Leaving behind the monumental Roman vestiges of the southern French city of Nîmes, we head down the coastal plain of the western Mediterranean. Here, with the coastline a string of lagoons and saltmarshes, the main road is some 25 kilometers (15 miles) inland, following the route of the ancient Via Domitia, the first Roman road built in Gaul, to link Rome to its province of Hispania.
Although a modern roadway now covers the original works in many places, sections of the original paved roadbed, mileposts and bridges have survived. They can occasionally be spotted close to the highway as we drive through a verdant landscape of agricultural land and vineyards. But more than these passing landmarks, the Via Domitia also left us the remains of Roman Villas. These were both rural residences and large-scale farming domains that benefited from the proximity to the road to export their products. One of them, a mere one-hour drive away from Nîmes, is our first destination of the day.
The Roman Villa of Loupian
Over the past five decades, a three-hectare (eight-acre) excavation site south of the village of Loupian has revealed the ruins of one such villas and told the story of an estate that was active for more than 600 years.
Originally a hillside farmstead overlooking the Bassin de Thau, the largest of the area’s lagoons, a short distance south of the Via Domitia, the Villa of Loupian rapidly prospered. By the time of the High Empire (1st and 2nd centuries A.D.) it had become a large patrician residence with its own thermal springs and an abundance of Gallo-Roman mosaics. Its main agricultural activity was viticulture, for which a vast storage facility capable of holding 1500 hectoliters (40, 000 U.S. gallons) of wine was constructed. This period also marked the development of pottery workshops producing amphorae for the transportation of wine, and the creation of a small shipping port on the north side of the Bassin de Thau.
In the 5th century, the villa was completely rebuilt. The owner’s home became a small mansion, the floor of the thirteen ground floor rooms covered with highly decorated mosaics. Relatively well preserved, these are particularly intriguing in that they show influences of two geographically separated and culturally diverse countries as Gaul and Syria. There is no other known villa anywhere in which the such remarkable combination of styles has been found.
The Abbey of Valmagne
It’s a mere ten-minute drive through a countryside streaked with vineyards from Loupian to the Abbey of Valmagne. Founded in the 12th century, and built of peach-colored local limestone, this grand Cistercian abbey is one of the loveliest in the country, as well as one of the oldest vineyards in Languedoc. The church, begun in 1257 and inspired by the great gothic cathedrals of northern France, is an imposing 83-meter (272-foot) long and 24-meter (79-foot) high. Its adjoining chapter house opens onto a vast square cloister surrounding a light-filled garden and a remarkable octagonal fountain enclosed within a domed pergola.
In its heydays, it was one of the richest abbeys in southern France, before it suffered the effects of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), followed by the Religious Wars (1559-1598). But it was the French Revolution (1789) that finally sealed its demise as a religious institution. Rebellious peasants ransacked the abbey and destroyed all its stain-glass windows.
The Cathedral of the Vineyards
It did escape further destruction, however, by being confiscated as a national property and subsequently sold to a local vintner in 1791. The new owner converted the magnificent gothic church into a wine cellar. He installed the huge storage casks that still sit in the apse and side chapels, earning the church its moniker of “Cathedral of the Vineyards.” Upon this original owner’s death in 1838, Valmagne and its vineyards were acquired by Count Henri-Amédée-Mercure de Turenne. It has remained in possession of his descendants ever since, each generation consistently working to restore the abbey to its original splendor.
The Vigneron Restaurant
One of the old farm buildings adjoining the abbey is also getting a new life as an attractive rustic restaurant offering authentic local cuisine based on the vegetables and aromatic plants from the abbey’s organic kitchen gardens, complemented by meats and cheeses from nearby producers.
Our meal is paired with some of the elegant wines of the estate (also certified as organic since 1999). These can likewise be sampled and purchased in the stately tasting room with its soaring vaulted ceiling and grand medieval fireplace. The modern estate consists of 70 hectares of vineyard, more than half of it was classified since 1985 with the coveted “Appellation d’Origine Controlée” (a.k.a, AOC). With one more destination on our itinerary for the day, we regretfully forgo the wine tasting.
A Medieval Gem – Pezenas
Twenty minutes later, we reach Pézénas, a lively small town of about 9,000 that was the seat of of the Governors of Languedoc in the 16th and 17th centuries. Here, visitors have a rare opportunity to experience a complete city as it was in the middles ages. Many of the Renaissance buildings along its narrow alleys remain intact, as does its ancient ghetto complete with walls and gates. This small medieval gem is one of the first cities in France to have been declared a secteur sauvegardé (protected area) in 1965 by the Ministry of Culture, with more than 30 of its buildings classified as historical monuments.
A number of artists and craftsmen have made it their home, often with a workshop or gallery open to the street, adding a creative flair to the rough cobbled streets lined with notable mansions. Among those, the Hôtel de Lacoste, built in the early 16th century, stand out for its central courtyard surrounded by a grand square staircase and exceptional second floor Gothic arched galleries. Another magnificent 17th century residence is the Hôtel d’Alfonce. Over time, it was home to a succession of town notables who contributed their own additions to the property. Behind an unassuming façade, four wings are distributed around two courtyards and a garden. In the covered loggia gallery of the entrance courtyard, five monolithic twisted columns support the sloping roof. The rear wing features three levels of arched galleries opening onto the second courtyard and the garden.
We end up on the town square dominated by the consular house where the States of Languedoc held their meetings. Behind an 18th century façade enhanced with remarkable ironworks, the body of the building dates back to the mid-16th century. Today it houses the House of Crafts, a venue for temporary exhibitions by local artists.
While there are a number of welcoming boutique hotels and guest houses in Pézénas, we opt to continue on to the nearby city Beziers for the night, to be on site for the next morning ‘s visit on our itinerary.
Good to Know
- Visiting–The Loupian Roman Villa is open daily from 10:am to 12 noon and 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm, with variable extended closing time during the summer season. It is closed through December and January, on May 1st, May 8th and November 1st. The site is enclosed into a 1,000 square meter (10,750 square foot) building that protects the remains of the villa and its mosaics. It includes a small museum that shows artifacts found by the excavations and traces the history of the site. Contact: tel. +33 4 67 18 68 18. The Valmagne Abbey, Route de Montagnac, 34560 Villeveyrac, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm, from April 15th to September 30th , and 2:00 pm to 6:00 pm for the remainder of the year. It is closed on Monday, except July through September. The restaurant is open daily for lunch April 15th through September 30th and weekends only for the remainder of the year. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 4 67 78 06 09. The Pézénas Tourist Office, Place des Etats du Languedoc, 34120, Pézénas, offers a complimentary map for a walking tour of the most notable sites of the city. Contact: tel. +33 (0) 4 67 98 36 40.