The delightful under-the-radar French town you need to visit

Beziers old bridge and cathedral – zm_photo/iStockphoto

Known as Languedoc’s capitale du vin and for its bullfighting arena which doubles as an opera venue, Béziers has for many years been a slumbering beauty of a southern French city. It’s full of faded elegant buildings, charming museums and independent shops, yet overlooked by sun, history and food-loving Francophiles for better-known Riviera and Provençal spots.

I’ve been visiting for a dozen years and am thrilled to see the second-oldest French city, originally built by the Greeks, awakening from years of faire tapisserie – an adorable expression for being a wallflower – with fresh allure. Gastronomically, it’s a great time to visit, with the opening of various new restaurants (one with lofty culinary credentials), not to mention the impending wine harvest and October Fête du vin. It’s also a great way to hold on to summer a little bit longer.

The visionary 17th-century engineer Pierre-Paul Riquet, one of the best known Biterrois, was never in doubt of his city’s importance – so much so that he convinced the 17th-century Rishi Sunak (aka Colbert) to finance the building of the Canal du Midi. The waterway connected the Atlantic coast to the Mediterranean, passing through his beloved Béziers, and revolutionised trade in southern France.

Get a taste of its pioneering prowess with a visit to the Nine Locks of Fonseranes, a magnificent flight of staircase locks that allows boats from the Canal du Midi to descend more than 21 metres. If this whets your appetite for more, follow it with a stop at an excellent new immersive cinema experience that brings to life all the vicissitudes of canal planning, and even offers hydrogen-powered bikes to hire if you fancy a leisurely cycle along the canal path.

The Nine Locks of Fonseranes – Michelle Silke/iStock Editorial

Today, a statue of Riquet presides over Allées Paul Riquet, one of the most underrated boulevards in France. Stroll idly down its lush corridor of plane trees, stop off at its weekly flower, produce and brocante markets, then reward yourself with a stop at one of the grand cafés spilling onto the wide pavement. Grand Café de la Comedie, which opened in 1898, comes highly recommended for coffee, people watching and the local Cabécou goat’s cheese grilled salad. The avenue is lined with beautiful Haussmanian mansions built on fortunes made through winemaking – ideal for promenading, especially after a glass of Picpoul. I sense Riquet must be nodding a gleeful “told you so”, as Béziers gracefully re-emerges from its programme of restoration.

It’s been a long haul that I’ve watched annually with growing fascination, alongside my great friend from university, Helen, who more than a decade ago had the good fortune and foresight to buy a villa in Maraussan, a village just beyond Béziers. I’ve grown very attached to this place over the years, and the curlicue-decorated cupola atop the original cast-iron Baltard-style Les Halles marks one of my favourite stop-offs. The covered market opened in 1891, and was a sad, neglected apology of a food destination, with few stalls occupied, when I first visited. Now, it is veritably buzzing with foodie bravado.

One evening Helen and I treated ourselves to a gargantuan Aubrac côte de boeuf to grill on the barbeque; on another we assembled our own plateau of fruits de mers with razor clams and local Baie de Thau oysters. The brave and curious can also try horse meat (including what looks to be penis). There’s also Philomene Traiteur, offering tagines, paella, cheese soufflés to re-heat and, my favourite, tielles. Surely a street food trend waiting to happen, these are crimped pastries filled with piment d’espelette, spiced tomato and cuttlefish – a recipe that originates in Sète. Summers are long in Languedoc, and at the market there are still bountiful heritage tomatoes, bunches of purple tinged artichokes and vibrant Swiss chard leaves, besides strawberries with mesmerisingly sweet intensity.

Allees Paul Riquet on market day – Brian Scantlebury/iStock Editorial

The opening of restaurants is a sure sign of a city on the rise. Tapas is the order of the day at Pica Pica and Le Chameau Ivre on La Place Jean Jaurès, both with much style and a mix of French and Spanish dishes. What’s more, a thrilling gastronomic restaurant has just opened, L’Alter-Native, where many ingredients for the fish and vegetable-only menus are produced by the chef-proprietor, Béziers-born Gilles Goujon, on his pioneering aquaponic farm on the edge of the city. He is the first chef of his calibre to combine the best of aquaculture and hydroponics in a closed circle, surely a path many sustainably minded chefs will follow.

Goujon trained with a giant of French gastronomy, the late Roger Vergé of the three Michelin-star Moulin de Mougins, who shook up tradition by bringing Mediterranean-style food into French cuisine. At L’Alter-Native, I feasted on the most dazzling meal I’ve had in several years – from the langoustine tail (cooked with a nod to the strong North African presence in Béziers: wrapped in kataifi and accompanied by a Moroccan spiced couscous broth), to a phenomenal veritable cheese chariot.

But it’s not all food and boulevards – this is a city teeming with history and culture, too. In 1209, the Place de la Madeleine was the scene of the bloodiest episode in Béziers history, when Simon de Montfort led the crusade against the Cathars and massacred thousands of Bitterois who had come to the church to seek refuge. The scars of this tragedy are still visible, including a plaque opposite the cathedral recording the “Day of Butchery” by the “northern barons”.

Cathedral of Saints Nazaire, Beziers – JackF/iStockphoto

If you prefer your history cryptic rather than gory, head for Place Pierre Semarda, where a new cultural initiative – led by the charismatic Chantal Viotte-Rabinovitch and her partner, Paul Benzimra – has led to the opening of a modest Jewish museum in a mansion alongside the synagogue. It’s a beautiful building, but that’s not all: it may even come with the thrill of a Hebrew Da Vinci Code. I won’t reveal all, but suffice to say the intrepid couple, who run educational workshops and tours of Béziers’s former Jewish quarter in the medieval Old Town, have discovered hidden Hebrew words in a number of paintings at the city’s gothic Saint Nazaire Cathedral.

And there’s more culture to come. The grand Bishop’s Palace, later the Courts of Justice, will be an ambitious Béziers gallery-museum, planning to open by 2023/4, while the former jail – with the same magnificent view of the Orb valley as the imposing cathedral – will be transformed into a luxury hotel next year. With all it has to offer, I can’t imagine its guests complaining about being detained here.

Where to stay

Hotel Dix Neuf (hoteldixneuf.com) offers rooms from €100 (£85) per night in the centre of Béziers. You can rent the delightful La Bastide in nearby Maraussan, sleeps eight, from £767 per week (frenchconnections.co.uk). For more information on visiting the city, go to beziers-mediterranee.com

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