Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Insiders' Guide to Beaucaire

Born in Tunbridge Wells (Kent, England), and raised in a village in Sussex, Angela Billows  and her husband, artist Jake Paltenghi, have had a home in the medieval town of Tarascon for eight years and lived there full time for four. Angela works as a costume designer for film and television…and blogs about her life in Provence at Provence Calling. Like its sister city Beaucaire, just over the Rhône, Tarascon is close to Arles, Avignon and St. Remy, but remains undiscovered by many Provençale travelers. Anyone who knows Angela knows how much she loves these two towns, so I asked her to tell us why…and to share some of her favorite addresses. This guest post looks at Beaucaire; Angela will do Tarascon next.

Many people think Beaucaire and Tarascon are one town, with the river running through it--but never suggest this to a local because there has been enmity between them for centuries! They don’t even belong to the same department: Beaucaire is in the Gard (Languedoc-Roussillon) and Tarascon in the Bouches-du-Rhône (Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur). The bridge that links them was once part of the Via Domitia, the Roman road that traversed Gaul (as France was then known), providing the gateway from Italy to Spain via Southern France. Everyone going that way, including Hannibal and his elephants, had to pass over the bridge. This strategic position gave power to both towns in medieval times, and each built their own fortified castle to defend themselves against marauders...and one another! (Today both castles are open to the public but check the hours first.)

Coming into Beaucaire over the bridge from Tarascon, you see in front of you the marina, where many people live on their boats year round. Most come down the Canal du Midi, a 240-kilometer waterway running from Toulouse to the Etang de Thau on the Mediterranean Coast. Now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the canal was first opened in 1681.

All alongside the quay (quai in French) are restaurants specialising in moules frites (mussels and chips served with various sauces), and there’s always a menu of the day as well. My favourite is Le Bar Restaurant Le Soleil (30, quai du Général de Gaulle, 04 66 59 28 52), mainly because of the ambiance created by the handsome waiter Olivier Mercier, who's always friendly no matter how busy he is. The daily menu is around €11 for three courses and a large bowl of moules frites costs just €12. But beware: Le Soleil is popular and gets packed on a sunny Sunday lunchtime.

Further down the street is Le Gambetta (13 Cours Gambetta, 06 14 58 68 09), where you can share an enormous platter of seafood starting at €15 per person. Choose from a selection of oysters, mussels, sea snails, crab, urchin and prawns.  Or, buy a platter to take home from the stall outside the restaurant. I often buy a few dozen oysters when I have a party or dinner chez moi.

At the end of the quay is L’Hotel des Doctrinaires (6, quai du Général de Gaulle, 04 66 59 23 70). Once a college for religious studies, it has a beautiful courtyard for outside dining and a dining room set in a grand hall, under vaulted stone ceilings dating to the 17th century. The cuisine is regional Provençale, with a menu starting at €19 for three courses. If you want to stay the night, rooms are just €55 and €90. If you prefer historical surroundings to luxury fixtures and fittings, this is a perfect place…but be warned that a bit of renovation is overdue. Rooms are adequate rather than chic.

Away from the quay and into the town’s interior, you'll see all the grand town houses built in the 18th century, when Beaucaire enjoyed immense wealth due to its huge market, the Foire de la Madeleine, held once a year on the banks of the Rhône. Barges sailed up from Marseille with goods from around the world and people came from all over Europe to trade at the eight- or ten-day event. (I’ve heard that this one market took in as much money during that short time as Marseille did in a whole year’s trading.) In the 19th century, with the advent of the railway, the market became obsolete, Beaucaire lost the means for its wealth and the houses gradually fell into disrepair as people left to seek their fortunes elsewhere. This, of course, has presented a great opportunity for people looking for affordable housing in the middle of Provence. If you’re willing to do them up, properties here are about one third the price of those in neighbouring towns and villages. As they say in real estate: "follow the artists!”  

Today, in the large, tree-lined park where the market once stood, there's a lively brocante (flea market) every Wednesday from 7 am to noon (although if it's quiet, vendors may start packing up at 11 am). For me, this is one of the best brocantes in the area as it has everything: doorknobs, plastic dolls, books, electrical fittings, clothing and antiques. You could furnish a whole house from this market alone, and I pretty much have!  Meanwhile, Beaucaire’s other outdoor markets are on Thursday and Sunday mornings (household items, clothing, plants, etc., on the Cours Gambetta, along the quai Géneral de Gaulle) and Sunday mornings in the Place Georges Clemenceau in front of the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall), just up from the Cours Gambetta (vegetables, fruit, bread, olives, etc.). 


In the centre of old town Beaucaire is the Place de la Republique, otherwise known as Place Vieille (Old Square). A lovely place to eat here is L'Epicerie de Cecile (06 80 04 09 04), where you can enjoy lunch outside in the shade of the plane trees. Cecille Guillo does all the cooking and there's only one dish offered each day, but she gets so much onto one plate that there’s bound to be something you like. Inside, she sells local foods, produce, oil and flavoured vinegars and some lovely homewares. In summer, there's often a jazz band playing in the square, which serves as a meeting place for locals and artists. Beaucaire, in fact, encourages artists by offering affordable studio rentals. If you see the letter A on the front of a building, it means that there is an artist’s studio inside and you may enter to peruse their wares.

In July and August, Beaucaire has what's called Les Beaux Quais every Friday from 6 pm to midnight. All traffic is diverted from the quayside and stalls selling local arts and crafts are set up along the water. The restaurants extend their seating area to the waterfront and many have live music. For more info on Beaucaire and a calendar of events, the Office de Tourisme is at 24 Cours Gambetta, phone 04 66 59 26 57. 

Photos: The Beaucaire marina attracts boats from all over Europe...and people who love to eat by the water. Birdcages for sale at the Wednesday morning brocante. Quail with goats cheese and tarragon honey sauce at Chez Cecille. Olivier the waiter that everyone loves, at Le Soleil. Cecile Guillo makes just one dish a day but locals and tourists love the simple formula and high-quality food. The austere exterior of the Hotel Les Doctrinaires, a former seminary. A typical starter at Le Soleil. Menu du jour at Le Soleil. No medieval town should be without a castle and Beaucaire's is not bad, as castles go. All photos by Angela Billows except top (courtesy of TripWow) and bottom (from Beaucaire Tourisme).

7 comments:

  1. Thank you for this enjoyable and informative tour of Beaucaire. My uncle (a French gendarme) lived and worked in Beaucaire for years and I never visited him and his family. Guess who is sorry now!? Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

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  2. We stopped in Beaucaire for lunch one day and walked along the river and looked at all of the boats. I had no idea it wasn't in the same department as Tarascon. How interesting.

    I'm off to check out Angela's blog now. Fun post Julie.
    Sam

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  3. What an excellent post! Both of these towns get a very bad rap while there is so much to enjoy. Bravo, Angela for shedding some light. :)
    -Heather

    PS. I am hungry and wish I was at Chez Cecile RIGHT NOW!

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  4. Love Beaucaire.....and just outside of Beaucaire is Mas des Tourelles which plays on the Roman winery idea. Fun to have their wine with the honey (Mulsum) as an aperitif after a day of touring in the Roman world

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  5. Great post, Angela! You're such a gifted writer and really bring this town to life. I'll just have to add it to yet another France ville I'll need to see before I die. Ah, sigh. There are so many of them! Wylie, http://www.couchsurfingcook.com.

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  6. Beaucaire sounds like an absolutely lovely part of Provence - thanks for sharing your "insider tips" & looking forward to the next post in the series.

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  7. Great insight, makes me want to revisit Beaucaire. Merci mes dames!

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