A bit of variety

Following my exciting visit to the Hotel de Montmorency, I walked to the old Theatre des Varietes on Rue Victor Hugo.

It all began in 1864, when an imperial decree relaxed the regulations around the running of theatres.  Prior to that decree, the running of theatres was very strictly controlled by a decree by Napoleon I dating from 1806.  The 1806 decree limited the number of theatres, with the aim to avoid bancruptcies their knock-on effect on the people working in the theatres.  The relaxation of that decree resulted in an explosion of new venues all over France.  In Beziers. the Casino Musical was built that year the name being changed to L’Alcazar in 1867.  Beziers’ L’Alcazar was a theatre of dubious reputation, and after a number of scandals it closed, to be transformed and reopened in 1904 as the Theatre des Varietes.

Here’s what the theatre looked like not long after it opened in 1904:

In the 1950’s its facade was altered somewhat:

And this is what it looked like on the day of my visit:

When the Theatre des Varietes opened in 1904 it was decorated in a style described as “Louis XVI rejuvenated”, very ornate and heavily influenced by art nouveau.

Inside, a spacious lobby gave access to the stalls, and there was a staircase to the first floor balcony.  The staircase was decorated with an enormous mirror.  The blue colour may or may not be original, your guess is as good as mine! 🙂

Here’s the top of the mirror:

The lobby on the first floor was where people went to see and be seen.

When the theatre’s fortunes declined, it was turned into a cinema, and in the late 1970 it was turned into a discotheque.

Here’s what the auditorium would have looked like around 1920:

And this is what it looked like on the day of my visit:

On the upper balcony the walls were painted black. On the walls of the first floor balcony, and on the ground floor walls, there was a sparkling finish.  All of that dated from its incarnation as a discotheque.  The sparkling stuff had a very disco feel to it!!  That said, the paint was peeling and flaking everywhere!!

Luckily, the decorative plasterwork does not appear to have been affected too much as yet!

The holes you see in the ‘flower baskets’ were light bulb fittings!  When the theatre opened in 1904, it was lit by over 300 light bulbs!!  At that time the city did not yet have a general electricity supply, but the theatre had its own gas-powered generator!

At the opening of the theatre, the glass panels in the ceiling were decorated in the art nouveau style.  They probably got broken over time and were replaced with regular glass.

The discotheque closed in 1982, and since then the theatre has lain empty and abandoned.  The building’s owners did what they could to slow decay, making sure that the roof was watertight.  They also restored the facade around the entrance, removing the ugly 1950s additions.  However, restoring the theatre to anything like its appearance during its heyday was beyond their means.

A group of local people had been advocating that the building be bought by the municipality so that it could be saved from redevelopment.  That finally happened earlier this year, and the future of the theatre looks somewhat rosier!

On the white sections in the pictures below, the paint has been stripped back to reveal the original plaster decorations underneath.

The stage:

Most of the original building is still intact, but a renovation is going to be costly all the same.

I do hope that the outside of the building will be given a face-lift too!

This was another fascinating discovery on my visit to Beziers during the recent European Heritage days.  I visited one additional interesting place after the Theatre des Varietes – to be continued!!

On Rue de Montmorency

This post is a continuation of my visit to Beziers during the recent European heritage days.  After my wonderful lunch at the market halls in Beziers, I made my way towards Beziers’ main square, the Allees Paul Riquet.  Along the way, a small hand-written sign drew my attention.  It led me a few steps along the Rue de Montmorency, to the Hotel de Montmorency, a building which I had walked past many times before.

Rue de Montmorency is in the heart of the mediaeval part of Beziers, and the building dates back to at least 1605, when it was recorded in a census as belonging to Guilhaume de Castilhon.  Guilhaume de Castilhon was secretary to the King of France, ordinary commissioner of wars, and secretary to Henri II de Montmorency.

Rue de Montmorency is incredibly narrow, so getting a picture of the entire facade was more or less impossible.

