Uzès appears suddenly out of the hilly garrigue of scrub oak, wild herbs and heather, its signature stone towers rising above a patchwork of sunbaked red-ocher tile roofs. Three of the towers are rugged and square, medieval bastions with forbidding, windowless walls. The fourth tower, the 12th-century Tour Fenestrelle, is unique in France—a round, Italianate belltower, pierced by lacy stonework windows, that resembles the tower of Pisa minus the tilt.

There’s something delightfully Italianate about the whole town, in fact, a warmth and a buzz that animates the arcaded Place aux Herbes with its tree-shaded fountains and gives an appealing edge to the busy boulevards that encircle the Old Town in place of the ancient ramparts. Within that circle, most of the cobbled streets are piétonnées—pedestrian only—and today sprinkled with fashion boutiques and chic home decorating shops squeezed in among the beautifully restored 17th- and 18th-century stone townhouses with their trademark almond-green shutters.

West of Avignon and north of Nîmes, Uzès sits at the juncture of Provence and the Languedoc, in the département of Gard. Originally the site of a Roman encampment called Ucetia, medieval Uzès grew up around the Duché, the ducal palace that is by local custom never called a château. (Meaning duchy, the word duché applied to both the palace and the surrounding territory once ruled by the dukes.)

The Duché has been occupied by various branches of the Crussol d’Uzès family for nearly a thousand years, and the passing of the centuries is evident in its elegantly diverse elements: rosy granite Roman columns once part of a temple that stood nearby, the 11th-century Bermonde tower, 12th-century walls, a Gothic chapel and a superb neo-classic Renaissance facade, its three stories decorated with Doric, Ionic and Corinthian columns in ascending order. The family crest is outlined in colorful tiles on the castle’s roof (a Burgundian roof, in fact, and an oddity here). By ancient tradition, the family’s red-and-yellow-striped banner flies above the tower when any of its members are at home.

Entrance to the Bermonde tower is free, so anyone can make the claustrophobic climb up the very narrow, 135-step spiral stone staircase to the top, for a panoramic view from the crenellated parapet (and anyone with vertigo would be well advised to abstain). The guided tour of the house is delightful—for those who don’t speak French there are printed explanations in English and several other languages. Starting with the vaulted Renaissance stone staircase, the visit takes in the beautifully restored and refurnished Grand Salon Louis XV with its four corner fireplaces; the vast dining room with its Savonnerie rug, Aubusson tapestry and dozens of hunting trophies; and the 15th-century chapel.

Malraux and la Marquise

All along the way you’ll meet the illustrious members of the family in portraits large and small, among them some very remarkable women. The first duchess, in the mid-16th century, was a favorite of Queen Catherine de Medici, a great friend of Elizabeth I of England and governess to the future King Charles IX. Later there was Anne de Rochechouart de Mortemart, the 12th duchess, a sculptor, writer and early feminist—she was the first woman in France to get a driver’s license, in 1898, and the first to get a speeding ticket, for doing more than nine miles per hour in Paris’s Bois de Boulogne.

More recently, it was the dowager Marquise de Crussol, Marie-Louise Béziers, who saved the Duché from falling into ruin. “My grandmother bought it back,” explains the 17th and current duke, Jacques de Crussol d’Uzès. “In fact, the house has been bought back by the family twice in two centuries. During the Revolution it was taken over, everything was sold and eventually it was turned into a school. Then [in 1824] the family bought it back and started the restoration. But in the early 20th century the family suffered financial reverses, sold all the furniture and rented it, and again it became a school. Both times, it was completely emptied. All that was left was the carcass.”

When the Marquise de Crussol bought back the lease on the Duché in 1951, she also convinced her friend André Malraux, then Minister of Culture, to declare the Duché a national historic monument, and while he was at it, to make Uzès one of the first cities in France to be named a “ville d’art et d’histoire”, protecting it from unbridled development. “I think she pestered him so much he did it just to get rid of her,” says the duke.

