Pezenas was one of the first towns in France to be protected as a historic monument. It also one of the most beautiful towns in the Languedoc Roussillon area and, without a doubt, one of my favourite towns in France.
Situated between Beziers and Montpelier, Pezenas is a small town of some 9,000 inhabitants but it has a sizeable and almost wholly pedestrianised medieval centre. It is a great place to explore.
We were parked at Camping Castelsec, a pleasant municipal campsite within easy walking distance of the old centre. It took no more than 15 minutes to walk to the town and my route brought me on to a wide avenue, the Cours Jean Joures, near the Place de la Republique. One side of the Cours Jean Joures backs on to the old town.
The buildings on this avenue are for the most part large houses; some may even qualify as mansions or ‘Hotels Particuliers’ as they are referred to in Pezenas. I walked the length of the avenue to Place Ledru Rollin where there is a gateway into the old town. What a find! It’s a maze of narrow winding streets and alleys. Almost all of the buildings in this warren are constructed of the same attractive honey coloured stone but they come in all shapes and sizes and no two buildings or even two doors are the same. It is enchanting. I spent hours wandering and marvelling at the place.
The old town is a real mix of different commercial and residential buildings; many with unique features, be they ornaments or carvings or simply special window dressings and, as often as not, the real curios are to be found up on high. You need eyes in the top of your head if you want to see everything in Pezenas.
One building on Rue Alfred Sabatier has a statue of Saint Roch carved into an upper corner. Quite why there should be such a statue on this particular house, I don’t know. Saint Roch is, among other things, the Patron Saint of Dogs. It is said he contracted the plague whilst helping others with the disease and was then shunned and would have died except; a dog brought him bread every day and licked his wounds until he recovered. Because of this, Saint Roch is often depicted with a dog by his side and pointing at a lesion (caused by the plague) on his thigh.
The town is home to a wide range of craftsmen; those working with iron or wood being particularly prevalent and; as a result, there are plenty of unusual art and craft shops in evidence throughout the old town (and some fabulous window displays). You could spend a lot of money here.
The town’s population swelled in 1298 with the arrival of a number of Jewish refugees from Spain, Portugal and Italy and this influx added to the range of craftsmen in the town as silversmiths and jewellers figured prominently amongst them. The Jewish population was to prosper in Pezenas for the next 100 years, most living in either Rue Juiverie or Rue des Litanies (which, it is said, had been reserved for them) until 1394 when the French King Charles VI decreed that all Jews should be expelled from France. As a consequence of this action the area of the town which comprises Rue Juiverie and Rue des Litanies is now referred to as the Jewish Ghetto but it is most unlikely it was deemed a ghetto at the time. It now contains a few artisan shops and bijou restaurants and is as integral a part of the old town as it ever was.
Pezenas’ most famous “adopted” son is Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Moliere, France’s 17th century answer to our very own William Shakespeare. Moliere lived in Pezenas for a while (some say up to four years) and he is wholly revered. Everywhere you go in the town there are references to Moliere – there are shops, restaurants and hotels named after him. There is a monument and museum dedicated to him. The town has even retrieved the chair that Moliere is said to have sat on outside his barber friend’s salon. The list goes on and on.
To my mind, however, the most striking memorial to Moliere is the Monument carved from Carrara Marble on the Avenue Francois Hue. It takes the form of a bust of Moliere and two other more complete figures; the first being a female character, Lucette, from his comedy “Monsieur de Pourceaugnac” and the second being what looks like a satyr. It is presumed that Lucette was included in the monument because the character makes frequent positive remarks about Pezenas. One can only assume the satyr relates to the more exotic or licentious behaviour that supposedly characterised Moliere.
I could go on about Pezenas for a while yet but it will suffice to say that we liked the place so much we decided to stay on an extra day. These extensions are becoming a feature of this particular tour.
The second day was more about eating and drinking in the town and again we were blessed. On this our second night in Pezenas we stumbled upon a Grand Wine Festival on the Cours Jean Joures (Les Estivales de Pezenas). Every Monday, the local wine producers set up stalls along the length of the avenue. You buy a wine glass and off you go tasting the different local wines. The town provides tables and chairs (benches) and there are a handful of food stalls – I saw one serving oysters! That is a great way to spend a Monday night and it looked as if the town’s whole population thinks so too because the place was teeming with people.
We couldn’t make a full night of it at the festival. I had booked us into a highly recommended restaurant called “Le Duplex de la Maman des Poissons” on Rue Conti but, once again, what a result! We had a marvellous evening.
We sat outside the front of the restaurant near an interesting couple from North Yorkshire and we got to talking (and sharing some Picpoul de Pinet) and, I for one, enjoyed the best tapas I have ever had outside of Logrono. Moreover, the couple we met told us about a place they had visited earlier in the week that we decided, there and then, should be our next destination – Cirque de Moureze. If Vanya hadn’t drunk quite so much Picpoul or, had paid a little more attention to what they had said about the Cirque de Mourez or, looked more closely at their photos, she may not have been so keen. lol.
I loved our time in Pezenas and look forward to returning. My only regret is that we weren’t there for the Saturday morning market which I understand is one of the largest and best in the region.