There was a time not so long ago when the beautiful coast and landscape of the Midi west of the Rhone was virually ignored as a holiday destination. A holiday in the south of France meant perforce the Cote d’Azur or Provence. In just 20 years or so, however, this lack of recognition has undergone a complete seachange and Languedoc-Roussillon is now a prime tourist area, with the ancient town of Béziers at its epicentre.
The cliff overlooking the River Orb, with its spectacular view of and from the cathedral, has been continuously occupied for 2700 years making Béziers one of the oldest towns in the whole of France.
Having lacked serious investment for many decades, the town is now racing ahead to catch up with the 21st century: A new shopping mall has been built (the Polygone); the town now has its own extension to Montpellier university; a brand-new swimming pool complex is on-line; a new train station is planned which will make Béziers an even more important axis between Spain and other major French cities; the A75 autoroute has been extended to join the A9 just outside the town creating a more direct north and to Paris over the stunning Millau bridge. These are just some of the major improvements completed in the last five years.
The centre of the town is the Allée Paul Riquet, named after the man who designed, engineered and built the World Heritage Site Canal du Midi, which links the Mediterranean with the Atlantic.
The Allées form a large, shaded boulevard lined with planetrees and lots of restaurants and bars. The old town has interesting shops along its little cobbled streets. The imposing St Nazaire Cathedral is the spot where Simon de Montfort undertook the appalling massacre of the Cathars in 1209. For a voluntary contribution you can climb the 164 steps winding up through the belltower to enjoy a magnificent view as far as the Pyrenees, but do take care if you have very young children; some of the walls have holes just that bit too large for comfort with a small child! The cathedral adjoins Béziers Courthouse, whose gardens you can visit by passing through the cloister of the cathedral.
This historic town is charming and ideal for a day strolling around, soaking up the culture or doing some shopping. Other sights would be the bullfighting arena (Les Arènes), the theatre, and the Plateau des Poètes (a lovely English-style garden where you can find many species rare in this part of the world). If you are in the town in the morning then have a peek in the covered food market, Les Halles. There is a lovely flower market in the central Allée on Friday mornings and in summer there are concerts in the bull ring.
A good way to take a whistlestop tour of the town is Le Petit Train Touristique which you can pick up from the Cathedral or the Nine Locks (Neuf Ecluses). If you’re here in August, you should sample the Feria, there is no better excuse for an outdoors knees-up. All the streets are thronged with bars, dancing and drinking and it’s a whole new experience watching the Biterrois getting back in touch with their strong Spanish roots.
From the town it is only a 20 minute drive to the long, sandy Mediterranean beaches like Valras Plage and Vendres or a bit further afield Agde and Vias, an hour and a half to the Spanish border and 40 minutes away from the stunning landscapes of the Upper Languedoc National Park.