With its streets of honey-coloured stone, elegant houses adorned with wrought-iron balconies, and wonderful blend of architecture – from Gothic to gracious 18th-century properties – Pézenas is one of the quiet glories of southern France. Once the capital of Languedoc, it still exudes a sense of grandeur and artistic flourish.
This beautiful small town lost claim to political power in the late 17th century – the last parliamentary session here was in 1692. Yet, over the next 100 or so years, it continued to thrive as a trading centre. Visit the extensive market held each Saturday and you tap in to that colourful, mercantile tradition. In the 19th century, Pézenas was bypassed by the railways and it became something of a backwater. Happily, though, it means the town escaped development in the 1800s and that its striking heritage has been splendidly well preserved.
It was in Pézenas’s 17th-century heyday that its most famous visitor came to town – and returned often. Between 1646 and 1658, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name of Molière, toured southern France with his troupe of actors. In the 1650s, he acquired the patronage of the governor of Languedoc, the Prince of Conti, and performed often at his court in Pézenas.
Stop for a coffee outside one of the cafes in Place Gambetta at the heart of the charming medieval old town and you’re very much in Molière territory. Details of his life are sketchy but he was known to be friends with the town barber, whose salon on the square would have been a hive of gossip – Maison du Barbier Gely on Place Gambetta is now a small museum dedicated to another local hero, entertainer Boby Lapointe.
Continue to the “new” district of town, developed in the 17th and 18th centuries – it would have been bustling with building work in Molière’s day. On Rue Conti, gracious Hôtel d’Alfonce, at number 32, was where he and his troupe performed for the Prince of Conti in November 1655; while Hostellerie du Bat d’Argent, at number 44, was where the actor stayed that winter – if the street gate is open you can see the galleried courtyard, still redolent of Molière’s time.
Then make for Hôtel Peyrat on Place des Etats du Languedoc. This complex building contains the town’s ancient prison and modern tourist office. Explore the old jail section, now containing a small, free exhibition about Pézenas’s crafts, then head to the upper floors in the adjoining 17th-century building to see another free display: a gallery devoted to Pézenas’ magnificent architecture. Best of all, though, Hôtel Peyrat offers an ingenious 3D show about the life and times of Molière. This takes the form of five acts, each in a different room, so you move through the building as you progress through Molière’s life. The last scene shows his death after collapsing on stage during a performance of Malade Imaginaire. This summer, an audiophone translation of the show will be available in English.
Scénovision Molière (00 33 4 67 98 35 39; scenovisionmoliere.com) is in the tourist office (see below) and opens daily from 9am-6pm Monday to Saturday and from 10am on Sunday, with a break for lunch. In July and August, opening is extended to 8pm (with no lunch break). Adults €7.
Further information from Pézenas Tourist Office, Hôtel Peyrat, Place des Etats du Languedoc (00 33 4 67 98 36 40; pezenas-tourisme.fr).