The property never belonged to the Montmorency family, but the connection between Castilhon and Montmorency must have been strong enough for the house and street to be named after the latter!   Guilhaume de Castilhon added to his property by buying neighbouring houses in 1609 and 1616.  His son, Jean de Castilhon added another part in 1646 and the ensemble of the buildings is thought to date from around that time.  The house passed through several hands over the course of the centuries.  During the latter part of the 19th century it was bought by a Mr Cavallier, who in 1877 “homogenised” the appearance of the building in the then fashionable neo-gothic and neo-renaissance styles.  In 1908 the house was bought by Achille Gaillard, a rich factory owner, who left it to his daughter Yvonne.  It stayed in the same family until 2009, when it was sold to a real estate company.

The doorway on Rue de Montmorency is big enough for a horse and cart!

I did some searching on the internet about the history of the building, and found that parts of it had been added to the register of listed buildings back in 1952.  In 2011, the entire building was placed on the register, which means that any alterations have to be approved by the French heritage commission.  I also found that in 2009, Carlos Carillo Gomez, a student from Barcelona university, did a survey of the building as part of his final year project.  If you’re interested in old buildings, the paper about the Hotel de Montmorency is very interesting!  It’s written in Catalan, and you can find it here.  The plans and elevation drawings, which are annexes to the paper can all be found here.  I found it absolutely fascinating!

Another source of fascinating information is the cadastre, a land registry plan, which shows the exact shape and size of a property.  The Hotel de Montmorency is No 32 at the centre of the picture, and the cadastre relates that the plot which the house stands on is 441 square metres in size.  With the courtyard in the centre being approximately 73 square metres, that leaves 368 square metres of floor space on each of floor of the building!

The only access to the house is via the door on the street, which gives into a vaulted passage.  The passage leads into the courtyard at the centre of the house.

As I stood in the courtyard looking around, a window on the first floor opened, and a young man waved and told me to come into the house.  It turned out that he worked for the owner of the real estate company, and he was in charge of the house during the visits.  The building was exactly as it had been left by the previous owners, nothing had been altered.  Electricity and water had been disconnected 10 years ago, so in some places it was a little too dark for good pictures.

Behind the large glass windows on the ground floor was a hallway with three doors.  The door straight ahead was decorative only, the one on the right led into a large room, and the one on the left led to a monumental staircase!  The windows on the half landing of the monumental staircase overlooked the street, and the stained glass windows were probably from the 1877 renovation project.

The handrail on the staircase was supported by finely sculpted brackets:

The ceiling of the staircase was incredibly ornate, and seemed to pre-date the 1877 renovations.

I’m adding a picture of the layout plan of the house – the one below is for the first floor.  The numbering of the rooms works in an anti-clockwise direction, my tour of that floor was in a clockwise direction.

On the first floor landing, the door straight ahead of me led into a rather gothic looking room.  The windows overlooking the courtyard were also made of stained glass, which gave the room a chapel-like appearance:

The ornate door surround at the opposite end of the room led into an enormous room.  At 41 square metres it was the second largest in the house (the largest room was on the ground floor).  The walls were lined with linenfold paneling and tapestry like fabric, and the ceiling was ‘a la francaise’, with closely spaced beams, which were beautifully painted.  The curtains matching the wall coverings were still in place, and there were two pieces of furniture:  a monumental glazed bookcase, which might have been made for this room during the 1877 renovations, and a somewhat incongruous looking 1920’s buffet.

To the right of the monumental fireplace, a door had been set into the panelling. It led into a little pantry of sorts, which communicated with a similar sort of pantry/closet off the room next door.  If you look at Gomez’s floor plan, this is marked (in Catalan) as ‘sala 4’ on the first floor.

Next door was ‘sala 5’, which might have been a bedroom once. It had two walk-in closets, one of which connected with the closet in ‘sala 4’.  One closet had a toilet and basin, the other one had just a basin.  The doors to the closets were rounded and were in the corners of the room along the same wall, so the bed could have been in the centre for ‘his and hers’ private facilities!!  The room had very elegant panelled walls, which were painted a creamy colour.  A beautiful white marble fireplace was on one wall.

