By Justin Postlethwaite
Editor, FrenchEntrée (Susan: this is one of our favorite websites about France so I was thrilled to find this ode to Pezenas--don't miss the Saturday morning market. Take the back road from Faugeres to Pezenas for a lovely tour through the hills and the vineyards toward the coast.)
Let’s start in the best place imaginable – a sun-kissed lunch table in the Languedoc. I’m perched on an unremarkable restaurant terrace in the centre of Pézenas, a staggeringly pretty small town with Molière connections (more of this later), and set before me is a giant mound of perfectly dressed duck salad. Beside it sits a welcoming cold beer and 10 yards away the hubbub of Saturday morning dissipates under the 1pm sun as the weekly market winds down.
The latter day wanderer seeking intrigue, stimulation and beauty at every turn should head to Pézenas, a town of quintessential rustic comeliness where it’s enjoyable to become fully lost in its mazy sidestreets. Cast your map aside as I did and the rewards for eyes-wide, lazy strolling are rich. Around this corner is bustling Place Gambetta, the town’s picture-perfect social hub framed by cafés and restaurants. Down that narrow, bunting-lined street (Rue Conti) is a row of artisan craft shops and a horsemeat butcher (topical!) while up that small lane where a cat snoozes in the sun is a hôtel particulier with ornate staircases and a courtyard of Moroccan riad proportions. These private mansions opening out on to magnificent courtyards and gardens form the town’s splendidly preserved cluster of 15th-18th century buildings. Less a step back-in time, more a giant stride.
Those for whom the randomness of flânerie is too much could seek guidance at the magnificently housed tourist office, set in a 17th-century private mansion, the Hôtel du Peyrat. The building also presents Scenovision Molière, a 3D show that recounts the writer’s life and works. He rocked up with his theatre company, L’Illustre Théâtre, in 1650, and put on plays for the General States of Languedoc (the governor of Languedoc was his patron for a while), before returning twice more in 1653 and 1656. It’s believed that time spent in Pézenas shaped Moliére’s work considerably – and local authorities are keen to embrace the fact as a tourist pull. Keep an eye out for a square, statue, café and more dedicated to the man born Jean-Baptiste Poquelin. There are also plenty of Molière-inspired live events staged in the town, as well as the Mirondela dels Arts that kicks off the summer season.
Pézenas is a wonderfully vibrant place, with a busy Saturday market, craft evenings on Wednesdays and Fridays in the summer, as well as wine growers’ soirée Les Estivales du Vin on Friday evenings. There is a major crafts scene in play here. The town proudly displays its coveted Town of Arts and Crafts label and you can’t walk 20 yards without chancing upon another artist in residence, a stained glass maker, potter, jeweller or a wood worker chiselling his latest creation. There are artisan biscuit makers, sweet shops piled high with packets of boiled berlingot sweets and small bakers selling the noted local delicacy, the petit pâté de Pézenas, a sweet-savoury lamb parcel that’s perfect for a lunchime snack. All of these great ouvriers present souvenir ideas, as does a nose around one of the town’s 50 or so antique dealers.
I might not be quite what flânerie fan Baudelaire characterized as a “gentleman stroller of city streets”, but I know what I like when it comes to France’s illustrious towns of art and history. Head to Pézenas and you will too. Being told to “get lost” will never sound so appealing.
For more information please visit www.pezenas-tourisme.fr