Hérault (34500) Population: 70,996 Altitude: 17 m
Béziers is a seriously large town, surrounded by a sprawl of shopping centers, housing and commerce. Arriving or departing Béziers during morning or evening rush-hour can be a slow process by car.
The long "Allée Paul Riquet" esplanade, with the Theatre at one end and the lovely Plateau des Poèts park at the other is an attractive center to the town. In the middle of the esplanade strip is a statue of Paul Riquet, the founder of the famous Canal du Midi.
Stop by the Office de Tourisme and pick up their little brochure (Les Sites) that maps out a half-dozen themed walks you can take around the town. The walks are clearly marked as differently colored lines on the map so you can find your way around easily (see "walks", below). We didn't follow the prescribed routes, but used the map to identify the sites on our random wanderings.
The area north and west of the center (straight and left as you're facing the theatre) have the most interesting streets for sites and shopping, and is the center of the "old town". On early morning walks in Béziers you'll be greeted with the aromas of bakeries, and the large, block-sized covered market at the Place Pierrre Sémard is open 5h30 to 13h30.
The area of Béziers south, from the center down to the railway station is a much more run-down and poor area of town. The nearby hill with the elaborate Saint Jacques fortress church at the top is also the location of the Béziers museum (musée du Biterois).
Béziers is an excellent town for shopping. It has shops and stores of all sizes, from the Galeries Lafayette department store to small trendy boutiques. One large toy store specializes in wooden toys and creative toys.
Canal du Midi
The Canal du Midi passes alongside Béziers, just beside the railway station. A couple of the most interesting features of the Canal are located here as well, in the area just past the station.
Canal River Bridge. The canal crosses over the Orb river in what is billed as a world's first. This "bridge" that carries the Canal du Midi over the top of the river was built in 1858, one of the many engineering marvels along the Canal's 400 km length.
Fonséranes Locks. Of the 63 locks of the Canal du Midi, the 9 closely-grouped Fonséranes locks are among the most famous, and probably the most most picturesque.
The most favorite of those born in in Béziers is Pierre-Paul Riquet (1604-1680), the father of the Canal du Midi.
Resistance fighter Jean Moulin (1899-1943) was born here, as was the sculpture Jean Antoine Injalbert (1845-1933).
History of Béziers
Celto-Ligurian: The site of Béziers has been occupied continuously since the 7th century BC. The Ibères were here, even before the Gallo-Roman presence.
The Gallo-Romans had an oppidum on the site of Bézier's old town (vieille ville). Trade was conducted with the Greeks from Asia-Minor, Attique (around Athens), Italy and Carthage.
"Colonia Julia Victrix Septimanorum Biterrae" was founded here in 35 BC, and quickly became a renowned wine center along the Roman Domitienne Way (Voie Domitienne). There are still 147 Roman villas dispersed around Béziers, each on its 50-ha "centurie".
Medieval: The Middle Ages were a rough time for Béziers. The town was ravaged b the Vandals in the 5th century. Then the Saracens came through and tore the place up, and in the 8th century Charles Martel, hero of the Battle of Potiers ravaged the town. In 1209, Simon de Montfort followed-up his experience in the Fourth Crusade by leading part of the Cathar Crusade against Béziers, sacking the town and massacred most of the population.
For a town of this size, there seems to be a lacking of obvious restaurant choices in the center. We like to install ourselves in the center of a town where we can wander the streets, have our evening meal, including wine, and then stroll back to the hotel. In Béziers there are several small eating places, that usually seem a bit discouraging to visitors who don't know which, if any, are acceptable. We also avoid the oriental eateries on our South-of-France outings, only because they are out of character for our visits.
We ended up the first evening with an apparent choice of two, and this seeming lack of choice is our only complaint. One at the middle-low end turned out to be very good, and we spent a fine evening with a simple but excellent meal, good wine and good conversation. The second choice would have been a top-end restaurant, the Octopus, that has an excellent reputation for outstanding cuisine. It's not outrageously expensive either, with menus at about 30, 40, 50 euros.
We later discovered that the Brasseries on the Place Jean Jaurès, by the center part of the esplanade, have a good variety of meals at moderate prices.
The train station is a fairly long walk down from the town (and an even longer up-hill walk if you're arriving). The town's bus station is at the opposite end, northwest of the theatre at the top of the esplanade.