Fireplace in ‘sala 4’ on the first floor

From this room there were two doors more or less next to one another – it was a little strange.  The one on the left led into a second staircase hall, which the architecture student denoted as a service staircase.  The door on the right, a little smaller than the one on the left, led diagonally across into the next wing of the building.  I have a theory for that: in one of the comments about the history of the building, an exterior spiral staircase was mentioned.  Such staircases could often be found on mediaeval and renaissance buildings.  The mention said that it was taken down in the 1990’s but I have a feeling that it might have been the 1890’s.  The staircase could have been located in the corner between two wings of the building, giving access to either wing.

The so called service staircase was almost as big as the monumental staircase at the entrance, and to my mind far too luxurious to be used by the servants alone.  I have a feeling that it might have been added during the 19th century renovations.

Continuing on the first floor, now in the wing opposite to where I entered the house, there were two bedrooms, and a bathroom which could be accessed from either of the bedrooms.

At the end of the bathroom, beyond the bidet was a separate WC.

Some details from the windows, these are espagnolettes, handles which are used to close the windows.

I moved on into the fourth wing, which was the one alongside the road.  A long corridor led to two bedrooms (dormitori 1 and dormitori 2), as well as to a bathroom and a separate WC.  One of the bedrooms had a niche with a wash basin and bidet.

The bathroom was done in the same kind of green tiles as the previous one.

Next came Sala 1, another large salon with a beautiful fireplace and elegant panelling.  The ceiling height in the rooms on the first floor was around 3.6 metres.

I imagine that this might have been used as a dining room once, since there was a kitchen right next door to it.

On the second floor the rooms were much simpler in their decorations; the ceiling height was lower, and the layout somewhat different from the floor below:

These are some of the fireplaces on the second floor.

And this is a picture of one of the two kitchens on this floor (cuina 2):

The monumental staircase ended on the second floor, but there was a smaller spiral staircase which continued upwards.

On the third floor awaited a little surprise – a loggia (covered terrace) which overlooked the courtyard – the views over the rooftops of Beziers were very interesting!!  If you scroll back up towards the beginning of this article, you’ll be able to see the loggia from the outside at the top of the building.

There was a great view down into the courtyard!

Next to the loggia was a bedroom which overlooked the street, and included an en-suite bathroom.  This suite was right above the monumental staircase.  And then there was another tiny spiral staircase which led up again!

The monumental staircase was in a tower-like building, and at the very top of the building was a room with windows on two sides – the views from here were spectacular!  It was very exciting to be able to visit this room!!

After this exciting discovery I went all the way down to the ground floor.  A few details from along the way:

On the ground floor was another suite of impressive rooms!

The light was not as good as upstairs, so it was difficult to take pictures.  The following are pictures of Sala 2, a room with dark brown wooden panelling and deep red wallpaper!

The kitchen on the ground floor was much larger than the ones on the upper floors.  It also did not seem to have been modernised very much – there was still the old fireplace to cook in/on!

The tiles were very pretty, perhaps dating to the 19th century or even earlier?

The cupboard next to the sink was topped with marble.

Sala 3 was a very elegant salon with grey/beige panelling and gold accents.  The fireplace was made from pink marble, and the ceiling was decorated with plasterwork rosettes. This was the largest room in the house!

Sala 4 was a more sombre room, with a wooden ceiling a la francaise, a dark marble fireplace, and exuberantly patterned wallpaper!

From Sala 4 the door led back into the entrance hall, and from there out into the courtyard!  But before we leave, here is a detail from the iron grilles at the bottom of the monumental staircase.  The stairs led down to the cellars which are under the building along the street – I was very curious, but I did not dare to turn that large key!

What an amazing visit – and just by chance!!  The Hotel de Montmorency is supposed to be transformed into a luxury hotel, just as they are planning to do with the former prison in Beziers.  I’m sure the real estate company who owns the building has been looking at ways to make it happen, and I wish them every success!

