On a rocky crag beside the River Orb, Béziers is an understated city a few kilometres in from the Mediterranean and its long sandy beaches.
These old stone streets are rarely swamped with tourists, but for five days in mid-August the Féria de Béziers brings a program of bullfights, and aficionados pour into the city.
Sightseers should begin with the Orb, which is crossed by a quaintly irregular medieval bridge far below the cathedral.
And conversely, the boundless views across the river plain from this church are a real spectacle.
The Orb, Canal du Midi and the Haut Languedoc Regional Park all promise outdoor escapades, and winery tours will also be on the menu in the world’s largest wine region.
Lets explore the best things to do in Béziers:
1. Béziers Cathedral
High on a crag above the River Orb, the city’s cathedral had the same fate as the rest of the city in the middle ages.
The predecessor was burned down in 1209, and the current building was erected in the Middle Gothic style later that century.
Before you enter take a moment to find the gargoyles that adorn the cathedral’s exterior walls and to admire the imposing outline of the building, clearly designed to assert the might of the Catholic church.
Inside there are a few columns and capitals from the original Romanesque cathedral, as well as friezes from that time and frescos from the 14th and 15th century that had been covered with whitewash after the Wars of Religion in the late-16th century.
2. Allées Paul-Riquet
The centre of Béziers in every sense, Allées Paul-Riquet is a princely promenade that was plotted along the lines of the city’s old ditches and ramparts in 1827. The avenue is very broad and long, with twin rows of plane trees and grand old apartment blocks on each side.
Béziers’ residents still visit to meet friends and get some light exercise.
There are tons of restaurants and bars with terraces outside, and every Friday you can come shopping at the flower market.
A lot of the nightly entertainment during the annual Féria de Béziers takes place here in August.
3. Musée du Biterrois
Set in 17th-century barracks is a museum revealing the history of Béziers.
The most violent episode in the city’s past, the 1209 massacre of the Cathars during the Albigensian Crusade, is dealt with in depth: There’s a model showing how the city would have looked and accounts and paintings of the carnage.
The collections of Roman artefacts are extensive, with inscribed stones, amphorae, busts and glassware.
The museum also fills you in on life in the city up to the 20th century and has displays on the natural history of this corner of southwestern France.
4. Pont Vieux
For centuries the only route from Provence to Toulouse was along this 13th-century bridge on the River Orb.
The Pont Vieux is a marvellous Romanesque structure, famed for its asymmetrical arches and inscribed into France’s inventory of historic monuments in 1963. Perhaps the best view of the Béziers cityscape can be had from the parallel Pont Neuf, with the Pont Vieux and then the mass of the city mounting sharply on the left bank.
Curiously the Avenue de Pont Vieux is one-way now, but you couldn’t pick a more time-worn path out of Béziers than this narrow bridge.
5. Jardin des Evêques
Tilting down towards the Orb from the powerful walls of the cathedral, the Bishops’ Garden was first plotted for the clergy before opening to the public after the Revolution.
And it’s as peaceful now as it was when the Bishops of Béziers retreated here for some tranquillity hundreds of years ago.
The view is uplifting too, as it takes in the whole of the Orb plain, first the river and its two bridges, but in the distance are the Canal du Midi, the Minervois range and the Mediterranean.
6. Canal du Midi
There’s a tourist train running from near the cathedral out to this waterway that cuts across a large tract of southwestern France.
The Canal du Midi was completed in 1681 and was planned by Pierre-Paul Riquet, whose name you’ll know from a couple of Béziers’ landmarks.
At the time there was nothing to compare to it for length and ambition.
It is 241 kilometres in length and, joining with the Canal de Garonne, it created a continuous link between the Mediterranean and Atlantic.
At Béziers nature and historic engineering merge together in a very picturesque way, and the next best thing to a journey by boat is an hour or two on foot next to the water.
7. Fonserannes Locks
Near Béziers the Canal du Midi had to negotiate a sudden change in elevation of almost 22 metres, and the solution was to construct this innovative flight of locks.
If you’re on foot, come in summer to see the flight in action, when holiday boats are slowly lifted up the hill throughout the day.
The locks originally had nine chambers when they were built in the 17th century, and allowed vessels to cross the River Orb.
But now there are seven, and instead of entering the river’s waters the Canal du Midi is conducted over the river via an aqueduct that opened in 1858 and also deserves a look if you appreciate industrial age infrastructure.
