A town often overlooked in the Languedoc area is Pézenas, graced with elegant 17th and 18th-century houses of mellow, honey-coloured stone adorned with graceful, wrought iron balconies.
It was once the capital of Languedoc but lost that honour in the late 17th century although it continued to thrive as a trading centre for over 100 years afterwards: if you are there on a Saturday you should visit the market which hasn’t changed much since those days. It further declined as a trading hub when it was bypassed by the railways in the 19th century and became something of a backwater. This could be seen to have been to its benefit, however, as it has managed to preserve much of its charm from earlier days and to have escaped the ravages of over-development that have afflicted so many other French towns in the area.
During the town’s heyday, Pézenas was one of the favourite towns for the cosmopolitan elite to visit. Travelling players made regular stops here and provided the main entertainment of the day, one of whom, Jean Baptiste Poquelin, known to us as Molière, frequently made Pézanas his base.
The famous playwright toured with a troupe of jobbing actors and in the process of acting and playwriting in Pézenas, he became the town’s favourite son. In fact, so popular was he that he acquired the patronage of the Prince of Conti, governor of Languedoc, at whose court in Pézenas they often performed.
At the Place Gambetta lies the heart of this medieval town and this is where Molière would spend much of his day chatting and drinking coffee in the cafes, and visiting the tradesmen in the square among whom he had many friends. Today, the square is a place of many delightful cafes and it gives one the chance to sit and relax while thinking about the famous resident, and maybe even reading some of his work which is available from many of the shops around.
As you wander through the old town you will sometimes find yourself in a different world, alleys lined with houses with chimneys, gables, arches, windows and doors dating from the 14th right up to the 19th century. It is here that you will find the medieval Jewish quarter, just one road where a few buildings carry a Jewish emblem. Jews were able to live quietly here, in an amicable relationship with their Christian neighbours despite having been expelled from France in 1394 under the orders of King Charles Vl. (When I was there a few years ago there was talk of a Jewish Museum being opened in the quarter).
Pézenas has a tradition of fine craftsmanship and you will find many craft shops on your walks through the town, from woodwork to stone carving. New crafts are well represented too in the form of boutique-style fashion shops where the designs range from quirky to haute couture.
The Tourist Office on Place des Etats du Languedoc is one of the most interesting I’ve ever come across, as it is contained, along with the town’s ancient prison, inside the Hôtel Peyrant on Place des Etats du Languedoc.
The building is interesting in its own right, once offering accommodation to aristocrats as well as prisoners. You can explore the old jail but to get the best out of a visit to the Hôtel, try to make time to see the wonderful Scenovision Moliere, a 3D show about the famous playwright that takes place over five acts, each performed in a different room of the building. Details herewith.
The 3D film show in French and English is presented on the upper floors of the tourist office. daily 9am-noon and 2-6pm Monday to Saturday (from 10am on Sun) with a break for lunch, with extended hours over the peak summer season with no lunch break. Adults €6: children €4: families €15
Pézenas Tourist Office, Hotel Peyrat, Place des Etats du Languedoc
If cruising the canals of France, it is easy to arrange a visit to Pezanas.