After this wonderful discovery I resumed my walk to the Allees Paul Riquet and towards my next destination, the Theatre des Varietes.  To be continued…

Restbite

Having been to see the old prison, the cellar beneath the cloisters, and the former archbishop’s palace on my visit to Beziers during the most recent European Heritage days, I had built up an appetite! My search for somewhere to eat took me to Les Halles, the covered market near Place de la Madeleine.  About half of the floor space inside the market hall is now given over to restaurants, with the other half still occupied by food stalls.  I liked the look of A la Maison, and that’s where I had lunch!

The restaurant claims that it serves old-fashioned home cooking prepared with the help of grandmother’s recipes.  I liked the sound of that! 🙂

The menu had a good selection of starters, main courses and desserts:

I chose the entrecote steak – it came accompanied by fried potatoes and some salad.  The steak was tender, tasty and perfectly cooked!  I cannot remember when I’ve had such a wonderful steak in France!  And the potatoes and salad were excellent too!!

My companion ordered the tuna fish, which was served with rice and salad, and a sauce vierge, a kind of salsa made with chopped fresh tomatoes, onions, and olive oil.  The tuna too was perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious!

If I need to choose whether to have a starter or a dessert I will always go for a dessert!  So, from the dessert section of the menu I chose the panna cotta.  It was topped with mango puree and whipped cream.  It was very different from the panna cottas I have eaten and made myself!  The cream was very dense and firm, yet it did not have the rubbery texture that can be attributed to too much gelatine.  It was very yummy and satisfying!

My companion chose the tiramisu with red fruit coulis, as with the panna cotta, this was also a very tasty dessert!!

After this wonderful meal I was ready to continue my quest to discover more hidden historical gems in Beziers!  I did visit three more amazing places, and I will write about those in due course!!

A la Maison is open for lunch from Tuesday to Sunday.  While looked for a website, I found their TripAdvisor listing here.  It’s one of the few restaurant listings that I have come across on that site which has scored five out of five!!  They also have a website here.

From clink to dock

This week, I am continuing my series of articles about my visit to Beziers during the recent European heritage days.  After visiting the old prison and the cellars below the cloisters, I did not have far to go to my next port of call: the former archbishop’s palace, formerly the Palais de Justice, the court house, and now in a state of limbo.

As it was still drizzling with rain, I did not take any pictures of the outside – I did not have a rain cover for my camera. 😦 .  Instead, I’ve been looking at google, and have found some very interesting shots via the street-view and aerial view of google maps.

First, an aerial view of the area around the cathedral.  The old prison is to the left and the archbishop’s palace to the right of the cathedral. The little blue Palais de Justice marker indicates the main building and just below it are the gardens, arranged on two terraces and indicated by a green marker.

Construction of the present building started in the 13th century after the cathedral and palace were destroyed.  The palace was rebuilt again in the 17th century in the French manner: a main building flanked by two identical wings around a courtyard.  The picture below shows the entrance to the courtyard, which dates from the 18th century:

The archbishop’s palace became property of the state during the French Revolution.  I’ve not been able to find out what happened to the building from then until 1945, when it became a courthouse.  Here is an aerial view of the courtyard:

And this is what the building looks like from the opposite side:

Inside, the building has undergone many transformations over the centuries.  To enter the former palace/courthouse, I climbed a large stone staircase in the courtyard.  From a little hallway I went into a large room which took up the whole centre of the building.  The walls were decorated with beautiful plasterwork.  The ceiling was a la francaise, with large beams topped at a right angle with smaller beams that were placed closely together.

From this room, a door gave access to the courtroom.  The benches and desks were all still in place, and some people took selfies sitting in the judge’s chair!

Behind the courtroom was a room for the judges to retire to for their deliberations. Two of the walls were lined with very tall bookcases – now empty.  The ladder was still in place though and the parquet floor was beautiful.

