The echo of footsteps ring in the quiet cloisters of the ancient Béziers Cathedral. Officially known as Cathédrale Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse de Béziers, Béziers Cathedral is a 13th century Catholic church perched above the southern town of Béziers. Not far from Toulouse and Carcassonne, medieval Béziers was a stronghold of Christian sect called the Cathars, horribly persecuted by militant factions of the Catholic Church during the Albigensian Crusades of the 1200s. Béziers, the first town to be attacked by the crusaders, was hard hit. The courageous local Catholics of Béziers chose not to betray their Cathar compatriots and resisted the crusaders, resulting in a terrible sacking and massacre in the town and up to Béziers Cathedral. No one survived. Every man, woman and child – even priests and the elderly – were killed. According to legend, the crusaders asked how to tell Catholic from Cathar (let’s face it, they’re more or less the same thing…), evil Papal Legate Arnaud Amaury said, “Kill them all – the Lord will know them that are his.” Béziers was one of the worst hit during this bizarre crusade against a little-known Christian sect in the south of France, but it was far from the only town – Toulouse and Carcassonne as well as others also saw battle. The marauding crusaders invaded Béziers Cathedral of Sainte Nazaire and burned it thoroughly, killing all those who had taken sacred refuge inside. Though this tragedy happened 800 years ago, Béziers has never forgotten, ensuring that we continue to remember this tragedy. In modern times, Béziers is a great base to visit places like Les Cévennes and other Languedoc parks, Montpéllier, the Camargue, and both seaside and mountain villages. Not overly touristy, Béziers is a lovely part of Southern France to visit that will both take you away from the crowds of places like Carcassonne, Nice, St Tropez, and Aix-en-Provence. Today, Béziers is a quiet town, but the town and its magnificent cathedral serve as a history lesson as to what happens when religion is allowed power, have access to a military or meddle in politics.
Pro tip: Visit a winery for a wee wine tasting while you’re there! There are many to choose from, one of which is the little Domaine des Deux Rousseu, in the direction of the village of Sauvin. Serviced by a bus though cab might be the best bet. Just be careful – cell service there is spotty, so arrange in advance. Don’t miss the photo op at the Pont Vieux looking across the River Orb at the Cathedral Sainte Nazaire. If you’re interested in learning more about what it may have been like to live there, author Kate Mosse has written several novels set in and around Béziers, some of which are about the crusade against the Cathars.
The coast of southern France is a fascinating place. Not far from the city of Marseilles, the coast erupts in series of jagged finger-like formations. This is the Massif des Calanques, a collection of impressive narrow inlets with steep walls rising on either side that comprise the Calanques National Park. As these walls are made of soft rocks like limestone, erosion carves out stunning jagged landscapes filled with turquoise waters – the picture of tranquillity. The Calanque de Morigou is one of the largest of the whole Massif des Calanques park. At its base are beaches and a narrow harbour where those so inclined can explore this exotic landscape by boat. Above, the landscape of the Calanque de Morgiou is no less impressive as the panoramas over these rugged headlands under the brilliant French sunshine is magnificent. Many hiking trails criss-cross this landscape, perfect for hikers of all abilities. Once a fishing port because of its strategic and protective location, the harbour at the Calanque of Morgiou is famed for giant tuna fishing hosted by the Marseillais when King Louis XIII visited the region in 1622. It is here too that we find the submerged entrance to the astounding Cosquer Cave, some 37 metres (121 feet) below sea level. After divers swim through a 175-metre (574 ft) tunnel, the narrow entrance opens into the Cosquer Cave – a cavern full of prehistoric art, including 65 stencils of human hands made 27,000 years ago! Though rising water levels have destroyed most of the art, there are still about 150 paintings visible. Even if you can’t see this amazing cave, the Calanques – and the Calanque de Morgiou in particular – are such a spectacular place to visit.
