Béziers (pronounced bezye, not bezayers as sat nav tried to persuade us) is not exactly what you expect from a southern France experience. It’s not quite the lavish elegance of the Riviera, nor the shimmering lights of Paris, or even the quiet beauty of Reims. It’s a simpler, more raw kind of a place. It doesn’t have a beach. Parts of it are visibly poorer. But it’s got the most amazing view of the Saint-Nazaire cathedral, a bunch of friendly little restaurants and a truly stunning countryside all around.
Located in the southern region of Languedoc, a name you may recognise if you appreciate good vino, Béziers is one of the most ancient towns in Europe. Yet, when it appeared in my flight browser as a £40 (return) destination from the Bristol airport, it was the first time I’d ever heard of it. A quick Google search was all I needed to book the flight – it promised good weather, wine and views. And it didn’t disappoint.
Canal du Midi
Now, going abroad to look at river locks is not what I typically do in my spare time, but somehow that’s where I ended up shortly after landing. The ‘canal of the two seas’ – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – runs for 150 miles across southern France and was considered one of the greatest construction works in the 17th century. But what makes it interesting in Béziers in particular are the nine locks of Fonserannes. Sat on the river Orb, the locks enabled boats to cross it on a level and reenter the canal further down. I’m not going to go into the mechanics here, but considering it was built a few centuries ago it’s quite a sophisticated solution. Most of the locks are no longer in use but they remain – alongside traditional buildings such as the lock keeper’s house and stables – an interesting artefact of the engineering past and a lovely setting for a walk on a sunny evening.
To admire the Béziers cathedral (its full, melodic name being Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse de Béziers) you must see it from the road coming from Narbonne. It’s what you’ll see on all postcards and trinkets, and it truly is spectacular, particularly if you catch it at sunset. The building itself is very impressive when you get up close, a Gothic beast of a church. Although the works started in the 10th century, the building went through a lot, including a total destruction during the crusaders’ invasion, and its reconstruction didn’t finish until the 15th century. From its gardens, you’re treated to incredible views of the river and the plains, the bridges (like the beautiful Pont Vieux) and the locks.
Walking through Béziers is anything but monotonous. Small, tucked away churches, boulangeries in beautifully-decorated buildings, chilly, tight alleyways, all create a mediterranean atmosphere. There’s the very bright Place Gabriel Péri with palm trees and restaurants, and the historic Allees Paul Riquet, named for the creator of the Canal du Midi, and which have a strong Las Ramblas feel to them. As you walk down the hill from the cathedral, the Capnau quarter is a bit darker, with narrow cobbled streets, tall houses and washing hanging between windows. Walking down further still, the Plateau des Poètes is an inviting English-style park decorated with elegant statues of poets. But there are less picturesque and more run-down parts of the town too. The neighbourhood east of the park, which I got to know as that’s where my Airbnb happened to be, looks nothing like a cute little French town. The right side of the river walking towards the locks is also a little run down; the renovations around the canal not having quite reached it yet. Compared to the pretty parts of the city, though, you really see the potential in all of it, and I hope Béziers keeps blossoming.
Béziers is a treat, but – at good pace – you can see the highlights in a weekend. While I’m all for slow travelling, it’s a good idea to make the town your starting point and explore further. I couldn’t resist checking out the nearby village of Sète and the medieval town of Carcasonne, both within fairly short driving distance.