In one corner of the room, a little door gave access to a tiny room, more of a short corridor really.  The building which that room was in protruded from the back of the main building, and from the window I managed to get a nice picture of the garden on the terrace below.

The door at the end of this ‘corridor’ room led to an even tinier room, with a window overlooking the river.  If you look closely at the aerial shot earlier in this article, you’ll be able to identify that window!

From the deliberating room, a door next to one of the bookcases led into a dark, bookcase lined passage, and from the passage I entered the courtroom once more.  The bookcase was still full of books!!   Perhaps they were no longer needed when the court transferred to the new courthouse?

This is all I was allowed to see of the former archbishop’s palace.  The building belongs to the town of Beziers, and plans are afoot to transform it into a museum, where all the collections will be on show together.  Currently, the collections are displayed at several different museums in the town.  When the new museum is finished, there will be approx. 3000 square metres of exhibition space – still not enough to display everything, apparently!

After that visit I was ready for a spot of lunch!!  To be continued…

Underground treasures

Here is the continuation of the story of my visit to Beziers during this year’s European heritage days.  After visiting to the former prison (see article here), I went to the cathedral, which was right next door.  Behind the cathedral is the cloister, which was part of the archbishop’s palace complex, and there was the promise of a guided visit to show what lay beneath the cloister.

I was intrigued from the moment I had read the programme of the day’s events, and this visit was high on my list of priorities!  The weather was not great and it had started to rain when I entered the cathedral, so I was very glad that I could wait under cover for the start of the guided visit.  It also gave me a chance to have a good look around and to take some photographs!! 🙂

The evacuation plan of the cloister showed that it was not perfectly square as I had imagined it to be!

The cloister dates from the 14th century and was never completed – a first floor should have been built on top of the arcades.

The gothic vaulting has many sculpted decorations – some have survived remarkably well!

At some time in the past, the cloister served to exhibit a collection of stone fragments from antiquity.  Here’s what looked like at that time:

There’s something very romantic to black and white photographs, don’t you think?

The most beautiful pieces have since been transferred to the Musee Bitterois.  This is what it looks like today:

When the appointed time came for our visit, the guide took our group through a small door and down some stair.  I’d walked down those stairs before – they lead to the gardens on the terrace below the archbishop’s palace!

We skipped going to the archbishop’s garden, and instead walked down some more stairs, and then through a heavy wooden door.  Behind that door was a gallery of the same size as the cloister above, but with a barrel vaulted ceiling!!  This was the ‘cellar’ of the south gallery of the cloister.

The archaeology department of Beziers town discovered the underground galleries by chance in the 1950s.  They had been completely filled up with rubble and dirt, probably during the 19th century and perhaps before.

During the 1970s, the south gallery was entirely excavated, and work started on the west gallery.  The idea was that all four galleries would be excavated, and that the space would be turned into a lapidary museum, housing the stone collection that was on display in the cloister, as well as the stones which were found in the rubble during the excavations.

The west gallery was only partly excavated – work stopped in 1978 and was never resumed!

Our guide was an archaeologist who works for the town of Beziers.  The archaeology department is of course understaffed and underfunded – no surprises there! The available resources are fully occupied with doing preventative archaeology on the many building sites in the town!

Part of the western gallery was once a refectory for the monastery which was attached to the cathedral.  I’m not sure if it was part of the building which preceeded to the current cathedral – that was burnt down in 1209 during the cathar crusades!  If I understood correctly, the wall against which the ladder was leaning was the outside wall of the refectory.

Two diagrams showed the lay of the land:

The wooden ceiling in the western gallery was installed in preparation for the museum space.  The tubes for the wiring of the ceiling lights are all in place too!!

The stonework from the various building periods is remarkably well preserved.

So there you have it!  When you next visit the cloister in Beziers, you’ll know what lies beneath your feet!!

After that fascinating visit, I continued on my way to explore other interesting sites in Beziers!  I’ll write more soon about my discoveries!

