A weekend in Uzès

C’est gratuit aujourd’hui said the lady driver. “What? “The bus is free today she repeated, handing me a ticket. “C’est la fête d’autobus. My French is rusty so I couldn’t quite believe my ears, but it was true. The day I arrived in Nîmes to catch the bus to Uzes happened to be la journée du transport public, and so no one had to pay. A busman’s holiday -they really exist. While my bus was still winding its way out of Nîmes an inspector got on, kissed the driver on both cheeks by way of congratulations, and proceeded to check everyone’s ticket. Why check tickets when you know everyone is riding for free? Bizarre. I decided to walk from the bus station to my hotel. La Maison d’UZes. I had little idea where it was, but I knew I had to cut across the old town diagonally, so I walked a short way around the outer boulevard and ducked through an archway which, I figured, must lead towards the centre ville. Bull`s-eye. I emerged on to a broad square filled with plane trees and cafe tables and edged by a squat limestone colonnade. This was the Place aux Herbes, the beautiful heart of Uzes, and to come upon it in such a happy way was a perfect introduction. Every building in Uzès is made of the same pale and porous limestone.

uzes

With its rough cuttlefish walls and creamy smooth pavements, it reminded me of Dubrovnik. And here, as in that white city, the whole of the old town is effectively a car-free Zone. You walk everywhere because you have to, but it also happens to be so easy, and so enjoyable. And wherever you go in this pedestrian space, wherever you sit down for a coffee or a glass of rosé, you hear the lilting hom-di-hom of French conversation. Uzès is in the middle of Le Gard, which is the south of France, but not the familiar Midi. “People think of this part of the country as being all about sun and sea, one Uzétíen said to me. “Here. inland and on the unfashionable side of the Rhône, there`s something more authentic than you’ll find on the coast. Uzes is a town where people live and work. where the market is for locals – not just for summer tourists Yet 50 years ago, the town was dying. All the old buildings were dilapidated and deserted, and no one wanted to live in them. Then the French government designated Uzès a historic town and a ville and invested money in its restoration. Once that process took hold, wealthy Americans and Australians began to buy homes here. Decent restaurants and hotels eventually followed. And now at last Uzes is a chic and upmarket spot. Brits, it seems, have yet to discover it. Although the Eurostar routes pass by less than an hour’s drive away – at Avignon and Montpellier – that short journey has been enough to keep Uzès off our radar. Two very different buildings characterise the town.One is the fenestrelle, a bell tower consisting of a series of cylinders pierced with narrow windows, rather like Pisa’s campanile but without its skewy attitude.

uzes-market

The fenestrelle is light and lacy, a doily in stone, and it looks odd tacked onto the solid massif of the church of St-Théodorit. The other dominant landmark is Le Duché, the duke’s residence. The dukes of Uzès have lived in this little castle on and off for a thousand years. The present duke is the 17th, and this is his summer home. The official tour begins in the dark wine cellar, formerly a dungeon. Numerous nebuchadnezzars of Veuve Clicquot stand at random spots on the floor, like big glass skittles. In the half-light, you must take care not to stumble over them. Up in the duchy’s private apartments there are portraits going back to medieval times, and coming right up to the present. It is one hell of a family album. There are dukes in powdered wigs, dukes in armour, Victorian dukes in frock-coats and 20th-century dukes in shiny tuxes. There are many pictures of the corresponding duchesses; not just paintings on the Walls, but silver-framed photographs ranged on a Pleyel grand piano. Among them are some lovely Beatonesque shots of an aristocratic lady sporting a bob and wearing a cloche hat, the wife of the 14th or 15th duke, I presume.