Located in the Gard region in the south of France, Beaucaire is set in the center of a triangle comprised of Avignon, Nimes and Arles. It is distinguished by a medieval castle, winding cobblestone streets and the Rhone-Sete canal that runs right through the center of town. In fact, it might just be the perfect base from which to explore the wonders of the South of France.
When we arrived in Beaucaire, we were greeted by Lina Castro, Manager of the Tourism office in Beaucaire, who was our guide for the day. Luckily, we visited Beaucaire during the Festival de la Banquette in September where the whole town was celebrating the period traditions of the region. We saw men and women in traditional garb, many of whom demonstrated the trades and crafts of bygone times that they still employ today. The town is a haven for artists who create furniture, basketry, leather goods, and musical instruments, all using traditional techniques. We looked into a stained glass painter’s atelier. She creates and restores glass panels using ancestral lead-based techniques. There was an artisanal market, and even an organ grinder with his accompanist.
Walking through the streets of Beaucaire, we were impressed by the architecture that spans the several rebirths of Beaucaire. Lina pointed out that during the Roman times, the city was named Urgenum and was an important stop along the “Via Domitia” connecting Italy to the Spanish counties of the Roman Empire. Then, in the Middle Ages,the city became Belcaire or “Belle Pierre”, meaning beautiful stone. During this era, an impressive fortress was constructed. The 17th and 18th century produced the Festival of Madeleine, which brought important merchants to the area. During the 8 day festival, Beaucaire generated more wealth than the port of Marseille did in an entire year. Beautiful hotels were constructed to house the visiting merchants, which are now used as private homes and apartments. This prosperity also produced prestigious monuments, insuring Beaucaire’s position as a remarkable village of art and history.
But, Beaucaire has a wild side a s well; the “Fé di Biou” or love of bulls, is an absolute passion of every resident of this proud town. During the “courses camarguaises” (bull running), you will not find an empty seat in the arena. At these bull fights, the bull is king. The bulls are revered and never harmed or killed during a French-style bull fight; this sport is actually more dangerous for the matador than the bull. At these spectacles, white-clad “razeteurs” (bull runners) brave the ire of the wild bulls as they attempt to snatch the cockades and tassels attached to the bulls’ horns. Then there is the “encierro”, during which bulls are allowed to run free throughout the town and village streets. Mounted “gardians” herd a group of bulls through the streets, while spectators try to get in on the act.
The wonderful climate of this part of France provides a long growing season for fruits and vegetables; fruit and olive orchards dot the countryside, and the soil offers excellent conditions for viticulture. Three AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) wines are produced in the area: Costières de Nîmes, Clairette de Bellegarde, and Côtes du Rhône. But other wines are also worthy of note: wines of the Pays d’Oc or Pays du Gard, organic wines and the famous vins des Sables (grown in almost pure sand). Tastings for wine, preserves and olive oils are offered throughout the area.
Following a delightful tour of this quaint town, we had a fantastic lunch in a lovely Auberge at the entrance to the city: Auberge de la Amandin. This cozy restaurant was filled to capacity with locals who appreciate the fresh, local produce and seafoods that were served using recipes firmly rooted to the region. It is a family owned business and every guest is treated with warmth and conviviality.
After lunch we visited the nearby Troglodite Abbaye de St. Roman. This Abbaye was built beginning around the 5th century and remained a monastery until 1538 when a castle was built over it. The castle was destroyed in 1850. It is a 20 minute walk uphill from the parking lot to the remains of the Abbaye; from here you will enjoy a fantastic panorama of the lower Rhone valley. In the Abbaye remains, you can see the former cells occupied by the hermits who lived here hundreds of years ago. You will also see the tombs of the hermits; everything is carved from stone.
From the Abbaye, we drove on to the Mas des Tourelles, a modern winery that is located on the site of an old Roman amphora manufacturer. As a nod to its Roman past, they have been working on “experimental archeology” around wine in Roman antiquity. They have reconstituted a Roman vineyard and a cellar to apply the vinification methods used by the Romans. This cellar works every year for one day of “Roman wine-harvest”. Grapes are trampled by the busy feet of the “slaves” team, and pressed by the enormous oak press. After, that it will be vinified in big earthenware jars. Wines are aromatised following different recipes found in the latin texts. Mulsum, Turriculae and Carenum wines are the result of this experiment. it seems like a step back in time to see this experiment in action.
That evening, we had a fantastic dinner at the L’Hotel des Doctrinaires, a gastronomic restaurant/hotel right in the center of town.
6 Quai du Général de Gaulle,
30300 Beaucaire, France
Tel:+33 4 66 59 23 70
If you haven’t already, be sure to put Beaucaire on your must-see list. I have just scratched the surface of the many things to do and see in this historic medieval town and its surroundings. And, if you are wondering where we stayed while on our sojourn in Provence and the Gard, I’ll be posting my favorite hotels and B&Bs in the south of France soon.
Written by Terri Fogarty, photos by Bill Fogarty for EuropeUpClose.com