Another wonderful town in the south of France to visit is Uzès. We’re in Languedoc, which is just to the west of Provence, typical of the region and a very charming town. The main street has got some little craft booths set up almost every day, the Old Town is a pedestrian zone, as usual you'll find in these beautiful villages in the south of France.
There are some up-slopes and down-slopes, but it's a fairly level, small Old Town. The road around it follows the route of the original medieval fortified wall, so this is one of those limestone towns that is really well-preserved and the arcades around the main square create a wonderful ambience, a place to shop a place to eat and drink and just hang out.
This main square, Place aux Herbes, has been the center of Uzès ever since before the Roman days, back when it was a Gallic village. It's right in the heart of the Old Town, a fairly large space with these plane trees all around that were planted to provide shade. Sometimes in the summertime it’ll get hot but we're here in the fall and the weather is perfect. You can see it's shirtsleeve weather for some, the families are out but it's not a very crowded day. We’re here in the middle of the week. If you come on a Saturday there is a large outdoor market that takes place in the town, but on a weekday it's really pretty quiet, especially where you’re here in November, as we are.
The main square is surrounded by the arcades, like a loggia with the cafés and shops. Originally in the seventeenth century there were wooden structures around the main square. With a nice fountain in the middle of the square, this is a place to relax. You want to just drop anchor here for a while and hang out, get a drink. There are nice restaurants around the square as well. And then of course there are the little streets that come into the square that are ideal for shopping and meandering. Limestone is a great building material in the area so it makes it convenient to construct these classic and immortal buildings.
When you're visiting any one of these beautiful small stone villages in France, one of the most interesting activities is simply strolling through the little lanes, the little alleys. Don't worry so much about the history, the dates, or who lived in what building. Just enjoy the view. Appreciate the history that these buildings have survived 500 years, 600 years made out of this very sturdy limestone. It is also nice to have a guide explaining things on a walk, which is included if you do a package tour to get here.
It was nice that we have the services of our local guide who could stop and point out some of the history of various buildings and lead us so we don't get to lost, but you can do this on your own. It's so small you won't get lost in this little town, but if you've got a chance, take the guided walk.
It's a small village, just 8,500 inhabitants altogether in the area, and the Old Town is just about half-mile across. And yet big enough to keep it interesting for several hours. You're not going get lost.
You will see some local families out for a stroll, and you get the feeling that you're in safe zone, there's no apparent danger to be found here. Perhaps it's a remnant of the history with the old encircling wall in the Middle Ages that protected this town from outside invaders. The wall enveloped it in a cocoon of security and peace and harmony, comfortable feelings that are increasingly difficult to find as we travel in our modern world.
As we walked around it seemed like we were about the only tourists in town, with mostly locals out for a stroll. Although it's a small town, there really are a couple miles of these narrow pedestrian lanes that are so inviting. There might not be shops or restaurants on many of them. They’re residential, occupied for over 500 years with many of these original buildings intact. You'll probably run into some friendly people. Maybe they're fellow travelers or local residents responding to the vibrations of this calm town.
It’s a great place for the aimless wanderer that the French called the flâneur. It was the French back in the 19th century who perfected the art of walking for sheer pleasure, where you're just walking along, alert to your surroundings, observing even unimportant details, not worried about your destination, but enjoying the journey.
This casual walking strategy is especially easy to pull off in Uzès, because every little lane is interesting. It's not like a place where you've got some dead ends or some dark and dirty little alleys you want to avoid. And you'll find shops scattered throughout that are sometimes rather funky with their individual personalities. No chain stores in the Old Town.
Of course there's a lot of history attached to this 2000-year-old town. This became an important area for the ancient Romans about 2000 years ago, because there was a good supply of water, a big natural spring in the area. You do get a beautiful view across the valley where the water came from when you stand on the edge of the Old Town. It’s a verdant and lush natural landscape out there.
They needed to bring that water about 16 miles away over to their city of Nimes, and thus they built an aqueduct, a long canal, mostly underground and above ground at the famous Pont du Gard, and all away on into Nimes, and the water came from this area, so it was an important settlement for the Romans.
