After a full morning of antiquing recently at the grand déballage in Pézenas, we needed sustenance. It was well past noon when we left, and the Carnivore was even more peckish than me, and starting to panic. Remember, the French eat at prescribed times. If you hesitate, you lose.
One restaurant after another in Pézenas had set up special outdoor grills and other equipment to feed a crowd, and crowds were waiting to be fed. This does not bode well for good food at a good price. We headed out–it was the Carnivore’s idea, after he rejected my suggestion of a slice of pizza from a food truck, where a long line waited.
So we drove away from Pézenas. Soon we were in the middle of countryside, not a resto for miles. The Carnivore became agitated. The clock was ticking on the French lunch time. Soon we would be out of luck.
“Go to Béziers,” I commanded, figuring it was a fairly big town, simultaneously close enough to arrive in time and far enough from the antiquing throngs, plus on our way home. “Where exactly?” he asked testily, clearly fearful of a wild goose chase that would end with no goose, or duck or anything else to eat. “I don’t know,” I snapped back, hangry. “Centre ville.”
This was on May 7, election day in France. The day that Macron and LePen faced off. And Béziers has a far-right mayor.
We wound our way to centre ville–downtown, and looked for a parking spot. Even with the elections, we figured a Sunday wouldn’t be difficult for parking. But 99.99% of downtown Béziers is torn up, with no parking anywhere. (Don’t even suggest one of the many underground parking garages; one must pay for those, and the French–and Belgians, ahem, our driver–would rather risk being towed from a quasi-illegal spot than to shell out €2 for a legit one). We went farther and farther. We passed a pretty square where lucky people were eating lunch.
We went down, down, down a steep street, each descent in altitude also descending in gentrification. The square up above was chic, with every building pristinely restored. On the same street, far lower, several shops were open, catering to a clientele for whom Sunday is just another weekday. A barber ran an electric razor over a man’s skull like a lawnmower on a big back yard. A couple of impeccably clean butcher shops with shining white floors made the Carnivore want to pick up some lamb and merguez to take home. “It would taste a lot better than what you get at leClerc,” he said.
He squeezed the Peugeot into a tiny spot on a 45-degree incline, with two centimeters of space in front and behind the car. If you don’t want to pay, you had better be expert at parallel parking.
At a café on the corner, tables outside were filled exclusively with men. It was a big day for them, as France decided whether to shut the door on–or worse, kick out–their community. In Béziers, those issues run hotter than in some other places (the mayor has said there are too many kebab shops in the city center, among other things).
We hiked up the hill to that pretty square. Lunch was still on. We secured a table under the pink parasols at le Millefeuille on rue de la Rotisserie (yes, Rotisserie Street) on Place Gabriel Péri. We sat next to a table of Poles. Some Brits were on the other side. Tourist season is under way.
A small blonde boy, maybe 7 or 8 years old, went by, unaccompanied except by his fluffly little dog on a leash. An old lady with a cane tapped toward the mairie, or city hall, across the street, presumably to cast her ballot. A car swung into one of the rare parking spots the instant it was freed, and a bourgeois couple of pensioners, both in suits, hers with a skirt and chunky heels, emerged and walked hand in hand down a side street, her bag swinging carefree on its long strap. Several women with veils and long robes passed, each alone, pushing strollers. For all its famous déliquance, Béziers felt like a pretty safe, laid-back place. Unless one is threatened by diversity itself.
Our food was excellent. The Carnivore went for the menu at €12,90: an entrée (starter) of a charcuterie plate, which included not only a lot of hard sausages but also a nice salad and some fresh pleurote mushrooms, grilled zucchini and sweet red pepper; then he had an entrecôte steak with potatoes and more salad, and a dessert of fresh strawberries with whipped cream. Very correct. That price usually gets you a starter plus main dish or main dish plus dessert. To get all three, and so well-garnished, was unusual. I didn’t want any of the menu options (steak, duck or one other thing that I forget because it didn’t tempt me), so I ordered steak tartare (€13.90). It came with all the special ingredients arrayed like a painter’s palette, so I could include what I wanted (which was everything). And home-made fries. I also consumed the Carnivore’s unwanted salad, surprise. A very lovely lunch, at a very reasonable price. Plus charming service and a beautiful place to sit.
