Béziers is a town in Languedoc not far from the beaches of southern France. It is a sub-prefecture of the Hérault department. Every year Béziers hosts the famous Feria de Béziers, centered around bullfighting in August, with a million visitors being attracted to the five-day event. Béziers is a member of the Most Ancient European Towns Network. Mankind has dwelt in Beziers for over six millennia for a good reason. Take a walk along the café-lined and tree-lined Allées Paul Riquet and look up at the Cathedrale Saint Nazaire, which can be seen sitting atop its hilltop perch. The city is well worth a visit to see its ancient bridge and the hilltop cathedral, not to mention the Canal du Midi meandering through the town and its close proximity to great beaches on the Mediterranean Sea. Béziers is located on a small bluff above the river Orb, about 10 kilometers or only 6.2 miles from the Mediterranean. At Béziers the Canal du Midi spans the river Orb as an aqueduct called the Pont-canal de l'Orb which is claimed to be the first of its kind. The city of Béziers also hosts Languedocian sea jousts during the summer. Today Béziers is a principal centre of the Languedoc viticulture and winemaking industries, although there is still much unemployment in the city. It is the birthplace of sculptor Jean Antoine Injalbert (1845–1933), sculptor Jean Magrou (1869-1945), film director Henri Fescourt (1880–1946) and Jean Moulin (1899–1943) - a hero of the French Resistance during World War Two.
The site where the city of Béziers is located has been occupied since Neolithic times, before the influx of Celts. Roman Betarra was on the road that linked Provence with Iberia. The Romans refounded the city as a new colonia for veterans in 36-35 BC and called it Colonia Julia Baeterrae Septimanorum. Stones from the Roman amphitheatre were used to construct the city wall during the 3rd century. White wine was exported to Rome; two dolia discovered in an excavation near Rome are marked I am a wine from Baeterrae and I am five years old, the other simply states white wine of Baeterrae. It was occupied by the Moors between 720 and 752 and from the 10th to the 12th century Béziers was the centre of a Viscountship of Béziers. The viscounts ruled most of the coastal plain around the city, including the city of Agde. They also controlled the major east-west route through Languedoc, which roughly follows the old Roman Via Domitia, with the two key bridges over the Orb at Béziers and over the Hérault at Saint-Thibéry. After the death of viscount William around 990, the viscounty passed to his daughter Garsendis and her husband, Count Raimond-Roger of Carcassonne (d. ~1012). It was then ruled by their son Peter-Raimond (d. ~1060) and his son Roger (d. 1067), both of whom were also counts of Carcassonne. Roger died without leaving any children and Béziers passed to his sister Ermengard and her husband Raimond-Bertrand Trencavel. The Trencavels were to rule for the next 142 years, until the Albigensian Crusade - a formal Crusade authorised by Pope Innocent III.
Béziers was a Languedoc stronghold of Catharism, which the Catholic Church condemned as heretical and which Catholic forces exterminated in the Albigensian Crusade. Béziers was one of the first places to be attacked. The crusaders reached the town July 21, 1209. Béziers' Catholics were given an ultimatum to hand over the heretics or leave before the crusaders besieged the city and to avoid sharing their fate and perishing with them. However, they refused and resisted along with the Cathars. The town was sacked on July 22, 1209 and in the insuing bloody massacre no one was spared, not even Catholic priests and those who took refuge in the churches. One of the commanders of the crusade was the Papal Legate Arnaud-Amaury - Arnald Amalaricus, Abbot of Citeaux. When asked by a Crusader how to tell Catholics from Cathars once they had taken the city, the abbot supposedly replied, Kill them all, God will know His own - Neca eos omnes. Deus suos agnoscet. This often quoted phrase is sourced from Caesarius of Heisterbach along with a story of all the heretics who desecrated a copy of the Gospels and threw it down from the town's walls. Amalric's own version of siege, described in his letter to Pope in August 1209 states:
"While discussions were still going on with the barons about the release of those in the city who were deemed to be Catholics, the servants and other persons of low rank and unarmed attacked the city without waiting for orders from their leaders. To our amazement, crying to arms, to arms!, within the space of two or three hours they crossed the ditches and the walls and Béziers was taken. Our men spared no one, irrespective of rank, sex or age, and put to the sword almost 20,000 people. After this great slaughter the whole city was despoiled and burnt..."
The invaders burned the cathedral of Saint Nazaire, which collapsed on those who had taken refuge inside. The town was pillaged and burnt. None were left alive. A plaque opposite the Cathedral records the Day of Butchery perpetrated by the northern barons. A few parts of the Romanesque cathedral of St-Nazaire survived, and repairs started in 1215. The restoration, along with that of the rest of the city, continued until the 15th century. In the repression following Louis Napoléon's coup d'état in 1851, troops fired on and killed Republican protesters in Béziers. Others were condemned to death or transported to Guiana, including a former mayor who died at sea attempting to escape. In the Place de la Révolution a plaque and a monument by Jean Antoine Injalbert commemorates these events. Injalbert also designed the Fontaine du Titan in Béziers' Plâteau des Poètes Park and the Molière Monument in nearby Pézenas. Throughout Languedoc Béziers is known for two things in particular: wine and bullfighting. Undoubtedly the best time to visit this town, which sits atop a rocky spur overlooking the great plain of the Hérault départment, is during the four-day long feria when you can combine both! Béziers is also perfectly situated for excursions into the Haut Languedoc, a rugged and untamed mountainous region of picturesque stone villages and cascading mountain streams. Although this is one of the smaller and poorer towns of the region, time here is rarely wasted and an amble through the old town, bordered on three sides by the Orb river and a canal, is extremely pleasant. It’s also worth noting that Béziers is off most tourist agendas, so if you’re looking for a taste of the real Languedoc, you would be wise to spend a night or two in the city.
