A majestic Romanesque cathedral perched on a bluff, high above the long stretch of arches of a medieval bridge spanning a tranquil river – this is what most visitors to southwestern France are likely to remember of Beziers. This low-keyed town of 75,000, located just a few kilometers inland from the Mediterranean shore rarely rates more than a passing glance from tourists. Yet, founded in 36 BC as a Roman colony, Beziers quickly developed into an important staging post and trading center along the Via Domitia, the major trade route which traversed the coastal plain of Languedoc on its way from Rome to southern Spain.
From Roman Colony to Cathar Stronghold
Unfortunately, with most of the stones from its early amphitheater repurposed as early as the 3rd century AD to construct the city walls, architectural remains of the Roman era are scarce. Nonetheless, an extensive collection of Roman artefacts discovered locally, including statuary, inscribed stones, glassware and amphorae can be seen at the Musée du Bitterois. The museum also traces the history of the city from the middle ages to contemporary times. However, the best way to explore the history of Beziers is to take a couple of hours to wander the cobbled streets of the old town.
Perched high above the river Orb in the heart of the medieval town, the St. Nazaire Cathedral is the foremost site of Beziers, both for its panoramic view of the plain below and for the tragic history steeped within its ancient stones. The grand Romanesque cathedral built in the 10th century was badly damaged and its interior completely destroyed in 1209 during the infamous seizure of the city by Catholic crusaders at the behest of Pope Innocent III.
At that time, Béziers was a major stronghold of Catharism, a breakaway movement that opposed the entire structure of the Roman Catholic Church and the corruption of the clergy. This alternative, more ascetic Christian religion had become widespread in southwestern France, then under the control of local princes. Unsurprisingly, the Pope called for a crusade to eliminate the Cathars – with the tacit understanding of the French King Phillipe II. On July 21, 1209, an army consisting of knights (mainly from northern France) with their retinue and mercenaries overran the fortified city where some twenty thousand men, women and children, local Catholics and Cathars alike, had taken refuge. The Crusaders indiscriminately slaughtered the population and ransacked the city before setting the cathedral set ablaze.
Although most of the exterior walls remained, the interior was entirely destroyed except for the chancel with its Romanesque carved capitals. Repairs began on the remains of the building in 1215 and continued until the 15th century, giving the interior a Gothic appearance, including a 10-meter (33 foot) rose window at the far end of the nave. A few notable frescoes of the same period remain, protected for posterity by having been whitewashed after the Wars of Religion in the late 16th century.
A Mural Chronicle
More recently, following the lead of Lyon and other French cities, Beziers has turned 14 of its blank walls into building-size murals that chronicle major milestones of its history. Most notable is the Vintners Revolt of 1907, ignited when government regulators allowed the import of low quality (and low-priced) wines from North Africa, driving local growers into penury. The National Assembly sent a military force to suppress the rebellion. But confronted by over 160 000 protesters, this time the solders refused to draw their weapons on the crowd. Thus prompting law-makers to reverse their import decision. Another mural memorializes a local engineer, Jean Marie Cordier, who in 1827 developed a steam device to pump water from the River Orb to supply the residents of the old town.
A Masterpiece of 17th Century Engineering
At the side of the cathedral, a terraced concourse offers magnificent views that include the 13th century Pont-Vieux (Old Bridge), and the amazing 17th century engineering masterpiece of the Écluses de Fonseranes (Fonseranes Locks), a flight of 9 staircase locks marking the eastern end of the Canal du Midi. The 240 kilometer (150 mile) long canal connects the Garonne to the West – and from there city of Bordeaux and the Atlantic Ocean – to the Etang de Thau on the Mediterranean. Although many elements have since been updated, the canal as a whole is considered one of the greatest construction works of its era, and is still in use today.
It’s midday by the time we leave Beziers and its tumultuous past for Cap d’Adge, some 25 kilometers (15 miles) east on the Mediterranean shore. Once a settlement at the mouth of the river Hérault, originally founded by the Phoenicians in the 6th century BC, the area is little more than an over-built resort destination today, with one striking exception: it is home to the only underwater archeological museum in France. Open in 1987, the museum consists of a series of modern galleries surrounding a traditional farm house overlooking the harbor. Its collection is a treasure-trove of pieces recovered from the millennia of shipwrecks that clutter the seabed, including a number of important antique bronzes statues.
Ultimately, the museum owes it very existence to one single piece now known as l’Ephèbe d’Adge, a late Hellenistic period bronze of a young man, believed to be Alexander the Great. Recovered in 1964 from in the alluvial sands at the mouth of the Herault, it is the only work of its kind ever found in French waters. It was joined in 2001 by two Early Imperial Roman bronzes, of a royal child and of Eros. From the details of his attire – royal mantle, scepter and jewelry, the child is thought to be one of Cleopatra’s sons, either Caesarion (son of Julius Ceasar) or Ptolemy (son of Mark Anthony).
In addition to other remarkable Hellenic and Roman bronzes objects, the museum also hosts antique marine transport amphorae and household goods, as well a number to cannons and other weapons of the French Royal Navy spanning several centuries. Overall, the rich underwater discoveries of the past 50 years reflect the commercial history of the area through the centuries, and make the Ephèbe Museum well worth a stop in Adge.
From here we continue 150 kilometers (90 miles) down the coastal branch of the Via Domitia to Collioure, another Phoenician settlement turned fishing village and 17th century military fortress. The town, however owes its contemporary fame to Fauvist painters Henri Matisse and André Derain. Although the small historic town and waterfront make are exceptionally picturesque, we found the mapped walk through the old town, punctuated by reproductions of the famous Fauvist works, right on the spot where they were painted to be a highpoint of our visit.
Good to Know
Visiting –Musee du Bitterois, Caserne Saint-Jacques – Rampe du 96° Régiment d’Infanterie, 34500 Béziers. Opening hours vary throughout the week/year. For latest informations, contact: e-mail, or tel: +33 (0) 4 67 36 81 61. Musée de l’Ephèbe, Mas de la Clape, 34300 Le Cap d’Adge. Open from January through June, Monday through Friday from 10:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm and weekends from 9:00 am to 12:00 noon and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. July and August, open every day from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Contact: e-mail, tel: +33 (0)4 67 94 69 60.
Looks like an interesting place!