Béziers’ exuberant character reflects the cultural and political upheaval of its vivid past

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The Independent Travel

The classic view of Béziers is from the west bank of the river Orb. As you gaze across the water, your eyes are drawn up to a magnificent 13th-century cathedral set on a bluff, its towers punctuating the skyline while houses with terracotta roofs huddle below. It is a scene that looks so timeless and picturesque you might be forgiven for expecting this old market town to simply be a place of quiet charm and nostalgic appeal, personified by the cathedral, its unfinished cloisters and adjoining mansion (now the Palais de Justice), which have an other-worldly air to them. But there is much else besides. For Béziers, together with its immediate surroundings, is one of the most intriguing places in southern France – and offers plenty of surprises.

The town has a rich and, in parts, dark history, yet today it presents a palpable sense of exuberance. Immediately to the north and east of the cathedral, a bustling tangle of alleys forms the old heart of Béziers, the street names given in French (with blue plaques) and Occitan (with cream plaques) – the ancient language of the troubadours. However, beneath the medieval layout is a far older settlement, for Béziers dates back to pre-Roman times, and archaeological work continues to uncover its history.

Béziers thrived under the Romans and also, notably, during the 10th to 12th centuries. But as a Languedoc stronghold of the Cathars, it was brutally pillaged and burnt by crusaders in 1209. Thereafter it remained a backwater, enlivened in the 17th century by the activities of local hero Pierre Paul Riquet who created the Canal du Midi. In the 19th century, however, Béziers’ fortunes turned – and it became an immensely prosperous wine centre. East of the medieval core lie the opulent mansions of the vineyard owners, keen to show off their new wealth. Better still, in terms of visual appeal, is the Cimetière Vieux to the north of the old town: founded in 1838, this remarkable graveyard contains an astonishing range of lavish mausoleums commissioned by the town’s newly rich residents.

By contrast, to tap into the vibrant world of the living, make for the bars and restaurants around place Jean-Jaurès, or visit on a Friday when the broad boulevard of Allées Paul Riquet becomes awash with colour as the weekly flower market is held. Yet, to sample the town at its most flamboyant, come in mid-August when the four-day feria takes place, a festival with much partying and street carnivals, and with the serious action centring on the town’s arena and the bull tournaments there.

But you don’t necessarily need to join the crowds to appreciate Béziers and its surrounds. There’s a quirky originality and creativity to this area that is best discovered, and savoured, gradually. On the southern fringes of town, for example, female visitors can relax in unique style by booking a session on a beauty-treatment barge. Moored at Port Neuf, a leafy marina giving on to the Canal du Midi, Péniche de la Beauté Permanente is an ingenious outfit specialising in facial treatments and massages. This old cargo barge has been wonderfully revamped to offer two treatment rooms and a small hammam while upstairs on deck is a little swimming pool and a shaded chill-out area. Complete with ducks passing by, it presents perhaps the ultimate in relaxation.

For contemporary culture, the small town of Sérignan, a few minutes drive south of Béziers, is an unexpected treat. Quite apart from its Roman roots and its position close to beaches and the cheerful seaside resort of Sérignan Plage, the town has recently developed into a seriously good modern art centre, attracting international interest from New York, Milan, London and more. In 2002, a bold new theatre building, La Cigalière, was completed, with exterior artworks by the French conceptual artist Daniel Buren. Following this success, a striking modern art gallery was opened in 2006, created from a cleverly transformed wine warehouse. Among the permanent collection here are works by French painter Vincent Bioules and the Montenegro-born artist Dado.

For contemporary culture, the small town of Sérignan, a few minutes drive south of Béziers, is an unexpected treat. Quite apart from its Roman roots and its position close to beaches and the cheerful seaside resort of Sérignan Plage, the town has recently developed into a seriously good modern art centre, attracting international interest from New York, Milan, London and more. In 2002, a bold new theatre building, La Cigalière, was completed, with exterior artworks by the French conceptual artist Daniel Buren. Following this success, a striking modern art gallery was opened in 2006, created from a cleverly transformed wine warehouse. Among the permanent collection here are works by French painter Vincent Bioules and the Montenegro-born artist Dado.

For a more cheerful yet equally astonishing art discovery, head to the pretty village of Bassan, a few kilometres north of Béziers. Here the brilliant and eccentric works of Alain Fornells are on intimate display in his home. He is a professional nurse whose hobby of making furniture has grown into a charmingly surreal artform. There is great sense of fun and sometimes an almost magical element to his meubles modestes, which are made from fruit boxes, crates, petrol cans and other unlikely materials. There’s a dresser that rocks; a cabinet with doors that open inwards and bears the legend “impratiquable” on the bottom drawer; and a narrow wooden car you can sit in. Fornells displays his creations over three storeys of a 16th-century village house, which visitors are welcome to see by appointment. He takes the time to personally explain the stories behind each piece – none of which are not for sale, they are simply produced for the pure pleasure of creation. Made with discarded materials they are, he says, a homage to poverty and he is delighted to show them to anyone who takes the trouble to find their way to his house.

TRAVEL ESSENTIALS: Art and indulgence

What to see and do

Péniche de la Beauté Permanente, Port Neuf, 34500 Béziers (00 33 6 23 74 22 46; beauty-boat-beziers.fr). Open Monday afternoon; Wednesday morning and Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday .

Meubles Modestes d’Alain Fornells, 2 rue des Remparts, 34290 Bassan (00 33 6 23 74 22 46). By appointment (no charge) .

Sérignan Museum of Contemporary Art, 146 Ave de la Plage, 34410 Sérignan (00 33 4 67 32 33 05; ville-serignan.fr) Tuesday to Sunday 1-6pm; adults €5.

Dado au Domaine des Orpellières, 34410 Sérignan-Plage. By appointment – contact Sérignan Tourist Office (00 33 4 67 32 42 21; ville-serignan.fr).

Further information from Béziers-Méditerranée tourist office (00 33 4 67 76 84 00; beziersmediterranee.com).

Where to stay

Hôtel Imperator, 28 Allées Paul Riquet, 34500 Béziers (00 33 4 67 49 02 25; hotel-imperator.fr). Centrally located with a 19th-century air of grandeur. Doubles from €75 without breakfast.

Hôtel des Poètes, 80 Allées Paul Riquet, 34500 Béziers (00 33 4 67 76 38 66; hoteldespoetes.net). A chic guesthouse with 14 rooms. Doubles from €45, without breakfast.

Where to eat

La Compagnie des Comptoirs, 15 place Jean Jaurès, 34500 Béziers (00 33 4 67 36 33 63; lacompagniedescomptoirs.com; closed Sun and Mon). Offering Mediterranean dishes with an Asian twist, this gourmet establishment was set up by the Michelin-starred Pourcel brothers in 2007 and has since been taken over by Christophe Vessaire.

La Maison de Campagne, 36 Ave Pierre Verdier, 34500 Béziers (00 33 4 67 30 91 85; aupauvrejacques.fr) Relaxing and stylish restaurant near the arena, masterminded by the rising star chef Pierre Augé.

L’Harmonie, Chemin de la Barque, 34410 Sérignan (00 33 4 67 32 39 30; lharmonie.fr). Wonderfully inventive dishes created by top chef Bruno Capellari in a riverside setting.

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