Pleasures of the past in Pézenas

by Mary.Novakovich

The Languedoc town of Pezenas was once home to Moliere, France’s most popular playwright, and the creative tradition carries on strong within its medieval streets

The past is inescapable as you wander along the cobbled streets of Pézenas. Centuries of architectural styles – from the Middle Ages to the 19th century – vie for attention in the maze of streets in the old town, where medieval arches stand next to 17th-century mansions. It’s a bustling, busy place, in contrast to the tranquillity of the vineyards surrounding this market town in the Hérault valley of France’s Languedoc region. It’s only 33 miles away from the region’s capital, Montpellier, but it’s a world away in terms of the richness of its history.
It was a major trading centre in the Middle Ages, when traders would travel for miles to buy goods from the town’s highly skilled craftspeople. That hasn’t changed, as artisans are still making beautiful objects out of glass, ceramics, leather, shoes and jewellery – and selling them in the tiny shops and studios that are tucked into every available space in the old town. When the weather is warm, they take their materials and work outside in the sunshine, creating a sense that nothing much has changed for hundreds of years. The street names reflect this too: Impasse Fromagerie Vieille (old cheese shop) and Rue Triperie Vieille (old tripe shop) evoke the days before supermarkets came along.
Much is made of the fact that Pézenas became the adopted home of Molière in the 17th century. Like many others, France’s greatest playwright had been attracted to the town when the Prince of Conti brought his court there and turned it into a second Versailles. Few can resist the lure of royalty, but at least Molière repaid the favour by writing and performing some of his best-loved plays. It’s a cause for celebration in Pézenas, where summertime Molière festivals abound, along with music, arts and wine festivals. You can even stay in the impressive Renaissance mansion, the Hotel d'Alfonce, where Molière’s comedies were performed against the backdrop of the two-storey loggia. It’s now a B&B, albeit with only two rooms available.
In fact, for such a charming place, there is a shortage of upmarket accommodation. There’s the Grand Hotel Molière by the riverside, but it’s a very average two-star Logis de France. Visitors are better off in one of the town’s B&Bs. The five-bedroom Hôtel Vigniamont is run by English expats Rob and Tracy McVeigh, who have turned this 17th-century hôtel particulier into a luxurious B&B that is beautifully furnished and features generous breakfasts and a nightly apéritif hour.
Then there’s La Dordine, near the old town’s 14th-century Jewish quarter, which is run by a young couple, Aurélien Carron and his talented chef-wife Véronique. If you fancy self-catering, then stay in one of the apartments in the Couvent des Ursulines, run by Anglo-French couple Nikki and Jean-François Marques-Quist. This 19th-century former convent has been converted imaginatively into four airy and spacious two-bedroom apartments, all of which have private patios facing the swimming pool within the large shady garden.
If the town’s accommodation is a bit sparse, you certainly won’t have a problem finding somewhere to eat. There is a handful of classy restaurants in and around the old town, notably L’Entre Pots, which does fantastic things with duck. Les Palmiers has an elegant courtyard interior and serves equally imaginative food. For a cheap and very cheerful meal, try the Spanish and Catalan specialities in the warm and friendly La Mamita. In the main cobbled square, Le Poisson Verre is a riot of colourful paintings and mismatched furniture in an agreeably chaotic setting that spills out into an internal courtyard in fine weather.
If you’re self-catering, make the most of the Saturday market in the Place de la République, which is enormous and runs all day, unlike many French markets that pack up at lunchtime. Then stroll back into the old town, perhaps stopping for an ice cream at the glacerie in the main square where Molière used to sit and watch the locals, getting inspiration for his comic masterpieces. Nowadays, of course, there are other masters at work in Pézenas.