Béziers became a Roman colony in 36 BC and formed an important staging post on the Domitian Way, the chariot road which traversed the whole of Languedoc on its way from Rome to Cadiz in southern Spain as it developed into an important trade route. Indeed, commerce has been the life blood of Béziers for centuries, particularly in wine. The amphora, a container for carrying wine in a ship’s hold, was invented by the town’s winegrowers. During the thirteenth century the town witnessed one of the worst massacres in the region. 20,000 people were put to death during the crusade against the Cathars, many of whom had sought refuge in Bézier’s churches. Cathars and Catholics alike were slaughtered indiscriminately on the orders of a papal legate who believed God would recognise his own. Cathédrale St-Nazaire - a main sight in Béziers is a grandiose Romanesque cathedral that dates from the thirteenth century and occupies one of the best sites in town. From the concourse in front of the cathedral there are great views out over the surrounding vineyards and towards the foothills of the Massif Central to the north. Musée des Beaux Arts - the best of the town’s museums has paintings by Rubens and Delacroix as well as several local artists. Féria, based on Spain’s corrida, is a festival that is held in the middle of August and lasts for four days. A holiday atmosphere invades the town as young men full of bravado take on the bulls and the town gets down to some serious partying with street festivals and music throughout the four day long event.
Canal du Midi, west of Béziers connects the seaside town of Sète on the Mediterranean with Toulouse and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean via the Garonne River, runs through a series of lovely old villages. Start a trip west at the seven locks of Ecluses de Fonséranes reached along the N113 from Béziers. Roquebrun is a picturesque village in the Orb Valley about 20 kilometers north of Béziers which seemingly clings to the cliff face above the river. Known for its microclimate, the vines here do particularly well and the wine produced from them can be sampled at several local outlets. This is also a good place for enjoying a swim in the river. Le domaine de Saint-Jean-d'Aureilhan a neo-Gothic style tower from the 19th century. Saint-Nazaire Cathedral is situated in the high part of town on which it occupies a picturesque site visible from a long distance when approaching Béziers on the road from Narbonne. A remarkable example of middle Gothic architecture from the 14th century, the vaulted nave, at 14 meters or 45.93 feet wide, reaches a height of 32 meters or 104.99 feet. The total length is 50 meters or 164.04 feet. The western rose window has a diameter of 10 meters or 32.81 feet. The Plateau des Poètes created in 1867 is a vast English style (formal) park laid out by landscape artists, the Bulher Brothers. It contains numerous statues of poets and a monumental fountain of the Titan by Injalbert. The park connects the station with the allées Paul Riquet where a large bronze statue by David d'Angers celebrates the creator of the Canal du Midi, Pierre-Paul Riquet. The same sculptor created the bas reliefs which decorate the neo-Classical façade of the Municipal Theatre built in 1844 at the top of the allées.
Béziers has two arenas - one dating from the Roman era whose structures and foundations have been preserved following major works in the Saint-Jacques district, and the other built in 1905 in the style of Spanish bullrings by Fernand Castelbon de Beauxhostes. The latter is one of the largest such structures in France seating 13,100. The arena hosts concerts and, every August, a bullfighting festival known as the Féria. The Fine Arts Museum - Musée des Beaux-Arts, founded in 1859, received the legacy of Injalbert's widow in 1934 and in 1975, the drawings and art collection of Jean Moulin. Among the museum's works are canvasses by Hans Holbein, Sébastien Bourdon, Géricault, Vincent van Gogh, Chaïm Soutine and Henri Goetz. The Musée Saint-Jacques, installed in a former barracks, has collections showing life in the Béziers region. Le Pont Vieux is a stone bridge crossing the Orb constructed in the Middles Ages.
Le Cimetière Vieux (English: The Old Cemetery), created in the 18th century, is a true open-air museum with numerous tombs and works of art by local sculptors, including Jean Magrou and Injalbert. Other sights in the ara include the Oppidum d'Ensérune archaeological site, and the Étang de Montady, a marsh drained in 1247 with a field and irrigation system that is visible from the Oppidum d'Ensérune.
The A9 autoroute between Italy and Spain skirts Béziers. The final link in the A75 autoroute between Pézenas and the A9 was completed in December 2010 and provides direct links to Clermont-Ferrand and Paris. The Gare de Béziers is a train station offering connections to Toulouse, Montpellier, Bordeaux, Marseille, Paris, Barcelona and several regional destinations. Béziers Cap d'Agde Airport - previously Béziers-Agde-Vias Airport, owned by the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, provides connections to destinations in northern Europe. Following an extension to the runway which was completed in March 2007, Ryanair began flights to and from the UK Bristol Airport in March 2008, and later to London Stansted and London Luton Airport.
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