Andre Gide, the Nobel Prize winning writer, says of Uzès, ‘O little town of Uzès! Where you in Umbria, the tourist of Paris would rush to see you!’ This small medieval town does feel like Italian olive groves rather than French vineyards should surround it.
In the fifth century Uzès became the seat of a bishop before coming under control of the counts of Toulouse. Under the Kings of France who took over in 1229, the lords of Uzès distinguished themselves as loyalists and were rewarded with the title – ‘The first Duchy of France’. And it’s really the Dukes of Uzès that have shaped the town’s history.
The current de Cressol family, who can trace their lineage as far back as Charlemagne, still reside at the Duche or ducal castle, which is the centrepiece of Uzès’ old town. Their motto ‘ferro non auro’ or ‘by iron, not gold’ alludes to their feisty nature having fought their way in to the aristocracy rather than buying their place. It might also explain why they felt the need to build a considerable castle keep!
Like nearby Nimes, Uzès embraced Calvinism and became an important Huguenot centre in France. The Huguenots were members of the French protestant church, inspired by the writings of John Calvin and mainly based in southern regions of the country. Eventually they reached over two million in number, nearly one eighth of the France’s Catholic contemporary population.
As hostility grew between Huguenots and Catholics, the ‘Wars of Religion’ broke out which lasted almost two centuries and eventually, the Huguenots were suppressed, executed and forced to flee France. Only the bell tower of Uzès medieval 12th century cathedral survived the discord caused by the hostilities.
The round bell tower or Tour Fenestrell of the Cathédrale Saint-Théodorit is unique in France and rises 42 metres above the outskirts of the old town; it is, as my Rough Guide puts it, ‘strongly recalling the Leaning Tower of Pisa’. Eventually, Uzès’ remaining Catholics (including a number of forced converted Huguenots) turned to the silk trade to rejuvenate the town’s fortunes.
Encased in the one-way Boulevard Victor Hugo road, we easily wandered Uzès cobbled old town streets in just over an hour. The pedestrianised streets are crammed with small boutique shops and in fact I’m pretty sure we found the twin to Chipping Norton’s Mash. And these streets lead towards the Place aux Herbes, a large central square lined with trees. Just at the end of the summer tourist season, chairs and tables from the restaurants that line the square’s perimeter slowly creep out on to the patio.
In good weather buskers and street entertainment fill the small courtyards strewn through the old town and my dad, became embroiled in a friendly (not-so-friendly) France vs. Britain chess match (which we won!) There seems quite a strong Italian vibe in Uzès and we found a great pizzeria which was doing a roaring take away trade amongst the locals.