8. Plateau des Poètes
Continue south on the Allées Paul-Riquet and they merge with this sublime country park that was laid out on a rolling landscape in the English style in 1867. It was the work of the prodigious landscapers Denis and Eugène Bühler who plotted gardens all across France in the second half of the 19th century.
The park gets its name from the many busts of literary figures, both from Béziers and with national renown like Victor Hugo.
You could park yourself in front of the pond for a couple of minutes of reflection beside the willows and coniferous trees, or catch a show at the Théâtre de Verdure, which holds 2,000 spectators in summer.
9. Féria de Béziers
Every year in mid-August almost a million revellers arrive in Béziers for the annual festival.
The bull is at the heart of the action for these five days, and the festival has only risen in popularity since the ban on bullfighting in Catalonia: Many people dart across the border with Spain for the daily Corridas in the Arènes de Béziers.
And after the fights are over there’s music and impromptu parties at temporary bodegas and casitas.
It’s all reminiscent of San Fermín, even down to the red and white costumes, but with a folksier and less boisterous atmosphere.
10. Les Halles de Béziers
Whether you’re shopping for truly local gifts, buying groceries for self-catered accommodation or are planning a summer picnic, a trip to a municipal market is always worthwhile in France.
But the market in Béziers has the extra appeal of being beautiful and historic, dating to 1895 and with a graceful Art Nouveau design.
There are more than 20 stallholders trading at the market all overflowing with local produce, but almost half of the floorspace is now taken up by fabulous restaurants, using market-fresh ingredients.
11. La Pisciculture du Pont de Caylus
Another food-related recommendation for self-catering visitors is this unusual attraction that lets you line-catch your own fish.
You borrow equipment from the office and the find the shade of a tree next to a pond, spending as long as you like catching trout.
You pay for what you catch, at a big discount since you’re the one who caught them, and the fish are cleaned for you.
Then they’re wrapped and handed to you to take home and barbecue or fry.
Young ones will be excited and educated by the notion of catching and eating their own lunch or dinner.
12. River Activities
The waters of the Orb are gentle and quite shallow especially in the summer.
So on a hot day you could amble down to the riverbank to hire a canoe, kayak or paddle-board and see where the easy currents deliver you.
It’s another way of seeing the venerable Pont Vieux, the Church of Saint-Jacques and the Bishops’ Garden as it climbs precipitously to the cathedral.
The course also takes in the Orb Aqueduct, but there’s lots of nature in between the man-made sights and plenty of opportunities to identify fish below or birds on the banks.
13. Wine Tourism
Béziers is in the middle of France’s oldest and largest wine region, and if you’re an oenophile it wouldn’t be difficult to fill a holiday with wine experiences.
There are four Vin de Pays areas in the vicinity: Pays des coteaux du Libron, Pays d’Oc, Côtes de Thongue and Terrasses de Béziers.
The variety of soils, grapes and topography can make definition pretty complicated, but as a rule of thumb the reds produced in this part of Languedoc-Roussillon are as good as any in the region.
There’s a handful of stylish bars where you can try these wines or you could take matters into your own hands and organise a tour of a winery or browse a cooperative that takes your fancy.
Arranged on zigzagging terraces, the gorgeous village of Roquebrun climbs to a height of 100 metres above the Orb.
About 20 kilometres upriver from Béziers you’re at the southern entrance to the Haut Languedoc Natural Park, with vineyards and pine-cloaked peaks all around.
The schist in these soils absorbs heat by day and then releases it at night, granting Roquebrun some phenomenal wines that you can pick up at the cooperative.
As in Béziers the river is shallow and easily navigable, and a favourite setting off point for canoe and kayak trips, while you should also allow some time to pore over the village with its ramshackle but beautiful stone architecture and awesome vistas of the Orb.
15. Mediterranean Beaches
The seaside is only 15 minutes southeast of Béziers, and if you’re up for some beach-time you’re in luck as Portiragnes and Sérignan, side by side, are two of the best in the entire region.
Both have lengthy and broad strips of soft sand traced by a small dune bank covered in brush that hides everything behind.
On the foreshore is nothing more intrusive than camping grounds and low-key holiday communities.
Even if you’re here in mid-summer you’ll never have to walk too far to escape the crowds, while despite the remote feel of both beaches there are plenty of facilities including car parks within a few metres of the sand.