Pro tip: Hike to the Cap Sutigan overlooking the Calanque de Morgiou from the University (even accessible via bus from Marseille). Or drive down to the harbour itself on a road from Marseille suburb, Les Baumettes.
Most visitors zip by this historical town in southern France. To the majority of strangers, the town of Montélimar is just a blip on the map in the little-known region of Drôme to be passed by on the way to greener (or sunnier!) pastures such as Provence and the Cote d’Azure (better known as the French Riviera). Towering over the clay-roofed town is the impressive Romanesque stone pile that is the Chateau des Adhémar. Full of architectural beauty, the town of Montélimar itself is a lovely place. Stroll the town centre exploring the streets lined with facades representing the tastes of different centuries – grand mansions and townhouses such as the former home of courtier of kings Diane de Poitiers, an impressive Renaissance building dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. Other buildings are from the 17th and 18th centuries, sporting a variety of styles, each topped with beautiful clay tiles. Montélimar is the place to be when the sun is shining – wandering the walls of the ancient castle, strolling the streets of the historic centre, sipping rosé at a pocket-sized cafe or soaking up the sun in the gardens or the riverbanks of the Rhône River and its offshoots the Roubion and the Jabron.
Pro tip: Make sure you try some of the local wines while there. This is the Côtes de Rhône wine region (famed for their reds) of which there are many varieties (though one we quite like is M. Chapoutier – see more about this region here. In the other direction, you’ll find another delicious wine, the Ventoux, from a grape variety that grows on Mt Ventoux, the windy mountain. This region is also just north of Provence, heralded for its rosé wines, perfect for a summer’s day.
One of the best-preserved examples of medieval life and architecture is the walled city of Carcassonne in the south of France. Though La Cité started out as a Roman hilltop fort, it was in the Middle Ages that Carcassonne hit its peak. In 1067, Carcassonne fell into the Trencavel family through marriage, allying it with other great cities of the south, such as Albi, Nîmes and Toulouse – even Barcelona. The already-medieval city was further gothic-ified by the Trencavels – including the Chateau Comtal in the centre of Carcassonne. What Carcassonne is perhaps most known for its role in the horrid Albigensian Crusades. Carcassonne was a sanctuary for the ostracised Cathars of the Pays d’Oc. A gnostic offshoot of Christianity, the Cathars were not accepted by the Catholic Church, who attacked Carcassonne in 1209, killed Viscount Trencaval, and ousted the city’s citizens, with Carcassonne eventually passing into the Kingdom of France. 300 years later, the Huguenots of Languedoc, including those of Carcassonne, didn’t fare much better. Despite its troubled history, today Carcassonne is a beautiful medieval masterpiece, a living replica of what life looking like hundreds of years ago.
Pro tip: Carcassonne is a very popular tourist destination. Visit only in the off season to avoid the worst of the crowds. There are accommodations in La Cite as well as the more modern side of Carcassonne. Another (more cost effective) solution is to stay in the less-popular Béziers, and train in to Carcassonne.
The Palais des Papes is a massive heap of fortified and sacred medieval stone built for the king-like popes during the schism with the Catholic Church in the heart of ancient Avignon. Six rebellious popes ruled Western Christianity from this impressive – and costly – building. (In fact, the Palais des Papes was so expensive that it nearly burst the papal purse). Built during the 14th century, the old palais (of Benedict XII) and the new palais (of extravagant Clement VI) form the largest Gothic building constructed during the Middle Ages! And during the 14th century, the Palais des Papes once held about 2,000 volumes – considered to be the largest library of its time. This impressive library attracted bibliophiles and scholars from afar, and the Palais des Papes became a place of great study. It was also within the walls of this immense palace that the Church was able to centralise and create a standardisation of services and operations – mostly to meet the needs of the popes and the Church with less regard to its common flock. The church administration workers (known as the Curia) grew from a modest 200 to 500 people plus 1,000 laymen at the Palais des Papes in less than 100 years. Today, the Palais des Papes is a UNESCO site, and is well worth the visit from a historical and architectural perspective, as the Palais des Papes is both a great historical turning point and one of the best exemplars of Europe’s great Gothic constructions.
