Stroll through the narrow cobbled streets of the old quarter of Pézenas on a warm early June evening, just as the light is beginning to fade, and you take a walk right back in time – here to the Middle Ages with gargoyles peering eerily from the Hôtel Jacques Coeur, there to the Renaissance period before original mullioned windows of the Hôtel de Wicque and then again to the 18th century as you admire the beautiful façade, rich with wrought ironwork of the Consular House in place Gambetta.
The entire old town, one of the first in France to be protected by the state historic monument department is rich with “hôtels particuliers” – period mansions – with wonderful wrought iron balconies, stone sculpture and ornate doorways. Often you can pass through such impressive doors to admire the inner courtyards – a magnificent renaissance staircase in Hôtel de Lacoste, a balcony for a Juliet awaiting Romeo in Hôtel Carion de Nizas, striking arches and columns of Hôtel d’Alfonse, familiar to the 17th century playwright Molière who presented there the first performance of “Le Médecin Volant” in 1655 to the court of the Prince de Conti.
The interior of the Consular House actually dates right back to 1552 and it is recorded that the consuls of Pézenas met on this site from 1242 until the Revolution in 1789. Regional government was present in Pézenas too – the States General of Languedoc – until the mid XVIIth century.
Wealth and fame were brought to Pézenas undoubtedly with the reputation of five annual trade fairs organised as early as the XIIIth century and for about 600 years with nearby Montagnac (3 fairs in Pézenas at Whitsuntide, in September and November and two in Montagnac) bringing in the first place wool merchants from the hills to meet buyers and as time went on, all kinds of merchandise and craftwork. Pézenas became part of the royal estate in 1261, which considerably facilitated the development of trade ; a Royal Order stipulated that during the fairs goods were tax-free for 30 days ; merchants could not be arrested for debt and were assured protection on their travels to and from the fairs by neighbouring aristocracy !
During the time of the fairs the people of Pézenas would let the ground floor of their houses to travelling merchants and craftsmen and move their families up a floor from where they could observe and enjoy the fun and activity below. Today these workshops are again used by craftsmen, either established all year round in shops often provided by the town authorities (Pézenas has been officially recognised as a “Ville des Métiers d’Art”) or brought in specially for the period of the “Mirondela dels Arts” in July and August, when a whole cultural, artistic and gourmet festival takes place throughout the town. The old consular building is now the “maison des métiers d’art”, a regional exhibition centre for excellent craftwork (entrance free and there are interesting, informative exhibitions all year round – tel. 04 67 98 16 12).
The whole of the old town lends itself to cinema and the theatre. Inspired no doubt by the peppery humour of the inhabitants, Molière is reputed to have created some of his famous characters right here in Pézenas in the barber’s shop (now the tourist office). Invited by the Prince de Conti, Molière first made his reputation down here in Languedoc and not in Paris from where he had fled with his “illustrious theatre”. It was not however until the 19th century that the townspeople decided to venerate Molière in an almost excessive way. A fine statue sculpted by Antonin Injalbert was erected to the memory of Molière in 1898 (pl. 14 juillet) and the town museum contains rare traces of the great but elusive playwright. The Vulliod-Saint Germain museum situated in a lovely “hôtel particulier” is actually well worth a visit and contains some wonderful pieces of Languedoc furniture and a good collection of porcelain (tel. 04 67 90 76 41 )
But theatre is a tradition here much further back than Molière’s day. The local totem animal is the “Poulain”, an enormous wooden structure covered in a canvas robe with two figures, Estienne and Estienou seated on top, a bit like a large pantomime horse.
The “Poulain”, supported and carried by almost a team of rugby players will bring the whole town into the streets to dance to a haunting medieval melody played by pipers leading the procession and the jester who directs the cumbersome animal through the narrow streets. The “Poulain” presides the Shrove Tuesday carnival (which actually last three days) and practically every festivity worth its salt in the town. Much tamer is the “chevalet”, a horse figure carried by one man that is made to dance with two others and this is a tradition to be found in many Languedoc villages.
Although there is a beautiful Italian-style small baroque theatre that has been crumbling into disrepair over the last fifty years (it is in too dangerous a condition to be visited, but the town is at last attempting to save it from total destruction), the best theatrical productions to be seen in Pézenas these days are either in the street, as in the golden days of the fairs or even Molière’s time, or in the natural décor of the open air theatre in the Parc Sans Souci.
The tourist office organises excellent guided tours of the old quarter, on a regular basis during the summer and on demand out of season. Various themes are used and our favourite tours are without doubt the theatrical ones, using a typical “comedia dell’arte” plot admirably performed by the Compagnia dell’Improvviso (for information ask for Christine at the Tourist office, tel. 04 67 98 36 40).
Like most villages in the area, Pézenas is steeped in the wine industry, but does have other culinary specialities to offer. The Boudet family have been manufacturing “berlingots de Pézenas”, a variety of hard boiled sweet, for many years in their sweet factory, a pleasure to visit for many a small boy (tel. 04 67 98 16 32 – visit and some tasting is free). Legend has it that the recipe dates back to the time of the medieval fairs.
Also the “petit pâté de Pézenas”, a speciality brought to the town by, of all people, Lord Clive of India in 1768. Recovering from his difficulties in parliament and serious health problems, Lord Clive travelled with his family that year to Montpellier and, strangely enough, Pézenas, where he rented a large property for two months. Although visibly unwell, he led a busy social life here, and according to legend on one occasion had his cook prepare his favourite mince pies for a reception to which were invited some local people. They found this strange raised pie filled with a mixture of mutton, suet, brown sugar, lemon and spices to be very much to their liking. Delighted, Clive demanded his cook to give them the recipe which is proudly kept secret by the town’s bakers who to this day almost all produce the famous “petits pâtés de Pézenas”. This speciality led in more recent times to the twinning in 1995 of Pézenas and Market Drayton in Shropshire, birthplace of Lord Clive. However it has appeared since that both sleepy little market towns have much more than a “Clive pie” in common.
Pézenas is so rich in history that it is amazing to see how undisturbed it has managed to remain over the past 150 years. The good fortune (for the visitor at least) is that when the railways came to this area, the major line was sent through Béziers and not through Pézenas. A deviation that brought Béziers to its zenith as the centre of the wine trade and allowed Pézenas to gently sleep through the 19th and 20th centuries as a quiet market town largely unspoilt by such industrial development. For, situated at the crossroads of the Via Domitia (from east to west) and the road from the mountains to the sea, Pézenas had been literally and naturally a centre of economic and political life in Languedoc for so long…