France: The accidental rebirth of Occitania

An ancient region in the South of France has risen from the ashes and put itself back on the map. Occitania is an area doused in heritage, its name long entwined with the old hamlets, towns and cities that stud its hills, and the intriguing language marking out many of its inhabitants…

There are vultures circling over the Gorges du Vis. Soundless silhouettes tracing loops above the clifftops, black wings outspread, riding the currents. First one bird, then two, then six. A few hundred metres below, the canyon floor is a wild, rumpled corridor of sun-baked limestone. “For me, being Occitan is about having a connection to the land,” says Valérie Bousquel, as she stares across the ravine. “It’s about having a passion for artistic expression and a love of liberty,” she continues. “C’est un esprit.” A spirit.

I’m in the South of France. Not the glossed world of palm trees and rock star villas that shimmers on the coast, but inland among the high plateaus and drowsy villages at the foot of the Massif Central. The landscape tumbling out in front of us has, despite its aridness, been grazed and farmed since at least the 12th century. For most of that time, the everyday language spoken by its inhabitants has been not French, but the Romance tongue of Occitan. Still spoken today, albeit on a much smaller scale, it was being used at its height by some 12 million people. Describe it as a patois at your peril.

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