Pro Tip: You can buy a ticket for both the Palais des Papes as well as the Pont d’Avignon, so be sure to pocket your ticket when you visit the palace! Great views from the Parc Rocher des Doms park of the whole of Avignon and beyond.
Opposing the roughness of Marseille is the pristine beauty of the Calanques National Park. Though not far from the city, a short hike into the Calanques park feels like a foray into another world! Offering a 20km stretch of coastline in the south of France, the Calanques are a series of rocky headlands, rough landscapes, hidden coves, and secret beaches. The azure shades of the Mediterranean will dazzle you as far as the horizon stretches. Here in the national park, there are over 900 protected places as well as certain eagles, reptiles such as Europe’s largest lizard and longest snake, as well as countless others. Of the many calanques, some are easier to reach than others – popular calanques are the Calanque de Sormiou or the Calanque de Morgiou. Seen here is the Calanque de Sugiton, easily accessible from the Luminy University City (under 30 minutes ride on public transport from Marseille’s city centre) for those willing to hike. Before arriving at the amazing coastline, you’ll first experience breathtaking minimalist landscapes reminiscent of the American southwest on your initial hike through the path! Adventurous souls may prefer to approach by sea – either by boat or even better – kayak! NB: Before visiting, check if trails are closed due to fire risk.
The tiny French village of Balazuc snuggled deep within the timeless county of Ardèche is a place you go to lose yourself in another era, another way of life. Sun kissed hills are woven with ancient villages, a patchwork of medieval architecture fused seamlessly with the brown earth and golden fields of southern France. Balazuc is one of such places. A veritable labyrinth built of golden stone, the village’s narrow alleys wind up and down, dipping half-underground, through other buildings, around and through the hills in a completely random and at times mysterious manner. Hole-in-the-wall cafes dot the facades, and a hilltop castle and church duo seem to be trying to outdo one another. To access the steep hilltop village, one must first cross a surprisingly high bridge over the Ardèche River – not a bad place for a quick dip! And just a stone’s throw away is the equally-beautiful and heart-throbbingly medieval village of Largentière as well as the ever-impressive Gorges d’Ardeche. Get ready for a coup de foudre – French for love at first sight!
The 12th century Chateau des Adhémar remains one of the last true examples of Romanesque architecture, a style defined by rounded arches, thick walls, squat towers and sturdy pillars. This study, box-like castle was built atop a sunburnt hill which overlooks the orange-tiled, sunny town of Montélimar (located in the Drôme department in the south of France). Appropriated by the papacy in the 14th century until 1447 when it re-entered the Kingdom of France, the castle has been used as papal residence, an armament for several conflicts and wars, a citadel, a prison, a country residence, and now a contemporary art museum. In fact, Chateau des Adhémar was largely saved in the last few centuries as it was put to use as a prison. The famed loggia, or loge, with the striped design and rounded windows attached to the main keep was added during the Renaissance to ‘beautify’ what was considered a ‘plain’ Romanesque design. The beautiful Renaissance loggia was also built to add light to formerly gloomy rooms as well as show off the expansive countryside on Chateau des Adhémar’s toes. Located in the inner courtyard is the ancient 11th century St Pierre Chapel. Once a part of the wide-reaching monastic network centred at the Monastery of Ile Barbe in Lyon, the simple Romanesque chapel was later incorporated into the castle complex by the powerful Adhémar family. Today, the castle is a fine example of Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, as well as the modern art movement. It offers splendid aerial views of Montélimar and is a perfect stop on a road trip heading from Lyon to Nimes, Avignon, Montpellier or any other destinations in Southern France!