Romans continued their occupation right up through the end of the Empire, about the middle of the 5th century, and they developed a civilized and tolerant urban life, contrasted with more strict regime in the Frankish north. For example, Jews were accepted as part of the community through the late Roman times and it wasn't until Christianity arrived in the early seventh century that Jews were expelled from the region.
In the early 8th century Uzès became a fortified town and a bishopric under the Archbishop of Narbonne. A cathedral was first built here about 1000 years ago. What we see today, this present cathedral dates from 1652.
One of the unique structures in town is La Tour Fenstralle, it's the bell tower next to the cathedral. It dates from the 12th century in the Italian Romanesque style. It's the only round Romanesque bell tower in France. If you look carefully you'll see the windows do get smaller as you go up to give the illusion of greater height. The tower and Cathedral are the first sites you see while driving into town. The façade you see was added later in the nineteenth century.
A thousand years ago something quite significant happened: it became the first dukedom in France, and that same noble family has the seventeenth Duke still reigning today from his castle.
The castle is open to the public as a museum with the paid admission. The architecture is kind of a summary of the building history of France and expresses the Middle Ages, the Gothic, the Renaissance. There's touches of the seventeenth century and modern times are all there, and yet the ensemble is a harmonious blend that's very pleasing to the eye.
The other fascinating church in town is Saint Etienne, built in the 1760s in the Italian Jesuit style, reminding us that this region was more Italian than French in those days. The church is on the ring road that goes around the Old Town, and you'll find that road is also a very interesting place to take a stroll. It's much busier, obviously, especially along the look at the edge of town where you'll find lots of shops and restaurants.
This part of town is nicely shaded by what looks like a tree tunnel. This is long row of plane trees, a popular variety that grows fast and provides lots of shade. You'll undoubtedly find some vendors with tables set up for things to sell, maybe old books or maybe it's arts and crafts on another day.
There is one particular spot along this road that's most charming, it's Place Albert, and there you'll find cafés and also the Tourism Information Office if you want to pick up a free brochure for a walking tour or a map. That's a place to check in with, and they can help you find a hotel if you're looking for accommodations.
You can see why locals enjoy hanging out at this special place. Place Albert is easy to find. It's at the north end of the road going around the Old Town. You'll find more restaurants along that encircling boulevard and perhaps a little bit less touristic than those in the Old Town.
This elegant mansion, called the Hotel de Baron de Castille, is built in an Italianesque style with some Egyptian influence, built towards the end of the eighteenth century. It resembles the Town Hall that was built in 1772.
A thousand years ago Uzès became for a while the most important dukedom in France and that same noble family currently has the seventeenth duke still reigning today from this same castle. The architecture is kind of a summary of the building history of France and expresses the Middle Ages, the Gothic, the Renaissance. There's touches of the seventeenth century and modern times are all there, and yet the ensemble is a harmonious blend that's very pleasing to the eye. This castle is open to the public as a museum with the paid admission.
Inside the castle museum you'll visit the Gothic chapel with its superb stained-glass windows, there's a wine cellar, and some apartments dating from the time of Louis XIII through Louis XVI, with original furnishings.
It seems that all lanes lead back to the main square of the Place aux Herbes. It's not really a square, it's an irregular-shaped plaza that is the main gathering spot of town. There are a few other attractions here there's a candy museum, there is a medieval garden, you can go inside the Cathedral if you like, and then in the outskirts you'll find some château to visit and a few other small museums.
At the top of many a visit's list is just sit back at an outdoor café at the Place aux Herbes and enjoy yourself, look at the sights, people going by, drink some wine and have a meal. The arcades run around the entire circumference of the place, creating open spaces within a sheltered walkway, formerly used as the main place where merchants would sell their goods.
We very much enjoyed our visit to this little town of Uzès. It is somewhat off the beaten tourist track, not as famous as Arles or Avignon. That's one of the nicest things about it, it's slightly less touristic. If you don't have a car or a tour driver it's not that easy to get here. There's a public bus that comes up from Nimes or over from Avignon, takes about one hour, but there is no nearby train station. So it's really ideal to visit on a guided tour.