A Visit to Pezenas
Pezenas is in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of Southern France with a population of around 8,500. Once the capital of Languedoc – previously Toulouse, but nowadays this delightful province’s capital is Montpellier.
With is mild winters and long warm summers, its medieval heritage, this rare and hidden town of Pezenas sits between Montpellier to the East and Beziers to the West. Pezenas is a town rich with the sort of good living that the Languedoc is famous for (as well as its vast range of olives, petits pates, honey, glass blowing, jewellery making, leatherwork, actors, artists, potters, wood-turners, musicians, sculptors, Friday late night opening til midnight, a large Saturday market, festivals…. and of course wine)!
Pezenas is derived from the name Piscaenae – probably diriviitve of the Latin word piscenis – meaning fishpond. The people of Pezenas are known as Piscenois.
This lovely town of Pezenas at first glance did not appear to have anything in particular to commend it… the main street was awaiting a new surface and the pavement was still under construction, the huge plane trees had been removed; but after taking a closer look and glancing upwards, it was encouraging to see that this town is receiving a make-over on a grand scale.
A vast array of beautiful 17th and 18th century honey coloured stone houses, many with fine filigree wrought-iron balconies, are completely restored, and behind these grand homes you will discover on the left hand side an arch leading to a warren of medieval houses. A sign over one arch announces that this was the Jewish Quarter. The Ghetto. The Jews in France were expelled in 1394 by the order of King Charles VI. They arrived in the 1200’s from Italy, Spain and Portugal. This was their new home. The streets are narrow, the buildings are tall, with very little sunlight until the spring. It is then when the sun is at its highest shines vertically downwards causing incredible shafts of light to the ground. Simply stunning!
After the Roman Conquest settlers arrived in small villages in the Languedoc region. People cultivated vines to make wine, produce was grown in abundance and during the 10th century the towns of Pezenas and Montagnac were born and became independent. These two towns hosted 5 annual fairs and brought wealth to the area until the end of the 15th Century. During the 16th Century the Languedoc Governors resided in Pezenas bringing with them the Etats du Laguedoc- which voted on the taxes for the king and which governed the province. It was during this time that Pezenas became the capital of Languedoc for over 100 years. During the 17th Century the Edit des Elus removed the fiscal privileges, and after a rebellion (which was led by Henri II de Montmorency), the Governor was taken prisoner, and eventually decapitated. The Armand de Bourbon (Prince de Conti) came to live in Pezenas – he became the Languedoc Governor. He was also known to have become the protector of Moliere – a famous author/actor who it is said to have created some of his famous characters in the barber’s shop – now the tourist office. Moliere was just a stage name; Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was born in Paris, 15th January 1622. His father (one of 8 valets de chamber tapissiers) attended the King’s furniture and upholstery. Thus Moliere as he was to become had access to the king’s court and to the finest schools. His favourite past time was to make fun of those around him. Sadly his mother died when he was just 12, and at the age of 15 his father’s second wife also died. After watching comedians perform plays and farces in the streets in order to sell patent medicines to the crowds at the Pont-Neuf, Jean-Baptiste, at the age of 21 decided to dedicate his life to the theatre. He also changed his name – it is thought that this was to spare his father the embarrassment of having an actor in the family. Moliere spent years honing his craft, travelling and performing from town to town. On October 24 1658, Moliere and his troupe were invited to perform for the first time before Louis XIV in the Guard Room of the old Louvre Palace. It was a tragedy (in both senses of the word) and The Court was not impressed! Realising his mistake Moliere asked the King if he could perform one of his own plays. The play was a huge success and the theatre company known as the Troupe De Monsieur was granted the use of Hotel du Petit Bourbon (one of the most important theatres in Paris). During 1647 Moliere travelled across the Languedoc region and arrived in Pezenas in 1650. The region inspired some of Moliere’s most famous plays and he is celebrated in Pezenas today. Many of the tiny streets are home to his lively performances.
Walking these tiny, tall, narrow passageways and streets there is a sense of rebirth taking place. Shops and shutters are opening, seats and stands are placed carefully to attract the passers-by. Sights and sounds of craftsmen skilfully creating their next piece, carefully positioning precious pieces on shelves or in their shop windows. Pezenas is beginning to wake after a winters sleep.
Beneath my feet as I walked along the road – which was being resurfaced, Gerard pointed out that there was a network of tunnels beneath us. I managed to photograph one, ( together with a large pipe ) but the following day it had been bricked up! These tunnels were tall enough for a horse to be lead through. They run from the houses to the fields outside, and were used during World War II by the French Resistance.
Staying in Gerard and Karen Garcia’s Apartment Moliere ( which forms a part of their home in Pezenas ) was a delightful holiday ( booked via Holiday Lettings ). A small selection of Karen’s delicate and detailed artwork is carefully arranged on walls around the apartment, together with a couple of pieces made by Gerard in the hall, and indeed around Pezenas – there is a large piece of artwork to celebrate the Tour de France 2006 in Pezenas which is best viewed from the bridge on Place des Etats du Languedoc.
Gerard very kindly opened up his shop and Oooooh La La what a fascinating place this is!
The shop carefully lit, was filled with Karen’s artwork on the walls, and Gerard’s unique and very unusual mischievous creations filled every available space. His creations… well – how best to describe them – they strive to make life more fun. He makes colourful caricatures/small figurines, extremely real to life. He is a skilled craftsman and examples of many types of his work can be found on posters, drawings, and artwork around Pezenas and beyond.
This small medieval town reminds me of the myriads of vineyards in the fields which surround Pezenas. They appear as short brown sticks, as it they were dead with nothing happening. But with a little warmth from the spring sunshine, a light shower of rain, they begin to burst into leaf; they are not just dead brown sticks, they are alive… and so it is with Pezenas. The shutters are up, the cafes are open, the shops awaken and Pezenas springs into life.
Thank you Gerard and Karen for a delightful supper, a delightful holiday apartment and a big thank you for showing us Pezenas, a delightful town.