See Other Fascinating Places in the South of France
Sur le Pont d’Avignon, France (On the Avignon Bridge, France)
Another day, another bridge. In contrast to the super-sleek, ultra-design Zubri Zuri Bridge in Bilbao, the Pont d’Avignon is one of the world’s most famous traditional, historic bridges – not unlike Prague’s Charles Bridge. The Pont d’Avignon is famous largely because of the classic French nursery song about it (Sur le Pont d’Avignon/On y danse, On y danse/Sur le Pont d’Avignon/On y danse tous en rond) – even though the song is wrong. It’s unlikely people ever danced ‘sur’ (on) the bridge; lacking for space, it’s far more likely that they danced underneath…Today the bridge only crosses half the Rhone River, the rest having been washed away (learn more about the Pont d’Avignon’s history here). Rising majestically behind the broken bridge is the Palais des Papes – the Papel Palace – which was the seat of 6 ‘rebel’ popes in the 14th century. During the Avignon Papacy, in 1305 the Palais became the papal residence when French Pope Clement V elected to move the papal centre of authority to Avignon in an effort to avoid facing the chaos in Rome (in all fairness, I’d be inclined to think the same thing…the Eternal City is eternally chaotic). Though succeeding in centralising power and church regulations, the Avignon Papacy also succeeded in consuming most the papacy’s purse by constructing this overwhelmingly extravagant Palais des Papes. Today, this magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the largest and most important constructions in the Gothic style in Europe – with its massive halls, extensive dining rooms, glamorous bedrooms and beautiful chapels, it’s easy to why. You can buy a combined ticket in order to visit both sites. For a nice aerial view, climb up the hill Rocher des Domes afterwards.
Find More Amazing European Gothic Architecture Here
The Arena in the centre of Nîmes (formally Nemausus) is one of those places that is both beautiful and terrifying. Built in 70 AD, the Arena is one of the first things you come face to face with when arriving in Nîmes. Despite being destroyed in 737 by angry Franks, the completely round building with windows and doors all intact, is beautiful today thanks to a refurbishment in 1863. Once upon a time, the amphitheatre was fortified by the Visgoths, then the viscounts of Nîmes actually built a fortified castle inside its walls, and then a small neighbourhood was built inside the half-ruined building (complete with two chapels and 100 inhabitants!) – talk about reuse and recycle! But since the mid 1800’s when the ‘neighbourhood’ was removed and the amphitheatre restored, the beautiful Arena has sadly been used for bullfighting, with two fights held every year. Despite this unfortunate choice in repurposing (bull fighting, though a closely-held cultural tradition in southwestern France and throughout Spain, is a cruel game that is unjust to the animals forced to participate), the Arena is still one of the most beautiful examples of the Roman reach in what was once the region of Gaul, of the Roman Empire, more 2,000 years ago. While in the region, don’t miss out on the nearby Pont du Gard, an aqueduct bridge part of the Nîmes aqueduct, a 50-kilometre (31 mile) structure to carry water from Uzes to Nîmes (built 1st century AD).
Not many architects can say that their construction will lest centuries, let alone millennia, though many Romans can. Not many tourists can say that they have beheld constructions that are more than a millennia old, though those who have visited the magnificent Pont du Gard can. This ‘pont’ (‘bridge’ in French) over the Gard (also called the Gardon) River in the south of the Hexagon is one of the the most country’s most spectacular ancient sites, left over from the days when the Roman-dominated territory was called Gaul, and Lyon (or ‘Lugdnumum‘) was still the capital. Built around 40-60 AD spanning 275m at its longest point, the aqueduct in entirety descends only 17 m over the course of it’s length, while the Pont du Gard has a mere 2.5 centimetres slant, which makes you marvel at the ingenuity and intelligence of the Romans without computers, machinery, calculators or any other aspects of modern technology. The Pont is impressive enough when viewed from land, but the best way to truly experience such a structure is the way it was meant to be seen – by water. So, jump in a canoe or kayak, grab your paddle, splash through the Gard River and don’t be afraid to get wet!