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Beziers, South France

PUBLISHED: 15:05 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:09 20 February 2013

The Cathedral of St. Nazaire built in the 12th to 15th centuries and acted as a fortress against the invasion of the Cathars.

The Cathedral of St. Nazaire built in the 12th to 15th centuries and acted as a fortress against the invasion of the Cathars.

Lucy Jenkins discovers that southern France isn't all about the Riviera

Think of the south of France and what springs to mind?

Bright young things zipping about in convertibles around the Riviera or tanned celebrities high-heeling their way in St Tropez? Ever since Brigitte Bardot appeared cavorting unadorned in Roger Vadim's film '....And God Created Woman' in 1955, the Riveria has become synonymous with the heady cocktail of sun, sex, celebrities - and most importantly - money.

But drive on down past Nice, past Marseilles, past Montpellier even and you'll discover that this particular area of the south of France isn't expensive and isn't filled to the hilt with the French version of Chelsea Tractors and you don't have to be beautiful to go there, soak up the sun and immerse yourself in good food and drink

Bziers is a town in the Languedoc-Rousillon region of south west France, roughly 90 miles from the Spanish border and 42 miles south-west of Montpellier. It is small, with only 78,000 people but has a thriving arts scene, the largest naturist resort in Europe and the famous Fria de bullfighting festival where a million people descend for the five-day event in August.

So, where do you start in a place as diverse as this? Well, it is situated in pretty much the world's largest vineyard, so an amble along for a dgustation (tasting) would be a good idea. Vines were introduced in the 5th century BC by the Greeks and now spreading out from the Mediterranean coast to the foothills of the C-vennes Mountains, there are thousands of acres of vineyards producing the region's seven AOCs (classified wine origins) with the vermouth, Noilly Prat from Marseillan being the most well-known. The Vinopolis in nearby Florensac is a great wine museum where you can do various tastings and have a virtual guided tour of the cellars. There is also a restaurant and shop where you can buy the wines at their 'cellar price' (i.e. cheaply!)

The medieval town of Pzenas (about half an hour from Bziers) is well worth a visit as it is virtually unspoilt and is filled with beautiful architecture and winding cobbled streets which are great fun to explore - especially when you stumble upon a pretty pavement caf or restaurant.

One building of note is the Htel Lacoste which is a period mansion with wonderful wrought iron balconies, stone sculptures and an ornate doorway. Here you can pass through such impressive doors to admire the inner courtyards - a magnificent renaissance staircase dating from the late 15th and early 16th centuries. There's also

mascarons (similar to gargoyles) peering eerily from the Htel Lpine and original 16th century mullioned windows of the Htel Jacques Coeur.

One thing that Bziers and the Riviera do have in common however, is the abundance of beaches and fantastic coastal scenery. Bziers-Cap d'Agde is the flagship resort of the region (a very understated version of Nikki Beach in St. Tropez) and has 40 kilometres of natural sandy beaches where sun seekers can mop up some of the 320 days of sunshine a year. Strangely, the surrounding cliffs of the Cap d'Agde are made of volcanic rock and one beach, Great Conch Cave is made of entirely black sand.

It's unwinding with a glass of wine which is taken very seriously in Bziers and there are plenty of bars with excellent tapas where you can spend a whole evening putting away vast quantities of food and drink. Le Chameau Ivre (interestingly called The Drunken Camel) in the centre of Bziers is glamorous and attracts a youngish crowd but there's no Friday night drinks promotions or four-pint glasses to be found here - it's all sophisticated yet not pretentious in the slightest. Crowds of people stand at the tables sipping wine and chatting and people drift from group to group amidst flurries of kisses and excited laughter.

In fact that encapsulates the whole of the region; Bziers has everything that the Riviera has but none of the sky-high bar prices and flashy tourists eager to be seen in the 'right' places. Image is not inportant in Bziers; it's all about enjoying the region's good weather, good food and most importantly, good wine.

Getting there:

Ryanair has launched new flights from Bristol to Bziers Cap d'Agde on Thursday and Sunday at 6.30am and Monday at 7.15am. Return flights are Thursday and Sunday at 10.05am and Monday at 10.50am. www.ryanair.com

Staying there:

L'Hotel du Golfe in the Cap d'Agde is a French-Mediterranean style hotel in the middle of the Cap d'Agde with 34 rooms and an outdoor pool and terrace. Prices from 95 a night for a standard room. www.hotel-du-golf.com

De Clos de Maussanne is a 17th century convent situated in vineyards half way between Bziers and Pzenas which has now been converted into a hotel and restaurant. The high ceilings, opulent decoration and candlelit dinners are perfect for romantics. Contact@leclosdemaussanne.com for room prices.

Being there:

Ancient history: The region started life in 36BC as a Roman colony due to its prime position along the Domitian Way - a trade route from Rome to Cadiz. To learn more about the Greek and Roman roots of Bziers, visit the Muse de l'Ephbe in the Cap d'Agde. For more information on this and the local area visit www.capdagde.com

Religious history: However it is July 22, 1209 that the town witnessed one of the worst massacres in the region, with 20,000 people slaughtered during the crusade against the Cathars - many of whom had sought refuge in Bziers' churches. Cathars and Catholics were both put to the sword indiscriminately on the orders of a Cistercian abbot who believed God would 'know his own'.

Culture: Art is a real passion of the French and even the smallest provincial towns can yield beautiful art galleries. The Museum of Serignan is an excellent example. It is the largest contemporary art museum in the region and regularly holds exhibitions throughout the year as well as having a permanent collection.

Email lemusee@vilee-serignan.fr for more information.

The Canal du Midi runs for 240 kilometres from Toulouse to Ste and flows through

Bziers en route. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and visitors can go on a cruise, rent a boat or dine at one of the many canal side cafs and restaurants. www.midicanal.fr www.midicanal.fr.

Useful contacts:

www.languedoc.com

www.capdagde.com

www.bezierstourisme.fr

www.ville-pezenas.fr

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