When visiting a country, you probably want to visit the most well-known cities. However, it’s also worth visiting their smaller versions. In the lesser known towns, you can walk around leisurely without being run over by tourists. Instead, you will discover local gems while soaking up the country’s fascinating history. Let me show you five of my favourite medium-sized towns in the South-East part of France, in alphabetical order.
Avignon is a town with two UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Palace of the Popes and the Saint-Bénézet bridge yearly attract many visitors, but there is a lot more to explore. I love the Place de l’Horloge, a pleasant square in the heart of the city centre surrounded by stately plane trees and many restaurants. Climbing the Saint Anne stairs of the Basilica of Notre-Dame des Doms, on the left of the ‘Palais des Papes’, you will discover another hidden treasure: the lush green park of Rocher des Doms. What a beautiful oasis in the middle of the town! And if you’re looking for some food and/or shopping, you can’t miss the Rue Peyrolerie, or the Tinsmith’s Street. Strolling the little streets of this neighbourhood you’ll find an interesting mix of boutiques and restaurants.
Béziers is a great surprise find and can be visited year-round. You can easily spend a whole day seeing the main highlights or stay longer to really get to know this unique and beautiful town. A great way to delve into Béziers is La Place Jean Jaurès, which had a complete makeover in 2018. This big square is now a beautiful and spacious place where people come to flaunt. La Place Jean Jaurès will automatically lead you to Les Allées Paul Riquet and the rest of the town, including the Place de la Madeleine and Les Halles. Finally, the terrace in front of the Saint-Nazaire Cathedral will allow you to gaze over the great Orb plain as far as the Haut-Languedoc Regional National Park. Another fun way to discover Béziers differently: let the many trompe-l’oeils guide you through the historic city centre.
When visiting Carcassonne, you get to see two medieval cities. On the north side of the river is the citadel, called Cité in French, of Carcassonne. The citadel is lovely, perched on a hilltop, with great views of the Bastide and the region. Although the well-preserved citadel- with its Gallo-Roman military architecture, 3 kilometres of ramparts, 52 towers and 4 gates- attracts so many people, it is still a not-to-be-missed monument. On the south side of the River Aude you will find the Bastide, also known as the “Ville Basse” or the lower city. Like Carcassonne’s citadel, La Bastide is a medieval town, built in 1247 under the reign of Louis IX. It is small and cosy, perfectly walkable and merits a visit too. The best time to walk around both towns peacefully is spring or autumn, as it does get quite crowded in summer.
It’s always a pleasure visiting charming Narbonne. Crossing the Pont de la Liberté gives you a postcard-view of the town. From here, you can see the Palais des Archevêques peeking above the plane trees and the colourful houses on the Pont des Marchands reflected in the Canal de la Robine. On the left of this canal is Narbonne’s famous covered market, simply called ‘Les Halles’. This Baltard-style cast-iron building is a must-visit for foodies and has been since 1901! The Archbishop’s Palace forms, as well as the cathedral, the medieval heart of Narbonne and now hosts the town hall and a museum. The Passage de l’Ancre, a very charming cobblestoned alley between the old and new palaces (Le Palais Vieux and Le Palais Neuf), will bring you to the vaulted cloister of the Saint-Just et Saint-Pasteur Cathedral.
Created as a maritime outlet for the Canal du Midi in 1666 and now one of the most important fishing ports on the French Mediterranean Sea, Sète has a down-to-earth vibe. Start with the Mont Saint-Claire so that you can see a beautiful view over Sète unfold in front of you. Don’t miss the nearby Notre-Dame-de-la-Salette Chapel and the maritime cemetery for some local history. The actual town centre has lovely shops, yummy restaurants, a great covered market and funky street art to check out. If you want to get to know the real heart and soul of Sète, you should visit La Pointe Courte. This quaint fishermen’s neighbourhood lies in the north of Sète, between the Canal Royal and the Étang de Thau lagoon. And fishing is what this community is still about, so take the time to absorb the many magical still lives of drying fishing nets.