Rome's influence still lingers in southern France

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And I thought that was an apt description of this bustling, sophisticated Mediterranean town of 70,000 in the Languedoc-Rousillon region of southern France - one of my favorite areas, with its strong Spanish and Occitan influence. Beziers is comprised of narrow, medieval, pedestrian-friendly streets with charming shops and restaurants, and the impressive town square is the site of the Friday flower market, one of the region's best.

Rome's influence still lingers in southern France

One of Europe's oldest cities, it was colonized by the Romans around 36 B.C. (it boasts a recently excavated Roman amphitheater). The town was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries and endured the horror of the Albigensian Crusade, when many of its citizens, the Cathars - viewed as heretics by the Roman Catholic Church - were massacred on July 22, 1209. During the 19th century, Beziers became known for its opulence, with a thriving economy, mansions and exquisite shops.

<<Today it has several notable landmarks, including the 18th century Town Hall and the 19th century Market Stalls, but the main one is the commanding, 13th and 15th century Gothic-style cathedral, Saint Nazaire, an impressive site atop the city overlooking the River Orb.

And its renowned 325-year-old Canal du Midi, engineered by the wealthy, visionary and determined Beziers native Pierre-Paul Riquet (who, unfortunately, died bankrupt at age 68 just six months before it opened on May 24, 1681), is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The canal covers 149 miles between Toulouse and Sete, connecting with another waterway to link the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It took a painstaking 15 years to build, with some 12,000 workers, including 600 women.

"The canal was built for trade," explained Sabine Blot, another tour guide. "Before that it was a long trip and expensive."

<<The canal, Europe's oldest artificial waterway, once an important economic asset to the region, is now popular for tourists who like to hire a crew (or navigate themselves) to take the leisurely 5 mph barge cruises - normally from April through October - through pastoral scenery, which includes vineyards, hills, sunflowers, country homes with red tile roofs and celadon green shutters, and some of the 45,000 trees that were planted along its banks. Besides cruising, tourists and locals alike enjoy bicycling, walking, fishing or jogging along the canal path.

From Beziers I took the train to nearby Nimes with over 2,000 years of history, another pedestrian-friendly, lively town with strong Spanish influence that has the crocodile as its emblem. Due to the Reformation's impact in the region, it was regarded as a Protestant stronghold. This area, which became a Roman colony about 50 B.C., is also a history buff's dream, home to several well-preserved Roman artifacts dating some 2,000 years. The Pont du Gard aqueduct, one of the country's most famous landmarks and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has over 1 million annual visitors. Nimes is also home to the 107-foot Tour Magne tower and the remarkable Roman amphitheater, which was inspired by Rome's Colosseum, with 24,000 seats on 34 tiers, four main gates, 124 doorways and 160 staircases.

"It took only an hour for all 24,000 to exit," exclaimed my tour guide, Claudia Schottle, of its efficient layout.

<<Originally designed for events including chariot races and gladiator games at the height of the Middle Ages, the amphitheater was also used as a fortress with living quarters. During the early 19th century it was restored and today - with its uniquely designed retractable roof constructed in 1989 that's employed six months of the year - it is the largest concert arena in the Languedoc-Rousillon region, still used today for jazz festivals, rock concerts, circuses and, since 1863, bullfights. The popular, Spanish-influenced Ferias, the town's major celebrations, attract some 1 million visitors.

<<A must-see here is the 2,000-year-old Maison Carree (Square House), inspired by the Temple of Apollo in Rome, one of the most famous and well-preserved Roman buildings, and in continuous use from the 11th century. It was built by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa in honor of Caius and Lucius Caesar, heirs of Emperor Augustus who both died young. Throughout the years it has had various uses: as a court office, home, stable, archive and church. Monks lived here from 1673 until their eviction in 1789. In 1863, it was the site of Nimes's first museum. Today the intimate interior houses an interesting exhibit on its history.

Adjacent to it is the landmark, modern Carre d'Art, the Contemporary Art Gallery and Library, which opened in 1993 and was designed by renowned British architect Sir Norman Foster.

<<A visit to Nimes wouldn't be complete without strolling around the town's beautiful and peaceful 18th century Jardins de la Fontaine, gardens with statues and fountains, creatively built incorporating some of the remaining Roman ruins, including remnants of the Temple of Diana, that hadn't been pilfered or destroyed.

Today the area is "entirely part of the life of the citizens of Nimes," explained Schottle. It's where babies are brought by their mothers and pushed in trams, and where they later come to play as children, returning as teens on their first dates. It's where newlyweds pose for wedding photos, then bring their children for family picnics - and where the elderly come to sit on benches, playing games and gossiping with friends.

A community backdrop for the cycle of life.


Dining: I enjoyed lunch at the interesting, historic, cave-like Les Deux Lombard, where their specialties include black sausage pie, fresh goose liver, grilled duck fillet. 32 Rue Viennet.

Accommodation and dining: La Chamberte is a modern, architecturally fascinating (although not suitable for children under 10), five-bedroom house with exquisite cuisine prepared by a former surgeon. A favorite with locals who like to dine here, it's run by Irwin Scott-Davidson, a former civil engineer from Dublin. For more information visit www.la-chamberte.com. Click on the British flag for the English version.

Accommodation and wine tasting: Baronnie de Bourgade is a peaceful countryside wine estate with cottages built in 1998 and a renovated loft and manor house with pools. It's run by the charming Gilles and Ruth de Latude; she's a former au pair from Yorkshire, England, who has lived in France for more than 25 years. The property has been in Gilles' family since 1789. For more information, visit www.baronnie-de-bourgade.com; e-mail info@baronnie-de-bourgade.com.

Tourist information: Beziers Tourism Office. Palais des Congres; 29 Avenue Saint Saens; 34500 Beziers, France. For more information visit www.beziers-tourisme.fr. E-mail tourisme@ville-beziers.fr.

The unique, modern Le New Hotel La Baume was built around a 17th century hotel and in the heart of town. Located at 21 Rue Nationale. For more information visit www.new-hotel.com; e-mail nimeslabaume@new-hotel.com.

Tourist Information:
Nimes Tourist Board, 6 Rue Auguste; 30020 Nimes, Cedex 1, France. For more information visit www.ot-nimes.fr, e-mail info@ot-nimes.fr. Other Web sites www.sunfrance.com and www.franceguide.com.

Sharon Whitley Larsen is a freelance travel writer.

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