We walked around a little before heading back to the car. A young woman was sketching a building on the square; it was beautiful. As I photographed it, she told us not to miss the lions on another building nearby.
I took pictures of several other places–lots of pretty Belle Epoche architecture in Béziers–and was surveying my next target when an older man asked whether we needed directions. He was tall, wearing a white shirt buttoned all the way up but without a tie, a V-neck cardigan over that, and a suit. He was in his 70s–maybe older but in good shape–and had bushy eyebrows and a nice smile. He held a large notebook or folder in the crook of his arm. We explained that no, we weren’t lost, just appreciating the sights.
He talked with us as I snapped photos. As we moved on, he came along, still chattering, about how long he’d lived there, the weather, the architecture. He seemed lonely, in need of company. I wondered, is he hanging around to talk because he doesn’t want to go home? What is his life like? At his age, is he a widower with nobody to go home to? Or a care-giver, perhaps of a wife who no longer can provide company? I thought about the movie “Amour.” I wanted to invite him to dinner, but Carcassonne is a good 45 minutes from Béziers, kind of far for a meal.
We eventually parted ways as he stayed on the big street, Avenue Alphonse Mas, and we branched off on the narrow canyons of ruelles, or tiny streets, that wove away at crazy angles.
Eventually, we returned to the avenue, and there he was, standing on a corner, talking on his phone. We smiled at him and took pictures. When he had finished his call, he came over to us again. “Are you interested in buying property?” he asked. I said that I was always “interested” but not “able” in a budgetary sense. I’m fully guilty of divulging in real-estate porn.
“Ah,” he sighed. “It’s too bad. I know some good ones.” He pointed up at the building next to us. “This one. Two buildings. There were two sisters; each had one. One sister died–she was 88–and the other sister was going to sell and move. Then she died, too. She was 92. She counted all the fireplaces, and there were more than 100! There are at least 21 apartments. The buildings start up there”–he pointed halfway up the block on the avenue–“to over there”–he pointed down the intersecting side street. I wondered about “au moins 21 appartements”–so maybe there are 22? Maybe some could be combined or split? Why say 21 and not 20? Too many questions. I just nodded and said I could only dream of being able to renovate such a place. Which is true.
Off the avenue, the buildings were very different, in various states of decay. It could be pretty in that Italian way, or it could just be urban decay. Right now, it was on the fine line between the two.
Our elderly friend took off down a different street. We descended toward the car. A number of people were enjoying the sunny weather on their balconies. A man smoked beneath a gorgeous, gorgeous bas-relief garland of flowers, leaning on an amazing Art Nouveau railing. A couple played with a toddler. A woman hung laundry. They were from three cultures. Why not, I thought. All enjoy the same sun.
Béziers has a bloody history. In 1209, it was the first stop of the Abigensian Crusade, when the ironically named Pope Innocent III decided to eradicate the Cathars. It’s thought there were about 200 Cathar parfaits, or holy people, living among the 15,000-20,000 Catholic residents. Supposedly one of the crusaders asked how to know which inhabitants were Catholic or Cathar. The commander, the Abbot of Cîteaux, said “Kill them all–God will know his own.” And they did. Upon hearing the news, the crusaders’ subsequent targets, including Carcassonne, fell without a fight.
The Cathedral of Saint-Nazaire burned down during the siege. A few years later, work began on a new edifice on the same site, which today rises high on a hill above the Orb river, dominating the town.
Driving out of town, my heart warmed further for Béziers. A family was holding a gathering in the cool shade of a grange/garage, several long tables covered with white cloths under the arched doors open to the street, children ricocheting everywhere. At a bus stop, two elderly men sat on the far ends of a bench but leaned their skull caps toward each other as they conversed animatedly. Pretty details embellished even humble, downtrodden buildings.
More photos on my Instagram!