Another beautiful medieval village built on a circular theme or “circulade” but in fact, there is much more to Nézignan l’Eveque .
Dating right back two thousand years when “Nezignanum” with its rich volcanic soil already attracted winemakers from Greece and the first domaine was set up by the Romans, the land around the village still produces today some of the best grapes for wine in the area.
Nézignan also has another more amusing claim to fame. Known for centuries as “los becos figos” (translate from Occitan “fig-faces”) the locals are proud of the long-standing reputation of Nézignan – right back to the middle ages – as the local (or perhaps national ?) capital for the production of figs (along with nearby Lézignan la Cèbe, “nationwide capital” of the “Cebette” or spring onion). After much thought, the current municipality has come to the conclusion that there is definitely a place in the national and “pourquoi pas ?” export market for producing this succulent, if fragile, fruit in quantity and has recently planted an arboretum of 70 different varieties (to be opened eventually to the public) and an experimental orchard to raise local enthusiasm and encourage farmers to follow them.
This idea is not quite as mad as it may sound as fig trees grow extremely well here. The village is sunny, the soil is fertile and there is plenty of water from underground streams. Luscious fig trees pop up all over the place, given half a chance, in courtyards, gardens, in the middle of vines ; there is even one sprouting right out of stone stairs leading to the front door of an abandoned house in the middle of the village.
For years the French government forcefully encouraged vine-growers in difficulty to dig up their vines of lesser quality by paying a premium for unplanting . This was supposed to encourage other forms of agriculture, but in fact often caused good land to be purely and simply abandoned. The idea to replace bad quality vines by fig trees seemed therefore worth considering. Another speciality of Nézignan is Nougat (a very sugary chewy sweet with plenty of almonds), usually considered in France as the monopoly of the town of Montelimar but in fact manufactured here in substantial quantity by Etablissements DUMAS. However, for visitors who are not just interested in taking food and wine back with them, Nézignan is a must for the pure beauty of the old part of the village.
Built originally around a fortified castle of which only some of the ramparts remain today, the castle and Nézignan were for six centuries (from 1187 to 1749) the property of the rich Bishops of Agde. In 1749 the castle was dismantled and bits and pieces of stone sculpture from the building may be spotted in houses throughout the old part of the village. The castle of Cousergues obtained the staircase. As you saunter round the narrow streets of the old quarter today, you will be astonished by the architectural richness of many of the houses dating back to a glorious past when Nézignan was wealthy.
The XIIth century church (with some remains dating back to year 400) is particularly beautiful with an impressive monumental doorway and lovely XVIIIth century marble altar. Don’t miss the recently opened “musée Notre Dame de Suffrage” installed in the penitents’ chapel in the church. The local arts association called in an expert from the Louvre museum in Paris to restore some very fine works of art, including an imposing painting (at least 12 foot high) of Mary Magdalene washing Christ’s feet, “an important painting in the history of Languedoc art” according to the expert who dates the painting at the end of the XVIIth century.