By George Rouzeau, ViaMichelin 11 April 2012
A medieval town offering striking architecture, an authentic Provençal charm and some excellent accommodation and restaurants - Uzès, the first Duchy of France is also setting its sights on being the capital of joy. This is a beautiful town to explore especially in the spring or autumn.
"This town is the most cursed town in the world," wrote a youthful Jean Racine about Uzès, in January 1662. Nevertheless this was a statement from a specific context. His family, anxious upon seeing their progeny defying the teachings of his Jansenist masters in Port Royal and heading towards a literary career and the worldly life, had sent him to study theology with his maternal uncle, the vicar general of Uzès.
However they hadn’t counted on Uzès’ powerful charm and the native Southern women with passionate accents and fiery eyes. The future author of Bérénice ended up radically changing his mind about the town to the point of writing the following lines to a friend in Paris: "Our nights are more beautiful than your days."
Three hundred and fifty years later, men and women writers (Pierre Lepape, Michèle Gazier, Samuel Benchetrit) and also actors (Jean-Louis Trintignant) are still residing here in Uzès, as evidenced by the books on the tables in Le Parefeuille bookshop. They didn’t come here to study theology either for the motive here is to enjoy life.
We understand them completely! This small town, dubbed "Belle de Pierre" (Beauty of Stone), has a concentration of a number of irresistible attractions: its location, its old stone town, the quality of its architecture and its monuments, its (often highly skilled) artisans, a superb guest house and its equally wonderful restaurant (L’Artémise.)
Let’s look first at its location. Arriving from the exterior by the D981 and the Pont du Gard, the town appears with its white mineral stone, dominating the green scrubland which is stunning in February when the almond trees are in bloom. Once inside the town you’re standing on the edge of a plateau, overlooking the Alzon valley, which is particularly evident on la Promenade Racine that stretches alongside the Saint-Théodorit Cathedral.
Uzès Old Town is best discovered in an impromptu manner without an itinerary. As you wind your way through the sinuous streets with their medieval profiles, you can’t help being struck by the quality of the architecture: mullioned windows and doors, turrets with staircases, colonnades, a peristyle and monumental gate – a veritable delight! It has to be said that during the Grand Siècle, which was generally not a good period for the Languedoc region, cloth, twill and silk provided the wealth and the old town of Uzès became filled with classic hotels. Due to its rich history it was classified as a "protected area" in 1964 by André Malraux. It’s also rumoured that the Duchess of Uzès was his mistress during the time in which he was minister of Culture under General de Gaulle!
The old town is built around a feudal area that has evolved over the centuries encapsulating a thousand years of history. Standing out in this remarkable part of the town is the Bermonde Tower dating back to the 10th century where you’ll enjoy a sublime view over the sunburnt roofs and the surrounding countryside. Jacques de Crussol, the Seventeenth Duke of Uzès, still watches over his town from here. The glory of France’s first duchy remains intact here, an honour which is due to one of the duke’s ancestors. In 1632, Louis XIII attributed primacy to Emmanuel I of Crussol in the hierarchy of the French dukes - and the honour of pronouncing the King is dead, long live the King!
Next to the St. Théodorit Cathedral,(renovated so many times now that it’s lost its soul) you mustn’t miss out on the extraordinary Fenestrelle Tower (see our article). This Romanesque remnant of a round tower from the old cathedral is the only example of its kind in France and it owes its name to the twin windows on five of its six floors. Many other wonders are to be found in Uzès. Don’t miss out either on the St. Julien Arts Quarter where you’ll find an old deconsecrated chapel whose vaults are now home to second-hand and antique shops. At the far end there is also cafe-snack-tearoom with a terrace which is a little piece of paradise.
Uzès, a festival of great establishments
Next make your way to the Place aux Herbes. This beautiful arcaded square is host to a delightful market every Wednesday and Saturday morning. Its odours of pélardon, tapenade and olive oil are irresistible.
In particular we spent some time in front of the stall of the nuns from the Monastery of Solan. Under the leadership of Pierre Rabhi, the Pope of organic farming, these Orthodox sisters produce divine comestibles such as jams, wines and honey. Their vintage wines derived from grapes harvested by hand and vinified without using sulphur have names that speak for themselves: they include Mon bien-aimé avait une vigne (My beloved had a vineyard) or Saint-Jean-Bouche-d’Or (St. John-the-Golden-Mouth )... to be enjoyed whilst re-reading The Song of Songs.
For lunch, we found a table in the adjacent Envie de terroirs, which delivers a casual fresh, light, and very Mediterranean dining experience. Its boutique offers a fine selection of Southern French products: from Camargue rice Pastis, to oil from the Moulin de Villevieille to tapenade.
If you’d like to move up a rung, you can dine in a beautiful setting at L’Artémise, a former 16th century farmhouse. The young chef Guillaume Foucault, former assistant to Pascal Barbot (of the three-starred L'Astrance), has a free rein here for his great talent.