But Malraux was certainly no dupe, and one glance at the Duché—and beautiful Uzès—is proof enough that both were worthy of the distinction. For the last 20 years the duke—who has an MBA from Columbia Business School—has been gradually completing the restoration begun by his grandmother. “It’s about 80 percent finished now,” he says, “but a lot of that was just catching up on all the damage that had been done. I need another ten years to finish it.” His plan, he says, is to make it both a comfortable, lived-in family home and a pleasure for others to visit. And to see that the Duché pays for itself, ensuring that it will not be endangered a third time.  “After all, it’s unique,” he adds with a twinkle. “It’s very unusual to have a privately owned fortress in the center of town.”

Belles nuits

Like nearby Nîmes, Uzès was a stronghold of Protestant resistance during the 16th-century Wars of Religion. The lovely, lacy Fenestrelle tower is the only remnant of a Romanesque church destroyed in those conflicts; the 17th-century Saint Théodorit cathedral features a wooden balcony along the side, hastily constructed when local Protestants were forced to recant by attending Mass but couldn’t all fit on the main floor.

Twenty-two-year-old Jean Racine spent the year of 1661 in Uzès, sent to stay with his uncle the vicar to discourage his youthful dreams of the theater. His letters home didn’t mention any growing vocation for the religious life, but they did enthusiastically extol the beauty of the countryside, the chant of the cicadas and the delights of the local cuisine. Racine eventually overruled his family and became one of France’s greatest playwrights, but he never forgot Uzès. Anyone not enchanted by its charms, he wrote, is “without soul or without eyes,” and in another letter he penned a line about Uzès that has been quoted ever since: “Nos nuits sont plus belles que vos jours”—our nights are more beautiful than your days.

Days in Uzès, of course, are not bad either, especially Saturday morning, when a huge traditional Provençal market fills the Place aux Herbes to overflowing: fruits, vegetables and flowers, of course, but also jams and honey, ceramics and linens, pots and pans, clothes and shoes. There’s another, smaller version on Wednesday mornings too. The square itself, large and asymmetrical, is planted with plane trees around its central fountain and surrounded by medieval houses transformed in the 17th and 18th centuries, perched above stone arcades housing shops, restaurants and cafés.

The only way to see Uzès is on foot, and best armed with a small map from the tourist office that outlines a tour—you’ll want to deviate a lot down the fascinating cobbled streets and passages, but it will get you back on track when you get lost. Among the most beautiful buildings on the route is the former mint, on the corner of rue du Docteur Blanchard and rue Rafin, a medieval and Renaissance building where the bishops of Uzès had the right to coin money, making them a powerful economic force in the city and the region.

Open only from April to October, the Jardin Médiéval is planted as it might have been then, with vegetables, herbs and other ornamental and medicinal plants. The garden offers a splendid view of the other two of the city’s towers, both vestiges of a long-gone medieval residence: the 12th-century clock tower Tour de l’Horloge, also called the Tour de l’Evêque, and the shorter, 13th-century Tour du Roi. Together with the Duché’s Bermonde tower, they represent the three elements that once vied for power in Uzès—bishop, king and duke.

The Pont du Gard

Built from 38 to 52 AD, in the reign of the Emperor Claudius, the Pont du Gard was the most spectacular section of a 32-mile aqueduct that carried fresh water from springs near Uzès to Nîmes. The bridge was one of the major engineering feats of the Roman Empire—three tiers of arches rising 160 feet above the Gard River, its six-ton dry-set blocks of golden stone hoisted up with pulleys powered by workmen treading inside an upright wooden drum. Now on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, the site has been groomed and gentrified on both sides of the river, with a sleek reception center, a superb museum documenting the aqueduct’s construction, an interactive children’s center, a park devoted to Mediterranean agriculture and two restaurants. The walk across the bridge, or on the riverbanks beneath it, remains free. 10 miles (16 km) east of Uzès on D981 toward Avignon; access and parking on both sides of the river.

WHERE TO STAY

Hôtel du Général d’Entraigues A group of 17th- and 18th-century houses grouped around a large terrace. Place de l’Evêché, 04.66.22.32.68. website

Uzès Tourist Office: website

Originally published in the February 2008 issue of France Today; updated in August 2011

(Visited 304 times, 1 visits today)

Gallery

NO COMMENTS

LEAVE A REPLY