In the clink!

Last Saturday I went to prison!  Yes, you read that right – I went to prison, in Beziers!!

If you’re starting to get concerned, remember that in my last post I mentioned that I was planning to explore some of Beziers’s lesser known places during the European heritage days! 🙂

The weather was grim.  Heavy rain had been forecast for the weekend, but I decided to go out anyhow!  Dressed in a showerproof jacket, and umbrella in hand I explored.  What I was able to visit was amazing and exceeded all my expectations!!  I managed to pack in a lot, so this is the first of a series of blog posts on the places I visited during my day in Beziers.

And yes, I went to prison in Beziers – the old prison, which is next to the cathedral, and which was closed down ten years ago!!

As you approach Beziers from across the river, the old prison is very visible as it sits at the top of the hill, with the cathedral next door.  But because it’s built with the same kind of stone as the cathedral, and because it has a crenelated tower on one side, it looks from afar as though all the buildings belong together.  Not altogether far-fetched – on the site of the prison were buildings which at one point belonged to the archbishopric of Beziers, housing clerics until the French Revolution.  These buildings were demolished to make way for the prison!

Building work started in 1850 and lasted until 1857.  The building site was on the side of a very steep hill, so it could not have been easy to build.  Only in 1867 did the prisoners and staff move in.  The prison closed down in 2009, when a new facility opened on the outskirts of Beziers.  Here is an aerial shot from google maps which shows the T-shaped building of the old prison, with another building just north of it.

A curtain wall encloses the yard in front of the prison – to the right of the entrance, visitors would have been waiting on visiting days; the yard on the left had a large gate which allowed vehicle access to the outside world.  It was also where the guillotine was located!  The last execution took place in Beziers in 1949!!

The door we entered through had a kind of cat-flap in it!  Might cats have been allowed in without a pass, as long as they helped keep the rodent population in check??

Just Inside the building was the reception area, where prisoners would be “processed” before being taken to their cells.  It was rather cramped for our group of 20, so taking pictures was not possible.  The room in the picture below was for prison visits.  One wall had been decorated to make the families of the prisoners feel more at ease.  I wonder how that would have worked, since they would have been sitting with their backs to that wall.

This is where people would have been able to talk but not touch!  Comfort was not of prime consideration!!

Through another set of doors and we were in the prison proper.  Three floors of cells were arranged around a central light well.

In case you are wondering, the netting is there to stop people from jumping down!

Each cell had a vaulted ceiling and measured about 10 – 12 square metres.  There were 56 cells, each housing two to three (and at times even four) prisoners.  Nothing has been done to the prison since the last prisoners left in 2009 – what you see in the pictures is what it was like when the inmates would have last been there!

The cells had toilets and wash basins, some of them also had showers, but all of them had minimum privacy!  The prisoners would have been in their cells most of the day, but there were some physical activities:  on the lowest level of the prison there were four wedge-shaped yards, each with high walls and covered with steel netting – there was no escaping.  Can you magine the boredom of walking around the edge of this yard day after day??

There was also a gym:

and a library:

Some of the prisoners were allowed to work in the kitchen – the kitchen knives were counted after each session!!

Those who mis-behaved could be locked up in very small spaces!

Wooden stairs connected the three levels.  I was very glad when we made our way back up!
As we left the prison we walked along a corridor in the building in front of the prison proper – the view from a window along the corridor showed the drop outside the windows of the cells!

Of course, there was some barbed wire too!!

We left via the garage and the gate by which the prisoner transport vans would have passed.  I was very glad to be outside again!!

This was probably the last time that the prison will be open to the public in its current state.  The building has been sold and planning is underway for it to be turned into a luxury hotel!  Pass the champagne, darling! 🙂

Watch out for next week’s post, which will continue my story of my visit to Beziers!

And lastly, if you are still wondering about the title of this post, “clink” is a colloquial term, referring to a jail or prison.  It comes from the Clink prison in London – Wikipedia has all the information here.