Thursday, May 20, 2010

Daytrip: Béziers

I'd been promising myself another trip out of town for some time, but the money situation's been tight, and the weather's been crappy. But a couple of days ago, I was running around in the warm sunshine and told myself it was time to just Do It. So I went down to the train station, handed them €23 for a round-trip ticket to Béziers, and woke up yesterday morning and got on the train.

The trip, which takes a little over a half-hour, showed that spring was definitely here: the first growth of the grapevines, and the sidings covered with bright red poppies attested to that. The wind, though, was blowing like crazy, so it wasn't that warm.

The best way to get into the interesting part of Béziers is to take the pedestrian subways that are right in front of you at the train station. This takes you to a park, the Plateau des Poètes, which announces itself with this war memorial:


(Please, no deodorant jokes). The park is studded wtih portrait busts of various French poets (most of whom I've never heard of, like this one):

It also has another monumental sculpture, of Atlas, that's just plain goofy.

At any rate, once you're through the park, you come upon a large boulevard with a pedestrian mall in the middle of it, which takes you to the municipal theater, at which point you turn left and in a few blocks are in the old town, where the covered market is (nothing much going on there, I discovered after a quick turn) and where a huge church sits.

This is the place which, if people have heard of Béziers, they know it for. On July 22, 1209, the Crusade against the Cathars (aka the Albigensian Heresy) reached Béziers, a city which had already been excommunicated by the Pope (that's right: the whole city), and its citizens crowded into this church, the Madeleine, for shelter from the attack. Arnaud-Amaury, the vicious monk leading the Crusade, ordered the Church burned, and when it was pointed out to him that innocent Catholics were taking shelter along with the heretics (not to mention the fact that churches were supposedly places of refuge), he replied "Burn them all, God will know his own!" I've read that 7000 people perished in the fire, but now that I've been inside the church, I really doubt that: 7000 people in this space would die of suffocation, fire or no fire. But it's a nasty place anyway: some 40 years before that, various townspeople murdered a visiting Viscount for having insulted the honor of Béziers' soldiers. There's a nice bloody painting of it right there.

I left the Madeleine and headed into the narrow streets of the ancient quarter. It was 12, and, as with nearly everywhere in France, at noon everything closes for lunch. It was a perfect opportunity to get my bearings, and I headed directly to the other main church in town, the St. Nazaire Cathedral. It was there that I realized that I might have to re-title this blog: Montpellier sits on a hill, but Béziers really sits on a hill: the hike through the Plateau des Poètes is all uphill, and it's steep. The cathedral sits on a cliff, essentially, and from it, you can see the Orb River, which encircles the city, and off into distant mountain ranges.

The wind was really kicking by this point, and it occurred to me that finding a place to eat lunch would be a good idea, so that I could wait out the re-opening of the museums. This allowed me to pretty much map out the part of town I was in, although there were some astonishing surprises, like walking down a narrow street into a tiny square and coming upon Roman Guy.

There's no sign, no notice, just this statue hanging out.

Another surprising presence is the guy below, who turned out to be St. Aphrodise, who, according to legend, brought Christianity (ie, himself) to Béziers, and, after making some converts, proclaimed himself Bishop. Somewhere along the way he managed to piss off the Romans, who beheaded him in one of the squares, at which point ol' Aph picked up his head and walked back to his church to be buried. He naturally became the patron saint of Béziers.

My wanderings eventually brought me back to the Cathedral, and I noticed that its cloister and garden were open. The garden is small, and unfinished because in the middle of the locals putting it together, the guys in Rome decided to move the bishopry to another town. Still, it's nice and compact, and has lizards running all around it.

It's also got a nice view. The cloister, which is above it, attached to the Cathedral, has a bunch of old stones set in its wall.

And a somewhat newer one showing that singer-songwriters sometimes get recognized, just not in their lifetimes:

Okay, by now I really was hungry, so I found a crepe place that also had salads. Not the best salad I've had here (the Vert Anglais in Montpellier still holds that record), but strips of ham, some Rebluchon cheese melted onto little toasted baguette slices, and lettuce, served in a "bowl" made out of a toasted crepe was a nice enough lunch.

