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!