photo: wikimedia

Take it easy in this gateway to the Languedoc

Why go there?

Good base to explore the rest of the region… engineering highlights of the the Canal du Midi… trace the Cathar story… dine really well… learn about bullflighting… enjoy the beaches at the nearby resorts

I must profess that over the past ten years where I have been either visiting or living in the Languedoc-Roussillon, the city of Béziers has mainly been a place that I have driven past rather than stopping in. But in recent years I have been intrigued by the progressive addition of Ryanair routes from Béziers airport (first from London, Bristol, Düsseldorf and soon Stockholm). What, I wondered, was there in this city for visitors beyond the simple availability of cheap fares? So, after some initial research, I took a weekend out to visit the Béziers’ highlights and surrounds.

The first thing that struck me is that officially the airport is named Béziers Cap d’Agde en Languedoc – clearly positioning itself as a key gateway to the region’s most popular Mediterranean beach resort, Le Cap d’Agde, and to the rest of the Languedoc region at large. Indeed the airport is but a mere 15km from the coast, its magnificent beaches and resort facilities. And yes, Béziers itself is indeed situated more or less bang in the centre of the region as it curves round the Golf de Lion. From Béziers you can get to all the region’s departmental capitals within two hours (in order of the nearest: Montpellier, Carcassonne, Perpignan, Nîmes, and Mende). So for the independent traveller who is busking it with no set plans of where exactly he wants to explore, Béziers is a fantastic place to arrive.

The immediate landscape and countryside around Béziers also offers a good introduction to what to expect for the most part of the region: gentle hills of vineyards and corn fields, a background of distant mountains to the north-west and south, the winding curves of the Orb River (along which Béziers sits), temperate Mediterranean vegetation, wide sandy beaches to the east, and everywhere tree-lined avenues leading to pretty historic villages with modern residential developments on their outskirts.

But what of Béziers itself? Well, there are three really important things to know about Béziers. One is that this is where the famous Canal du Midi reaches the zenith of its engineering marvelousness – at Béziers is both the complex arrangement of nine locks – les Neuf Ecluses – allowing canal traffic to travel up and down a very sharp hill and also there is the elegant Pont Canal aqueduct which allows the Canal du Midi to span the River Orb (in fact Béziers is also the birthplace of Pierre Paul Riquet, responsible for the construction of the Canal du Midi).

The second is that this is where one of the most infamous moments of the Crusades against the Cathars took place: in 1209 after a valiantly defended siege the entire population of the city were slaughtered – even those who took refuge in the Cathedral of St Nazaire – when the Crusaders led by Simon de Montfort stormed the defences.

The third thing you need to know is that Béziers is one of the leading centres for bullfighting sports in Mediterranean Europe, holding one of the most important events in the sport’s agenda – the annual five day Feria de Béziers in August which is visited by tens of thousands and gives the city a great excuse for a fantastic street party!

As the one of the two sub-prefectures of the Hérault department, Béziers is an important centre for local economy, especially the wine industry. Its multicultural population is currently estimated at just under 70,000. Visitors to the historic centre of the city will find a quite different place to the one lived in by the Cathars – the entire city was ransacked by the Crusaders and had to be rebuilt. Nevertheless, the central avenue Allées Paul Riquet is lined with elegant Haussmanian style buildings – a testament of the 19th century glory days of the wine industry – providing a charming background to the delightful flower market held here every Friday morning.

The rest of the old quarter has a good mix of the usual things you’d expect to find in a decent sized city – there are boutique shops, a Galeries Layfayette, a good smattering of bistros and restaurants (including, surprisingly, two that are Michelin star holders), and a good indoor food market too. There are also several museums and exhibition spaces to note: the Musée du Bitterroots tracing local archaeology and ethnology, the Musée Des Beaux Arts with painting and sculpture collections including works by Holbein, Delacroix, Edgar Degas and Rodin amongst others, the Musée d’histoire naturelle which showcases the local ornithological, botanic and mineral collections as well as fossils and insects and, of course, the Espace Taurin dedicated to bullfighting and its major role in the city’s identity.

But for me Béziers is all about taking it easy and enjoying life. This is definitely a place where people really live, and that’s what I liked about it the most. During my weekend stay I spent much of my time simply walking along its streets and in its pretty parks soaking in the atmosphere, and enjoying eating and drinking (!) the local specialities, and I had a very pleasant boat trip along the Orb.

It felt like Béziers is quietly and determinedly forging its own way, its own independent identity, reveling in its historic heritage and traditions whilst also embracing the demands of a modern city – much like the Languedoc-Roussillon as a whole. It also felt like I got a taste of all the things that make the region as a whole so great: the food, the wine, the heritage, the passion. In this way Béziers really is the perfect gateway to the region.

For those who want to explore the city in more depth, and see what events and highlights await them on their next visit, I highly recommend visiting the Béziers tourist office website which is available in no less than four languages!

How to get there?

AIR:
Ryanair to Béziers-Cap d’Agde (0 mins drive)
Several airlines to Montpellier (45 mins drive)
Ryanair flights to Carcassonne (50 mins drive)
Several airlines to Perpignan (55 mins drive)
Ryanair flights to Nimes (1 hour 12 mins drive)

ROAD:
Béziers is accessed via the A9 or A61 motorways

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