After that, I'd noted that the Musée des Beaux Arts was just around the corner and would open at 2, while the Cathedral wouldn't reopen until 2:30, so I wasted some time and bought a €3.50 ticket that got me into that, the other art museum, and the Musée du Bitterois, the historical museum. Art in Béziers is dominated by a guy named Jean-Antoine Injalbert, whose turn-of-the-century style I find unbearably heavy. (He did that statue of Atlas, above). Apparently his masterpiece is a statue of a naked boy, running, which appears in various iterations both at the Beaux Arts and the Hôtel Fayet, the other art museum. It does suggest a lot of energy, the way kids run flat-out, but it's also an instant cliché. By chance, the Beaux Arts was showing the local art-school's senior show, and I must say that its graduates, based on what I saw, will be carrying on Injalbert's tradition of obviousness and banality, although one student had taken the running boy and Photoshopped him into a bunch of different photos -- a football game, placing the American flag on the moon, the Béziers train station at night -- in ways that were pretty funny. The Fayet is more of the same, along with a lot of really mediocre paintings.

With the Cathedral finally open, I went in there and was again disappointed, although you'd think that anything that size would have something to recommend it. It does, in fact: a number of 13th century stained glass windows telling the story of Christ's life. The problem is, they're so high up that you can't see them without binoculars except in one small chapel. The place does have an impressive organ, though: a couple of the pipes look to be about twelve feet high.

After that I wandered some more, and stumbled on the church of St. Jacques, which dates back to at least the tenth century.

As you can see, the windows are boarded up and you can't get in, although I bet it's interesting in there. What it does have is a small park, from which you can get the full impact of the Cathedral:

By now, it was almost 4, and my train left at 5:24, so I slouched over to the Musée du Bitterois ("Bitterois" being the possessive form of "Béziers," ie, what locals are called). It was the third museum on my combo-card of the best museums I've seen anywhere. The Museum of the City of New York is good, the Amsterdam City Museum is good, and this is absolutely on their level. I could have spent three hours there, as it walked me through the prehistory of the city, the Roman era, the conquest by the Visigoths, the arrival of the Muslims, the eventual handing-off of the city to Christians as the Muslims retreated to deal with their problems in Spain, the rise of the city as a commercial trading post, and on and on to the rise of the wine industry and the part the city played in the 1907 wine this point I was just skimming, checking my watch nervously. I'll have to come back to really do this place justice.

Nearby, it is alleged, is a Roman amphitheater, which I spent my last 15 minutes in the city trying to find, with no success. How on earth do you hide a Roman amphitheater? I guess that, too, is for the next time. I really need to take a closer look at the map: maybe Béziers would be a place to rent a car and drive out into the surrounding countryside, then come back and spend the night after a good meal. Expensive thoughts, those, but only relative to the €30 this cost me. With luck, things will improve enough that I can do this sort of thing more frequently. And there's still Perpignan to explore...


  1. You have shared some excellent images. As an artist, I am especially drawn to the skyscapes and the quality of light that you enjoy. And those interesting scenes that you discover just wandering around are great fun. Perhaps someone knows more about the Roman guy. Have you found a contemporary local or regional artist of interest yet?

  2. Thanks, Don. I only posted a few of the shots I took. The street stuff will likely come later.

    And in answer to your other question, yes, the wife of a friend of mine, Florence Causeur-Chastagner, is doing some very interesting work with a Mexican-American subtext. You can search for her using the search box at the top of the page.

  3. Did you know that since early May the bus fare in the Herault is just €1 (if you buy 10 journeys). You can get from St Jean de Vedas Tramway to Beziers and back. It will take 2 hours each way but you could break the journey at Pezenas - ticket allows "correspondence".
    We did the Pezeanas to Beziers bit on Wednesday.
    Agree about the Musée du Bitterois, we need to go back.

  4. Wow, Graham, I did *not* know that.

    Where do I get these tickets -- and a nice *paper* route map? Hell, I'll buy 50 of those suckers and get out at weird little places.

    Is there an actual bus station at St. Jean de Vedas? Hate to go all that way for nothing, but if there's a schedule and so on, it's worth it.

  5. "After that I wandered some more, and stumbled on the church of St. Jacques, which dates back to at least the tenth century. As you can see, the windows are boarded up and you can't get in, although I bet it's interesting in there. "

    It may be under the course of renovation but, judging from the photos, it may have the original alabaster windows ? Stained glass windows arrived in the later middle ages.


  6. I dunno; there's a rather indistinct photo of the interior on the Béziers tourism site, but my guess is that this thing was in use long enough to get some "real" windows stuck on it.


Site Meter