Pézenas: a stroll through the past

Promenade beside eclectic historical architecture, says Emily Reynolds

The antique town of Pézenas is one of the quiet glories of southern France. What you see at the outset is a glorious place of elegant 17th- and 18th-century houses constructed in mellow, honey-coloured stone and graced with balconies and twirling wrought-iron.

These gracious buildings exude a refined atmosphere and have an edge of grandeur entirely in keeping with Pézenas’s past as the capital of Languedoc. The town lost its political power in the late 17th century but it continued to thrive as a market centre and it continued to expand over the ensuing century.

Stroll the broad thoroughfare of cours Jean Jaures and you’ll take in some of the most striking of the townhouses. Then look again. The northern side of the road was built on the old town walls that had been constructed to protect an ancient, densely packed warren of medieval houses.

And behind the handsome houses, the old town of Pézenas remains. At the north-west end of cours Jean Jaures, walk through the gateway adjacent to place Ledru Rollin and you step into a palpably different world. It is a car-defying maze of alleys lined with dwellings that have over the years been added to and augmented so that you see a 14th-century arch here, an 18th-century window there, a 17th-century façade complete with carvings fronting a building a good 200 years older. Adding to the intrigue is the absorbing history of this atmospheric tangle of an old town.

Immediately to the left of that opening archway is another arch with a sign above it announcing that thiswas the medieval Jewish quarter. It is a small space of just one short road with some of its buildings still adorned with Jewish emblems – yet it is quite remarkable, particularly given that the Jewish community in France was expelled in 1394 on the order of King Charles VI.

They are thought to have lived amicably here. And they were, apparently, unconcerned by the presence of the Knights Templar, who had fortified quarters nearby. The templar order was, of course, a huge challenge to the French royalty and, under pressure of King Philip IV of France, was disbanded by the Pope in 1312, the property passing to the Knights of St John. Today the church of St-Jean, largely built in the 18th century, occupies some of the site of the original complex constructed by the Knights Templar in the 12th century.

Fast forward to the 17th century, the hey-day of the town as an important centre. The great and the good flocked here. And they required entertaining. So it was that in 1646 Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known by his stage name of Molière, first arrived in Languedoc. Over the course of the next 12 years he and his troupe of actors toured the region extensively, with Pézenas a frequent base.

You can find out about Molière’s life and times at the tourist office, which stages a lively 3D film about the actor-playwright.

The building alone is well worth visiting in its own right. Hotel Peyrat is a complex property that in the course of time has housed the town prison as well as offering more elegant accommodation to aristocrats. The old jail section now contains a small, free exhibition on crafts in Pézenas while the upper floors house another free display, this one devoted to the town’s eclectic architecture.

But for all the well preserved history here, there is no sense of time standing still. Plenty of new projects are in the offing. A Jewish museum is currently being mooted and will probably be housed in a building by the old Jewish quarter. A luxury apartment hotel is under construction in a former distillery. The 46 suites of the Garrigae Pézenas are due to open next summer.

Pézenas has a tradition of fine craftsmanship and this year a new initiative of craft displays will be taking place. It starts with workshops and displays at the craft centre in the old town at place Gambetta on 2 April – which has been designated as national craft day in France. And it will continue in July and August when craft shows will be staged daily (except Sundays), with demonstrations of metal working, stone carving and wood turning.

For more information contact the tourist office.

Travel essentials

What to do

Scenovision Molière (00 33 4 67 98 35 39; scenovisionmoliere.com). The 3D film show in French and English is presented on the upper floors of the tourist office (see below for details) daily 9am-noon and 2-6pm (from 10am on Sun), with extended hours over the peak summer season; adults €7.

More information

Pézenas Tourist Office, Hotel Peyrat, Place des Etats du Languedoc (00 33 4 67 98 36 40; pezenas-tourisme.fr)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Transportation Contracting Manager

    £33000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A global player and world leade...

    Recruitment Genius: Hotel and Spa Duty Manager

    £18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are friendly, sociable, ...

    Recruitment Genius: Payroll and Benefits Co-ordinator

    £22300 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This museum group is looking for a Payro...

    ICE ICT: Lead Business Consultant

    £39,000: ICE ICT: Specific and detailed knowledge and experience of travel sys...

    Day In a Page

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map