We spent a day exploring the town of Béziers, which is about an hour’s drive from Carcassonne. Our friends who live in the village of Quarante have commented that they go to Béziers when they need to do city errands. We thought we’d go see what the town is like. The beauty and liveliness of the town center surprised and delighted us.
A bit of history: Béziers is one of the oldest cities in France. The site has been occupied since Neolithic times. Recent research finds that the town itself dates from 575 BCE. Roman Betarra (modern Béziers) was on the road the linked Provence and Iberia. White wine was exported from the Betarra region to Rome. The Moors occupied the region between 720 and 752. The Massacre at Béziers took place on 22 July 1209. This massacre was the active start of the campaign by the Catholic Church against the heretical Cathar sect in the Languedoc region. Ultimately, the Catholic Church along with the King of France (this region was not yet part of France) eliminated all the Cathars. In the 19th century, Béziers was an important center for wine production. During this period, the city was the heart of a very prosperous and wealthy region.
In recent years, the economy of this region has suffered. Many vineyards have closed or scaled down operations in response to competition from lower-cost Spanish wines. Unemployment is higher than France’s already high national average. Bézier’s controversial mayor aligns with the far-right National Front, and has promoted a number of anti-immigrant policies, most of which have been struck down by the courts.
So Béziers is a town of fascinating history which also encapsulates many of contemporary France’s most challenging issues.
Enough of that! What’s it like to visit Béziers?
We started our exploration in the small winding streets of the old town center. Charmingly, colorful umbrellas floated above many of the shopping streets. I couldn’t find any information about how this light-hearted art installation began other than this is its second year. Compared to Carcassonne, there are many more attractive and unique shops along these streets. We didn’t see many of the mall-chain stores that show up in other small towns.
We stopped in a café in the square that faces the town hall (the Mairie). The fact of this city’s historical connections to Catalonia and Spain showed right up: the specialty of the café was paella, and pretty tasty paella at that. After lunch we strolled from the medieval streets to the 19th century plazas. Much of the core of the city looks like Paris, with light-colored buildings in the Haussmanian style. This atmosphere is much different from Carcassonne (with much more modest buildings) and Toulouse (with 19th century and earlier buildings almost exclusively of red brick). The feeling is elegant.
Explicit evidence of the Catalonian connection was this sign board. This type of public announcement panel is common in France. At first we didn’t pay it much attention; but at second look, we noticed that it wasn’t in French; it was in Catalan. Google helped us with the translation:
Beziers is with Barcelona and Cambrils with solidarity with our Catalan friends
Our visit was on the day after the Barcelona terrorist van attack.
And yet more controversy! Corrida, or bullfighting, remains popular in Béziers, as well as in quite a few other communities in southern France. While being considered cruelty and ill treatment towards animals in the national penal code, corrida is allowed to continue because it is an “uninterrupted local tradition.” The Feria de Béziers had occurred just a few days before our visit. The Feria is a four-day event with bullfights, fairs, parties, and performances. Evidence of the festivities adorned the municipal theater at the end of the grand axis of the town, the Allées Paul Riquet.
The imposing Cathédrale Saint Nazaire stands high on the bluff at the top of the town. Its construction started in the thirteenth century on the site of an earlier church that had been destroyed during the Massacre at Béziers.
The view from the forecourt of the cathedral is expansive, sweeping across the farm fields and vineyards all the way to the Pyrénées. In these images, the cathedral and the rest of Béziers are behind us. No more town in sight: only the countryside and the River Orb extend from the bottom of the cliff.