lac
Lunel’s main church was levelled in the 16th century during the Wars of Religion.
The building there now is the bold 17th-century Baroque rebuild.
In 1984 the facade’s alcoves, pilasters, scrolls and pediment were restored to their original splendour.
But the big story is inside where there’s an organ made by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, perhaps the most prestigious organ-builder of the 19th century.
This outstanding example of his workmanship was added in 1856 and remains in perfect working order.
6. Lunel’s Markets
Like most self-respecting French towns Lunel has a graceful market hall, inspired by Victor Baltard’s Halles in Paris.
Lunel’s market was opened in 1911 and continues to host a daily market every morning ’til 1pm.
It’s the only place you need to do your food shopping, with regional cheese, fruit and vegetables, seafood, meat and poultry.
There are also great little bistros around the market for lunch.
On Sundays meanwhile you can browse the outdoor market on Esplanade Roger d’Amour with 160 stalls selling clothes, fabrics and artisanal goodies like honey, olive oil and herbs.
7. Lunel Arboretum
South of Lunel near the old canal is a botanical garden showcasing Mediterranean trees and plants.
In just two hectares there are more than 17,000 plants from 130 species.
These are arranged in six “rooms” each representing a different era to help you understand the evolution of the region’s plant-life from the Palaeolithic to the present day, and the part that humans played.
The arboretum is bursting with olive trees, carob trees, juniper bushes, wild herbs, a range of fruit trees and cacti.
In 2013 the town founded a wine tourism attraction embedded in vineyards to shed light on the Pays de Lunel terroir.
Viavino bursts into life in summer: Grown-ups can take tasting sessions, guided vineyard walks as well as workshops and seminars about all things wine.
There’s a small museum recounting the history of wine production in the area, a restaurant and a small outdoor theatre staging short plays.
Kids aren’t forgotten either, as there’s a playground, street-performers and donkey rides.
9. Plage de l’Espiguette
Both a wonderful place to unwind next to the Mediterranean and a stupendous natural wonder: The Plage de l’Espiguette is a desert-like beach that curves around the coast for 18 kilometres.
Dunes form a natural barrier for the low-lying Camargue, reaching heights of more than 10 metres, and in places the beach can feel like a limitless expanse of sand.
The further east you go the more secluded the beach, until you reach a naturist zone several hundred metres from the main Grau-du-Roi resort.
In this open setting the sea’s swells are a little more pronounced and the reliable winds couldn’t be better for kite-surfers.
10. Plage du Couchant
A bit closer to Lunel, the Plage du Couchant is another beach no more than 15 minutes to the south.
It shares many of the things that make Plage de l’Espiguette great, as there’s a huge swathe of soft sand edged by dunes.
Only here the beach is a little more sheltered from the open sea, with calmer surf better suited to inexperienced swimmers.
There are also modern holiday communities behind Plage du Couchant, so you’ll have no lack of services on the beach, like sun-lounger rental, beach volleyball and showers.
11. Petite Camargue
Directly south of Lunel is the Petite Camargue, a wetland region named after the beloved and much larger Camargue.
The two areas share the same way of life: Bullfighting bulls are bred in these fields, and their herders ride Camargue horses, a small white breed that roams wild in the region.
The landscape is flat and low, and is protected from the sea by a long chain of dunes on the coast.
If bird-spotting is your thing the Petite Camargue is a dreamland, and alive with teals, stilt, terns and coots.
A short drive to the south, Aigues-Mortes is a medieval city still guarded by ancient walls.
In its heyday, when the water level was a little higher, France’s kings departed from Aigues-Mortes for the Crusades.
Louis IX (Saint Louis) twice set sail from Aigues-Mortes in the 13th century.
In 1242 he also built the Tower of Constance, still standing today at 40 metres, with walls six metres thick at the base.
Scale the battlements and survey the Camargue salt marshes as guards in Charlemagne’s time would have done.
13. Course Camarguaise
Bullfighting is still big in Languedoc and western Provence, and Lunel has its own arena for the sport.
If you’re intrigued by traditional culture, but don’t like the idea of animal cruelty you could come instead for the Course Camarguaise events that take place in July.
It involves bulls charging at people but is a bloodless spectacle in which experienced participants compete against each other to snatch rosettes tied between the bulls’ horns.
The bull is the star of the show and comes to no harm, while the competitors have a few close calls.
14. Muscat de Lunel
After a day at Viavino you’ll be itching to tour some of the vineyards around Lunel.
The ones producing Muscat de Lunel are on low slopes, normally facing towards the Mediterranean to receive the sea air that takes the edge off the summer heat.
As a sweet wine Muscat de Lunel is a excellent as an aperitif or with desserts.
There are more than 20 domains, cooperatives and caves within a few kilometres of Lunel.
Several of these produce muscat but many more make a variety of wines under the Languedoc AOC.
15. Local Specialities
Camargue beef, raised on cereals and meadow grass, has AOC status and is recognised by its low fat content and deep, sustained red colour.
Bull meat is what goes into Gardianne, a beef stew simmered with onions and red wine for as long as four hours.
You’ll have a heap of white rice on the side, and the stew goes well with Languedoc’s bold red wines.
For hundreds of years there have also been oyster and mussel beds in the Camargue.
Local shellfish goes into salads and soups, or is served raw over ice on the half shell.
A regional winter dish is brandade, which is salted cod, milk and olive oil pureed and baked.
It’s a Nîmes speciality that has spread throughout the Mediterranean.