Monday, April 4, 2011

Béziers: Churches and cell phones

Today's adventure took us to Béziers, in part to look for stuff on our shopping list and in part to look around the medieval city. The weather has improved to sunny and low 70's so was perfect for wandering in town.

First adventure: parking
Under normal circumstances, our first adventure would have been getting to the centre-ville. But thanks to our car's GPS system whose voice we've named Olga, we had no problem getting to the center of town.

So we find a parking place near the Place Jean Jaures, our green guide city walk starting point, and the next thing to do is figure out what the rules are. Turns out it's cheaper to park in the underground lot than on the street. On the street you put coins into an automatic dispenser and put the paper on your dash. In the parking garage (where we moved the car), you pay by getting a time-stamped ticket, paying at the kiosk before leaving and putting your validated ticket into the slot at the barred exit gate to leave. It turns out, this time the automated pay station could read our American credit card, but just in case, we had figured out how many coins we'd need to get out and made sure we had those in pocket.

Second adventure: buying a French cell phone. I think we've actually accomplished this. At least I now have a cute little red phone in my purse into which I saw the man put a SIM card. So here's the deal. Like in the US, there are x-ty gazillion options. We go to a store called The Phone House (which when the French pronounce it sounds like Ze-fun-us). I know I'm looking for a prepaid, cheap phone with French SIM card. There are 3 options at 30 Euros + 4 options of service providers at 20 Euros for a card that doesn't expire for 3 months and puts roughly 50 minutes of calling time on my phone. Now there's also a rebate worth 20 Euros, but I can't get that since you need a French bank account. So I make my choices, wait to get everything installed and the phone activated etc. (By the way, ask David his take on the speed of French service. He asked me if French service was always this slow, to which I answered, yes, and surprisingly, no one seems to mind. You do find yourself chatting with people waiting for service. I think I'm now best friends with some woman from The Phone House who just moved from Normandy to beziers. I've seen phone pix of her dog in sunglasses and cape, her partner -the reason she left Normandy - and her children. We must be best friends, non?) At the end, after having paid, the store clerk discovers he hasn't got a SIM card for the plan I just bought. So he "kindly" (really, with many apologies but no offer of relief) makes arrangements for us to stop at the Polygone shopping mall at their sister store to pick up the needed SIM card and get the phone activated. In the end this allows us to see the quite large and new mall which is pretty cool (but mostly clothes shops) and the whole adventure between the two stores takes more than an hour. And I still have to figure out if it works.

In between stores, Dave and I do a fair bit of the Michelin Green Guide walking tour of Béziers. Starting at a pretty promenade, we make our way to see several old churches that figure in the wars of religion, both the Cathars crusades and the Protestant reformation.

(History side trip: Cathars were considered heretics by the 13th century Popes who encouraged Crusades to wipe them out. In fact, the Cathars were a Catholic sect that tried to live purer lives than the Catholic church doctrine of the time. Of course there's some politics and a murdered papal envoy, but the end result is that in the 1200's Beziers is burned to the ground and more than 20,000 people, mostly the Catholics who refused to turn over the 400 Cathars living in the town were murdered and the town was decimated. This same crusade occurred in many of the towns and villages of this part of France. Which David loves because there are ruined castles everywhere!)

Wars of religion occurred in the second half of the 1500's and pitted Protestant Huguenots against the Catholic Church. Again churches were destroyed, statues torn down, etc. And the final religious insult came at the time of the French Revolution when religion was separated from the state and churches were de-sanctified and used for all sorts of things other than religious meeting houses.)

Our first church is St Aphrodise, very old, has been closed for 10-15 years. Can't be visited as it is too dangerous. This information I get from a charming Frenchman who is visiting with someone in front of the church. But he says, he can lead us around the corner so we can get a better view of the church tower. He shares some history and guides us to a courtyard around the side of the church (which we would never have thought to try to find)and leaves us to our explorations. But it is important to Beziers as it dates to the 10th century and the start of Christianity in Beziers. (The story goes that St Aphrodise was beheaded, his head thrown down a well, but floated up to the top, whereupon the decapitated body picked up his head and, before disappearing, walked to the spot where the church now stands. He deserves a church, n'est-ce pas?)

Eglise de la Madeleine is next and important for being one of the sites of the 1209 massacre. When the Crudaders began killing all the people, many ran for sanctuary in the churches, which were then set afire and all the folks within were burned to death. As the churches were primarily built of stone, rebuilding began only several years later.

St. Nazaire is the 3rd church with the same massacre story as the Eglise de la Madeleine. Rebuilt from 1215-1500's this church has an attached cloister and is open for visits. It has a beautiful setting above the Orb river with expansive views across the countryside (see top of this post). On a clear day, you can see to the Pyrenees according to the posted view guides.

The final church is St. Jacques, notable primarily for its stunning view of St Nazaire (see photo above) and for being in the neighborhood where the Roman arena was. (Some ruins remain, but we couldn't see them.)

In between churches, the guide led us on narrow streets lined with old buildings, some medieval (see top of post). The streets meander over cobblestones. You'd be lost without a guide book and/or map. Luckily, we had both. And you wonder how cars navigate them (but they do and most streets are one way, but I was nervous as you have to walk in the streets and there are few places to step aside to get out of the car's way). And these old streets march you up and down hills, some quite steep at times.

Back home 4 hours later with a dinner of local wine, fresh asparagus - the best I've ever tasted - it's local and in season right now, salad with homemade vinaigrette, porc and fingerling potatoes. Oh yeah, and fresh local strawberries for dessert. Life is good, but I'm old and tired from the day's adventures. Once more it's 11 PM and time for bed. Adieu

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